Come for the nudity, stay for the characters?
Ed Power finds HBO's foray into fantasy a little bit bare
Emilia Clarke stars as the waifish Daenarys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. Photo by Helen Sloan
If you thought Lord of the Rings was criminally lacking in topless elves and lap-dancing hobbits (and who didn't?) you really need to be watching Game of Thrones. "The Sopranos in Middle Earth" was how HBO's new tentpole series was initially pitched. A better description might be "Tolkien on Viagra": the first episode featured a sex-addicted dwarf, a sibling-on-sibling bonk-up a bell-tower (not a euphemism) and a willowy Aryan woman being roughly taken by a Klingon named Drogo at top of a cliff. Somewhere Lady Gaga was throwing her shoes at the telly screaming: "Why didn't I think of that!"
The George R R Martin novels upon which the series is based are lauded for their 'grown-up' twist on cheesy sword and sorcery archetypes. But they aren't nearly as over-sexed at HBO's small-screen re-telling, which appears to be trying to set a record for the amount of gratuitous softcore it is possible to squeeze into 60 minutes of middlebrow telly.
All in an attempt, you suspect, to win over viewers who might otherwise regard the fantasy genre as the preserve of 40-Year-Old Virgin-types living in their parents' basements. As is the case with HBO's other perpetually randy franchise, the vampire romp True Blood, the logic would appear to be that you'll come for the exhibitionist nudity and stay for the multi-layered plot and deftly drawn characters. If not... well, your next helping of fleshy titillation will be along after the ad break.
Not that Game of Thrones is all wobbly bits and dubious grunting noises. Shot partly in Belfast, it features a cast of angry, bearded men and wicked temptresses vying for dominion of the Seven Kingdoms, a sweep of Arthurian real estate divided between the grim north and the louche, decadent south.
Up north, Sean Bean is Lord Eddard Stark, a warlord who signals his alpha-dog pedigree by wearing an overcoat of dead wolves to the office and speaking in a terrifying Yorkshire accent.
Though not above lopping the head off a deserter should duty require, Bean is the closest Game of Thrones comes to a moral compass. You can tell this because, by the end of episode one, he's practically the only person who hasn't slept with a family member or sold a close relative into slavery.
Bean may be the solitary hero. When it comes to villains, however, the viewer is spoilt. There's Lena Headey's Lady Macbeth-esque Cersei Lannister, who, if not icily coveting the throne of her husband, gluttonous King Baratheon (Mark Addy), is conducting a surreptitious fling with her slimy brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
Across the ocean, meanwhile, the preening Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) announces his utter dastardliness by speaking in an effete lisp and travelling back in time to steal Nick Kershaw's fringe (depicted off screen, presumably for budget reasons). He, too, has aspirations of global dominion. To that end he marries off waifish sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to barbarian chief Drogo (Jason Momoa), in return for an army to lead him to victory in the old country.
To emphasis how seriously we are supposed to take all this, Game of Thrones exudes an atmosphere of unrelenting gloom. Even in the supposedly balmy south, everyone walks around caked in several layers of pig muck, the better to convey the griminess of medieval life. For all that, HBO can't quite gloss over the innate silliness of the source material.
Indeed, at moments there's also a distinct whiff of 'Carry On Up Mount Doom'. Whenever the stony-faced Bean is on screen, Game of Throne feels like a beefy historical drama.
But as soon as somebody blonde turns up, things go all Kenneth Williams. Particularly ridiculous is Coster-Waldau's Jaime, who has borrowed David Beckham's quiff and delivers his lines as though addressing the first three rows at a Gaiety Panto. Yes, yes, you're a villainous creep -- you don't to keep spelling it out in capitals.
Having built its reputation as the home of quality drama with shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm, there was by all accounts a great deal of nervousness at HBO whether Game of Thrones would fly. In fact, its first episode notched up a better-than-hoped-for six million viewers in the US (impressive for cable) and a second season has already been commissioned.
The good news is that there are four door-stopper Martin novels for the scriptwriters to draw on. The bad news is that he's stalled at volume six in a planned seven-book series, after being reportedly struck down with writer's block.
Oh well, if they run out of plot-lines, they can toss a few more sex scenes in. It's worked a treat so far.