In the Game of Genre Television, You Win or You Get Cancelled
Networks will continue to falter in their attempts to imitate Game of Thrones if they fail to prioritize character development over flashy fantasy storytelling.
Though Game of Thrones is obviously the poster child for mainstream fantasy television, the genre has been prevalent in TV for decades, albeit as one almost exclusively aimed at younger audiences: Hercules, Xena: Warrior Princess, Beastmaster, among others. HBO’s series was able to successfully shift itself out of this niche by casting its fantastical elements alongside more universal ones, like family drama and the perils of holding power.
It’s a formula that’s yielded great success for the cable provider and left rivals scrambling to capitalize on the enormous audience that Game of Thrones has uncovered. The BBC is producing an eight-part series called The Last Kingdom. SyFy has an adaption of The Magicians underway. Netflix is placing its bets on the genre with last year’s Marco Polo and the recently announced Legend of Zelda series. STARZ is looking further afield in hopes of pushing their adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as a "Thrones-killer".
Fantasy has always been a genre that live-action TV and film has struggled to execute well, and as a result its successes are few and far between compared to its science-fiction counterpart. While the risk of coming off campy are high within fantasy, you need only look at the two biggest fantasy success stories -- Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones -- to see the potential rewards when the right notes are struck.
A big part of Game of Thrones’ success has to do with its ability to balance replicating the complexity and detail central to the appeal of its own source material with the accessible semiotics of live action storytelling. This is a characteristic the series shares with Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings and, in my opinion, one of the major factors behind the series’ wide appeal. What’s more, it’s arguably the characteristic that separates Game of Thrones from the growing crop of competitors that are attempting to duplicate its success.
For some, this race to cater to the growing demand for serialized fantasy television has been a long time coming, but for others it represents a typical case of history repeating itself. In particular, it hearkens back to the attempts made to scoop up LOST's audience after the ABC-produced mystery drama came to an end in 2010.
The brainchild of Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, and JJ Abrams, LOST was a fascinating-though-flawed show that followed the survivors of a plane crash as they fought to survive and discover the secrets of the desert island they were stranded on. Following in the footsteps of Abrams' previous work, Alias, LOST has a highly serialized structure that relied on mysteries-within-mysteries to keep audiences hooked. However, the only reason this narrative approach was successful for the series is because it took the time to invest in making the audiences care about its characters.
This was the critical factor that networks overlooked when it came to filling the power vacuum left in the show’s aftermath. While they all emulated the series’ serialized storytelling, they stumbled across the board when it came to their characters. Shows like Flashforward and The Event could only emulate the appeal of LOST on a superficial level. Sadly, it seems all too likely that we’ll see many of Game of Thrones’ imitators finding themselves in the same predicament.
Netflix’s Marco Polo is visually stunning both in scope and detail, but with the exceptions of Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan and Chin Han as the nefarious Jia Sidao, the series’ cast falls flat. The show nails the aesthetic and details but fails to find its footing when it comes to the powerful and memorable personalities that launched Game of Thrones into the pop culture mainstream.
Love it or hate it, the nature of television ensures that Game of Thrones' success is one that inevitably attracts imitation and emulation. Unless the writers lost in the shadow of HBO’s fantasy series take to heart its most important characteristics, their entries into the fantasy genre will fail to be cut from the same cloth.