TV Review: GAME OF THRONES, 1.1 - "Winter Is Coming"

Adapted from author George R.R Martin's admired opus "A Song Of Ice And Fire", Game Of Thrones has been eagerly anticipated by bookworms and enthusiasts of medieval fantasy since HBO announced its development. Jokingly described as "The Sopranos in Middle-earth" by David Benioff, who's adapted this saga alongside Dan Weiss, it's become one of this year's TV crown jewels, although I remain suspicious the majority of people expect something fantastical, like a small-screen Lord Of The Rings. I haven't read Martin's novels, which puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to promptly understanding the universe presented, but Game Of Thrones shouldn't require knowledge of the source material if it's going to work as a TV series, first and foremost. The show doesn't make many concessions to newcomers (beyond opening titles that sweep over an animated map of the kingdom), and instead decides to drop you into this world and hope you'll want to keep up. I believe HBO have been offering televised primers, which helps -- but they're not something everyone will have access to, or even want to indulge in. The storytelling gamble kind of works, partly because modern audiences are accustomed to dealing with imagined universes at the cinema, and exercising patience with heavily-serialized dramas like The Wire. But it's still true that Thrones isn't as accessible as many would like, as it's not even clear what the overall story of Thrones is after the first episode's over. None of these complaints will matter if you've read the books, or have prepared for the series with cursory research online, but speaking as someone approaching this with fresh eyes and an eager mind, I didn't find "Winter Is Coming" very gripping or original -- just atmospheric, stylish and well-made. Of course, you don't expect to be au fait with everything in an hour, so I'm not saying Thrones won't manage to hook me by as early as episode 2. But, as of right now, the only things ensuring I come back are its extravagant production, the presence of fine actors, assurances Martin's books are masterpieces of their ilk, and my acceptance that epic stories often demand epic patience. Game Of Thrones is set in the make-believe feudal land of Westeros, run by the "Houses" of seven noble families -- principally the Stark's of northern territory Winterfell, the Lannister's of the Westerlands, and the Baratheon's of Storm's End -- who are also the incumbent royal family, seated on the Iron Throne at King's Landing. Across the Narrow Sea in Penos, deposed royals the Targaryen's, led by flaxen-haired Viserys (Harry Lloyd), are plotting to return to Westeros and reclaim their throne; a plot that requires Visery's naïve sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) marry the taciturn leader of the savage Dothraki tribe, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa.) The issue of intermarriage is a key feature, as alliances have been forged across Westeros by politically-motivated nuptials -- meaning, for example, that stout King Baratheon's (Mark Addy) beautiful wife Cersei (Lena Headey) is a Lannister by birth, while his childhood friend Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) was once his brother-in-law. The show already promises double-crossing and sexual politics, as various characters undoubtedly harbour desires to see the balance of power shift. It also contains a handful of titillating scenes involving female nudity, a shocking moment of incest, and the sight of dwarf Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) bedding nubile beauties. The cast are excellent, as a cursory glance at the credits will attest. Sean Bean's presence can't help shake memories of Lord Of The Rings, but the one-time Boromir's now embracing the fact he's not the strapping young buck that made women's hearts flutter in Lady Chatterly's Lover and Sharpe, as Stark's more in the vein of a chieftain whose best days are behind him. Lena Headey (300) brings a glacial sexiness to the role of Queen Cersei, using her smoldering serenity to put you on edge; Harry Lloyd (unrecognizable from his BBC Robin Hood days) makes for a deliciously creepy villain, with a disquieting fascination with his sister, played by compelling newcomer Emilia Clarke. Even better, there are a handful of child actors who are all extremely good (no inexperienced overacting or visible self-consciousness), which comes as something of a relief. It's somehow easier to believe in a world if even the kids are taking everything seriously. Overall, Thrones is unquestionably ambitious and a lovingly-crafted TV drama, but I'd be lying if I said I'm totally sold at this embryonic stage. I hope to become a fan once the characters have taken shape, names are quicker to my tongue, and the plot thickens as the action starts to flow ("Winter Is Coming" is oddly lacking in visceral thrills), but until then Thrones earns itself a generously high rating because of its huge potential, striking production, and splending casting. It's an opening salvo values that reeks of technical care and attention, but doesn't quite seal the deal for newcomers who aren't already George R.R Martin scholars. In fact, casual viewers may feel overwhelmed, and struggle to comprehend what's going on. Tolerances for its approach to storytelling will vary, but after watching "Winter Is Coming" it dawned on me how brilliantly Peter Jackson adapted J.R.R Tolkien's similarly dense Rings, which also benefitted from having a simple storyline at its core (dispose of a dangerous magical ring inside a volcano.) Thrones is narratively more ambitious and knotted, but perhaps this HBO adaptation is too slavish to Martin's work for its own good. I'm sure fans will be grateful for its reverence, but the average man tuning in for some escapism could feel like they've wandered into a club that feels, at first, a little excluding. However, like most people, I'll definitely be back for more. Thrones should become easier to understand the more you watch; as its faces, names, back-story, and geography starts to sink in. I just think it's wrong to claim "Winter Is Coming" is anything much beyond a decent introduction of a complex milieu, where the quality of its artistry does a better job selling you on a return visit than any burning desire to know what happens next.
WRITERS: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss (based on the novels by George R.R Martin) DIRECTOR: Tim Van Patten CAST: Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, Mark Addy, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Michelle Fairley, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Iain Glen, Aidan Gillen, Harry Lloyd, Kit Harington, Natalia Tena, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Richard Madden & Jack Gleeson TRANSMISSION: 17 April 2011, HBO / 18 April 2011, Sky Atlantic
I will be reviewing Game Of Thrones every week at my blog, Dan's Media Digest.
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