It is truly remarkable what can be extrapolated from Game of Thrones. It is about climate change. It is about gender and sexual violence. It is about subverting male power. It is about the breakdown of traditional order and the rise of faux powers. It is about globalization. It is about everything you want it to be, largely because it is derived from countless existing narratives; some real, some fictional and some mythological.
Still, it’s just a TV series, epic though it might be. Television, even in the premium cable arena that HBO occupies, is a business. The end of Game of Thrones creates a vacuum. And that vacuum must be filled.
First, HBO needs another epic hit with international appeal. And that need arrives at an inopportune time for the creative team at the cable outlet. It recently became part of a much larger media conglomerate following AT&T’s acquisition of HBO’s owner, Time Warner. The outlet is reportedly under fierce pressure to be more like Netflix than the old HBO. That’s why senior executive Richard Plepler and some colleagues left recently.
In the context of a post-Game of Thrones HBO, it is vital to remember that five years elapsed between the initial meeting about adapting George R.R. Martin’s novels and the first episode airing. Two years were spent on script development. Then the first episode was shot in 2009 at a cost of about US$10-million – and discarded. The pilot, remade and renovated, finally aired in the spring of 2011. That kind of lengthy, expensive coaxing and polishing of a series is unlikely to happen again at HBO.
The gap that is created by a concluded Game of Thrones is vast. Anything can happen. TV was predicable once and now it isn’t. Herewith, the possibilities for what the next GoT will be, where it comes from and why.
HBO has the next big hit in the bag
This is unlikely, but might happen. The question, “Whither HBO?” has been asked often since The Sopranos concluded. Consider the actual history of what happened next in the golden age of TV and you’ll find that while The Sopranos concluded in June, 2007, the next important series in the canon aired just a month later, on AMC. That was the pilot episode of Mad Men. It first aired on July 19, 2007. Six months later, the next great, culturally important series in the canon, Breaking Bad, also started on AMC. HBO has been nurturing several post-GoT hit series for years. There are four Game of Thrones spinoffs in the works and one will air next year.
For a while, it looked like Westworld was the ticket. Then it deflated in its second season. But HBO has one ace. That’s The Nevers, currently in development, from Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. According to reports, Netflix wanted it desperately, but Whedon took it to HBO, relying on its tradition of creative freedom and excellence. The Nevers is, “an epic science-fiction drama about a gang of Victorian women who find themselves with unusual abilities, relentless enemies and a mission that might change the world.”
Another sex-and-violence fantasy
The sheer heft of Game of Thrones made every outlet open to a sword-and-sorcery series. There is barely a sci-fi or fantasy novel series of any note that hasn’t been optioned by some outlet. Amazon Prime Video is spending a lot of Jeff Bezos’s money on adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for a multiple-season series. If that sounds redundant, given the existing success of the Rings movies, you’re not familiar with TV’s appetite for imitation.
Meanwhile, Netflix is adapting The Witcher, based on the cult-favourite books about a supernatural monster-hunter. In fact, you can blame Game of Thrones for a huge flood of fantasy series coming in the next year. Among the more substantial is the BBC adaptation (done with HBO, which will air it in North America) of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Parallel universe, charming young heroine and anti-establishment storyline place it somewhere between the Harry Potter stories and Game of Thrones. It is also possible that, given the sheer power of GoT, a fatigue with second-rate imitations is more likely than any copycat narrative becoming a hit.
It’s the economy, stupid
Fantasy series are vastly expensive to produce and viewers can see the quality difference between Game of Thrones and a cheaply made knock-off. The likelihood of cable and streaming outlets being burned by huge-cost failures is high. And then there’s the basic matter of viewers wanting less high-concept escapism and more material that reflects daily life in an original way. The most important series of the past few months have zero connection with sword-and-sorcery epics and everything to do with existing in a perplexing world. Both Russian Doll and After Life (both on Netflix) are about self-destructiveness and people on the verge of emotional collapse. Both are funny and wise about the world. The same can be said of Hulu’s extraordinary Pen15 – yet to be seen in Canada – in which two thirtysometing actors play themselves as teenagers. It’s one strange cringe-comedy about trying to understand how you got to adulthood. Never mind the fantasy material. It’s possible the world yearns for a defining portrait of a how we live now.
What the world needs now is laughs
Loop back to the situation of HBO after Game of Thrones and the fact is that the outlet’s real strength at the moment is in quality comedy. As Veep ends, Barry is just starting its second season. In fact, Barry has been rightly interpreted as a comedy variation on Breaking Bad – it’s deadpan, it’s a thriller but, essentially, it’s a painfully aware, funny and poignant look at trying to be both a murderous cynic and a good creative person. There was nothing funny about Game of Thrones, and perhaps that’s the real vacuum being created – the need for laughter. It is an unfunny coincidence that GoT is not the only huge TV hit to conclude this spring. Big Bang Theory will also end. The next big thing might be comedy. Extrapolate what you want from that. It’s not hard to grasp and it’s not even about the TV business. It’s human nature.