New Thrones

by Russell McLane

David Benioff and Dan Weiss are now no longer developing a project for Lucasfilm.  They are also now seemingly not going any further with the much-derided concept for Confederate.  Instead they have signed an estimated $200million deal with Netflix, leaving HBO, which was the intended network for Confederate, and joining the streaming giant just before it enters the much-prophesised “streaming wars” with Disney+ and Apple TV due to launch in November.  Netflix beat heavy competition to sign Benioff and Wise, no doubt in the hope that the pair will create something that generates the same hype and acclaim as Game of Thrones did, and therefore keep Netflix at bay after it loses its current big hitters, Friends and (in America) The Office (U.S) to the new Warner Brothers streaming service, WarnerMedia HBO Max.  Apple TV have their own Game of Thrones esque project, ready to premier with the service, in Steven Knight’s See, while Amazon Prime has its mega-budgeted Lord of the Rings series coming to stake a claim for the next fantasy-drama phenomenon.  HBO itself had a Game of Thrones prequel in the works, which has just been axed after being ordered to pilot, seemingly striking a death knell to all of the spinoffs of the show they announced last year.  There now exists a vacuum that grew from Game of Thrones’ wake.   Although one might suspect the marketplace for TV has become so expansive that a phenomenon like Thrones can never happen again, the top brass of almost every major streaming service are investing huge amounts in trying to unveil the next mammoth show that everyone watches together. 

This pursuit reflects the thousand other moments in which, after the shock of a bona fide hit, a cultural form starts to eat itself.  When a product from a network or a studio really lands, one can hear the panicked voices of other execs scrambling to get a replicant product off the ground.  Justice League arrived five years after The Avengers, scruffy and ill-formed, resembling a businessperson running into a meeting before they’re properly dressed.   For the five years after Pulp Fiction was first released, a Tarantino knockoff would appear in cinemas, often starring Christopher Walken and called something like “How Not to Die if You’ve Been Shot in the Face”, to be watched and enjoyed by almost no one.  When Glee became an unstoppable smash, NBC attempted their own version of a TV musical, called Smash.  It was cancelled after two seasons.  Somewhere, in Universal Studios, there is a skip where the offices of the Dark Universe production team have been quietly disposed of.  These projects did not flop or collapse because the viewing public is capricious, but because their fondness for a particular product does not equate to a love for a broader form. 

The base conclusion, from Thrones’s immense popularity, that people are hungry for more fantasy drama, or at least more historical drama featuring tits.  There’s a scene in Sky Atlantic’s Catherine the Great which feels like its drawn directly from the pilot of Thrones.  Kevin McNally’s Alexei Orlov walks in on his brother, Grigory, as played by Richard Roxburgh, when the latter is having sex.  There’s a wry look shared between the brothers, while the woman, whose name we don’t learn, seems unphased by the interruption.  Grigory, in spite of the situation, is fully dressed, leading one to wonder exactly how anything was happening between he and the naked woman in the first place.  It’s a bit Sid James, and reminiscent of the introductory scene of Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, where he is similarly walked in on by his brother Jaime.  The makeup of the two scenes can be whittled down to the same formula; clothed men, naked woman, wry glances, expository chat.  There were many such scenes in Game of Thrones, where Baelish or some other mid-level character would talk about politics while naked extras lay indolently in the background.  Those scenes clogged the runtime of the show, feeling like boorish nods to the male audience that there was a reason to keep watching.  In Catherine the Great, such a scene felt more like a reach for the “prestige TV” aesthetic.  Currently, in the upper echelons of television production, a memo is circulating with the instructions that all shows must feature at least one naked woman per episode in order to be taken seriously.  The Name of the Rose, a new “prestige” adaptation of Umberto Ecco’s cripplingly dense source material, began with a battle and then a scene with a prostitute, a double whammy of Thrones pastiche that practically yelled at the audience: “this won’t just be about Monks talking! Come for the sex but stay for the theology.” If Amazon is true to its aims about making Lord of the Rings the next Game of Thrones (there was once a time when that was the other way round), it should start with Gollum in a harem, recalling mid-orgy how he used to find women as precious as metal. 

Thrones frequently rose above its sillier instincts, but in a broadcasting landscape in which every project has to echo elements of another project (could this knowing parenthesis be the next Fleabag?!), many shows cribbed the sex and blood from Thrones’s handbook in the hope that they might bring an audience with them.  It was perhaps inevitable that the second series of The Hollow Crown, presenting, through Shakespeare’s Henriad, the very portion of history that inspired George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, garnered critical comparisons with Thrones and indeed felt specifically designed to emulate the latter’s penchant for battleground gore.  The adaptation was perfectly sound, but the violence of it was forced and messy; gore is only really effective if it is paired with pain, and after a veritable platter of thrusted daggers and decapitations, I only found myself wincing when Adrian Dunbar’s doomed Duke of York had a crown of thorns forced upon his head.  There is a risk that this article will read as a prudent calling out of certain artistic practices, and I am not rallying for blood and sex to be removed from any creative palette.  But Game of Thrones did not just win an audience, it kept it for seven seasons, a feat achieved by the sheer detail of its crenulations.  The audience remained because the show, in its prime, was erratic and elastic, often cruel but never too predictably, and it could make you forget who or what you were even rooting for.  Its aesthetic and genre may have fed into its appeal but it certainly did not dictate it, yet now there is a crowding of programmes that have diluted Thrones of its deeper pleasures and play to far smaller audiences as a result.

There is a shrewd argument that Thrones evaporated from its own fandom when it became so consciously directionless that it lost any direction at all.  The scale of the project was perhaps its undoing, with the final seasons suddenly travelling at far too much pace for anything to be effective.  A great deal of criticism has been levied at Benioff and Weiss for the design of the final season of Thrones, and how the show felt sharply abbreviated from its original rambling tone.  The issue, I imagine, might partially have sprung from a fear of losing the audience.  Many former blockbusters, such as Homeland and House of Cards, were event television for a handful of seasons and then turned into just regular television, a demotion that can make even the sturdiest of projects become listless.  A promised ending gave the Thrones audience a reason to keep watching, even if the ending it arrived at was not what anyone had hoped for.  If it had gone on to two more seasons, introducing more characters and more surprises, there is every chance that Thrones would have been flattened with inertia.  Audience fatigue is an underestimated thing, but it is what made Breaking Bad global appointment viewing and Better Call Saul a niche satisfaction for the devoted fan.  If HBO had produced a Thrones prequel/spinoff, however good it might have been, it would not have carried the phenomenon into the next decade.  The Thrones phenomenon was buried with the show, and anyone looking to replicate the joys of the early seasons can just watch them again, just as millions still watch Friends over and over again in the comfort of knowing every punchline.

Thrones, even from the words of its own creators, was a strange and happy accident, one that might well have failed if it weren’t for an eleventh hour reshoot of an apparently disastrous pilot.  Whatever the next great televisual event is, if indeed there is another great television event, it will not be a show commissioned specifically because it resembles another show.  Audiences embrace new stories, new forms, new creators and new styles, but a paralytic and competitive production system means that a show like Thrones, which once felt like a distinct entity, enthused nearly a decade of “prestige” television with repetitive tableau and baiting critical comparisons.