My biggest problem with the Game of Thrones TV Show

on Friday, May 4, 2012
This show still has my favorite opening of any show ever. 

(This still isn't my post on violence or an album review. Sorry?)

So I've been watching A Game of Thrones on HBO. The sad truth is it was the first season that actually got me to finally read the books, which I devoured up until #4 which I am currently stuck on. Sorry, but after the insanity that was Storm of Swords, it's a little hard to keep going and have everything live up to expectation.

Regardless, reading the books opened my eyes a lot about how the TV show is produced and presented, especially now that I've read the second book before the second season kicks in. And, after re-watching the first Season (for my failed attempt to review them episodically on here, which I swear I'll do someday) I had a sort of revelation:

I don't think the TV show is very confident in itself.

But Sean Bean is always confident. THAT HE'LL DIE. The man's a two-legged spoiler. 

Hear me out: I love the TV show. I think it does well in presenting an adult fantasy story on mainstream television (if HBO is "mainstream"), which is something that very rarely happens. Usually these things fall apart under the silliness of the story or magic, and when they attempt to be "dark" they end up being shallow or pretentious. Which Game of Thrones manages to not fall in. 

Yet.

The reason I say "yet" is I feel it's skirting on the edge here. And the reason I have is this: it isn't confident enough in its dark premise.

Let me elaborate: A Game of Thrones (and the whole Song of Fire and Ice) is a dark batch of books. The characters are delightfully gray, with even the most noble appearing "heroes" often making selfish, poor mistakes and having us (as readers) question if we really admire these people as much as we thought. It has been said that the only good main character in this book is Samwise, which I can agree with. 

What made the books (especially the first one) so good is the fact it manage to be exciting, tense, and dark without having to do much stuff that the mainstream would classify as "exciting, tense, and dark." While there was plenty of violence, it wasn't at the forefront. While there was sex happening all the time (including incest, rape, and more) it was almost never on camera, and tended to not be sexually explicit (minus a rather putrid scene at the start of A Clash of Kings). The first book was confident that it could tell its story and be compelling without any cheap tricks. Sex and violence was presented as part of the story, not as gratuitous stimulation to titillate and excite. It was a necessity but not the point, with the violence or sex not being at the center of a scene but rather something that happened to support the dialogue, politics, and dark schemes. It's a fine line to skirt, because a reader can easily get bored without some "cheap thrills," but it was confident and masterfully done enough to pull it off.

But the TV show is not like this, at all.

If you are a legal age female in this show, odds are you'll be seen topless at least once. 

Nudity is all over the place. Scenes in the novel that originally didn't have it added it as a "bonus," and scenes that did have sex are longer and more drawn out to keep things going. They even added an extra "main" character in the first season, some hooker Theron liked, just so she could spout some expository dialogue while the two of them were getting it on. It has gotten so bad that when last week's episode (Season 2 Episode 5, "The Ghost of Harrenhal") came out and was actually the first episode in the series without nudity, people stood up and took notice. Yeah, essentially episode 15 was the first one without some boobs. Nice work.

The reason for this is obvious, if a bit annoying. Since they have a limited run and the books are big, they had to get the expository dialogue out somehow. My main problem is that their #1 choice for doing this is during a sec scene. Vesyris needs to explain about dragons? Do it while he's having sex in a tub. Theron Greyjoy needs to explain the Starks and his frustrations to build into Season 2? Do it when having sex. Dani needs to learn more about the Dothraki? Make sure you do it when also talking about sex. Littlefinger needs to talk about his political goals? Position it over him teaching prostitutes how to turn each other on. Renley and the Knight of Flowers need to chat? Make sure it's while both are nude and shaving each other. Not all expository dialogue is presented via sex, but it does seem to be the vast majority.

What? Characters talking without sex? REWRITE IT!

While this could easily be dismissed as laziness of the writers, I honestly don't think so. There are plenty of added scenes that are actually quite good. The highlight for me is a dialogue between Robert and Ceresi in the first season that isn't in the book. You don't really learn much about their relationship in the novel except they generally hated each other and were married out of politics, but this little scene is just the two of them talking and remembering their times together. Both are horrible people (Robert because he's a fat, lazy sloth and Ceresi because she only cares about her personal gain and the gains of her children) but cast in this light you see them differently. You are given dialogue that explains the world and digs deeper into the character's. It's a great scene.

So I know the writers are capable here, because the rest of the show (both stuff that's new and old) is written masterfully. So why the need for all the sex? (and exaggerated violence, but we'll just assume everybody knows that's in there so I don't have to talk about it)

I think it's because Game of Thrones isn't confident that it'll be "dark" enough without showing all this awful stuff. It isn't confident in the viewers understanding the depth of the characters without shoving it into their faces.

Consider this: In Season 2 Episode 4, "Garden of Bones," Joffery is given two whores from his uncle as a birthday present. What happens is a long, horrible scene where the young king basically forces them to beat each other bloody. It's a stressful thing to watch because of how awful and trapped these whores are (though don't worry; both are completely nude and the show isn't afraid to show it).

I don't remember if this happens in the book, but it was certainly never presented in scene. My question is this: Why was it necessary to burn 10 minutes of a already crammed show on this? We already know Joffery is horrible. We knew it the second we laid eyes on him; he was a smug, pompus jerk. The actor was fantastic at portraying this without being overt. And, after he has done so many horrible things already, why is this necessary?

Because they aren't confident, is why. They can't let the subtle characters of the book simply play out; they have to slap you in the face with it. Over and over. "Look at us! Look how dark our characters are! Look how edgy we are! We are HBO, you can't see this on normal TV!"

