“It’s Not Fantasy, it’s @HBO”: Going Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones

“It’s Not Fantasy, it’s @HBO”: Game of Thrones

December 5th, 2010

Tonight is the night that most people will be writing about Boardwalk Empire, which ends its first season on HBO, and The Walking Dead, which ends its first season on AMC.

In the former case, I’m actually incapable of writing about it: after watching the premiere, I have fallen entirely behind – my Mondays have been busy from the time the school year started, and as a result my Sunday evenings have been spent with an easy-going hour of The Amazing Race and work for the following morning. This also meant skipping Dexter, for what it’s worth – Sundays just haven’t been a space where I was able to focus on television.

And yet I find myself with some time this evening, which presents a choice: I could catch up on last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, since I am only an episode behind on the zombie series, but to be honest with you I don’t particularly care. This is not to say that I won’t watch tonight’s finale eventually, but with the show not returning for ten months, and with only six episodes, the accumulated interest is just woefully unsubstantial.

However, the night’s real event television took place before Boardwalk Empire, when HBO revealed a 10-minute glimpse into the production of Game of Thrones, their new fantasy series which is now officially debuting in April. Perhaps it is just that I’ve spent my weekend researching and writing about the HBO brand, or that I’ve been tempering my expectations for the series amidst the seemingly endless wait for an official date for the series’ arrival, but I think I’m officially excited about the show for the first time. I’ve always anticipated seeing what Weiss/Benioff would be doing with this story, and hearing the various casting announcements (most notably through the fantastic Winter is Coming) made the series a constant presence in my online existence, but something about a concrete date and our first substantial look at the world of Game of Thrones has turned anticipation…well, into hype.

And so, some thoughts on what we’ve seen to date, the way in which we’re seeing it, how HBO intends to sell the series, and how I expect to cover it.

HBO – Inside Game of Thrones [YouTube]

“I don’t think anyone will do it quite like HBO does.”

There’s a moment at the end of “Inside Game of Thrones” where producer Frank Doelger says the above, and I smiled. I’ve been looking at the nature of “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” slogan and its impact on the network’s viewing lineup all weekend, and so to hear this show get lumped in with the idea of HBO’s brand identity is right up my alley.

Anticipating Game of Thrones

This is one of those instances where HBO’s self-definition is right on target: there is no other network that would be able to stage a production like this one, based on both its scale and the nature of its subject matter (no spoilers of any import in this piece, in case you were wondering). As George R.R. Martin says within the above video, this is not a history: it is a fantasy, a world which has elements of our own but makes everything larger. And so we see how the production team have taken cultural and historical elements from our own world and simply turned everything up to 11, a sort of fantasy through scale – whereas The Lord of the Rings drew its elements of fantasy from notions of elves and dwarves, hobbits and wizards (among other things, of course), for the most part Game of Thrones will draw its fantasy from the vast surroundings that these characters must conquer.

There’s a bit early in the piece from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau where he suggests that the central theme of Game of Thrones is characters missing the big picture, and I quite like the contrast this creates. If the show’s fantasy is derived from its sense of scale, of the sense that even with an expansive ensemble cast there exists this enormous world that they desire for their own but that they can barely even visualize in its entirety, then their insular nature will become that much more thematically valuable. The distance between Dany and Viserys across the sea will seem that much longer, and the road from Winterfell to King’s Landing that much more daunting.

It’s also interesting to realize that King’s Landing was meant to be Mediterranean. I guess I technically knew this from the books (and other recent featurettes), but I think that I had always considered the differences between Winterfell and King’s Landing in terms of architecture: one is opulent and regal, the other rudimentary and solid. We think in those terms because they are qualities embodied by the characters, but now that the spaces have gained real form I can see the role they will play in shaping this story. That shot we saw of Dany standing on the rocks as the sun set, which we sadly only saw through a monitor, is the kind of moment that establishes the distance between these stories in ways that Martin was never able to accomplish in quite as spectacular a fashion. I also love the transformative power of these spaces: compare, for example, the Ned of Winterfell to the Ned of King’s Landing, and the way in which changes in attire precipitated by the move completely change his demeanor. Not only is that fitting for the direction the story heads (that’s not really a spoiler, is it?), but it also indicates the degree to which the maturation of the Stark children and other elements within the story will be very much accelerated by these newfound storytelling tools.

