Arguably, Game of Thrones is the last of a dying species.
It's a show that in the age of binge-watching and full season drops still manages to bring in millions of viewers per week. Beyond just being a successful weekly show, Game of Thrones is an event, where an episode constitutes a key component of a larger social experience. If you miss an episode exactly when it airs, you've missed out on the collective jokes, reveals, and social discussion. You miss out on the context of the memes, on the next-day conversations at the office (or where ever else you spend your Monday). "Did you see Game of Thrones last night?" is either an invitation or a sign that you need to shut your ears or tune out completely. You were either in the club or not.
That's a powerful thing, whether you liked the show as it was ending or not. It only makes sense that networks, including HBO itself, would try and replicate it.
Want a show that features twists and cliffhangers, forcing you to tune in every week? Watch Westworld. Are you interested in a show like Game of Thrones that keeps the fantasy aspects light? Watch Outlander. Want a show from a medieval setting with political intrigue? Watch Marco Polo or Black Sails. Want Game of Thrones in space? Watch The Expanse.
Even though Game of Thrones is over, it's also… not. HBO is playing around with five prequel ideas, with one far enough along in casting to have big names like Naomi Watts attached. Amazon's upcoming Lord of the Rings series and Wheel of Time adaptations are looking to fill the epic fantasy void left by Thrones. HBO itself has been working to create a show as discussion-heavy as Game of Thrones with Westworld, but with future shows like His Dark Materials and Watchmen, both adaptations of popular books and comics.
So far, however, nothing has really hit the same level and honestly, I don't think anything ever will. Game of Thrones may not be dead yet, but maybe we should let it go extinct. Why let it rise from the dead and bring others with it as it tramples across the landscape ruining everything in its wake?
Fantasy for people who don't like fantasy
I remember when Game of Thrones first HBO back in 2011. I was working at the Boston Globe at the time and, not to generalize the kinds of people that work at a newspaper, was surrounded by people who didn't quite know what to do with Game of Thrones. Frankly, it wasn't a topic of discussion, even though it was something the arts team had to cover.
But slowly, as the episodes premiered each week, people started to notice. I remember an older reporter who mentioned that even though it was a fantasy show, it didn't feel like fantasy. He noted that yes, there were mentions of magic, but it was minimal enough to not be distracting. I found a similar point of view echoed in the TV critic's review of the season finale. "As Game of Thrones finishes its first season, I've learned a lesson — a lesson I've learned too many times already. There's no use in saying you dislike an entire genre, such as mysteries, or cop dramas, or laugh-track sitcoms. Because inevitably, a Game of Thrones comes along and pokes holes in your easy generalization," he wrote.
It was a show that worked despite its fantasy elements, which are still hard to swallow for a lot of people. I've talked to people who just "don't get" dragons or who find the rules of magic hard to accept, but they understand political intrigue and family drama. Even as Game of Thrones dove even deeper into the magic in later seasons, it was still all grounded by human emotions and turmoil. You might think Daenerys using her dragons to escape a house of sorcerers is dumb, but you get the stakes of a gigantic battle between bastards with a lot to prove, or two girls just trying to survive to hold it all down.
Game of Thrones wasn't a gigantic stepping stone for genre TV, but its success definitely gave networks the confidence to adapt some dense or niche sci-fi and fantasy material and turn it into dramas for more mature audiences. Shows based on popular book series or comics like Outlander, The Expanse, and The Shannara Chronicles probably wouldn't have gotten made if it weren't for Game of Thrones. Going in another direction, shows based in similar time periods with a lot of sex and violence like Black Sails or Vikings hit the airwaves to various success, but all of them were clearly influenced in some way by Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones wasn't a gigantic stepping stone for genre TV, but its success definitely gave networks the confidence to adapt some dense or niche sci-fi and fantasy material.
In many ways, this is just a natural progression for networks looking to fill the gaps in their schedules with new content. With so many of them vying for eyeballs and trying to compete with streaming services that don't have silly restrictions like timeslots, it makes sense to try and go with something that seems to be working.
