Thursday, April 21, 2011

On GAME OF THRONES - Epic Fantasy, Gender Politics, and Geek Girls

GAME OF THRONES Pilot Thoughts:

- First of all -- how awesome is it that GAME OF THRONES is a TV show? Several years ago, fantasy TV was limited to syndicated fare like Hercules and Xena - fun shows, sure, but not high-quality, high-drama productions on this scope or scale. Now, the TV landscape has changed, and high-concept is all the rage. Vampires, zombies, superheroes, and sci-fi are where it's at and where the money is - so in a way, a huge, epic, TV fantasy series was the next logical leap. But to think that one of fantasy literature's most revered series is getting the prestige treatment on HBO ... it's still one of those geek pipe dreams that seems almost too good to be true.

Now, I grew up totally into fantasy fiction. As a kid I read all of the Narnia books, Prydain, The Dark Is Rising, Sword of Shannara, and of course Lord of the Rings. Eventually, I sort of fell out of that whole world, but I always loved the genre and loved stories that evoked that kind of sense of adventure and world-building. I've never read George RR Martin's books on which the new show is based, but nonetheless, I was primed and ready to see some epic fantasy on TV (er, HBO).

And my thoughts on GAME OF THRONES are this: clearly, this one has the potential to be one hell of a badass series. All of the ingredients are there - huge production value (this is, already, simply one of the best-looking TV shows ever), a well-chosen and supremely talented cast, and a sprawling story of mystery and intrigue that promises to deliver action, adventure, romance, and surprises (well, at least for those of us who haven't read the books).

What was interesting about the pilot though is the fact that there was a very minimal amount of hand-holding. We were quite simply thrust right into the middle of this fantasy world, quickly introduced to a huge cast of dozens of key characters spread out across multiple vast kingdoms. As my brother and I watched the show, we repeatedly had to pause just to get our bearings, to try to figure out who was related to who, etc. After I was done viewing the episode, I quickly scoured the internets for more information. I didn't want to spoil anything, but I also wanted to get the lay of the land and make sure I had all the characters straight. I'll admit, I felt disoriented a lot while watching the pilot episode. But as time has passed, I have a greater appreciation for how much the pilot immersed us in this world. Now that I'm a bit more caught up on some of the nuances and details, I can't wait to dive back in. I remarked to some friends that Game of Thrones is going to take a few episodes to really fire on all cylinders from a narrative perspective. There is just SO MUCH setup here - so many characters, so much mythology and backstory - that it's going to take a long time to sort of shoehorn all of the essential background info into those first few episodes. Eventually, we'll get to the point where plot twists and revelations can be delivered in a more natural way. I look at Season 1 of the similarly sprawling BOARDWALK EMPIRE as an example. That show started out as being so dense that it was hard to follow. But eventually, the focus shifted squarely to the characters, and it became much more enjoyable in its latter half. With THRONES, I do worry though that we don't have that one central throughline character. In the pilot, we latch on to Sean Been simply because he's a recognizable actor, but we didn't necessarily get the sense that this would be HIS story, per se. It will definitely be interesting to see to what extent Game of Thrones narrows its bench, so to speak. Will each episode glide back and forth between a huge cast, or will the show begin to increasingly focus on a select few key players? It's hard to get too into the specifics of the episode, because this show is clearly going to be so serialized and sprawling that it's really going to take some time before individual plotlines and characters can be commented on with much in the way of in-depth analysis.

In any case, the pilot worked so well if only because this was something completely new and different. High fantasy on TV with plenty of sex and violence to go around. When have we seen something like this before? Basically, never. From the cold open on - as soon as we saw some poor saps get gruesomely beheaded by zombie-like beasts - we knew we weren't in Kansas anymore. From then on, the slick opening credits sequence promised us a story - an on-screen world - as rich and as vast as anything we've seen since Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. And that same feeling of grim grandeur was evoked as we met Sean Been's Eddard Stark and his semi-dysfunctional family. Soon afterwards, however, the show introduced us to the sultry Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, and it was again clear that we were in HBO-land, where clearly, there would be no skimping on the sex and nudity. Did any of that detract from the story? Well, there was a lot of it - almost to the point of excess. But for now, it helped establish the show as being a far cry from the chaste fairytale worlds of Tolkien. This was grim n' gritty fantasy - a veritable Frank Frazetta painting brought to life.

