It’s no secret that “Game of Thrones” is the biggest show on television right now. The program has racked up 47 Primetime Emmys to date and trails only “Saturday Night Live” for most awards. That, and the season 8 premiere became the most-watched scripted entertainment program of the year (with ratings soaring, breaking records from every previous season) despite HBO being a subscription-based channel.
“Game of Thrones,” with its dragons, lore, swordfighting and zombies, has wormed its way to the top of a lot of people’s watch lists. Whether someone’s been a diehard fantasy fan since birth or typically only watches ESPN, they’re probably invested in GOT. In theory, it seems like such a niche program; there’s usually a very specific demographic that enjoys stories about prophecies and kings and queens. But, somehow, George R.R. Martin the HBO showrunners have created something unifying.
And it’s not the first time. “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars,” for example? They're fantastical, sci-fi, niche franchises that spread beyond the normalized fans of those genres. Not just spread, though -- they flourished. The “Harry Potter” story has been adapted into multiple theme parks. Orlando Bloom owes his entire career to Legolas, and “Star Wars” seems keen on making movies until the end of time. None of it would have been possible if they didn’t have a large enough audience. And sorry, fantasy nerds: You’re just not enough.
No, the success of fantasy franchises comes from the massive amount of people that connect with the stories, stories that are otherwise wildly unrealistic and unrelatable. The question is what, exactly, carries the grasp that so many other fantasy stories don’t seem to draw.
GOT is, after all, decidedly fantasy, yet it’s created so much more respect and awe than most stories that fit within the genre. As Mary McNamara said for the LA Times, “emerging epics are dismissed as ‘swords ’n’ sorcery,’ and any story that contains a wizard or a speaking tree is instantly considered less meaningful than, say, one more period drama about the British monarchy or another grisly true crime documentary series.”
“Harry Potter” never received an Oscar nomination, for example.
“Game of Thrones” seems to have cracked that consideration wide open. Fantasy has always been steeped in real-world issues, even if the environment is out of this world. Sacrifice, power struggles, faith -- the conflicts in a fantasy story should always be relatable, but somehow only certain franchises find their footing, GoT being one of them.
Is it the nudity? The thriller-esque pacing? Sure, but we can all get that stuff elsewhere -- it’s not enough to keep the show going for a sensational eight seasons.
The theory is that “Game of Thrones” has returned to what fantasy is supposed to do for viewers: provide an escape. We’ll never see a world where ice monsters roam the earth and dragons can ridden, so to play voyeur to it, combined with every plot twist, enigmatic reveal and loss, is more exciting than whatever routine stuff is happening in our own lives. Combined with real-world relatability (i.e. the bonds and breaks of family, the quest for redemption, a mother’s love), and you’ve apparently got yourself the ideal recipe for a hit.
Of course, we must give credit to the master screenwriters and actors, who put a spin to and emotion behind what’s happening that makes us even more susceptible to putting so much of ourselves into the fandom. At its core, GoT is a story about people, and the portrayal of those people is undoubtedly genius, transcendental yet human. Could that really be all it is?
Potentially, but “Game of Thrones” has an incomparable je ne sais quoi, one that is honestly more enjoyable to take part in than overanalyze (even though that’s what I’m doing now).
With new theories cropping up every day and arguments over who should end up on the throne, who should bite it and who should be resurrected tearing people apart, it’s obvious that this show cuts deep. Conversations will continue for years, I’m sure, after the end. Look at J.K. Rowling, after all: “Harry Potter” is surely over and done with, but she’s still coming up with material from the Hogwarts world. GoT isn’t going anywhere.
If anything, “Game of Thrones” has fostered a newfound respect for the fantasy genre. Moms, finance bros and reality TV gurus all watch the show and are bonding over it. People who have never picked up a book in their lives are reading “A Song of Ice and Fire.” It’s a beautiful thing, really.
Whether or not it’ll last, I guess, depends on if we’ll ever be blessed with a show as big, creative and, let’s be honest, haunting as “Game of Thrones.”