There is simply a lot to be excited about here: the casting seems strong across the board, whether it’s familiar faces about which we are excited (I had forgotten about Skins’ Joe Dempsie as Gendry), familiar faces which have residual ill will from previous roles (which makes Aidan Gillen that much more perfect for Littlefinger’s obsession with trust and mistrust), and just a general sense of character that promotional stills couldn’t capture to the same degree. There are still some characters who are largely unrepresented (the Stark Children are jumped over, for the most part, in favor of describing the houses), but the brief glimpses we see of all of the characters feel…alive. Perhaps it’s the scale of the world around them, but there’s something about seeing them in motion that washes away some of my concerns: yes, Dany’s hair still seems a bit strange, but braided towards the end of the piece it begins to transform into something more befitting a princess. Another transformation in a series where the visual scale made possible by its fantasy setting will play an integral role in telling this story.

That is all to say that I’m excited by how it all looks, and by the potential that aesthetic creates for the story I know is to be told. I do still have questions about how the book’s fractured narrative and multiple perspectives will play out in television form – in rereading the books recently, it was obvious that there was great potential for storytelling in the ways in which perspectives shift, but finding a way to tell stories simultaneously is the challenge of any narrative which operates in so many different places at once. The first season was obviously plotted out very carefully, but I have no way of knowing beyond blind faith how they intend on getting past some narrative roadblocks. And yet that’s what I’m most interested in – while the fan in me wants to see this world come to life, the critic in me wants to know how they intend to facilitate that world in ways that audiences unfamiliar with the books (or, considering their breadth, forgetful about the books) can understand. I think the special did a good job of laying out the basics, dividing up the houses and the various threats (the feuds in Westeros, the Dany/Viserys across the sea, and whatever lies beyond the Wall) which will drive the season’s action, but the sense of overlap is so strong that handling it without Martin’s chapter device is going to be a fascinating exercise of serial narrative.

Branding Game of Thrones

But that’s the show itself, which is still four months away. What I’m interested in is the title of this piece, which is taken from a tweet which was posted by user @AxeChucker and retweeted by the official @GameOfThrones Twitter account: it’s not Fantasy, it’s “@HBO.” That @ sign is pivotal, as there has been a concerted effort to take advantage of the series’ rabid fanbase in the leadup to this and other content relating to the series. While sites like Winter is Coming and Westeros have been doing this for HBO for a while now, HBO moved into this space in July with “Making Game of Thrones.” The site, which collects production diaries, fan art, trailers, and pictures, is sort of HBO’s point of contact with the fan community: they link to the fan sites that have been facilitating this interaction from the time the series came to life, and whoever is running their Twitter account is quick to spread positive responses to the latest materials.

In earlier conversations on Twitter where I tried to find just where Game of Thrones fits within the HBO Brand, there were some logical parallels: the scale of the series is perhaps matched only by Rome (which was both a BBC co-production and an actual historical series), and the kind of fan interaction necessary for its success most closely mirrors True Blood. And yet, the show doesn’t fit easily into either of those categories, in that the show lacks the romantic and camp elements of a show like True Blood but has a greater expectation for authenticity (oddly enough) than Rome – it seems strange to suggest that viewers are scrutinizing a fantasy more closely than an historical drama, but such is the nature of a literary adaptation of a beloved series with an intelligent fan base whose expectations of this story go beyond what Sookie Stackhouse readers might have expected from the adaptation of their beloved novels or what history nuts might have anticipated from Rome (which was also sold as a fictionalized account of the historical event in question).

Fans know what is in these stories, and they know that HBO need not take considerable liberties to find the kind of intrigue and drama that have become hallmarks of their brand output. Accordingly, HBO found itself in its own virtual King’s Landing where the fans take the form of Varys the Spider, there to catch every whisper and report back to the fans at large. Those who have read the books know this is not the most flattering portrait, but HBO could have chosen to view them in this light, to see this as a point of tension. Instead, HBO opened their doors: the Making Of site exists less to sell new people on the show and more to convince fans that HBO isn’t in the process of screwing it up. It’s about transparency: just as they allowed George R.R. Martin to reveal many casting decisions, they continue to speak directly to fans relating to the most recent news.

