Breaking Bad unsettled me. Freaks and Geeks warmed my heart. The Sopranos floored me. True Detective made me think. Friday Night Lights made me swoon.
But of all my favorite series, none has made me as happy—week after week, episode after episode—as Game of Thrones. It is, simply put, the most pleasurable television show I’ve ever seen.
It is also the hardest to convince my friends and family to watch.
On Sunday, Game of Thrones—an epic drama set in a fictional medievalish world where various clans vie for power—will return to HBO for its fourth season. So far I’ve seen the first three installments: “Two Swords,” “The Lion and the Rose,” and “Breaker of Chains.” They are terrific—as lavish, lapidary, and addictive as anything showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have delivered over the course of the last three seasons.
As far as I can tell, there is no reason why anyone who enjoys television wouldn’t enjoy them. And so I’ve decided to take advantage of my perch here at The Daily Beast to try my hand, yet again, at some Game of Thrones evangelism. My hope is that I might persuade a few more people to fill the Rust-Cohle-shaped hole in their hearts with a preparatory binge session and a Sunday night viewing party—and, in so doing, that I might help them find happiness, too. At least for an hour each weekend.
Before we proceed, it’s worth thinking about why some people refuse to check out Game of Thrones. Sometimes they’re too busy. Sometimes they can’t stand beheadings. Sometimes a Dothraki killed their dad. These are all valid reasons to pass, I suppose. What is not a valid reason, however, is the reason that almost everyone gives, at least to me. This particular excuse comes in many different forms—Isn’t that the show about dwarves? Or dragons?—but it always boils down to the same basic thing: Sorry, man. I’m not into fantasy.
I understand where these folks are coming from. I just think that where they’re coming from is silly. For the last few decades, fantasy has been considered an “uncool” genre—perhaps the uncoolest of all. The perception probably started in the 1970s, when Dungeons & Dragons clicked with a generation of young role-playing geeks eager to exert the kind of control they couldn’t exercise in the halls of their high schools (or so the stereotype goes). It spread out from there. Eventually, fantasy came to seem like something for sheepish, socially inept 15-year old boys who needed to escape the powerless reality of their own lives by living vicariously through powerful characters, like wizards and what not. Now the vast majority of non-15-year-old boys prefer to stay away from the stuff, lest they be seen as dweebs themselves.
There are a couple of problems with this. The first is that not liking something because other people do like it is about as uncool as it gets. The second is that rejecting an entire genre is a very efficient way of ensuring that you miss out on a lot of great shows (or books, or movies, or whatever). I’m not “into” fantasy, either. I don’t get a special kick out of seeing a screeching dragon flap around onscreen. In fact, I’m not really “into” any genre, if being “into” a genre means giving it preferential treatment. But I am into good stories. Why limit your options when there are already so few of them out there?
Needless to say, I think Game of Thrones (which is based on the books by George R.R. Martin) is a superlative story—one of the rare tales to transcend its genre trappings and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the finest stories of any genre. It is, at the very least, the best-told story on TV today.
The setting—the mythical continent of Westeros, where winter is finally descending after a decade-long summer and ancient, malevolent forces are awakening in the unmapped north—is rendered in exquisite detail: history, geography, traditions, religion, everything. It’s so transporting that it never once feels fake.
The characters, meanwhile, are both impossibly abundant and impossibly alive—especially the women. For all its sexposition and naked debauchery, Game of Thrones may actually boast more three-dimensional parts for women than any other drama on TV. The vengeful tomboy Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). The brawny, righteous warrior Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). The politically-savvy princess Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). Her wry, progressive grandmother Oleanna Redwyne (Diana Rigg)—the real power behind the House Tyrell. And the driven rebel queen Daenarys Targaryen (Emilia Clark), who births dragons, liberates legions of slaves, and is the closest thing the series has to a protagonist (so far).
Finally, there is the narrative itself—an endlessly engrossing knot of alliances and betrayals and schemes and sudden deaths that somehow, despite its fever pitch, never descends into soapy melodrama. A little while back, I asked D.B. Weiss why his show was such a “pageturner.” His answer was revealing.
“George designed the books that way, literally—they were crack on paper to us—and we have been trying to follow suit,” Weiss said. “There’s no great secret. It’s just about continuing to raise pressing questions about characters you care about, as you answer others. All things remaining equal, a life or death cliffhanger is going to mean more when the person hanging from the cliff is someone you’ve known for dozens of hours instead of just one. And when ‘death’ is a real possibility.”
This, of course, is what every storyteller tries to do: create characters we care about and believe in—then put them into challenging situations. Few succeed like Martin, Weiss, and Benioff. I don’t want to give too much away in advance, but consider where we are at the start of Season 4. The cocky sword fighter Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who lost his right hand near the beginning of Season 3, is struggling to find his place in the world now that he can no longer kill the way he once did—and now that his beloved twin sister Cersei (Lena Headey) seems intent on ending their incestuous affair. Their dwarf brother Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) has been forced to marry the young Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), whose mother and brother were slaughtered (indirectly) by Tyrion’s father; the relationship is cool, to put it mildly, and Tyrion’s prostitute paramour Shae (Sibel Kekilli) is still in the picture.
