‘Game of Thrones’ is blockbuster TV. Why its success might not be repeated
It brought words like Dothraki, Valyrian and Unsullied into the lexicon and, according to the BBC, cursed hundreds of newborns with an adolescent future of teasing for fantastical first names like “Arya” and “Khaleesi.”
It turned fairies, giants and other mythologies typically confined to the role-playing worlds of “Dungeons and Dragons” into the stuff of water cooler conversations, made swords and battle axes key action accessories and, perhaps above all else, transformed a simple, three-word phrase — “Winter is coming” — into a mock-serious annual reference of choice for office cut-ups and middling meteorologists.
After all that “Game of Thrones” hath wrought, the sprawling, almost unfathomably expensive adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels is almost over. But even after our watch has ended, it will live on in live concerts, theme park-like casino attractions, planned prequels and — maybe, just maybe — the long-delayed sixth book in the series.
But on May 19, once the Iron Throne is claimed — or, as Martin joked last fall, everyone dies in a comet strike — the biggest question heard, from HBO’s New York offices to a viewing party in Santa Monica, will be: What’s on next?
Such is the nature of television, after all. Like the churning toy empires in the opening credits of “Game of Thrones,” shows rise and fall. Even “The Simpsons,” now approaching its 30th season, will one day end, somehow. And no matter how large the shadow any departed series casts, there will always be a network and a showrunner eager to replicate if not surpass that kind of success.
But with more choices than ever to fill a spectrum of streaming outlets far beyond what existed when “Game of Thrones” debuted in 2011, can another blockbuster TV show really leave this kind of impression on pop culture?
‘Russian Doll’ may dominate pop culture conversations just after release, but misses the slow-burning, all-consuming anticipation of awaiting the next episode.
“I certainly hope there can be those shows that break through,” says Tom Nunan, former president of NBC Studios and UPN, and now a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “The various cultural milestones that we have grown up with, whether it’s the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards or sometimes a scripted series like ‘Game of Thrones,’ have a way of getting our entire culture to gather around the TV set and enjoy something and celebrate something together.”
As much as humanity may crave those collective experiences, television’s many networks are perhaps even more hungry to provide them. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and even HBO are already in pursuit of the next attention-grabbing television event like “Game of Thrones,” and that doesn’t include a couple platforms that right now still exist only in theory (the arithmetically named Disney+ and AppleTV+).
Given that entertainment is built on an often volatile mix of innovation and duplication, the race to become the next pop culture-dominating series features a few unifying elements. The fan community-courting fields of fantasy and sci-fi are well represented, as are adaptations of already popular titles in literature.
The other common denominator? Money. Enough of it that the Iron Bank of Braavos might blanch.
“ ‘Game of Thrones’ is one of the few examples of what we might call blockbuster television, where, following the logic of the film industry, spending a lot of money on spectacle and effects yields a hit,” says Jason Mittell, author of “Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling” and professor of film and media studies at Middlebury College in Vermont.
“[There were] spectacular, star-studded miniseries or TV movies, but the idea of a weekly series that runs for multiple years that is really spectacle-driven and focused on creating the ‘did-you-see-that’ moment that a lot of Hollywood tentpoles try to do was one innovation ‘Game of Thrones’ did,” Mittell adds.
At a budget of $15 million per episode in locations across multiple continents, the series set a new standard on television in terms of budget and narrative scope, and the next wave of shows have no fear of sticker shock. Under the direction of Jeff Bezos, Amazon clearly targeted finding a “Game of Thrones” of its own in 2017 as it spent $250 million for the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” a fantasy series that was memorably — and perhaps definitively — adapted for the big screen by Peter Jackson in the early ’00s.
So far, little is known about the Amazon series beyond word that it will be a prequel to Jacksons’ trilogy, there are plans for five seasons, and by the time the series ends it reportedly could cost close to a billion dollars. For perspective, it’s estimated that the Seattle-based company spent $4.5 billion on its TV and movie offerings for all of 2018.
But as Netflix’s costly (and short-lived) “Marco Polo” series proved, having the money to spend on a blockbuster series does not guarantee a blockbuster response.
Mittell sounded skeptical about the “Lord of the Rings” series’ prognosis given how popular Jackson’s adaptations were. Still, he says, “There’s a lot of room for different types of property, so it could very well work. But it also feels like it would not have happened had ‘Game of Thrones’ not been a success.”
At the Television Critics Assn. conference in Pasadena in February, Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke said the writers are “making great progress” on the series.
Of all the contenders, HBO and Disney may have the inside track in terms of delivering another zeitgeist-capturing blockbuster. Owners of maybe the most recognized film franchise of all time in “Star Wars,” Disney will be launching two series-length additions to that universe with “The Mandalorian” and an as-yet untitled series with Diego Luna’s character from the 2016 film “Rogue One.” As per usual in this genre, information about these stories is almost as closely guarded as it is sought after.
In addition to obtaining the broadcast rights to the BBC’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials,” HBO is looking to again capture lightning in a bottle with its upcoming “Game of Thrones” prequel, which is co-created by Martin. Set to take place “thousands of years” before what we’ve seen of Westeros on the network so far, the series will star Naomi Watts and Miranda Richardson of “Harry Potter” fame and, according to a statement from the network, “it’s not the story we think we know.”
Certainly, the cable network should hope so. In addition to pinning a lot of hopes on “Game of Thrones” sticking its landing after eight seasons, any “Game of Thrones” spinoff faces the most direct challenge of measuring up to the quality and scope of the original. Still, as AMC’s cultishly revered “Better Call Saul” and various iterations of “Star Trek” have shown, being a spinoff doesn’t have to result in years-old punchlines like “After MASH” and “Joey.”
“There is a history of doing spinoffs successfully,” argues Nunan. “[HBO] just can’t rest on their laurels with it. We’re waiting for their next bold move.”
Still, the streaming service has not given up on its attempts to claim a place in the post-“Game of Thrones” world either, with plans for series and film adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” and a take on Andrzej Sapkowski’s book series “The Witcher,” which will star Henry Cavill.
But as the on-demand, binge-ready model set by streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon becomes the norm in the ever-evolving TV landscape, the collective experience of a show like “Game of Thrones” is increasingly rare and undeniably brief.
Shows like “Russian Doll” and “Stranger Things” may dominate the pop culture conversation for a week or two after their Netflix releases, but in terms of the slow-burning, all-consuming anticipation that comes with waiting every week for the next installment (and poring over theories in the days in between), binge watching doesn’t offer the same benefits.
“That’s something that Netflix has not created, that sense of event television,” explains Mittell. “I’m skeptical they can, given the non-serialized nature of the way they do it.”
Everything, it seems, is moving to television on demand. But the graying broadcast model enjoyed by “Game of Thrones” played to the show’s strengths as word of mouth and anticipation for each successive cliffhanger led it toward higher ratings each year, culminating with 16.5 million viewers for the finale of Season 7 in 2017.
Would the series have garnered nearly the same level of devotion and attention if it had launched five years later? Or would it be just another high-priced entry in the weekly content dump of peak TV?
“It’s so dense; it’s got so much detail. There are so many kinds of reveals and surprises and shock second-to-last episodes of each season, that feeds into the fact that television is no longer just about watching television,” says Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “It’s about watching it, and then having conversations, not just with our friends but with everybody. ‘Game of Thrones’ is the perfect internet television show.”
Whether Apple, Netflix or another Internet-supported platform can become the successor to that throne may be something only the three-eyed raven knows.
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.
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