On that note, however, I think it's interesting to look at the controversy that's erupted over some of the criticisms of GAME OF THRONES. Most notably, NY Times reviewer Ginia Bellafonte found herself overwhelmed with fan response when she dismissed the show as being male fantasy for boys, with no appeal to anyone beyond the core of basement-dwelling, Dungeons & Dragons-playing fanboys. Bellafonte's review, ironically, was published mere days after MSNBC / The Today Show ran a piece examining the large female fanbase that was in large part responsible for all the early buzz around the Game of Thrones TV show. Bellafonte claimed she knew of no women who read this sort of fantasy fiction, and that she couldn't imagine that any self-respecting woman would enjoy this TV show. And yet ... the response to her seemingly lazy and overly-generalized critique was huge, with all sorts of geek-girl bloggers and journalists writing impassioned rebuttals, expressing their love of sci-fi and fantasy and of the writing of George Martin. Rarely has the culture gap between chic-geeks and out-of-touch, stuffy, cultural elitists been more pronounced or more out-in-the-open.

I love it. Because look, everyone knows that a lot of these fantasy and sci-fi concepts originated as male-driven escapism. But that's changed, in large part to passionate and open-minded women readers and viewers who love works that challenge their imagination and make them think - works that don't fall into the typical female-targeted genres. Women have latched onto the strong female characters in sci-fi and fantasy works and have in turn created their own new stories and characters. There are prominent female genre-TV writers like Jane Espensen, prominent female comic book writers like Gail Simone, and a whole legion of fangirls who are just as vocal and passionate about things like Dr. Who and Star Wars and Mass Effect as their male counterparts. You see it everywhere - so for Ginia Bellafonte to come out and write, seemingly in a vacuum, that Game of Thrones is just for men (and dismiss it mostly for that reason), comes off as more than a little ridiculous.

And it's too bad that Bellafonte failed to acknowledge the growing influence of geek-girls. Because as a guy, I am man enough to admit that WOMEN have made geeky stuff BETTER. Look, sometimes as a guy I want to watch a total guy movie - with a kickass hero, well, kicking ass and being the alpha male. Sometimes I want to play a videogame that's just me playing a one-man wrecking-crew sort of character (think Kratos from God of War) and just causing wanton destruction. Those sorts of movies and games appeal to the id in my male brain. But let's face it, genre stuff can be better - deeper, smarter, meatier - when it's got strong female characters, three-dimensional female characters, heart, soul, romance, emotion. In games, we've gone from the stock storyline of "save the princess" to a world where many games feature kickass female characters that empower women as well as men. On shows like Buffy, Veronica Mars, Battlestar, and Lost, we saw female characters who were as badass as their male counterparts. And that made for better stories. I'm not saying that every genre story needs to center around a feisty femme fatale or be all about "girl-power." But why can't Bellafonte understand: when you've got something like Game of Thrones, which features a sprawling ensemble, filled with intriguing male AND female characters -- why *wouldn't* that appeal to guys and girls alike? If Bellafonte is saying that only men can appreciate stories set in fantasy worlds or with high concepts, then to me, that is just plain insulting to women. And the fact is, in the last several years I've encountered more and more women who are very open about their status as bonafide "geek girls" - who positively love genre fiction across multiple mediums (comics and games often included). And as many have attested, I have to say that the vast majority of people who've recommended George Martin's books to me have *been* women.

To finish my point though, I think there's a place for stories that aim squarely at us guy's most guy-centric sensibilities, and room for stories that do the same for women. But let's face it, that is often the easy / lazy way to tell a story, and doing so can lead to fun movies or TV shows (TNT built a whole brand of "movies for guys who like movies", afterall - and hey, I LOVED most of the movies they used to show as part of that block). But ... this way of thinking can also very easily lead to crap. On one end of the spectrum you have lame stuff that's supposed to appeal to guys (the majority of Spike TV programming), and lame stuff that's meant to appeal to girls (groan ... Twilight). But when content - specifically genre content - has a little something for everyone - often that's a potent mix that can lead to great storytelling and memorable characters. GAME OF THRONES seems to have that mix of elements, that strong ensemble of characters that will grow and evolve - with no real weak links among them. To me, this is great - bring it on, says I.

So combustible gender politics aside ... I am very intrigued by Game of Thrones. All the potential is there for this to be an epic series the likes of which we haven't yet seen on television. I am concerned about the sheer amount of info that is going to end up being packed into each episode, but I am very curious to see if the show will find its rhythm in the next couple of weeks. The pilot offered a tantalizing if somewhat confusing first glimpse into this crazy world. Now the show needs to smooth out the rough edges a bit and just tell an awesome story. For now, I will definitely be watching.

My Grade: A-

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