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From The Sandman to House Of The Dragon, TV needs to drag itself out of this fantasy land

Swords and sorcery overkill

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Olivia Cooke and Matt Smith admire each other’s wig in the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon

Olivia Cooke and Matt Smith admire each other’s wig in the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon

Olivia Cooke and Matt Smith admire each other’s wig in the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon

THIS, in case you haven’t noticed, is a television column. But let’s talk about movies for a minute. Or rather, one movie, Top Gun: Maverick.

Nobody with any common sense would have squandered their wages betting that Tom Cruise’s return to the skies 36 years after the release of the original Top Gun would fail at the box-office. Its financial success was never in doubt.

The combination of curiosity, nostalgia for the 80s and the fact that Cruise, whatever you think of his Scientology beliefs, is the kind of 24-carat movie star they don’t make any more guaranteed it would earn money.

There’s also the not insignificant matter of Cruise’s track record. The man hasn’t had a box-office flop since 1985’s Legend, his last movie before Top Gun.

But who could have guessed the sequel would make this much money? So far, it has raked in €1.6bn globally. In America, it has surpassed Titanic as Paramount Pictures’ biggest ever domestic earner. And it’s still showing in cinemas two months after its release – an extreme rarity these days.

Top Gun: Maverick, which received far better reviews than the original, is hardly what you’d call a plucky underdog. It’s not some tiny indie film that has triumphed over the multiplex monsters. It’s a major studio movie that cost $170m to make. 

Nonetheless, its success is heartening. Anything that breaks, even for a few months, the box-office dominance of the Marvel superhero dreck clogging up cinemas is to be welcomed.

Now, if only there was a series so wildly popular it could pull off a similar feat of disruption on television, which is currently swamped, not by superheroes (although they’re increasingly making their presence felt on Disney+), but by fantasy sagas; a series about mere mortals who have regular names and wear regular clothes, living in the real world and doing real-world things. 

There are plenty of those, of course, yet they don’t tend to draw the same fanatical audiences that fantasy attracts.

At the rate things are going, they’re in danger of being outstripped by series populated by wizards, witches, warlocks, warriors, magicians and monsters, all of them knocking around in some imaginary world made entirely out of CGI.

I’ve nothing against a bit of fantasy. I loved Jason and the Argonauts, the 1963 classic graced by the stop-motion genius of Ray Harryhausen, when I saw it on television as a kid, and I still love it now.

But the emphasis is on “a bit”. I don’t want it all the time. Yet it’s all we seem to be getting, especially from the streaming services. The biggest fantasy pedlars are Netflix and Amazon Prime. Between them, they have made The Witcher, Shadow and Bone, Fate: The Winx SagaLocke & Key and The Wheel of Time. 

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If that doesn’t seem like a particularly large number, it’s simply because these are just some of the current and most successful ones. I’m leaving out the many failed series that have come and gone over the years, some of them lasting only a single season.

There was a time when fantasy was regarded as a minor TV subgenre aimed largely at children and teenagers. It was usually cheap and cheesy and nobody took it too seriously.

Then Game of the Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s mammoth and still unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, came along and changed everything. Suddenly, fantasy was respectable, even cool. The dam burst and we have been drowning in a wave of the stuff ever since. 

On Friday, Netflix unveiled its latest big-budget fantasy saga, The Sandman, based on Neil Gaiman’s revered comic book series. Fans of the comics have gone wild for it. Personally, I didn’t think the five episodes I watched were anything special.

There has been such an exhausting glut of fantasy TV over the last few years, a story that must have seemed strikingly original and daring in comic book form 25 or 30 years ago now looks ordinary.

The wave won’t be ebbing any time soon. HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon starts on Sky Atlantic on August 22. Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the most expensive TV series ever made, follows on September 2.

Fantasy fans are sure to be in heaven (or maybe Valhalla). As for the rest of us, I guess we don’t matter that much.


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