TV Review: 'Game of Thrones'

There are many pretenders within the fantasy genre — some not half bad — but only one worthy of the crown that belongs to “Game of Thrones.” Success hasn’t spoiled the HBO series, but rather enriched it — rendering the sets and visual effects seemingly more sumptuous, and the array of gaudy British talent within the sprawling cast even deeper. Perhaps more ostentatiously than anything else on the pay service, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ unflinching adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s books straddles the line between theatrical blockbuster and dense multi-pronged TV serial. At its best, it’s big, bloody and downright glorious.

Peter Jackson demonstrated the value of stretching “The Lord of the Rings” over multiple movies, but while the spectacle doesn’t rise to that level, “Thrones’” epic storytelling and ability to chronicle the various factions vying for power in Martin’s primitive world deliver a near-unique level of satisfaction, at least for those with a taste for such fare.

HBO made the first four episodes of season three available, and they’re enough to plant the hook plenty deep. Kudos, again, to the casting folk for choosing the Stark kids, who (some looking noticeably older) more than hold their own within a cast that has added Ciaran Hinds (“Rome”) and Diana Rigg, among others, with the latter’s tart asides as a regal elder bringing to mind Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in “Downton Abbey.”

Recapping the plot is a fool’s errand, but suffice to say the scheming to gain control of the Iron Throne and the scattered Stark clan has action unfolding on multiple fronts. These initial episodes include particularly strong plots involving Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), as her growing dragons advance the quest to regain her family’s power; the interplay between towering warrior Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the sneering but dangerous heir to the Lannister line; and Jon Snow (Kit Harington), whose adventures on the other side of the wall play out against forces that leave the fate of Westeros hanging in the balance.

Last and certainly not least, there’s Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), supplanted by his father (Charles Dance) as the chief counselor to Tyrion’s sadistic nephew (Jack Gleeson), who currently occupies the throne. When reminded one of the women is a whore, Tyrion deadpans, “We shouldn’t be judgmental about these things.”

Granted, “Game of Thrones” isn’t for everybody, including torture sequences that might make Quentin Tarantino squeamish; a fondness for nudity some find gratuitous, and others see as one of the perks of springing for pay TV; and more aggressive fantasy elements (magic, dragons, giants, wolves) as the show progresses deeper into the books.

Ultimately, though, the series stands apart less for any of that than because even in today’s bountiful dramatic TV epoch, nobody but HBO would have the wherewithal or audacity to mount such a gargantuan undertaking in quite this way.

Indeed, with so many networks nipping at HBO’s heels, it’s perhaps appropriate, given the Starks’ lupine companions, that “Game of Thrones” should help the pay service that once clearly set the premium standard in its quest to stay ahead of the pack.

Game of Thrones

(Series; HBO, Sun. March 31, 9 p.m.)

Cast: Peter Dinklage, Michelle Fairley, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Aiden Gillen, Iain Glen, Kit Harington, Richard Madden, Charles Dance, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Sophie Turner, Jack Gleeson, Alfie Allen, Jerome Flynn, Rory McCann, Conleth Hill, John Bradley, Gwendoline Christie, James Cosmo, Stephen Dillane, Carice van Houten, Liam Cunningham, Sibel Kekilli, Rose Leslie, Natalie Dormer, Ciaran Hinds, Diana Rigg.

Filmed in Northern Ireland, Croatia, Morocco and Iceland by Big Head/Little Head, Television 360 and Startling Television. Executive producers, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Carolyn Strauss, Frank Doelger, Bernadette Caulfield; co-executive producers, Guymon Casady, Vince Gerardis, George R.R. Martin, Vanessa Taylor; producers, Chris Newman, Greg Spence; director, Daniel Minahan; writers, Benioff, Weiss, based on the novel by Martin; camera, Jonathan Freeman; editor, Frances Parker; music, Ramin Djawadi; casting, Nina Gold, Robert Sterne. 60 MIN.

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