Glen Weldon posted a tweet last week about the season finale of Game of Thrones. Here it is, in its entirety:
The question kept stewing in my head, so I had to answer it. Like anything in entertainment that gets a big audience, there’s no one answer to how it happened. A whole set of factors make Game of Thrones a huge hit, just like a whole set of factors gets Firefly cancelled (one of those being “Fox is run by idiots”), which is to say that relative quality is just not going to answer the question. I think there are a few factors that we can confidently point to, totally aside from questions of quality: soapiness, exploitation, economics, audience savvy. I’ll start with the two answers that Weldon did get.
The soapiness of the show is a huge draw. I don’t think there’s any question about that. These characters and their personalities all grind against each other in entertaining ways, especially in the courtly settings, most especially at King’s Landing. Watching pretty, charming people bounce off of each other is entertaining and has been for a long, long time. I happen to catch a tweet from Dan Savage about this that reflects exactly the attitude I’m sure a lot of “normals” have (and yes, in this context, Dan Savage qualifies as a “normal”; weird, eh?):
His tweet is followed by a lot of like-minded viewers who have the same complaint, and I can’t blame them. If you’re watching the show as something akin to a period piece–costumes, sets, fancy accents–then the Wall and the Wildlings and the battle sequences must seem utterly uninteresting, but there’s definitely enough of the soapy/period piece stuff to keep you watching.
On the other hand, if you’re watching just for the exploitative content, the sex and violence, then the soapy bits of the show might bore you to death, and I read comments by a lot of Battlestar Galactica fans who said the same thing: why is all this annoying “political” stuff in my sci-fi action show!? (Hint: because it’s not an action show, dummies.) To be clear, I’m using “exploitative” in a not-entirely-pejorative sense. I simply mean the kinds of spectacle that film and TV producers “exploit” in order to get eyeballs and thus money. Something we’d call a trick rather than drama, such as inventing a buxom, red-headed prostitute character just for the show so that you can put a bunch of scenes in a brothel, and have her conveniently follow the action from one location to the next. Y’know, for example.
There’s an added element to the sexuality, though. Weldon’s right that boobs are everywhere on cable TV, and I’d add that the internet is made of boobs (and cat videos), but the difference in something like Game of Thrones is that it’s the sexuality of characters whom we get to know and have an emotional relationship with. That relationship makes it all the more arousing to see them with their clothes off and possibly having sex with other people with whom we have that same relationship. That’s why we like watching romantic stories, that’s why we “ship” characters on television shows. We’re flirting and wooing and courting by proxy, and if we can also watch them actually consummate the relationship, all the better.
So, to be sure, the show is soapy and sexy and violent, and those things have a certain appeal. Savage’s post also rebuts Weldon’s response: many people watch the show despite the dragons and magic and Harryhausen skeletons (although Savage was referring to the battle at the Wall). They have other options, yes, but this show has high production values, and it’s what’s on right now. Sometimes success begets success. Once everyone’s talking about it, we get a bit of a herding effect, although Savage does say he “loves” it, so it’s not like he’s just watching so that he’s got something to talk to his son about.
But there are other factors, here, and one of them is money. We have two things meeting in the middle with this show. First, HBO has a lot of money to throw at it. They did the same thing with Rome, although that one was cancelled after two seasons partly for reasons of costs. Second, though, because of CG, special effects get cheaper and more sophisticated on the exact same curve as anything else to do with electronics. The same is also true of most of the tech around film making itself. Game of Thrones is filmed on digital cameras, for example, which not only saves on stock and processing but has all kinds of secondary savings on set, so while it’s a horrendously expensive show, it would have been impossibly expensive just ten years ago.
This gets to an argument I’ve read (can’t recall where, sorry!) that superheroes have found their “true” home on film because of CG. Film can convincingly depict the impossible in a way that it couldn’t before, so it can show us Spider-Man’s acrobatics, Superman’s speed, Batman’s kinetic violence, etc. The same is generally true of a lot of high-concept SF and fantasy. Daenerys can pet her dragons without having to cut away to a hand on puppet from a shot of a green-tinted, stop-motion head that repeats the same motion three times in a row. The technology doesn’t make all film/TV cheaper evenly, though. It’s especially forgiving to stuff that requires heavy F/X, which means that technology and money are now affecting which genres we have access to, and therefore what even has a chance to get popular to begin with.
And that brings me all the way around to the audience’s genre savvy. Lord of the Rings was ten years ago. It’s been a decade since I could refer to Sauron and Mordor in mixed company without people looking at me like I’m crazy, or for that matter, since I could suggest that a Batman movie might actually have social and political significance, or since I could tell people my dissertation was on comic books without them rolling their eyes at me. That means a couple of things. First, and most obviously, it means that the audience will really get the premise behind A Song of Ice and Fire, that there was (allegedly) an age of heroes, of great deeds and the great men (and occasionally women) who performed them, but that it has passed, and that we’re now living in a fallen, dilapidated version of that world. Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon are veterans of that age, but then they won the war, and Robert got fat, and Ned turns out to have been incredibly naive the whole time. You have to have seen something like Lord of the Rings for that premise to have an impact. HBO’s version of Martin wouldn’t make emotional sense if we hadn’t seen Jackson’s version of Tolkien with our own eyes. (Full disclosure, Lord of the Rings is already a “fallen” world in Tolkein’s mythology, but that’s beside the point of this discussion.)
The other thing, though, is that we’ve spent a decade training audiences to be comfortable with a story that is both soapy and fantastical. Dan Savage doesn’t grok it (which is absolutely fine; I’m not trying to attack the guy), but us comic-book/fantasy nerds do. A couple of friends of mine are nearly a dozen episodes into a podcast about the X-Men, and they start every episode by calling it “our favourite superhero soap opera,” and they’re right. I remember realizing when I was about fifteen that a least half of the content of the Superman comics I was reading was about his relationship with Lois, and that it had always been that way. I wouldn’t find out until years later that most of the architects of the superhero genre spent several years writing romance comics between the “golden” and “silver” ages, and that experience showed in their superhero comics, but I was sensing it in the plots anyway. Superheroes and fantasy lit have always been soap operas with combat sequences and gnarly powers, which is why Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created and primarily written by a Marvel fan called “Joss Whedon,” has the bizarre ability to bounce between comedy, melodrama, and action while still feeling coherent. Comics and fantasy have been perfecting that tonal quality for nearly a hundred years now, and the mainstream audience gets it!
And that, Glen, is why Game of Thrones appeals to the normals, because they’re not normals any more. Entertainment companies have been (for not entirely altruistic reasons) converting them for going on twenty years now. They’ll never again have the sense of exclusion we did, being mocked for liking something too passionately, so they’ll never quite be geeks like us, but they do “get it,” the thrill of the genre. We might be looking at the evolution of a particular set of genre tastes, the upshot of which is that the concept of the geek as we know it simply doesn’t apply any more.