Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On The Staggering Popularity of Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones has reached a reached a Breaking Bad/Walking Dead kind of popularity. The iTunes podcast Top 150 list includes several GoT recap podcasts. HBO launched a post-GoT recap show, produced by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons, and hosted by two Hardwick-lite personalities in Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald. The Ringer’s newsletter will run an “Ask The Maester” special weekly in which Jason Concepcion answers fan questions about the world of Westeros and Essos. Prior to the premiere of the series in 2011, George R.R. Martin insulted LOST for ‘botching’ the ending. Martin promised he wouldn’t repeat LOST’s fatal flaws; however, in season six, Game of Thrones has reached the heights of LOST’s heyday in pop culture. LOST           inspired the first micro-critical eye in the 2000s. Podcasts, fan boards, and EW’s Jeff Jensen made LOST into an event every episode. Theories abounded. Fans broke down teasers shot-by-shot. The same happens for Game of Thrones. Pop culture writers ‘break down’ every episode, or they rank the winners and losers of every episode. Bloggers and critics write about the episodes from a book report perspective, as D.B. Weiss and David Benioff jokingly called it (“Themes are for 8th graders, they told Andy Greenwald three years ago). Everyone wants a piece of Game of Thrones.

Martin, who was derisive about LOST five years ago, finds himself in a similar spot as Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. He hasn’t published book six. Benioff and Weiss wrote the season without the books as a guide. The freedom from the relying on the books books will either enhance the show or it’ll hurt it. Season five was the worst of the series because it drew on the weakest narratives from the fourth and fifth books in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Benioff and Weiss commented that Martin has given them the broad essentials for the last seasons of the show. They know the ending. But such things don’t guarantee quality or coherent storytelling. Game of Thrones has become sort of a mess. LOST sharpened its narrative focus over the last three seasons and had a wonderful ending, while GoT has continued to widen its world as it nears an ending in 3-4 years. The Wire was the closest series in TV to a great novel. Game of Thrones is an attempt to translate an epic sprawling series of novels to TV. Does it work?

It worked well enough in the earliest seasons, though the showrunners’ decision not to include the history of Westeros, which is deeply integral to the weave of the novels, negatively affected the show. The first three novels in the series are the best, written when Martin pictured a trilogy, and so the first three seasons of Game of Thrones are the best of the show. Martin decided to continue the series. He didn’t outline; he let the story guide him. His haphazard approach to novel writing turned one book into two because he accidentally tied a knot he needed to untie. “The Red Woman” emphasized the downside of trying to produce an epic, sprawling story on TV in contemporary popular culture as well as the downside of Martin’s series as it circles around before the endgame. Season premieres must establish the storylines for the season, which always bogs premieres down. The premiere darted between storylines across Westeros, from the death of Jon Snow to the coup in Dorne. There were deaths. Jaime and Cersei mourned their Myrcella. Melisandre removed her flaming red jewel. Arya began her training as an assassin as a blind girl, begging for change in Braavos. The Boltons contemplated their imminent war with the Lannisters. Sansa accepted Brienne’s protection. Margeary awaited trial in the cells. Ser Davos and Edd, plus a small band of the Night’s Watch, kept watch over Jon’s body, as Thorne and his minions waited to slaughter them. Jorah and Daario tracked Dany to Dothraki land, and Dany won her freedom via her one-time bethroal to Khal Drogo, though she’s bound to spend the rest of her days in Vaes Dothrak with the other widows. And Varys and Tyrion set about finding the head of the Sons of the Harpy. Like the old serialized novels of the 19th century, “The Red Woman” was another chapter, and like those novels, it ended with a cliffhanger to keep the audience coming back. Those serialized novels always came in too long. Writers were paid by the word. HBO owns the biggest series in the world. No wonder Benioff and Weiss mentioned concluding the series over two half-seasons. Final seasons broken in half and aired over a two year period is the latest trend in TV. Benioff and Weiss tried to spin it as a natural adaptation to the storytelling process, as if mini-seasons of six episodes will enhance the experience of watching it despite ten episodes not being enough for this epic, sprawling story.

The premiere began the story of season six. Benioff and Weiss never pretended to tell self-contained stories within an overarching narrative. Their commitment to telling a story over ten episodes transformed the show into a collection of moments that pop culture sites use as clickbait, e.g. “How about THAT moment in last night’s Game of Thrones?” “The showrunners spill all about THOSE deaths!” Individual episodes serve as a jumping off point for critics, bloggers, and folks on the message boards to write anything they want, such as the disintegrating male ego or sexual politics, because serious highbrow storytelling needs serious highbrow ideas, as a way to hide the blush of enjoying a series with Ice Zombies in it. The show has become everyone’s show, which isn’t new--one’s sense of ownership of a show has been widespread for a long time. The Internet gave a platform to everyone, though. Recap shows and podcasts and articles promise to ‘break down’ the episode but offer little to its audience beyond summaries, conjecture, and theories, which all can be fun to engage with, but very little of the overwhelming amount of post-GoT content elucidates the deeper textures of the show. The weekly review culture created a reactionary rat race. Critics dash off a 900-1200 word piece in 90 or 120 minutes, with a bit of the latest sociopolitical issues of contemporary life thrown in mixed with shallow surface-level observations about general themes and general ideas.

Coverage of the show will continue even if this season continues the show’s removal of its own red jewel necklace, because, like the verbose novels of the 19th century and networks holding onto shows for as long as the show makes them comfortably wealthy, Game of Thrones is where the clicks and money is. The people can’t get enough it.

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About The Foot

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.