Meanwhile, to the north, Jon Snow (Kit Harington)—Sansa’s half-brother—is on trial for sleeping with a member of an enemy tribe and allegedly betraying his oath to the Night’s Watch, a sworn brotherhood of men who patrol the massive ice wall separating the civilized part of Westeros from the “wilding” territories to the north. Will his brothers behead him? Or will they trust his intel about an army marching south? Then there’s Margaery’s impending nuptials to the sadistic boy king Joffrey. And Arya’s perilous journey with her captor-turned-protector The Hound. And the arrival of a bisexual hellraiser known as the Red Viper. And that’s only the first episode.
On Game of Thrones, in other words, the stakes are always high: life, death, love, and vengeance. When it’s time to linger, Weiss and Benioff linger—and when it’s time for action, they deliver. Nothing is extraneous. Nothing is undercooked. To say this kind of narrative precision is unusual on TV—and that it should be treasured wherever we can find it—is an understatement.
Consider another type of fantasy series: Downton Abbey. It’s set in a distant time period. It’s full of art direction and interesting accents. It’s all about the customs and intrigue of a place we can never visit. It promises some kind of escape. And yet it can’t seem to avoid forcing its characters into banal, repetitive plot lines and manipulating them into doing things that aren’t true to who they are. It cheats—constantly—to keep our interest.
Somehow, despite the dozens of balls it has in the air at any given moment, Game of Thrones never makes the same mistake. It is—and continues to be in Season 4—a total storytelling masterclass. Sometimes you want to ponder whether time is a flat circle. Sometimes you want to wonder why a good man went bad. And sometimes you just want to feel a perfectly-told tale click into place—and let it take you wherever it may. That’s Games of Thrones. It’s pure pleasure to watch.
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Not so long ago, I was sitting with my flatmate channel-hopping for a programme we both could agree on. I mentioned something about Hollyoaks being like Neighbours but for people whose parents are ashamed of them, and she agreed. She said The Big Bang Theory was rubbish, and I put it to her that Two and a Half Men was worse. We were at an impasse. Then: "Top Gear?" I asked. "Ooh, yes," she said. That was that. It was the one where they build trains. I must have seen that episode eight or nine times, but we both laughed like drains. When Jeremy shouted: "Some poo's come out," we guffawed like tickled idiots.
And so it was then that I realised, of all the shows in the world, I've enjoyed more episodes of Top Gear than anything else. Realising this is like realising you've been dead through the entire film, or that you've had halitosis for years but everyone's been too polite to say. Or that you're Toby Young. It's horrible. But that doesn't make it any less true.
Top Gear's somehow on when I'm sitting in my pants putting off doing important things for which pants are deemed inappropriate; when I'm eating in front of the TV; when I can't be bothered to think of anything else to watch. And it's one of the only shows that's pencilled into my mental diary – Sunday, 8pm.
It's the presenters that keep me coming back. I genuinely like them all. James May may be like a tirelessly enthusiastic spaniel, happiest when holding a spanner of some kind, but that works for me. Hammond, increasingly irritating in recent years as the show has become increasingly scripted, has enough flashes of wit and wide-grinned affability to make me not want to stand on his throat. And then there's Clarkson. I'm from Doncaster too, so I'll never forgive him for whatever's happened to his accent, but, buffoon though he is, he's a genuinely funny man.
It find it sad that over the past six years or so the quality has plummeted. At its best – amphibious vehicles crossing the Channel, the US road trip that was actually dangerous, the Polar expedition, the Reliant Rocket – Top Gear has made for superb viewing, the segments themselves mere canvases on which the presenters could man-child to their heart's content. This, of course, made the car tests entertaining (before it was inexplicably decreed that each one had to look like The Matrix), and the news segment – because it was simply the three men in conversation, which is what we all tuned in for anyway.
Were it not for Dave, remembering how good the show used to be, I would perhaps not be writing this. Top Gear's scripting has become claustrophobically cloying, displaying an astounding lack of awareness on behalf of the producers. Not only are pieces to camera stilted non-conversations, the challenges have become tiresome non-events of structured reality. But James May still says "cock", and you've got daft things going on such as The Star in a Reasonably Priced Car. Enough to keep you going.
And still, occasionally, there is a spark of brilliance, of the old spontaneity. It's these moments that I cling on to, and all the repeats of the excellent older episodes on Dave, which I will probably go and watch straight after finishing this article.
When thinking about this piece I had a dilemma, because there are shows that I love that are much, much, much better than Top Gear. But then there's your favourite – the show which, by the empirical measure of time spent enjoying it, trumps all those others. For me, that's Top Gear.
I'll see myself out.