Look at this picture. You KNOW he's a douche. You didn't need to see him order naked prostitutes to beat each other to prove it. 

There are many, many examples of this. And while you could argue it's to make it more appealing to a mainstream (read: dumber) audience than those who read the books, I really feel that it is more of them thinking their "edgy" drama is impotent, so they always overcompensate. Trust me guys: we know how bad the characters are. We know this is a dark story. But because you insist on showing us how edgy you are, the impact is lost. We are desensitized to boobs because they are all over the place. We are desensitized to violence because it's always gory and gruesome. And so, when a scene that is supposed to be impactful because of the violence or sex or abuse comes up, its effect is lessened. You are actually weakening your characters by having them be so blatant.

This might be a little nitpick and again, I'm technically a "new" fan of the books so I might be wrong, but it is really starting to get to me. It's almost predictable now...is an infodump needed? I bet you the next scene starts with somebody getting it on with somebody else. Oh look, I was right, what a surprise.

It's like HBO is a kid trying to hard to be dark and evil and scary he went to Hot Topic and bought all the clothes and stacked them all on and goes around growling and cussing and making lewd gestures, while all the adults just shake their heads and chuckle to themselves. That isn't edgy, it's overkill. The source material is so incredibly dark already, it would work better if you were subtle. Don't beat it into our heads that Joffery is the worst human being on the planet, just let him show it in line with the story. What does the beating of the whores have to do with the overarching narrative? Nothing. But when he forces Sansa to strip and humiliates her in front of the court (which Tyrion saves her from), this shows progression. It shows Joffery is awful right there. It shows Sansa is broken. And it shows Tyrion might actually have a heart, while earning plenty of Joffery's ire. It's a great scene, and it had no boobs (probably because the actress for Sansa is underaged), no forcing the point, and no expository dialogue. And hey, it was a scene lifted from the book. What a surprise.

At least all of Arya's plot arch is wonderfully intact.

Lastly, since this has gone on far too long anyway, let me give one final example. As I mentioned before, the Episode "The Ghost of Harrenhal" was the first episode to not have any boobs. I'd like to just point out a scene (minor spoiler here) that I felt was powerful that didn't have to rely on any cheap tricks to make it that way.

Tywin is around a table with his lords, discussing the war against Robb Stark. He's decided Arya is to be his cupbearer, without knowing her true identity, so she is essentially hearing her brother's mortal enemy discuss how he is going to destroy his armies in a methodical, tactical manner. As the scene plays out she is brought into the conversation, believed by Tywin to be a northern girl but not aware she's a Stark. After asking her what the northerns think of Robb, she spins a tale of mythological proportions about Robb's strength and Direwolf. Tywin laughs, asking Arya if she believes Robb is invincible. She says, "No...any man can be killed." Scene closes on Arya.

It's worth nothing there is almost no swearing, violence, rude behavior, sex, or anything of the sort in this scene, yet it is dark, creepy, tense, and powerful. We see Tywin as he really is: a genius and ruthless warlord whose competence makes him sympathetic but also a bit arrogant; had he know it was Arya there he might have realized his life was potentially in danger. And we also see Arya's arc growing: she's becoming more revenge fueled, convincing herself that she can kill anyone, even Tywin. Lastly, we are seeing the world and war develop, and all this is portrayed by some downright killer acting across the board. 

These are the types of scenes the show needs. We don't need people spouting politics in bed or right after. Giving somebody to do while spouting dialogue is a common writing trick: people sitting around is boring. But adding sex to make it "edgy" is just crass and cheap. If you can't use a scene from the book, make one that isn't there but doesn't involve tons of nudity. If you need to infodump, do it through other scenes. It was already sublimely interwoven in the novels; do it here if you want to retain that spirit. 

Plus, you know you want this in Season 3, HBO. 

Let me close by saying this: I do not hate this show. In fact, it's probably my most favorite TV show ever. It's magnificently cast, acted, and the production values are through the roof. I think it's setting a new bar for television, and I also am glad that medieval fantasy is finally getting through to the mainstream public as this might open up options for future TV shows in that genre.

That being said, I think the series could do better. Right now it's amazing, but with just a few changes it could be unforgettable. It shines with greatness, presenting powerful scenes and characters, and right when I'm sold that it's just the greatest thing we cut to a scene of expository dialogue and boobs. Or some grotesque, overly-bloody gore and violence. Or some other scene of crass tastelessness that seems to be there just to shock and awe. 

You are better than this, Game of Thrones. Stop pandering to the lowest common denominator. You are making a show for smart people, so stop backpedaling and make it for smart people. We don't need boobs and guts to get our attention. We want rich characters, crazy politics, and Tyrion outsmarting everybody with hilarious results. We want it to be dark but not edgy, serious and realistic but not overblown. The show is so close it hurts, and I was hoping after Season 1 when fans complained about these little things they'd fix them. They haven't, so I'm complaining again.

Make it happen, HBO. Make real, adult television. And then maybe this show will be remembered for much more. 


6 comments:

Sunny said...

Eloquently stated!

Colton Goodrich said...

I'd say you more or less hit it right on the money.

Ryan Pettit said...

I haven't watched Game of Thrones, but I would say that your comments would apply to media in general.

Charlie Holmberg said...

Wow. That's a lot of sex. Even the books didn't have that much, and the books had a lot of sex. XD

Nice ending picture, btw.

Unrepentant Escapist said...

I totally agree.

-Jennifer

Darren Maher said...

I just recently had a GOT marathon (I'm not well) and the sex/exposition/sexposition was a real interest-sapper: also I wish there was more consistancy in the tone and development in charachter, not in a 'now you're getting to know even more of the person' way', but more in a 'what has happened to them is changing them' way.

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