In the past (and present, I guess) I may have had a reputation as a bit of a nerd. Hard to believe I know, especially of someone who's written tens of thousands of words on films for nobody in particular. But anyway, I haven't done anything properly nerdy recently and this needed correcting. Enter Game of Thrones.
Based on the, apparently, massively successful fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones is epic in its scale. Everything about the series is big. There are three major interwoven plots: an ongoing war of conspiracy and outright violence for the throne of Westeros (one of the fantasy world's continents), the approaching threat of the supernatural from the north along with the impending years-long winter, and the ambitions of an exiled family looking to retake control of Westeros. The series was certainly a task to take on, with a story spanning multiple noble families, two continents, a ridiculous number of characters and a catalogue of background lore, it would prove too much for any TV studio to take on and do properly. Except HBO.
HBO is responsible for the best, not just some of the best, straight up the best TV of the last two decades: Band of Brothers, The Pacific, The Wire, Deadwood and of course The fucking Sopranos. So far, at the end of S1, Game of Thrones fits right in there alongside these greats.
That said, it's not going to have as wide an appeal as some of those shows. Fantasy stuff will always alienate people who have an innate fear of all things nerdy, no matter how many Oscars the Lord of the Rings trilogy gets. But Game of Thrones tends to be more low-fantasy. There isn't a wizard on every corner, no stupid number of different races with sub-races within (because honestly I couldn't give a shit what the difference between a Rivendell elf and a wood elf is) and I can count the number of magical things in the first series on one hand. The lo-fi approach to the arcane is so much better than being bombarded with monsters and magic every five minutes, because when it happens it actually happens with impact and you know shit's going down.
So if this fantasy series is mostly just guys in furs with swords, what actually happens? The majority of the plot(s) revolve around a bunch of people being so focussed on their individual problems that they become completely blind to all the other mounting, bigger problems going on around them. Sex, bloodshed and lies all come in bucketloads and if you enjoy any of these you'll be spoiled for choice on which vice you enjoy more. Seriously, there're tits and blood everywhere.
In the deft hands of HBO, none of this feels too excessive or gratuitous. In fact, much of it contributes to the series' trademark visceral visual style. Being tasked with creating 10 hours of entertainment (and shooting in five different countries at times) would usually be a pretty decent excuse to play it safe with the cinematography, but not HBO. Honestly, it's one of the best-looking things on TV since Mad Men helped re-glamorise many sixties styles.
I know it'll make me look like a bit of a freak, but the amount of effort over colour grading, lighting and general composition in scenes like below (
When it's in motion, this scene just works. In context, it's about an outsider being initiated into a foreign culture. The glowing lighting centred on Daenerys' bright white hair and pale skin, with the stark three-way contrast against both the earthern grounded shades of the surroundings and the shockingly red blood, says all that's necessary without anyone speaking a word. If anything, this scene would've worked so much better being shorter with no dialogue. The exposition could have been shoe-horned in somewhere else easily.
So, it's compelling, made by HBO, full of drama, visually impressive and not overloaded with fantasy guff. There's really no reason you shouldn't be watching Game of Thrones.