However, these shows run the risk of being relegated to ripoff status and not being able to stand on their own. Executives and producers also then flood the market with similar shows, which is not only exhausting for audiences but reads too clearly like a ploy for similar ratings and social media clout. They'll constantly live in Thrones' shadow and that doesn't work on either front.
Game of Thrones was lightning in a bottle, a fantasy show that hit the zeitgeist at the correct time. Both streaming and social media had been around for a while but were only just starting to truly take off, which made sharing and catching up easy. HBO was looking for a new hit after a few years without a critical darling like Deadwood or The Wire (a lot of shows, like Big Love, came close but none became cultural touchstones) and Game of Thrones filled that void easily -- not just because it was new, but because it was exciting. Main characters could die! Fantasy tropes were subverted! The political intrigue was complex! There's a whole lot of sex! The first point is especially important since it introduced uncertainty into the TV landscape. Watching Game of Thrones was something new and that allowed it to take off.
There have been hits and cult classics made in Thrones' wake and there will continue to be, but the issue is apparent to anybody who watches more than one TV show per week. There's no denying that Thrones has done a lot for mainstream genre fare, giving people who saw it as the realm for nerds and children permission to tune in, but when will audiences become bored or burned out? It's only a matter of time before people move on to the next big thing.
If this sounds familiar to you, then that means we need to talk about Lost.
Let's talk about Lost
When Lost debuted in 2004, nobody expected it to be an "event," but that's what it became. It was standard primetime fare at first — I vividly remember Lost as being the show that even my parents, who don't really care about TV, were invested in.
Like Thrones, it was a show with a foundation in mystery, although unlike Game of Thrones, it didn't have source material that people could draw from. Also unlike Game of Thrones, the plot of Lost was a huge part of the mystery. The basics were there — a plane crashes on an island, supernatural stuff starts happening, character drama tears the group apart — but figuring out the why and the how were a part of Lost's attraction.
Co-creator J.J. Abrams became a huge name thanks to Lost (along with Damon Lindelof) and quickly became known for "mystery box" content, where viewers would become attracted to a story full of holes and questions and tune in every week to see if any of those questions would be answered. These kinds of shows are ripe for fan theories and discussion as people dig through past episodes for clues and pay close attention to not just the drama, but to the setup. When something is finally revealed, people can go online and feel the rush of being correct, of having tracked the clues and in some ways, bested the people making the show.
What Lost's tenure showed us is that oversaturation is both a blessing and a curse.
Quartz has this great write-up about how 2004, when Lost premiered, was the perfect year to catapult the show to icon status. Like Thrones, Lost came around at the right time, taking advantage of the growing popularity of the internet and recent technological innovations like DVR to reach more eyes and capture more minds. The piece quotes journalist Alan Sepinwall, who wrote in his book The Revolution Was Televised that Lost "didn't invent internet discussion of TV shows…but it may have perfected the art."
Game of Thrones has a lot in common with Lost, but it also wouldn't have existed without it. Shows like the X-Files paved the way for our TV watching experience to grow beyond just the screen but Lost allowed Game of Thrones to thrive on the internet.
Lost also paved the way for other shows to exist. In Lost's wake came a number of shows that sounded familiar: "mystery box" setups, ensemble casts, and light-to-heavy steps into the supernatural — often just enough to not alienate viewers. Heroes is probably the most infamous of these ripoffs, relying on large questions to move the plot forward, but there was also V, Flash Forward, The Nine, and, coming around later, The Event. With the exception of Heroes, which had so much potential and squandered it all, and maybe V, none of these shows reached the heights of the predecessor. That kind of show died an agonizing, slow death in response.
Lost also sort of died in a slow, agonizing way, but that had more to do with behind-the-scenes mania, writers who were making it up as they went along, and a network hoping to pad out its hit for as long as possible. Game of Thrones has the opposite problem: its showrunners wanted out so they truncated the final seasons. Either way, by the time the finale hit the airwaves, people were either done or angry.
If Lost didn't show us what could happen when networks get wrapped up in a trend, Game of Thrones sure will.
