By JOHN SEMLEY
Saturday, April 13, 2019
With its wildly successful premium cable series, HBO accomplished the unthinkable: making Dungeons & Dragons-styled high fantasy palatable to the masses. No longer the domain of dorks sheathing many-sided dice safely within their pocket protectors, ice zombies and winged reptiles and incestuous royals are now big business. So it's little surprise that other networks have attempted to cash in on the success, accomplishing varying measures of creative (and financial) returns in the process. With Game of Thrones wrapping this season, here's a survey of some shows that have attempted - or are planning - to capitalize on cultural appetite for all things nerdy that Thrones did much to cultivate
It may trade in crossbows and scheming siblings for six-shooters and machinating robots, but a series such as Westworld feels inconceivable without the groundwork laid by Game of Thrones. Both are adaptations of stories with an embedded fan base (George R.R. Martin's phone-book-thick series of novels in the case of Thrones, Michael Crichton's 1973 Yul Brynner vehicle in the case of Westworld). Both subvert the stereotypical expectations of their respective genres. And both inject the proceedings with HBO levels of sex, violence and sexualized violence.
As with Game of Thrones, Westworld has also nurtured maniacal levels of fandom. This is especially true online, where die-hards perform Monday morning episodic postmortems, labouring over every detail, and cobbling together imaginative fan theories. While it's considerably more cerebral than the fantasy epic with which it shares a network home, Westworld plays right into the kind of obsessive viewing nurtured by Game of Thrones. In both cases, it's not just enough to watch the show. Viewers feel compelled to constantly think and post and write about the show. For some, Westworld and Game of Thrones are (to paraphrase HBO's slogan) more than mere television. They're lifestyles.
THE EXPANSE SYFY, AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
The proverbial elevator pitch for The Expanse seems straightforward enough: "It's Game of Thrones ... in space!" Set in a distant future in which our solar system has been colonized, it's less Star Trek-styled hard sci-fi and more expansive space opera. Boasting its own bloated ensemble cast - led by Thomas Jane, who bears a canny resemblance to Thrones stare Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (or vice-verse, depending where one's sympathies lie) - The Expanse casts its interplanetary power struggle against the backdrop of a looming threat. In Thrones, that threat takes the form of the White Walkers. In The Expanse, it's the Protomolecule - an extraterrestrial force that dynamically spreads from one life form to another. Although it never became a Thrones-level cultural phenomenon, The Expanse developed its own dedicated cult following. Among its boosters: Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, who supported a postcancellation lobbying campaign to see The Expanse picked up for a fourth season.
HBO HAS THE NEXT BIG HIT IN THE BAG
This is unlikely, but might happen. The question, "Whither HBO?" has been asked often since The Sopranos concluded. Consider the actual history of what happened next in the golden age of TV and you'll find that while The Sopranos concluded in June, 2007, the next important series in the canon aired just a month later, on AMC. That was the pilot episode of Mad Men. It first aired on July 19, 2007. Six months later, the next great, culturally important series in the canon, Breaking Bad, also started on AMC.
HBO has been nurturing several post-GoT hit series for years. There are four Game of Thrones spinoffs in the works and one will air next year.
For a while, it looked as if Westworld was the ticket. Then it deflated in its second season. But HBO has one ace.
That's The Nevers, currently in development, from Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. According to reports, Netflix wanted it desperately, but Whedon took it to HBO, relying on its tradition of creative freedom and excellence. The Nevers is, "an epic science-fiction drama about a gang of Victorian women who find themselves with unusual abilities, relentless enemies and a mission that might change the world."
LORD OF THE RINGS PREQUEL SERIES AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
In a way, the success of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy (and the more modest success of his follow-up Hobbit film trilogy) tested the market for a large-scale epic such as Game of Thrones. Fitting, then, that viewers will be returning, postThrones, to the world of Middle Earth with Amazon Prime Video's as-yet-untitled streaming series. Already trumpeted as the most expensive television series ever produced, this prequel lays its scene in the mythical "Second Age," some years before the events of The Lord of the Rings films and source novels. It will focus on events drawn from author J.R.R.
Tolkien's extended Middle Earth arcana, including the rise of the evil wizard Sauron, the primary baddie from Lord of the Rings. Count on an alliance of elves, dwarves and men. Just not the same elves, dwarves and men that populate The Lord of the Rings. So don't expect appearances from Frodo, Bilbo and the boys. But do expect plenty of juicy drama surrounding a young and - this being premium television and all - presumably very hunky Sauron. Any Game of Thrones die-hards suffering from withdrawal following the final season's finale may be more than willing to make the leap from Westeros (back) to Middle Earth.
