For the first time since Lost and 24 went off the air, I'm hooked on a TV show that's currently being televised, and I thought I'd take a second to talk about what makes it so good (for me). It's not the characters, it's not the epic fantasy setting or the big budget or the excellent adult acting or the snappy writing or the complex plot or the music or the surprisingly-good child acting (I grade child actors on a massive curve because children, including me, are idiots; still, this series relies on them quite a lot, and they don't disappoint). No, the biggest positive quality for me is the fact that this series is airing on HBO, and everything that that allows the show to do. It is an entirely different kind of television program than 24, or Lost, or Criminal Minds, or anything else that airs on public TV. This is my first exposure to it, and I very much like what a good show can do with the format.
The biggest thing is that when HBO puts a show in an hour-long time slot, you get an hour-long piece of television. There are no commercial breaks, and thus, no need to have a minor cliffhanger at the end of every segment so the audience waits through the commercials instead of flipping channels. The episode can flow exactly the way the director wants it to flow, building tension where he wants instead of where he has to put it. I never realized how much of a handicap that could be, and seeing a show without it is like watching someone who's just shed his training weights from ankles and wrists move around. It's so casually good.
Here's another huge advantage: Instead of 42 minutes in the hour, the director gets 57 or 60. That gives time for more plot twists and introductions and the like, but we also get more character development than you could ever pack into a network show. We get these wonderful, Stanley Kubrick-esque conversations where the characters can talk about nothing at all, reminisce over war stories or tell dirty jokes for awhile, and the audience can just sit back and watch as we wind around to the point of the conversation. There's nothing in this show that seems forced or too fast. Every conversation doesn't have to be filled with plot-specific stuff (stuff that isn't plot-specific yet, anyway), and every character doesn't have to talk at once. It makes world-building that much easier.
You know what else helps with world-building? Here's a sampler: Shit, fuck, boobs, sex, gore, and a heaping helping of REALISM.The camera doesn't shy away from gore, or nudity, or cursing. None of those would be possible on network television. But all of them are there, in abundance, in an HBO show. And far from being something to titter at (snork), they're actually a vital part of making Game of Thrones believable. This show portrays medieval life, in all its glory and all its filth. And by not shrinking from the more brutal or nasty or whorish parts of medieval life, Game of Thrones becomes intensely believable without even trying. It says "Here! Here is the world we are building. We won't sugar-coat it for you and we won't turn away. It's up to you to watch it grow. Or don't. Either way, here it is."
A lot of that spirit comes from the final piece of what makes the show so good. It's the directors who can take all those advantages I talked about up above and make them into something amazing. So let's take a minute to appreciate the directors, Tim Van Patten (Eps. 1-2) and Brian Kirk (3-5).* Here's some contrast: Remember the wiggling, jiggling camera of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Identity? Remember the frantic close-ups and all the other camera tricks that're supposed to make you feel like you're right there on the scene? I think that's the shittiest kind of directing possible. That's just called getting in the way of the story. Let the story tell itself, I say, and have the director get out of the way. Patten and Kirk have done that to perfection. They're letting the writing and the set design speak for itself, and letting the actors speak for themselves. They're just holding back and letting them act.
Here is one of my favorite scenes from this series. All the parts of this note-character building, good directing, extra time for conversations and all that-come together in scenes like this. Scenes like this are why Game of Thrones is so bloody good. (Sampler.)
It's just... I have rarely, if ever, seen anything like that scene on a network show. Game of Thrones tosses scenes like these off without trying.
Here's one more, my favorite thus far, and then I swear I'm done. Enjoy if it suits you. Myself, I highly recommend both the scene and the show.
*Daniel Minahan directed the sixth episode, which I haven't seen as of this writing.