Game of Thrones contains more alienating and objectionable content than any show I can remember. There are insanely violent moments, like the scene in the pilot in which 10-year-old Bran was pushed from a castle window. There is extensive objectification of women; the most gratuitous example came in episode ten of last season when a tertiary character, the king’s counselor Pycelle, soliloquized about the past and current king and, as he was talking, a woman entered the frame behind him, for no discernible reason, and began to wash her cooch with a cloth. The treatment of two characters paints homosexuality as either shameful or perverted: In episode five, the Machiavellian Petyr Baelish effectively threatened to out Renly Baratheon, brother of King Robert Baratheon, suggesting that in Westeros, being gay is something bad and to be hidden. The only other mention of homosexuality so far was when it was equated with pedophilia later in the same episode, as Baelish attempted to blackmail the eunuch Lord Varys by threatening to spread word that he likes small boys. There are no proudly out, strong, Omar-from-The-Wire-like gay warriors in this war.
There is also a lot of gruesome animal death, such as shooting a bird from the sky, killing a wolf, and skinning a stag, all of which was difficult for me to watch. And yet, as an animal lover, as well as someone who finds distasteful the depiction of women as sex objects and gays as people who are shunned perverts, I find myself obsessed and wildly entertained by this show. The producers are obviously trying to push beyond what has been accepted and expected as “adult content” on the various racy and violent premium cable channels, and the result is probably the best show currently running on television.
Like other great shows, the writing and acting are the main reasons this show works so well. Sure, there have been a few script stumbles, such as how long it took Ned Stark to laboriously figure out that Prince Joffrey is not the son of the King; or the too-often-used device of “sexposition,” in which explanatory dialogue is delivered either while the characters are having sex or while others are having sex in the background; or the repeated porny situations where a prostitute teaches a woman how to please a man in bed. But all of that can be forgiven, in the same way that we forgive Downton Abbey for how often exposition is delivered by someone reading a letter or the two or three times per episode that one character walks into a room just as another character is saying something sensitive about the character who conveniently just entered. For the most part, GoT’s episodic plots are compelling, and the dialogue is sharp and often quotable: My current favorite is Cersei’s “Power is power.” And the acting (with the exception of the overwrought performance by Jack Gleeson as Joffrey) is really great; Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion may be the most fun character to watch on any show at the moment. In addition to script and performance fundamentals, GoT renders this fantasy world with terrific depth and texture. I can’t even imagine what they must spend to deliver a show with so many distinct terrains, from the frozen north to the desert south to a couple of distinct seaside cities. Undoubtedly, the bill for the high-quality digital set extensions and fully computer generated wolves and dragons far exceeds that of any other show.
But what makes Game of Thrones the best show on TV is the desire of the producers to surprise us. Most everything else on television is just too damn predictable in both plot and incident these days, so it is really special to see something on screen that doesn’t go the way that you think it will. After following Ned Stark — as played by one of the show’s most recognizable actors, Sean Bean, who was featured in all of the promotion and art work — those who hadn’t read George R.R. Martin’s source books never expected his head to be cut off. When a knight got frustrated with his horse and was clearly going to kill the animal, you didn’t expect to see him hack it to death on-camera. And in the season-two premiere, when Joffrey’s soldiers entered a brothel to kill the bastard of his father, the prior king, it was shocking to see them pretty much go through with it on-camera: No, we didn’t see the knife actually enter the baby, but hearing the cutting sound and then watching the dead infant drop to the floor was certainly a grisly surprise.
I’ve asked women if they were ever turned off by the superfluous sex and misogynistic treatment of women on the show. After all, it would seem that almost all of the females between the ages of 18 and 35 represented on GoT are either prostitutes or the oft-naked insurgent exile Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who in season one was both fondled by her brother and raped by the husband with whom she eventually falls in love. These women I surveyed seemed fine with all of it, saying they figure it is an accurate representation of “how it was back then.” (Of course, I don’t really know what “back then” means, since this is a fantasy world that never existed.) I’ve asked gay men how they feel about the depiction of homosexuality and received a similar answer. People seem to get that part of the specialness of GoT is its willingness to step over the line. Knowing that, they let go of their sensitivities and appreciate the show’s idiosyncrasies without taking offense to what, in another context, would certainly be thought distasteful. And the numbers support this: The initial airing of the first episode of season two delivered a 74 percent increase over the first episode of season one, and about half a million more viewers than the season premiere of Mad Men that same week — and AMC is accessible in three times as many homes as HBO.
I can only hope that the lesson other networks, including the broadcasters, can derive from the huge success of Game of Thrones is that there is much to be gained by taking chances and veering away from what is thought to be safe. I have to believe that the majority of television viewers, including those who don’t purchase a premium cable package, will gladly sustain some discomfort if the payoff is originality. Before any of you dismiss my suggestion by saying, “But HBO can do things the broadcast networks can’t,” allow me to suggest that this is why it’s time for these networks to fight back against the now obsolete FCC strictures. Their content rules are really only about prime-time entertainment, and DVRs make it less likely that anyone is watching shows on the network’s schedule, making these time distinctions arbitrary and outdated. Courts seem to be coming out in favor of the plaintiffs who dispute FCC fines, and if GoT were on advertiser-supported TV, there would be companies ready to buy commercial spots on that show if the viewers they wanted to reach were watching: IBM continues to support the Masters even though many have protested the Augusta National Golf Club’s male-only membership policy. As for GoT’s daunting budget, networks have proven themselves willing to spend big on big ideas. The problem has been that there seems to be an inversely proportional relationship between how much a broadcast network will spend on a show and how inventive they will make the scripts. Terra Nova, Charlie’s Angels, and The Playboy Club were all expensive shows and their price tags had as much to do with their failure as Luck’s cost had to do with it coming up lame on HBO.