It's tough to say if Lost's ending would've been better received if its run had been less turbulent or if fans hadn't invested so much time into deciphering it. In response to Game of Thrones' final episodes, which have gotten some of the lowest critic ratings in the show's history, I've seen people harkening back to Lost's ending and wondering if it was really all that bad. Game of Thrones has suffered from incredibly high expectations, among other things.
What Lost's tenure showed us is that oversaturation is both a blessing and a curse. Lost is iconic, a part of television history canon in ways that few other shows get to be. However, that also means there are shows that live in its shadow and networks that got bogged down by trying to find the next one (or in ABC's case, trying to make it last as long as possible). Instead of looking for something new and exciting (like Game of Thrones, maybe?) TV was instead bogged down with more of the same.
We're already seeing this with Game of Thrones, and have been seeing it for a few years now. The issue is not that producers are optioning other fantasy or sci-fi series to turn into TV shows, but that teams are churning them out to be like Game of Thrones — huge, gritty, violent, mature series that appeal to content farms, forums, and social media. Westworld, in particular, has suffered because of this Thrones effect. The first season was engaging to audiences, but it was hampered by the need to create mysteries and fan theories, and the holes there were obvious.
If Lost didn't show us what could happen when networks get wrapped up in a trend, Game of Thrones sure will.
Game of Thrones: the last TV event
MASH was arguably the first TV show to become a cultural event, something that families can all sit down and watch so they can discuss it the next day (I'm not counting the original Roots miniseries here from 1977, only because it was a miniseries with a much shorter lifespan, but there's no denying how popular it was). Of course, this was a time before the internet, so reactions and conversations were less instant. The black comedy about a support staff deployed during the Korean War ran for 11 whole seasons (it was the Big Bang Theory of its day) and its finale, which ran in 1983, was gigantic. It was watched by 106 million viewers and watched in over 50 million households. It held a record for most-watched show up until 2010 when it was defeated by the Super Bowl, generally considered one of the biggest TV events each year.
To put that in perspective, the Game of Thrones Season 8 premiere shattered a record with 17.4 million viewers on that Sunday. Granted this doesn't count streaming or people who viewed it over the course of the week, but that difference is staggering. These kinds of numbers are almost completely unheard of in the streaming era (granted that's because services like Netflix don't release numbers and when they do, they remain vague enough to not mean much).
I'm honestly not sure if networks and streaming services can meet the demand that Game of Thrones will leave in its wake.
Things have changed a lot since MAS*H. The way we watch TV has shifted wildly, moving away from weekly airings to binge sessions, from smaller season-long budgets to episodic budgets that rival some of the biggest films hitting theaters. Each of Game of Thrones' Season 8 episodes cost around $15 million each (that's around $90 million for the whole season, putting it on par with releases like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the original Men in Black). That's not unheard of in 2019, where budgets for shows defined as "peak TV" can run up to a couple million per episode.
Think about other TV shows that became "events" — Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Twin Peaks: The Return — or shows with finales that became cultural milestones — Friends, Seinfeld — and they're all something to remember years down the line.
I'm honestly not sure if networks and streaming services can meet the demand that Game of Thrones will leave in its wake. Most need to be more aware of the competition so they can maintain subscribers/viewers while also maintaining a consistent and crowded release schedule (this goes more for streaming services, which are picking up more and more original shows every year and having to contend with possibly more appealing services). Our current TV marketplace is too saturated for a new show to truly stand out; people have to pick and choose what they watch more carefully now that there are more choices. Occasionally you'll get a Handmaid's Tale or a Stranger Things, but those successes can't be attributed to anything related to Game of Thrones.
Everybody's eagerness to replicate Game of Thrones will probably ease up a bit now that the finale is out and few people are happy, but we're still getting a lot of contenders regardless. It's possible that one of these will become the next big TV event, I'll be proven wrong, and the cycle will continue.
But the more executives worry about whether something can become the "next Game of Thrones" the less of a chance audiences will get that new story that sparks interest, that hits at just the right time and in the right place to become a massive hit. That's not something you can predict either; it's just going to happen.
TV watchers have enough on their plate. They don't have to go through a dozen genre dramas that want to be Game of Thrones so badly that it becomes a waste of time. Just let the show go. Let it die so we can move on.
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