Take, for example, tonight’s “Inside Game of Thrones”: there were efforts to create a sort of collective viewing wherein fans used the #insideGoT hashtag in order to describe their reactions, allowing for a running commentary as the special commenced. What’s telling is that the number of people tweeting using the hashtag while it aired on HBO is insignificant compared to those who tweeted after the fact. HBO had the clip on the “Making Of” website and YouTube as soon as the special finished airing, which meant that the collective experience was extended to the rest of the fans who either didn’t have access to a television or, perhaps more importantly, do not subscribe to HBO. That’s really the biggest challenge here: while these people are obviously excited about the show, HBO is in a position where they have a tech savvy group of fans who are more likely to know how to illegally download the series, and they are going to need to turn them into subscribers for the show to be sustainable. I make this sound like some sort of nefarious scheme, but it’s not: HBO is a business, and their business model is selling their audience on the value of the entire network or, in this case, on the value of this one program (with the hopes that they’ll find something upon subscribing which will keep them coming back once the first season ends).

And so this active engagement with the online community is about ensuring that HBO remains synonymous with Game of Thrones, and that these fans can be developed into subscribers. For the most part, the show is not being sold in relation to any of the network’s previous series: there is no mention of “The Fantasy Sopranos,” and there was the potential there considering the list of qualities and events which Peter Dinklage was throwing out at the start of the clip. There are thematic elements which connect quite comfortably with numerous HBO series from the past, but those are not the threads that HBO is currently picking up. It is possible that the show’s advertising on network will shift towards its relationship to past series, but at this point the goal is to sell the show to the fans so that they can become a mobilizing force of support for the series.

So far, I think it’s working fairly brilliantly: there seems to be a strong relationship between HBO and the major fansites, as well as a continued connection between HBO and the series. Heck, the @HBO Twitter feed (with 164,000 followers) was even retweeting fan responses so that the network’s larger readership was aware of the level of support the series holds, suggesting that someone other than the PR team explicitly connected to the series is paying attention. As a result, the show has oddly been removed of any elements of auteur – yes, Benioff and Weiss remain its creative figureheads, but HBO is playing the role that showrunners play in the case of shows like Community, Sons of Anarchy or Terriers (which I’ve written about for Antenna in the past). This seems like a purposeful effort: they don’t just need to convince people to watch, they need to remind them where they need to find it, and HBO has done a good job of branding the series as their own without taking ownership away from the fans to date.

Game of Thrones remains a gamble for HBO: it’s expensive and deals with subject matter that is not necessarily something HBO has tried in the past, so of course HBO is going to do what they can to justify the expense. However, this story will work to their advantage based on what we’ve seen to date: Jeremy Mongeau notes that “the sense of budget/scope is really going to work for #GameOfThrones, because it’s self-justifying as event TV.” In other words, it isn’t just event TV because HBO says it is, and it isn’t unlike the rest of television only in that it features gratuitous nudity and people swearing (which I’d argue defines some examples of the HBO brand). Rather, there is a sense of purpose and scale which will unfold as the series continues, justifying these kinds of production values and the amount of hype resonating from the production.

Right now, though, the audience remains small, at least relative to what HBO needs it to be. Events like “Inside Game of Thrones” are about showing the fans that Weiss/Benioff/HBO were paying attention, that the HBO brand is listening, and that the books they love are getting the care they deserve. Now, there are clear expectations that the people who have been made believers will become preachers, converting those they know and the rest of the internet in the ways of Westeros. And based on the response to these clips, it seems as if HBO has done a good job of convincing the people who will become the grassroots advertising campaign that this is something worth spreading the word about in the four months until its premiere.

Advocating for Game of Thrones

As a critic, questions of advocacy are always quite interesting: there was actually someone (Twitter user @doctawojo) who challenged Alan Sepinwall and Maureen Ryan over their direct advocacy of Terriers and other shows last week. The concern seems to be over the notion of corruption, that somehow we become advocates for shows in an efforts to draw exclusives or to pull in page views – I see the issue in theory, but in practice I don’t think that any critic is in a position of selling out so blatantly for something they don’t believe in.

No critic starts as a blank slate: I read the books before I became a critic, and thus I can’t just forget that I’m excited about this show when I write about it. I want you to watch this show because I believe that there is great potential in this story, not because I expect to get some sort of special treatment out of it. Sometimes we, as critics, simply like something, or are conditioned to like something, and so our “criticism” intermingles with a desire to see something survive or to see something find the success it deserves. To do so is not to undermine critical faculties, but rather to add particular nuance: when I eventually review the series, it will be from my perspective as an English student turned Media and Cultural Studies student who plays critic in his spare time who very much enjoys and the series and the world/characters that George R.R. Martin created.

And this particular critic is pretty darn excited that winter is coming.

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14 Comments

Filed under Game of Thrones

14 responses to ““It’s Not Fantasy, it’s @HBO”: Going Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones

  1. Mathew Johnson

    Well put.

