We have so many dragons in our future.
Game of Thrones has finished its run, but the HBO drama’s influence will continue to loom as large as the Wall. Two years ago, Jeff Bezos issued a command to his Amazon Prime team: Go get the next Game of Thrones.Though there’s been a regime change among Amazon’s TV executives, the boss’ order is still in effect. And not just at Amazon, but all across the industry.
Well before Bezos and other media potentates gave their staffs those marching orders, the TV critic for the Huffington Post expressed nervousness about what TV’s nascent obsession with blockbusters might produce:
[T]he massive success of The Walking Dead brings to mind the enormous success of Star Wars in the late ’70s. […] Once the studios saw how much money they could make from movies that came with merchandising tie-ins and Happy Meal toys, that [adventurous] era began to wind down. […] I love all things genre, don’t get me wrong. But I so don’t want that to happen in television.
That critic was me six years ago. I still love TV, especially genre TV, a lot. But I’m even more apprehensive about the future of this fantastic medium than I was then.
Game of Thrones had imitators before the series was even halfway through its run. (If you’ve never seen Vikings, it’s good! If you’ve never seen Knightfall … honestly, you’re fine.) The difference now is that having a blockbuster genre TV show has gone from being a nice bonus to a commercial imperative. These days, only a few huge corporations control most of our screen time, and inside the headquarters of these behemoths, the desire to make ramped-up television output a primary engine of large, reliable profits grows by the day. Hence the drive toward scale (and scales). Hence the pre- and post-Thrones transition toward Tentpole TV.
Let me don the elf ears of Galadriel here so part of me can mourn the passing of an earlier era: Until a decade or two ago — before the Golden Age that we lived through in the aughts and beyond — TV was the culture’s regular punching bag (often unfairly so). Pockets of snobbery about the medium still exist everywhere, but during the time I’ve been a critic (a thousand years ago, we got advance episodes on VHS tape!), television has gone from underdog to top dog. The pressures on it are different as a result. Of course, the creation of frisky, distinctive, affecting — and ideally, popular — fare is still the goal for many in the TV industry. But other concerns have started to gather like armies on the border.
When you look at the consolidation that has swept through media industries in the last few years, when you observe the frantic land-grab mentality that affects the pursuit of name-brand creators and well-known intellectual property, and when you see the stratospheric success of Game of Thrones become the aspiration for huge sectors of the TV industry, it’s hard not to conclude that some tectonic plates have decisively shifted since HBO introduced its subscribers to the Starks eight years ago.
To put things in perspective, Station 19 — a firefighter drama that ABC renewed for a third season earlier this month — generally grabs about 5 million viewers the night each episode airs, according to Nielsen. The first episode of Game of Thrones’ final season, by contrast, garnered more than 27 million total viewers — on a premium service, in an era of splintering and eroding audiences. The HBO drama has an unlikely twin in The Walking Dead, which saw more than 17 million viewers tune in to its season 7 premiere in 2016. It’s worth taking a closer look at the similarities between these two huge shows, which go beyond their affinities for undead mayhem.
Like Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon eggs, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones — which premiered six months apart in 2010 and 2011, respectively — started out as modest, promising items that didn’t dominate much of anything. There was a modicum of interest in The Walking Dead, given Shawshank Redemption writer-director Frank Darabont’s involvement and the popularity of the comics it was based on, but potential viewers weren’t inundated with coverage of the show back then. The AMC series did surprisingly well in the ratings, but a year or two passed before the zombie serial essentially tripled its initial audience. It was a similar trajectory for Game of Thrones, which had modest (but acceptable) ratings and became a pop-culture phenomenon largely after its debut season.
As ratings fractured and streaming services lured audiences away from linear networks over the past decade, both shows broke through the clutter to become spinoff-generating money machines. Before we knew it, they had become TV’s Jaws and Star Wars (two films that premiered relatively close together and went on to redefine an entire industry). Decades later, in the wake of Thrones-mania and the popularity of the AMC zombie drama (and its spinoffs), blockbuster hunger has well and truly crossed the border and invaded TV.
With billions in its pocket, Apple is spending big to put Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series on our devices. Netflix has The Witcher, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and The Chronicles of Narnia adaptations in its arsenal (and while I was writing this article, the streamer announced yet another fantasy drama: The Magic Order, from comic writer Mark Millar, which will depict “five families of magicians sworn to protect our world”). Showtime is developing Patrick Rothfuss’ music-infused Kingkiller Chronicle series with none other than Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, and is finally moving forward on a long-gestating adaptation of the Halo franchise, which stars Orange Is the New Black actor Pablo Schreiber as the armored Master Chief.
HBO has the rights to Nnedi Okorafor’s acclaimed novel Who Fears Death, with George R.R. Martin on board as an executive producer, and production will soon begin on a Game of Thrones prequel. The Star Wars series The Mandalorian will be the spacefaring anchor of the Disney Plus streaming service launching this fall, and that’s just the tip of the Marvel-ABC-Disney fantasy/sci-fi iceberg. I haven’t even gotten to Amazon’s Dark Tower series, which brushes the Stephen King film adaptation under the rug, or its Wheel of Time adaptation, which, one hopes, will whittle down the thousands of characters in Robert Jordan’s multibook saga.
Neither project is Amazon’s Death Star. That honor goes to the streamer’s TV reboot of the Lord of the Rings. The most eye-popping — and questionable — thing about the new LotR is not the fact that its creative team is virtually unknown in the industry. Nor is their vision for the reboot the surprising element; beyond being set in the Second Age, no details have escaped Amazon’s high levels of security (for novels that have been around for decades and were the subject of hit films less than two decades ago). No, the real twist is the eye-popping price Amazon paid — a reported $250 million — just for the rights to adapt the property for TV. I guess when you’re Jeff Bezos, you can write that kind of check years before anyone finishes a script, sews a costume, or builds a set.
