Winter is coming, in case you hadn’t heard — and with it, a slew of fantasy projects hoping to be TV’s next top direwolf. Few series dominate the cultural conversation like HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” which has been namedropped everywhere from “The Simpsons” to “Sesame Street,” while garnering critical acclaim and 24 Emmy noms.
With such auspices, it’s only natural for other content creators to want to emulate the show’s dragon-sized success. On tap for the 2015-16 season are no fewer than five series based on literary works that deal with magic, monsters, mythical realms or heroic quests, including MTV’s “The Shannara Chronicles,” Syfy’s “The Magicians,” ABC Family’s “Shadowhunters,” NBC’s “Emerald City” and Starz’s “American Gods.”
“In some ways, TV’s just playing catch up with books,” notes Lev Grossman, author of “The Magicians” trilogy, which subverts the tropes of “Harry Potter” and “Chronicles of Narnia” with adult themes. “We’ve all been slow to realize that there’s an enormous audience for fantasy who’ve been waiting to see it on television, which is a great medium for it. When ‘Game of Thrones’ came along, that hunger was made extremely obvious.”
“Not to be cynical about the industry, but that’s kind of how it works,” says Bryan Fuller, executive producer of “American Gods.” “Horror and fantasy were huge on the bigscreen, (but) no one wanted to take those chances on a smallscreen because there hadn’t been anything but niche successes previously. What was always dismissed as cheap and cheerful television fodder is now getting some financial respect from networks, who realize if they do it right then the audiences will show up.”
There are a number of theories as to why TV was so slow on the uptake, but many producers cite budgetary restrictions and the previous limitations of visual effects. “‘Game of Thrones’ was a watershed moment because of the production value, the amount of time and care and energy, and the fact that it’s on premium cable,” agrees “Magicians” exec producer Sera Gamble. “It feels like there’s nothing childish or fringe about it.”
Some of these upcoming shows wear their “Thrones” influence on their sleeve, with “Emerald City” leaning into the comparison by describing its setting as “a mystical land of competing kingdoms, lethal warriors, dark magic and a bloody battle for supremacy.” Sound familiar?
But despite the success of “Thrones,” there’s still reluctance to recognize the artistic merit of genre properties as a whole, both among awards bodies and network execs. “There is a perception of genre storytelling that is deemed lower than those stories that are more grounded, because it’s almost cheating to break the perimeters of reality to tell us a tale,” Fuller says. “I look at Melissa McBride on ‘The Walking Dead,’ who consistently turns in Emmy-caliber performances every season and does not get recognized because she’s in a zombie show.”
Even HBO’s president, Michael Lombardo, admits he’s surprised by the success of the cabler’s fantasy properties. “I’m not a fantasy guy to begin with. It’s not my natural inclination. We probably have inadvertently programmed more other-world series than we intended to,” he said at the network’s recent Television Critics Assn. presentation. “When you look at a show like ‘Game of Thrones,’ although one could (write) it off as a dragons and dungeons sort of series, 20 million viewers who watch ‘Game of Thrones’ are not all sci-fi fans. It’s incredibly textured, dramatic storytelling in a mythical world.”
This veiled disdain for genre may be due to programmers’ inclination to market to as wide an aud as possible, thereby avoiding the dreaded “niche” label.
“When you think of the impact of ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Walking Dead,’ they’ve opened the door allowing everyone to see that traditionally narrow (genres), have more broad appeal,” says Mina Lefevre, MTV’s exec VP and head of scripted development. She says interest in “Shannara” came from a “phenomenal pitch” emphasizing the story’s universality more than its fantasy elements.
Syfy established its dominance in high-concept programming from the moment it chose its name, and the network arguably put prestige genre fare on the map thanks to its critically acclaimed reboot of “Battlestar Galactica” in 2004. After a few fallow years with more earthbound fare, network president Dave Howe is looking to return the cabler to its roots with a robust slate of sci-fi and fantasy projects, including adaptations of James S.A. Corey’s “The Expanse,” Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
“As the genre competition has exploded, there’s an opportunity for us to be seen as the network that’s doing the biggest, boldest, most ambitious, traditional sci-fi and fantasy,” Howe says, noting that successful adaptations often mean due deference to source material. “If you look at ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ before we even launched that series, we were criticized heavily for attempting to tackle something so precious, and we gained a lot of credit for the fact that we did treat it with respect. I think most people would agree that we actually made it better than the original.”
Ron Moore, who helmed Syfy’s “Battlestar” reboot and now serves as showrunner on another genre-bending adaptation, Starz’s “Outlander,” has plenty of experience with pleasing an existing (and vocal) fanbase.
“One of the toughest things, especially in as big a marketplace as we have now, is getting an audience, getting their attention,” he says. “Here’s an audience that’s ready to go. That niche market can be very profitable, and there’s passionate fans that will watch all the episodes, buy the books and DVDs and accessories that go along with it, and that’s a whole revenue source.”
Producers need to do more than pay lip service to a fandom and instead identify what makes a story unique, as demonstrated by the failed film adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments” novels. A proposed movie franchise was scrapped after the first installment, “City of Bones,” grossed only $31 million domestically, resulting in a TV reboot, ABC Family’s “Shadowhunters.”
Showrunner Ed Decter says Clare’s books “lend themselves so much more to television than a single movie” and hopes fans will embrace the property on the smallscreen. “We’re excited for the opportunity to go sideways a little with the story, expanding things in the books that you had to exclude in order to do the movie.”
Even if TV budgets and audience expectations have increased, they’re still not on the astronomical level of such film franchises as “The Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter,” meaning the rewards still outweigh the risks for networks. “The financing entity gets an established brand, but for the creative side, you get a world that already has fantastic, exciting setpieces (and) characters that you know fans enjoy,” Decter says. “The trick is to go through all that and (say), ‘What’s the secret to why this sold 40 million books?’”
“Shannara” exec producer Al Gough (who serves as showrunner with Miles Millar) notes that while people pause when they hear that MTV is the home for a series involving elves and trolls, the themes of “Shannara” resonate with the channel’s youthful demo.
“You’ve got a young love triangle with strong female characters at the center, which I think is something that really speaks to MTV. I think what they saw was the value of a property that could also really broaden their reach, in terms who would come to MTV and what an MTV show could be,” he says.
With so many networks jumping on the genre bandwagon, no one wants to be left behind. “At this point I feel like there’s more sci-fi and fantasy and there’s more eyeballs on it than ever,” Gamble says. “Everybody is ambitious and competitive about it.”
For the authors of these sprawling novels, the goal remains the same: pleasing their fans. “My single strongest priority is to not disappoint them, and I’ve got 40 years of promising them if this ever happened, I would not sell out; I would not disappoint them; I would not cut corners,” says “Shannara” author Terry Brooks. “Luckily for me, that’s proven to be possible because all the principals involved in this project have been willing to work closely with me … so I feel extremely confident that (fans) are going to be very satisfied.”
Done right, fantasy shows can present some of the most transporting, engaging narratives on TV. “It’s easily adaptable because it centers on the storytelling, and the characters, in a way that nothing else does,” says Brooks. “People, particularly young people, like to live that larger life through their entertainment. They don’t want to live their current life, that’s too small.”