Wednesday 18 September 2019

Game of Thrones is boring - and so is most 'prestige TV'

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys in 'Game of Thrones'
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys in 'Game of Thrones'
James Marsden as Teddy and Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores in 'Westworld'
Kyle McLaughlin as Agent Dale Cooper in 'Twin Peaks'
The White Walkers in 'Game of Thrones'
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

It's fair to say that 'Game of Thrones' has evolved from mere TV show to bona fide cultural phenomenon.

In fact, it's been that way for quite a while: we might date this transformation to June 2013 and Season 3, when the notorious 'Red Wedding' episode aired.

Within hours of this orgy of slaughter and duplicity - as in, even more slaughter and duplicity than usual - mainstream and social media were ablaze. Reviews, analyses, commentary, contextualisation, reaction. Even reaction to the reaction: people put up videos of unsuspecting fans viewing the episode, then wincing and screaming in shock.

The swords 'n' sandals ('n' sex 'n' dragons) fantasy epic, which returns tomorrow for a seventh season, more hotly anticipated than a Led Zep reunion, isn't just an entertainment behemoth: it makes a tidy coin for producers HBO, too.

Average audiences north of 9 million an episode, plus that feverish online activity, drive channel subscriptions and foreign sales - it's broadcast here by Sky Atlantic. According to reports, HBO earns around $1bn (€870m) annually. (On a happy tangent, it's also made Northern Ireland, where much of it has been filmed, a tourist hot-spot for devotees.)

They've put a lot of that money back into production: last season cost over $100m (€87m), a TV record. Big, cinematic budgets mean better production values, sophisticated effects, lavish sets and costumes - a superior creation, all told.

Meanwhile, 'GoT' is lifting all of television to a higher place. It can be debated which programmes sparked this 'Golden Age' for the medium: 'Sopranos'? 'Wire'? 'Mad Men'? Take your pick.

But since debuting in 2011, 'GoT' is, indisputably, the one to rule them all, in terms of commercial success and broader cultural impact. In its wake have come dozens - hundreds - of equally excellent programmes. 'House of Cards', 'Orange is the New Black', 'Narcos', 'The Handmaid's Tale', 'Westworld'… the list seems close to endless.

However, being a grumpy, old cynic I must confess to finding 'Game of Thrones', and 'prestige TV' in general, to be just too…what? I can't honestly say disappointing, or poor. Clearly, these are exceptionally well-made; only a wilful contrarian would argue the opposite.

I do find most of it boring, though. There, I've said it. 'Game of Thrones' is boring. So is 'House of Cards', 'Westworld'… most of them.

They weren't always boring. They didn't start out boring. For the first three years of 'Game of Thrones', I was basically addicted: it was so fresh and exciting, byzantine, brilliant.

But they've got boring, for a few reasons. The worst crime of prestige TV is that - with the honourable exception of 'anthology' programmes such as 'Fargo' or 'True Detective' - they absolutely drag the ass out of their material.

'GoT' is slated to run for eight seasons. That's eight times 10 hours: 80 hours of your time, to find out whether the cute woman with the dragons or the cuter guy with the great hair gets to sit on that big spiky chair.

'Westworld' is reported to be planning at least six - this, remember, for a sci-fi thriller based on a 90-minute movie and shlocky source novel. 'The Handmaid's Tale', somehow, is moving into a second season; Margaret Atwood's original book is about 300-pages long. 'Narcos', bafflingly, has been greenlit for two more years, despite the inconvenient fact that Escobar died at the end of the second season.

It goes on and on. Just like they go on and on.

That's one thing movies have over television: apart from Peter Jackson, they generally know when to wrap it up. While I understand the reasoning - if something continues to make money, why would they end it? - that doesn't excuse it or reduce the tedium.

And prestige TV is over-rated. Critics wax rhapsodic about how ground-breaking it is, how it surprises and challenges and 'Makes You Think'. But much of it is essentially the same old ding-dong: sex, violence and political intrigue.

Sex to drum up hype, violence to keep us interested and intrigue to give it a vaguely literary vibe. (I'm in danger of going full 'Red Wedding' on the next person to use that heinous phrase, "TV is the new novel". No it isn't, you sub-literate poseur.)

They're aping the template set by 'Rome' in the noughties - a cracking show, incidentally, which bowed out gracefully after two years. They all feel the same as each other. They play out at the same glacial pace. And they make the same shallow, school-debate point: power corrupts, and aren't people horrible to each other sometimes? Yes they are. And you could have told us that in a two-hour movie.

Ironically, only a few weeks ago saw the return of a truly great show, Art with a capital A. 'Twin Peaks' has been credited and/or blamed with opening the door for complex, demanding, 'grown-up' TV.

But unlike the above-mentioned high-gloss, precision-tooled 'product' - and however skilful its assembly, that's what much of it is - 'Twin Peaks' was, and remains, a unique thing. Dream, nightmare, fable, allegory, myth, hallucination, expression of the unconscious, reflection of the abyss… all and none of these.

Perhaps best of all, there are currently no plans to make another season.

David Lynch always loved using red curtains as imagery - and knows when to bring them down.

Irish Independent

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