Winning is everything in the TV spinoffs game, and losing means certain doom. To say that a certain premium cable network and its streaming service could “die” if this doesn’t go their way would be an exaggeration.
HBO is taking a huge risk by betting that there is still an appetite for Westerosi drama more than three years after the final (and poorly received) episode of the megahit “Game of Thrones” aired. It’s placing that wager on the gilded new drama “House of the Dragon,” which airs on HBO and HBO Max on Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT/PDT and hopes to recapture the phenomenon with its prequel series.
Phenomena, alas, are rare and incredibly challenging to achieve because of their uniqueness. Attempts to do so usually result in bland, formulaic shows like “Dragon” that share the visual aesthetic and some of the audio characteristics of “Game of Thrones” but lack the show’s distinctive storytelling voice. Fans of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels will be devastated.
Ryan Condal and Martin’s “Dragon” is an entirely different animal than their “Thrones.” This prequel, based on Martin’s encyclopedia-like book “Fire and Blood,” tells the story of an incident that occurred among the ancestors of Daenerys Targaryen, portrayed by Emilia Clarke, in “Thrones.” It has been compared to Shakespeare’s “King Lear” by the creators. This is not a sprawling, multi-continental epic, but a more intimate family drama set in the capital city of King’s Landing.
Fictional summer: Need clarification on the plots of “House of the Dragon” and “Rings of Power?”
That isn’t a major issue by itself. Political drama, as opposed to fantastical elements, has always been “Thrones'” strong suit. However, the drama within the dragon-taming Targaryen family isn’t nearly as compelling as it was during the original show’s heyday with the Lannisters, Starks, and Littlefinger. It’s usually just dull. A boring plot and wooden dialogue can’t be saved by any amount of orgies, graphic childbirth, or dragon flight.
Milly Alcock and Emily Carey played teenage Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower, respectively, in the first half of “Dragon,” before being replaced by Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, respectively, in the second half. Rhaenyra is a strong-willed and self-reliant young lady, and she is the only child of King Viserys (Paddy Considine), a weak monarch who would give anything for a male heir. His wild and slightly sadistic brother Daemon (Matt Smith of “The Crown” and “Doctor Who”) is the heir apparent, so he has to put up with him for the time being.
The powerful naval commander Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) and the ambitious Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) – the Hand of the King and Alicent’s father – both exert constant pressure on Viserys for favors.
Weighing the pros and cons of tuning in: After the shocking conclusion of ‘Game of Thrones,’ can we put our faith in ‘House of the Dragon?
Plus: the cast of “House of the Dragon” is anxious about meeting the high standards set by “Game of Thrones.”
Each and every person we meet has been poorly characterized. There isn’t a single good guy or bad guy here (although Smith’s Daemon is pretty far on the evil side). While this may be reflective of reality, we find it difficult to relate to or empathize with the characters.
Unfortunately, the scripts do not assist. There is an abundance of symbolism throughout the text (many rats appear at moments of corruption for the characters, shockingly). The dialogue also has a far more medieval effect than is necessary (you can play a drinking game counting how many times someone says “mine own” instead of “my”), and it comes off as forced. Given that “Dragon” is more verbose than “Thrones,” the lack of visual impact of the dialogue is problematic. The occasional sword fight or battle occurs. This version of Westeros enjoys relative tranquility, which is great for the made-up people who live there but terrible for plot development.
There are points in “Dragon” where it seems like the creators are trying to avoid offending any fans by including every single detail from the original series. Incest? Check. Prince who squirms? We’re good to go, Gore? Check. Women and girls being exploited sexually? Check. Extremely low light levels during battles, making it difficult to see what’s going on? Do a double-check.
The first few seasons of “Game of Thrones” were excellent. You won’t find anything else like it on television. Even without the presence of competing fantasy series like “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Wheel of Time,” “Dragon” fails to impress as anything special or original. That’s because, unlike the few truly great spinoffs on TV like “Frasier,” “Maude,” and the recently cancelled “Better Call Saul,” “Dragon” hasn’t found the balance between being familiar and new, enriching the old story rather than copying it.
The best TV shows are not like a coloring book. Each brushstroke has significance and energy, and the colors have been carefully chosen to create a harmonious whole that leaves us speechless. At its finest, “Thrones” was absolutely breathtaking, with moments of tension, comedy, and drama that were unlike anything else on television at the time. No sequel could hope to match the success of the original, and among the many HBO projects in development, “Dragon” may not have been the best pick to try.
What’s more, HBO Max and Discovery+ are joining forces. What’s going to be different, when, and why are detailed below.
In “Thrones,” the Targaryen dynasty is depicted as slowly disintegrating from the inside out, with its power, wealth, and dragons dwindling away until only a few members of the family remain. Hopefully HBO will not let the world of “Thrones” fade away as quickly as its platinum-haired aristocrats.
This piece was published in the USA TODAY: Review: House of the Dragon, also on HBO, unfortunately falls short of the greatness of “Game of Thrones.”
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