Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Game of Thrones: Is it really that good?

It’s the pop cultural phenomenon of the age. It’s bigger than Brienne of Tarth, more powerful than the Giants Beyond The Wall. It’s Game of Thrones. But why, Greg Dixon wonders, are he and half the world so obsessed by a show choked with gratuitous sex and over-the-top violence?.

Joffrey Baratheon in 'Game of Thrones'.
Joffrey Baratheon in 'Game of Thrones'.

How do you start a piece about Game of Thrones?

Well, I'll tell you: you start it with a warning, something like "Watch out! Spoilers ahead!" or "Beware all ye who enter, for here be mother of dragon factoids!"

It's that kind of show. Like True Detective or Doctor Who or Downton Abbey or Breaking Bad or even dear old Coronation Street, the fans of Game of Thrones are scary, manic obsessives who will not be messed with. So, if you're reading this and you're a fan of Game of Thrones and you haven't seen every episode screened before today, for goodness sake don't read on because I might inadvertently blurt that Tywin Lannister revealed last week that beneath his no nonsense I-enjoy-murdering-babies exterior he's wearing women's underwear. (Joke!)

If you have seen every single bloodsoaked second of this show, have you asked yourself why that might be?

You could just be going with the zeitgeist (or should that be tsunami?).

It is no kind of observation at all to say that Thrones producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' epic television adaptation of George R.R. Martin's epic series of fantasy novels has captured the public's imagination - or at least a sizeable part of the public's imagination - like few other shows.

In more than 15 years of writing about television for the Herald, I don't think I've ever encountered the saturation level of hype and blather that's dominated the media, both old and new; not even the final series of such hugely popular shows as Friends and Lost.

Game of Thrones is bigger than Brienne of Tarth, more powerful than the Giants Beyond The Wall. The numbers around it are huge. Type the show's title into Google and the search engine will find an astonishing 1.12 billion - yes, billion - results (typing in Barack Obama, for example, generates about half of that, while our Lorde delivers 29 million).

GoT has been nominated for 40 Emmys - winning 10 - and it's reportedly the most pirated show ever (5.9 million ripped off the series three final). This doesn't seem to have harmed sales of the DVD and BluRay boxsets, which have broken records everywhere.

Even Game of Thrones tat - sorry, memorabilia - seems to be of another order.

Among the usual T-shirts and action figures are Game of Thrones coins made from real silver (a "Silver Moon-type 2 Lannister Coin" for example will cost $149.99 at mightyape.co.nz), as well as a "Beyond the Wall Survival Kit", which will set you back $584.99, and replica Stark infantry shields and Hound's helms, which go for $724.99 each (and in Britain, you can allegedly buy a full-size Iron Throne for £20,000 [$38,500]).
HBO, the cable network that makes the show, must have made billions already from all this, and will no doubt earn billions more.

Frankly all this stuff leaves me cold; gargantuan money-making franchises have not interested me since I wasted 136 minutes of my life watching Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace back in 1999 (damn you, George Lucas!), though weirdly this one, Thrones, as omnipresent as it is, somehow feels like a private pleasure. (Mind you, I also get the sense from every fan I've spoke to that they consider themselves to be the biggest fan the show has.)

Still, the sheer ubiquitousness of Game of Thrones - not to mention my sort-of obsession with it - has had me wondering whether a show which I can't help feel trades rather too frequently and proudly in the superficialities of ultra-violence and soft-core porn actually deserves to be such a cultural phenomenon. I mean, is it really that good?

The case against it is somewhat compelling. The extremely long-winded books certainly aren't literature but sit in the middle of a tradition of fantasy fiction that has J.R.R. Tolkien as its godhead (you'll note Martin self-consciously echoes Tolkien's middle initials in his pen name). I have not read them and have no intention of doing so, because I don't like reading this sort of fiction. (There are in fact two kind of GoT fans, those who have read or are reading the books, and those like me who have absolutely no interest in the source material whatsoever.) Which means I have no idea how gruesome the violence is on the page, or how tawdry the sex.

However, the show's fantasy world - which, when everybody's clothes are on, is medieval with a dash of Tolkien - is sometimes closer to an adolescent boy's sexual fantasy. Yes, there are a number of strong female characters - which can be unusual for this sort of fiction - but there's gratuitous nudity in far too many scenes for Thrones to defend the charge that it is voyeuristic and exploitative.

The violence, too, can be excessive and obscene. The torture of Theon Greyjoy, which seemed to go for half of last season but probably amounted to only 10 to 15 minutes of screen time, was extremely brutal and utterly nasty and, while perhaps necessary for the plot, was also far more voyeuristic and exploitative than it needed to be.

At times Game of Thrones, for all its pretensions and huge budget, is hardly better than something as naff as The Tudors or that utterly awful local production (made with American money) Spartacus.

These aren't Thrones' only issues. It fair groans under the weight of hoary fantasy tropes (dragons, magic, made-up languages, quests, damsels in distress, the medieval setting, evil spirits). Then there is the confusion caused by the sheer number of characters, kingdoms and storylines. Those who have dipped into GoT complain they can't work out what the hell is going on. Well even those of us who've seen every episode have had moments like that; it was only when I watched the first three seasons again, back-to-back on the SoHo pop-up channel, that I finally got my head around some elements of the plot. The repeat watch was a mixed blessing, however, because I also noticed how ropey the acting can be as well.

Yet here I am, hooked.

Well actually it's not me, it's mostly the 12-year-old boy who still lives inside me who used to obsessively read and reread Tolkien.

As much as the adult me winces at the ultra violence and is a bit embarrassed by the regular softcore humping scenes, the sheer scale and grandeur of the thing, the size of the landscape, the sense that you are inside a richly peopled and storied world makes it quite overwhelming immersive. The sex and violence (and sexual violence) might be over-the-top, but Thrones is a more nuanced and amusing creation than it might seem to the casual viewer, mostly due to the performances of most of the principal actors in a very large ensemble cast (Jerome Flynn's Bronn, for example, is as terrific a comic foil as you'll find anywhere in fiction).

Yes, as it's been pointed out more than once (most recently in Vanity Fair), Thrones is about political power: how to get, keep it and wrest it from your enemies.

Maybe that's what makes Barack Obama such a big fan. But for my money, the more important theme is loyalty - to family, friends, king - in an unjust and wildly unpredictable world. It's the "unjust" and the "unpredictable" bits that I reckon are central to its success. Martin seems to have struck on the excellent idea if you have a big enough cast of characters, you can confound your reader by killing off some of your most sympathetic heroes when least expected, doubling the tragedy, but also ratcheting up the tension to feverish levels.

In the past, I was able to record the show to watch later and - in the case of season one - recorded a whole season before I sat down to watch it. Not any more. I have to watch it live on the night (something I hardly ever do with any TV these days) because the chances of overhearing a spoiler are simply too high. And the reason for that: Game of Thrones is that rarity in the modern television, a watercooler show that you want to discuss and dissect the following day.

The doubters will never get it and at times I want to scoff with them too. But for better or worse, the 12-year-old-boy in me just can't get enough.

Game of Thrones screens Mondays at 8.30pm on Sky's Soho channel.

- NZ Herald

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