Based on Diana Gabaldon's popular historical timetravel novels, and shepherded to the small screen by Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Galactica reboot fame), Outlander remixes the Thrones formula in interesting ways. Equal parts Downton Abbey, Doctor Who and Highlander, Outlander stars Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall, a Second World War nurse swept back to 18th-century Scotland. There, she meets the dashing clansman Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), who draws her into the action and intrigues of the Jacobite rebellions. Like Thrones, Outlander grounds its fanciful premise in fully fleshed-out characterizations, and a rare depth of realism. But where Game of Thrones mythology (and geography, and ever-complicating webs of political chicanery) expands, Outlander remains tightly focused on the relationship between Claire and Jamie: a relationship that exploits a natural chemistry between the two leads, while avoiding the ickier, interrelated affairs of HBO's inbreeding dynasties of heroes and villains.
VIKINGS HISTORY CHANNEL
One of the slyest tricks Game of Thrones pulled was introducing its more fantastic elements so gradually that, at least for the first season or two, it almost played more like a historical drama than a dork fantasy adventure. (Indeed, author George R.R. Martin modelled his story's War of Five Kings on the War of the Roses, a 15th-century dynastic squabble that rocked England.) So it's little surprise that Thrones's success inaugurated a wave of gritty, violent, historical-ish dramas steeped in real-world mythologies.
Leading the charge was Vikings, adapted from the Old Norse story of Ragnar Lothbrok, a historically dubious figure heralded in Scandinavian lore for his raids against the Anglo-Saxons of early medieval England. It may not have the narrative heft - or firebreathing dragons - of Game of Thrones, but Vikings had enough burly, hirsute warriors clanging swords to satisfy any slavish Thrones fan struggling to slake their thirst for some chilly, frost-and-fur action.
ANOTHER SEX-AND-VIOLENCE FANTASY
The sheer heft of Game of Thrones made every outlet open to a sword-and-sorcery series. There is barely a sci-fi or fantasy novel series of any note that hasn't been optioned by some outlet. Amazon Prime Video is spending a lot of Jeff Bezos's money on adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for a multiple-season series. If that sounds redundant, given the existing success of the Rings movies, you're not familiar with TV's appetite for imitation.
Meanwhile, Netflix is adapting The Witcher, based on the cult-favourite books about a supernatural monsterhunter. In fact, you can blame Game of Thrones for a huge flood of fantasy series coming in the next year. Among the more substantial is the BBC adaptation (done with HBO, which will air it in North America) of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Parallel universe, charming young heroine and anti-establishment storyline place it somewhere between the Harry Potter stories and Game of Thrones. It is also possible that, given the sheer power of GoT, a fatigue with second-rate imitations is more likely than any copycat narrative becoming a hit.
IT'S THE ECONOMY, STUPID
Fantasy series are vastly expensive to produce and viewers can see the quality difference between Game of Thrones and a cheaply made knock-off. The likelihood of cable and streaming outlets being burned by huge-cost failures is high. And then there's the basic matter of viewers wanting less high-concept escapism and more material that reflects daily life in an original way. The most important series of the past few months have zero connection with sword-and-sorcery epics and everything to do with existing in a perplexing world. Both Russian Doll and After Life (both on Netflix) are about self-destructiveness and people on the verge of emotional collapse. Both are funny and wise about the world. The same can be said of Hulu's extraordinary Pen15 - yet to be seen in Canada - in which two thirtysometing actors play themselves as teenagers. It's one strange cringe-comedy about trying to understand how you got to adulthood. Never mind the fantasy material. It's possible the world yearns for a defining portrait of a how we live now.
WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS LAUGHS
Loop back to the situation of HBO after Game of Thrones and the fact is that the outlet's real strength at the moment is in quality comedy. As Veep ends, Barry is just starting its second season. In fact, Barry has been rightly interpreted as a comedy variation on Breaking Bad - it's deadpan, it's a thriller but, essentially, it's a painfully aware, funny and poignant look at trying to be both a murderous cynic and a good creative person. There was nothing funny about Game of Thrones, and perhaps that's the real vacuum being created - the need for laughter. It is an unfunny coincidence that GoT is not the only huge TV hit to conclude this spring. Big Bang Theory will also end. The next big thing might be comedy. Extrapolate what you want from that. It's not hard to grasp and it's not even about the TV business. It's human nature.
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