The first 10 minutes or so of HBO's new epic fantasy series "Game of Thrones" are spent celebrating the glories of cable, i.e. bloody violence (beheadings, hacked off body parts, eviscerated guts steaming in the snow) and HBO sex (female semi-frontal nudity, non-missionary position intercourse and unnecessarily graphic sound effects.)
Unless you are a minor, you should not be deterred by any of this because "Game of Thrones," written and produced by David Benioff and D.B Weiss, quickly becomes a great and thundering series of political and psychological intrigue bristling with vivid characters, cross-hatched with tantalizing plotlines and seasoned with a splash of fantasy.
Based on the first book in the series "A Song of Fire and Ice" by George R.R. Martin (who serves as co-executive producer), "Game of Thrones" is set in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, an imaginary land that bears some resemblance in geography, technology and population to King Arthur's Britain and J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. The climate appears vaguely supernatural -- there is much talk of generation-long winters -- and though the dragons and demonic White Walkers of yore are now believed extinct, the northern border is still protected by a great wall on which men of the Night's Watch stand guard against Wildings and other fell creatures.
The Seven Kingdoms are ruled by one king, which, as you can imagine, is not working out terribly well. The action begins in the North, where members of the Watch encounter what they believe are White Walkers, but it quickly moves to the city of Winterfell and the true realm of terror: the scheming and desperate hearts of ambitious men and women.
Winterfell is ruled by Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark, played with steely honor by "Lord of the Rings" alum Sean Bean, and his Lady Catelyn (Michelle Fairley). They are happy to live on the world's edge, teaching their five children the importance of honor and justice.
But all is not tranquil in the state of Winterfell -- the presence of Ned's illegitimate son, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), creates enough tension that the young man eventually leaves to join the Night's Watch, and the Starks receive an unwelcome visit from dissolute King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy, having a fine Falstaffian time), who wants Ned to come south with him as the new Hand of the King.
Robert and Ned once fought together, and the king remains a friend of the Starks', though the same can not be said of his wife, Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), her loathsome son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), her handsome and unscrupulous twin Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and her brilliant but low-living brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), known as "the Imp." To ensure Ned's loyalty, plans are made to marry Joffrey to the oldest Stark girl, Sansa (Sophie Turner). The younger daughter, Arya (Maisie Williams), would rather be a soldier than a wife.
Meanwhile, in another part of the kingdom, the son of the previous king plots his revenge. Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) so wants to sit on the Iron Throne that he sells his young sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to the warlord of the Dothraki, a fearless (and shirtless) band of horse warriors who, in return, will wage war against King Robert, as soon as they can figure out how to get all those horses across the Narrow Sea.
The forces of war assemble, as forces of war inevitably do, but it is revelation of character rather than the clank of broadsword or the tumult of hooves that makes "Game of Thrones" epic television. Though Bean's Ned is the strong and brooding headliner of the series, he is quickly surrounded by a wild and bewitching garden of characters and performances. The women are particularly good -- Queen Cersei is both evil and sympathetic, Lady Stark is a formidable foe, Arya becomes the heart of the story while the terrified and enslaved Daenerys finds her inner strength.
But in many ways, "Game of Thrones" belongs to Dinklage, who made his mark in "The Station Agent." So well acquainted with the workings of the world he can hardly bear it, the Imp is this tale's non-magical Merlin -- debauched, perhaps, but a truth-teller nonetheless, fighting for his own survival with as much mercy as he can spare. If the man doesn't win an Emmy, heads should certainly roll.
By keeping viewers' eyes firmly fixed on the characters, the writers (and Tim Van Patten, who directs the first two episodes) not only pull in those not familiar with the books, they keep us from asking too many questions about the intricate back story and plotlines, which can sometimes appear crucial in one episode only to vanish for the next two or three.
Though some of the visual cues will be very familiar to fans of "Lord of the Rings" or even "The Tudors," "Game of Thrones" quickly finds that rare alchemy of action, motivation and explanation, proving, once again, that the epic mythology remains the Holy Grail of almost any medium.
'Game of Thrones'
When: 9 and 10:05 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)