  2. Great analysis as usual, Myles. I would be interested in reading more on your research on the HBO brand. The glimpses from this vid make me similarly excited for the show.

  3. OK, now that I am on a computer rather than a mobile device, let me flesh out my thoughts a bit more. :)

    As a fan of the books (actually, just the first book since that is the only one I have read so far), the glimpses into the series and the creative process have the fanboy in me geeking out quite a bit. The settings and costumes look fantastic, and the actors and select pieces of dialogue look similarly spine-tingling.

    From the perspective of an individual interested in how the business of HBO has evolved, I find it very interesting (and a little disappointing) to see that they keep choosing projects that appear to be more “safe” business propositions than in the past. Anecdotally, I think this is because they have been burned in the past by shows with huge budgets that failed, like “Carnivale”. To me, the look and the target audience for GoT sounds a lot like “Carnivale”, but the difference is that GoT already has a built-in audience. Actually, when I look at HBO’s current roster of newer dramas, “True Blood”, “Boardwalk Empire”, “In Treatment”, and “Treme”, only “Treme” is not based on prior source material of some kind. And even that is relying on the fact that prestige television folks already worship the ground David Simon writes on.)

    As a follower of HBO, it seems like, on the surface the network is taking the same risks as they always have, but deeper down they are taking much more calculated risks than they have in the past. I would be curious to know if, in your research, you looked into issues like this, or, as a thoughtful TV critic, what your thoughts personally are on this.

    • I would generally argue that HBO is being more cautiously ambitious (if that makes any sense) than they have been in the past. This is not to say that Game of Thrones or True Blood are not risks, but they are risk/reward scenarios which are carefully measured.

      I think most would look to Carnivale or John from Cincinnati and find series which pushed the brand too far, which went too weird. Similarly, Rome was an example of the network going too expensive. You can’t know your limits unless you push them, and HBO did just that and seemed to make some key discoveries.

      I would say, though, that more recent output is fairly comfortable on the drama side – even Treme, which you note is original, is hanging onto the Wire ethos in ways which make it very much a comfortably component of the HBO brand. I haven’t done any research particularly in this area (my paper is focused more closely on comedy), but I would say that HBO is still playing it safe since they never did officially speaking find a replacement for The Sopranos, and so they’re less likely to take dramatic risks for fear of diluting the brand.

      I would say that comedy shows an even greater sense of complacency, but that’ll be for the essay.

      • The reward here is especially interesting. I don’t think there’s ever been an even moderately successful high fantasy TV series, and Hercules/Xena are the closest thing to any kind of fantasy success. So the reward isn’t just “potential hit” but “cultural touchstone discussed and purchased for decades” like, say, the original Star Trek or The Sopranos.

        On the other hand, the risk is fairly low. You have a dedicated group of fans who will rabidly prop up the show, a strong HBO brand, lots of shiny pictures, and a direct link to the best mainstream visual fantasy ever, the Lord of the Rings films. Only HBO can pull off the budget and the sex and violence, but they seem to be doing everything right to ensure that it won’t be a disaster.

  4. j

    why is tv studies obsessed with brands? television as a product first and art second

    • With HBO, I think it’s impossible to separate brand from the “art” of a particular series: this is not to say that people don’t analyze The Wire or The Sopranos separate from the brand, but that brand holds a great deal of weight and power.

      This is especially true, I would argue, when it comes to new series: we judge GoT based on brand because what else are we going to judge it on? I don’t think this represents an obsession, but rather an interest in discovering why certain shows do or do not work for a network. Every network has canceled a show of high quality which did not meet ratings success or perhaps a certain degree of quality, and branding is a key source of information to understand those decisions.

      That said, plenty of TV Studies focused on text as art, I just think that you need to address the context in which we engage with that art to fully understand it.

  5. trippdup

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say Game of Thrones lacks True Bloods “romance.” It just lacks True Bloods focus on soap-opera level melodramatic love you/hate you/love you again plot elements.

  6. trippdup

    I guess my point was more that I don’t consider True Blood “romantic,” just melodramatic.

    • That’s perhaps fair – I do think that Sookie/Bill and the notion of love in ways which fit the romance vibe of the Harris books, but you’re right that it’s a fine line.

  7. Pingback: Winter Comes Early: Access, Games of Thrones and HBO Go | Cultural Learnings

  8. Pingback: A Box of Influence: Game of Thrones, Social Media, and the Uncertain Quest for Cultural Capital | Cultural Learnings

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