Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It's Not Fantasy, It's HBO

By now many of you have (hopefully) tuned in to watch HBO’s new fantasy series, “Game Of Thrones.” And by now you may even know about the fan outcry against some of the unkinder reviews, particularly the one in the New York Times by Ginia Bellafante, in which she asks the question, “What is ‘Game of Thrones’ doing on HBO?”

A lot of the ire directed at Bellafante comes from her claims that women really won’t (or ought not to) be interested in the series. But what infuriates and baffles me just as much about her review is that she professes to enjoy a lot of the same series I do. “Rome,” “Deadwood,” “The Sopranos”… I love these series for how they explore situation and character, in a way that’s dramatic, intelligent, and insightful. That’s also precisely why I love “Game of Thrones” the book series, and was so excited to see it come to HBO: I thought this would be the opportunity, at long last, to topple the lingering snobbery toward genre material as inconsequential fluff.  “Game of Thrones,” as its many readers can attest to, is the kind of work that has the depth of character and unerring sense of drama that HBO’s best series are known for.

And yet here we are, right back at square one.  Despite great acting, great production values, and a great story, “Game of Thrones” is being dismissed out of hand, really for no other reason than it’s imaginative. It’s fake

“Since the arrival of ‘The Sopranos’ more than a decade ago,” writes Bellafante, “HBO has distinguished itself as a corporate auteur committed, when it is as [sic] its most intelligent and dazzling, to examining the way that institutions are made and how they are upheld or fall apart: the Mafia, municipal government (‘The Wire’), the Roman empire (‘Rome'), the American West (‘Deadwood’), religious fundamentalism (‘Big Love’).”

But “when the network ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology… things start to feel cheap, and we feel we have been placed in the hands of cheaters. ‘Game of Thrones’ serves up a lot of confusion in the name of no larger or really relevant idea.”

Do I really need to point out that series like “Rome” and “Deadwood” aren’t documentaries about what really happened, but draw upon their fair share (sometimes more than their fair share) of literary license?  That whatever relationship the stories of those series had to the truth came out of a dramatic need to tell The Truth, as opposed to any impulse toward historical fastidiousness?  Not to mention that “Thrones” itself is loosely based on The War of the Roses. In all honesty, “Game of Thrones” is just a little farther along the speculative spectrum than the shows Bellafante appreciates, but apparently the addition of a few dragon eggs and White Walkers are enough to make the whole enterprise feel “cheap” in comparison.

Bellafante ascribes gender differences to her dislike of the fantasy genre, but (as the number of female fantasy fans rising up against her attests to) what’s really at fault here is a failure of the imagination, and an underdeveloped sense of wonder.  It’s really no different from when I had to listen to kids at school dismiss a show like “Star Trek” for being "unrealistic," even as they talked rapturously about soap opera plots where every character was in a love triangle, had an evil twin, and was involved in a plot to murder, kidnap, or brainwash somebody.

It is true that general attitudes toward speculative fiction, or “genre” material have improved greatly in recent years. And it’s not for nothing that events like Comic-Con are now major focal points in the pop cultural landscape. But reviews like the one by Bellafante remind me that the situation was once different, even during my own lifetime, and certainly much worse in times before. It makes me that much more appreciative of all those past creators who toiled on works of imagination, despite the criticism and negativity the world heaped upon them for their efforts.

As for “Game of Thrones” the series, I enjoyed the first episode very much. There was a lot to get through, in terms of both introducing the world and the large cast of characters, so I don’t think it showed off to fullest effect the series’ potential. But the show has already received the greenlight for a second season, and should have plenty of time to prove Bellafante wrong in her judgement about fantasy’s worth.

If it can do that I hope HBO keeps the show runnng for the next ten years.


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