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Game Worth the Watch

Maija Gustin | Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The world of Westeros is looking stark. Or, rather, Stark.

HBO’s hit fantasy series “Game of Thrones” returns April 1 for its second season which promises warring families fighting for the throne – including the aforementioned Starks – and as much intrigue, lust and political conniving as the beloved first season.

That word “fantasy” may have turned you off from “Game of Thrones” almost immediately. But if you’re still reading, rest assured that the show – based on the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of novels by George R.R. Martin – is much more than greasy men in armor storming castles and non-human creatures wreaking havoc on medieval-esque towns.

“Game of Thrones” will appeal to the thirst for epic fantasy of “Lord of the Rings” fans, but with a much grittier and less family-friendly tone. The show combines this with the character drama of “Mad Men,” the political machinations of “The West Wing” and the, um, sensuality of “True Blood” for something that is far more than just fantasy.

Be prepared, though. There are practically an encyclopedia’s worth of characters (with tons more coming in Season Two) living in this complex kingdom of geographic jurisdictions, each with their own distinctive brand of politics and justice. The fight for the throne is the product of a long history of coups, battles, murder and exile with no clear end in sight.

Let’s not forget, too, that “Game of Thrones” is violent, bloody and only at home on this premium pay cable channel.

But, complicated and coarse as it is, “Game of Thrones” is one of the finest shows on television today. Impeccably written, each episode does full justice to the source material while exploiting its specifically visual medium to expand on, rather than just reiterate, the original stories.

The cast is filled to the brim with incredible talent, both old and new, though don’t expect to recognize most of them. Sean Bean, who played Boromir in “Lord of the Rings,” does lead the cast as Ned Stark.

With a fine attention to detail and an emphasis on location shooting, rather than a reliance on CGI effects to create a backdrop, “Game of Thrones” pulls you into a new world at once familiar and foreign. Its vivid depictions of the frozen North, the sun-baked South and the deserts of exile are magical in a wholly realistic way.

All this has contributed to “Thrones’” critical adoration, picking up major Emmy – which notoriously shuns “fantasy” series – and Golden Globe nominations and wins in every area.

“Game of Thrones” isn’t just a critical favorite, though. It earns big audience numbers for HBO and has set a record for HBO’s DVD and Blu-Ray sales. Regardless of its high quality of production and its critical acclaim, “Game of Thrones” is ultimately just really good, entertaining TV.

And that holds true whether you like fantasy or not.

It should also be noted that, while “Thrones” does participate in a lot of the sensationalized, lascivious behavior that HBO shows are often known for, it also presents some of the strongest, most compelling female characters on contemporary television. In fact, one could easily argue that it is these very women – and not the men – that drive the show.

“Game of Thrones” returns to TV screens on Sunday, April 1. If you are new to Westeros, you’ll probably want to catch yourself up on the many events of Season One before diving into Season Two. With only 10 hour-long episodes in Season One, though, and compelling story arcs and cliffhangers to drive the narrative along, that shouldn’t be too difficult.

Luckily, HBO will be playing all 10 episodes on HBO2 leading up to the premiere.

Just remember: In the game of thrones, you win or you die. And that where once came winter now comes war.