Soon Game of Thrones will be here, and however it does (I can’t see it not being picked up for a second season; the amount of promotion money HBO has put into it, not to mention maximizing its initial viewer numbers by showing it several times across several platforms, demonstrates that they consider this one of their new flagships), it will add to HBO’s new brand: the place where the pure TV serial thrives and flourishes, at a time when it struggles on most other networks. As Todd points out, HBO’s dramas are uncompromisingly serial in a way that even The Killing or Breaking Bad are not. (Even the early episodes of HBO’s first-generation hit dramas, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, were much more self-contained than Game of Thrones and True Blood , which are almost literally novels for TV).
As I mentioned in a previous post, John Landgraf of FX has said that it’s no longer economically viable for him to greenlight a show that doesn’t have some kind of self-contained episodic element; soap operas are collapsing on the broadcast networks, and the best way to launch a successful serial on a broadcast network is not to have it start out as a pure serial (Lost is the iconic example, which its imitators all seem to have overlooked). While HBO’s current generation of dramas may not match The Sopranos or The Wire, the network does seem to have revitalized itself a bit by turning itself into the best place in the U.S. to see a dense, novelistic show.
The subscriber model makes it much easier to do that kind of show, so until Netflix is up and running as a full-fledged competitor to pay cable – or until Showtime improves the quality of its hour-long drama output – HBO may have the field to itself.
Speaking of HBO and Game of Thrones, there are some odd things about the way fantasy as a genre is being discussed in connection with that show. Some critics, like the Times’ Gina Bellafante in a rather bizarre review, have taken to dumping on the show simply for taking place in a mythological kingdom and using the conventions of fantasy. Fans have pushed back by accusing Bellafante of sexism for assuming that certain things are for “boys” and others for “girls.” But what strikes me as a bit odd is that the boys’-club feel the show shares in common with a lot of previous HBO dramas is being discussed as if it’s unique to the show’s status as a fantasy. While Bellafante’s review didn’t make a lot of sense to me, there’s arguably some truth to calling it “boy fiction.” But HBO’s done a lot of shows that are “boy fiction,”, and if the show were set in a non-fictional, non-fantasy world, that aspect of it would probably be even more pronounced.
I think “fantasy,” even more than science fiction, is arguably too broad a term to describe the genre a show fits into – certainly the mythical-kingdom story has its own conventions, and stories like this share certain conventions whether or not they use elements of fantasy. (There are non-supernatural versions of the King Arthur story, but they still share a lot in common with fantasy versions of the tale.) King Lear doesn’t have anything clearly supernatural in it, but it obviously has plenty in common with this kind of story.