'Game of Thrones'? More Like Waste of Time
Rise of hit series raises questions about viewers' use of time
This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on April 21, 2016.
By Jeffrey Sconce
For those who must live and work among them, the next couple of months will be a challenge. Beginning this Sunday, these loyal subjects will return to Muggleshire, or Rivenmoore or wherever it is that HBO's "Game of Thrones" is supposed to take place. Prepare yourself for loved ones and co-workers shocked, outraged and generally agitated by the imaginary things that happen in this magical land that never existed.
Of all the successes HBO has enjoyed with its hour-long dramas, "Game of Thrones" is perhaps the most surprising. Who could have foreseen that fantasy, a genre that suppresses the horrors of middle school by escaping into the womb of Middle Earth, would emerge as the ratings champion of premium cable? Why have programming executives surrendered Sunday nights to those lost souls you see in the park eating turkey legs and jousting with plywood broadswords?
For those allergic to blood oaths and derring-do, HBO's decision to schedule "Thrones" in the wake of Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese's "Vinyl" only compounds the humiliation. Just when all the cool kids were getting into grimy nostalgia for '70s sleaze, "Game of Thrones" arrives to rub our noses in the folderol of magic, dragons and pidgin Shakespeare. It's like being at a party where someone rips "Exile On Main Street" off the turntable and forces everyone to play Dungeons and Dragons.
Colliding "Ivanhoe," the War of the Roses, and those skin flicks that play on Cinemax after midnight, "Game of Thrones" is set in a world that has yet to discover antibiotics or the steam engine. If you've always thought pre-Industrial Europe was a quagmire of mud, superstition and syphilis, you might wonder what makes fantasy fans yearn for a time when a person could still die from a nasty tussle with a ferret. Perhaps you've even been tempted to start watching "Game of Thrones" to see what all the fuss is about. Before taking this step, I implore you to first go on-line and study HBO's "Illustrated Guide to Houses and Character Relationships." There you will find a chart of the medieval morass that is the "Game of Thrones" universe (there are also maps to be memorized!). Verily, it will make thou head swimmeth.
Ask yourself this: Is it worth devoting 60 hours of your life to a TV show that features a talking three-eyed raven? The third eye provides said raven the ability to deliver such gems as, "The strongest trees are rooted in the dark places of the earth. Darkness will be your cloak, your shield, your mother's milk. Darkness will make you strong."
Do portentous birds and beasts appeal to you? Why not try spreading some fortune cookies around in your backyard and pretend they are pearls of wisdom bequeathed by Quizzilneck the Engimatic Gopher? That way you'll still have 59 hours free to rotate your tires, clean out the gutters and complete all the various other chores associated with responsible adulthood.
Why are fans of fantasy so obsessed with memorizing complex family trees and mapping imaginary realms? Why do Trekkies go nuts if a Romulan appears someplace a Romulan should not yet appear? No doubt child psychologists would attribute this impulse to adolescent mastery. When confronted with the terrors, mysteries and near certain humiliations looming in high school, the ability to locate every turbo-lift on the Enterprise can be a great comfort. The trouble is that attachment to fantasy, superheroes and shoot 'em up science-fiction no longer ends at graduation.
Hollywood has been working a long time to herd everyone toward the more predictable tastes of a 14-year-old boy — "Star Wars," "Star Trek," "Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter" and the ongoing plague of super-fantastic-avenging-iron-bat-X-people-movies. "Thrones" only assists Hollywood in further emulating the corporate strategies of Coke and Camel — hook kids when they are young and trap them in a lifetime of addictive regression.
Last year, when Disney debuted the first of its new "Star Wars" titles, several retailers ran ads based on a common theme. Parent and child return from the store, hand-in-hand, carrying freshly-minted "Star Wars" merchandise. The spots were overtly warm and fuzzy — families bonding over their corporately managed imaginations and traditions. But, to a thinking person, these ads should be a call to action. They might even rate a call to child protective services.
Popular culture was meant to be momentarily distracting and entirely disposable, not a cult handed down from parent to child to grandchild and beyond. We already live in a world where there's a company making "Star Trek" diapers and another making "Star Trek" coffins. How many more generations must we lose to this nonsense?
No, what we really need are more TV shows about zombies. Unlike fantasy, zombie shows actually provide a valuable public service.
Most of us recognize the high probability that a radioactive asteroid or a germ-soaked lab monkey will one day plunge the earth into the chaos of the undead. When that day comes, wizards and warlocks won't save us, nor should we want them to. It's the 21st century, after all. God willing, humans will never again live in awe of kings, mythical beasts or Oxbridge accents.
Zombie television teaches audiences the practical skills that will be needed if and when modern civilization actually evaporates. When the brain-sucking ghouls are at our doors, Thronies can invoke their spells, amulets and meaningless appeals to feudal honor. Viewers of zombie fare, meanwhile, will know how to siphon gasoline, make a Molotov cocktail and effectively herd the undead toward a giant pit of quicksand.
On the off chance that winter is coming, daydreaming about Puff the Magic Dragon will not help you. But knowing how to loot a zombie-infested supermarket just might save your life.
Plan your viewing accordingly.
- Jeffrey Sconce is an associate professor of film and media studies at Northwestern University.