Entertainment Magazine

Review #2467: Game of Thrones 1.1: “Winter is Coming”

Posted on the 19 April 2011 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: Gregg Wright

I can’t be certain, but I’ve gotten the impression that there is a significant amount of hype for this show to go along with my own personal excitement. George R. R. Martin’s fantasy book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” seems to have a very strong fan-base with a lot of emotional investment in how this new offering from HBO turns out. I, myself, am not a fan of the books. I’m sure I’d like them, but I only became aware of their existence when I discovered that a TV show was being planned. The prospect of an HBO fantasy series alone was enough to pique my interest.

Review #2467: Game of Thrones 1.1: “Winter is Coming”

But the addition of Sean Bean in what could be called the lead role is what tipped the scales from “interested” to “excited” for me. I became a fan of the “Lord of the Rings” books not long before Peter Jackson’s legendary trilogy was released, a series of films that I now hold in extremely high regard. I’m not as interested in fictional books as I used to be, but I still respect the books and enjoy new incarnations of the genre it inspired, which “Game of Thrones” clearly seems to hail from. I’ve purposefully avoided reading the books (for now anyway), so that I can remain unspoiled and offer an outside perspective on the show.

Perhaps television is only just now reaching a stage at which it has the potential to actually do justice to something like “Game of Thrones”, given the gradual increase in production values and and the rising popularity of premium networks like HBO, Starz, and Showtime. Until recently, premium networks seem to have shied away from genre material for the most part. There have been exceptions, of course. But I think we’re entering an age in which these networks are realizing what an untapped resource they have on their hands. Considering the popularity of “True Blood”, there’s clearly an audience for adult fantasy. Thus, this is the perfect time for “Game of Thrones” to premiere.

But does “Game of Thrones” live up to the hype? Not being a fan of the books, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The impression I’d gotten from fans of the books was that the fantasy elements served as more of a backdrop to the political intrigue and character drama surrounding the different royal families. On a certain level, I felt a tinge of disappointment at this. I can enjoy a period drama, but my tastes lie more in the fantasy direction. So I had hoped that it wouldn’t be as insignificant a part of the show as it seemed it would be. But on the other hand, I could easily see how a heavier emphasis on character-driven storytelling could make the show a more powerful and believable experience overall. I could also see how overdoing the fantasy elements could lessen their impact. One could further argue that this approach is a good fit for the budget concerns of a TV show. If the special effects department is needed less often, they can pour more effort into the work they do.

Many of my fears were completely obliterated by the opening sequence, set in the chilling snow-covered forests just north of “The Wall” (a huge, very long wall of ice that serves as the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros). A group of rangers that permanently man the wall have been ordered to track a group of “wildlings” (barbarians that live north of the Wall). I want to avoid spoilers, so I’ll just say that after this opening scene, I was hooked. The cinematography in this sequence is fantastic. I felt immediately transported to this eerie environment. Great sound played a big part in this as well. The scene manages to very effectively set up a sense of mystery about the world of “Game of Thrones”, making it much easier for me to invest in the more grounded, character-driven events occurring elsewhere in Westeros.

Casting is excellent, which isn’t surprising, given that this is HBO. I have no idea how well Sean Bean fits with the Eddard Stark of the books, but he’s a natural fit for the Eddard Stark in the show itself. I can’t compliment the casting director enough for getting Bean for this role. He’s one of my favorite actors and I’m pleased to see him wielding a sword in a fantasy universe again. There are surprisingly few actors in the cast that I actually recognize. Lena Headey is one. I first saw her in “300″, and then later in “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”, where she made an impressive Sarah Connor. It’s hard to believe that I’ve only seen Peter Dinklage in the second “Narnia” movie, because he’s very good as the dwarf, Tyrion Lannister (“The Imp”). In fact, he may be my favorite character on the show so far.

Others I recognize include Jason Momoa (of “Stargate: Atlantis”), Julian Glover, and Charles Dance. Glover and Dance’s characters weren’t in the first episode, so I can’t comment on their performances yet, though I find it hard to imagine that I won’t like them in their roles. Momoa was never an actor I particularly liked, at least from his role on “Atlantis”, but I may have misjudged the actor by the weaknesses of the writing (he seems to have impressed casting directors enough to get cast in this show, and in the upcoming “Conan the Barbarian” reboot). Momoa says very little in his role as Khal Drogo. But this role seems highly tailored to suit his strengths. He works in this role for the same reason Arnold Schwarzenegger worked so well in the original “Conan the Barbarian” movie (which makes me think the creators of the new film made the right call in choosing him for the lead role). It’s the physical presence that counts in this role.

As the casting was well underway, I started to feel very intimidated by the sheer amount of characters on display, and began to wonder how the show could possibly handle all of them without the audience becoming confused. What I didn’t realize was that not all of these characters would appear simultaneously, in the first episode. There are still quite a few in the pilot, but the episode seems to do an excellent job of educating me about who is who, and how they’re related to whom, without any overly obvious expositional dialogue. By the end of the episode, there was little need for me to refer to the online character graph. I knew who pretty much everyone was and how they factored into the story.

The pacing is excellent. I never felt that something was rushed, and yet time flew by while watching. When it was over, I was satisfied with the amount of story presented, but was eager for more. One gets the impression that there was a huge amount of material the writers had to adapt to fit the format, which must have been a nightmare. Perhaps it’s best that I haven’t read the books then, as I can see how rushed the episode might have felt to a fan of the books.

If there’s one gripe I have, it’s the music. To say that it’s a missed opportunity would be a massive understatement. They could have gone with any number of talented composers who would have brought bounds of creativity and taken the production to a whole other level (I’ll refrain from listing them all off). But they instead chose to go with Remote Control/Media Ventures composer Ramin Djawadi. To be fair, the music he’s composed for the pilot episode is adequate. It accompanies the scenes well enough. But it’s still just another example of the extremely generic, overly simplistic, synth-heavy sound that’s pervaded so much of modern film scoring. Why this sound has become so popular, when Howard Shore’s incredible efforts in the fantasy genre exist, continues to baffle me to no end. It shocks me that so few seem to understand and appreciate the value of the musical score and its impact on the experience. At least “Camelot” seems to understand this.

But regardless of the music, “Game of Thrones” is still a resounding success. For fans of the fantasy genre, like me, the series is a dream come true. Given the popularity of the books, as well the perceived association with quality that HBO has garnered, this show should have little trouble finding an audience.

Rating: 9/10

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