What creative endeavor has ever begun with that much money at stake, and that much attention focused on it, and still flourished? The only example I can think of is James’ Cameron’s Titanic, which overcame a wave of bad pre-release press to clean up at the box office and win a ton of awards. Even so, is the maniacal pursuit of well-known IP a good thing for television? It’s hard not to think of the whole situation as a case of the tail wagging the dragon. As one executive told the Washington Post, “There is an arms race going on for event television. There could be multiple winners. Or there could be no winners at all.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not always suspicious when well-known properties are adapted or remade (I want someone to get the HBO-BBC version of the His Dark Materials trilogy in front of my eyeballs as soon as possible). Generous budgets and ambitious visions can lead to thrilling results. Part of the reason Martin started writing the Song of Ice and Fire novels is because he was deeply frustrated by TV’s limitations when he was a small-screen writer in the ’80s. The fact that TV has gotten bigger, bolder, and more influential in the last two decades has allowed the culture at large to see how phenomenal, adventurous, and gripping it can be.
But in its desire to take big swings and go after huge properties, I don’t want TV to lose sight of the elements that made it great in the first place: things that are sometimes regarded as “small” but are actually anything but.
Every television show is the story of relationships — ideally, relationships between people who are highly specific and unpredictable yet deeply and recognizably human. Whether they’re doing terrible things, cracking jokes, realizing their potential or going through hell, when the storytelling works, we root for these people; we argue about them and we want the best (or the worst) for them. TV is the medium that most effectively draws us in emotionally, because we form bonds with characters and their hopes and dreams over months, and if we’re lucky, years. The Battle of Winterfell — when we could see it — gripped us because, before the first throat was slit, we had spent hours in these characters’ bedrooms, living rooms, and feasting halls. We saw them chat over campfires, goad each other to courage (or cruelty), and dream of lives that didn’t revolve around chaos and ambition.
A TV show works because of how it spends its time, not just its budget. How friendships or other kinds of bonds evolve, why the stakes for individuals come to matter — if that shit isn’t nailed down, impressive special effects, fantastic locations, hordes of extras, and massive battles can’t hide it. Empty, expensive blockbuster films have proven that time and time again. Films can sometimes get away with being hollow — they’re only two or three hours long, and sometimes we get sucked in by slick marketing despite ourselves. But TV shows can’t live on empty spectacle alone; no show has the budget for that. The source of our devotion can spring from a lot of different factors, but in the end, it all comes back to the writing, and whether we’re invested enough in character moments that ideally break our hearts, make us cry or make us think long after an episode ends.
The evolution of Game of Thrones is illuminating on these fronts. We cared about how it ended because the show spent a lot of time setting up and explaining why we should care about these people and their connections to each other. Then, in the show’s later seasons, the creators cut corners, speeding up events and insisting on “big moments” — while slashing the number of episodes in each season. Think of your favorite movie or book and then imagine what it’d be like if someone hacked out a third of it. HBO likely would have loved 20 or more episodes to close out the series, but we got 13 over two seasons. The fact that each installment of the final season was an hour or more just makes me think of the waning days of NBC’s Must-See TV, when too many comedies got “supersized” running times and proved they had mostly run out of steam.
More on “the next Game of Thrones”…
- A look at the full cast of Netflix’s The Witcher
- A guide to the Second Age, the setting for Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series
- Watch the first trailer for His Dark Materials
- The mission statement driving Netflix’s live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender
- Lucasfilm’s first look at The Mandalorian from Star Wars Celebration
- Everything we know about the Game of Thrones prequel series
The longer that both The Walking Dead and Thrones were on the air, the more they began to live and die by the “big twists” and “major deaths” that echo the set-pieces of franchise films. And not incidentally, these “major shockers” often feel reverse-engineered to set social media aflame. When those kinds of events are earned and meticulously set up in advance, they can be absolutely thrilling. When they’re not — and all too often, on TV shows that become prisoners of their popularity, they’re not — the disappointment is correspondingly intense.
Of course, some of the shows that result from big-name IP grabs will do what they were designed to do. They’ll reel in paying subscribers and/or viewers and they’ll get attention from the press. Maybe these programs will even be enjoyable as well — we can only hope! But here’s a bold prediction, one drawn from long experience as a TV observer: As was the case with so many shows that caught fire in the last two decades, the next great TV phenomenon is likely to be a relatively unheralded program that doesn’t bear the weight of overwhelming expectations.
Someone will have — or has already had — a weird, idiosyncratic, fascinating idea, and will assemble creative and executive teams that will allow that vision to flourish and capture the public imagination. Regardless of whether there are big battles and epic sword fights (and bring them on, because I love action when it’s done right), a lot of what we’ll remember after these shows end are the intimate moments spent with fictional people we grew to love and couldn’t look away from. The next wave of event TV creators would do well to recall that choosing scale and bombast over psychological progressions grounded in coherent character journeys can lead to disaster (in other words, everything about the final arc of Daenerys Targaryen should serve as a cautionary tale).
Pulling off huge battles is difficult, sure, but the “characters are why we care,” as novelist Chuck Wendig aptly put it. That’s the part of TV storytelling — any storytelling — that’s worth moving heaven and earth to get right.
As TV heads into the MegaCorporate age, I hope the caretakers of the medium don’t forget the lesson of the Lord of the Rings books. A lot of factions bravely fought evil in Middle-earth. But it was the hobbits — the small, quirky, sensible but often dismissed folk — who ultimately saved the world.
Maureen Ryan, a freelance critic and journalist writing about pop culture, is the former chief TV critic at Variety. More of her work can be found at moryan.com.