All the hype finally got to me, and finally I felt I had to give Game of Thrones (the TV series, that is) a go. So, years after everyone else, I've now watched half of the first season - and I feel strangely pleased that it's not better.
I had a lot of acknowledged fears about Game of Thrones - that it would prove a complete waste of time, that it would be impossibly grim and gory or that I would be fool enough to fall for one of its universally hated villains. But one unacknowledged fear, that I only admitted to after it was done away with, was that it would actually turn out to be a masterpiece of a series, and unquestionably superior to Once Upon A Time quality-wise. I would then be in the same position as with Great Expectations vs David Copperfield or Upstairs Downstairs (the original series) vs Downton Abbey: I would have to admit through gritted teeth that the first alternative is better objectively speaking, while in my heart of hearts preferring the second alternative because of its more satisfying villain content.
Luckily, Game of Thrones isn't that great. The plotting is often clichéd, the characterisation (so far) crude and the dialogue heavy-footed. What's more, a comparison with Once isn't really a given - the two series may both belong to the fantasy genre, but they have little in common otherwise. Game of Thrones concentrates on political intrigues; yes, there be dragons (not that I've seen any yet), and probably magic too, but the fantasy trappings are peripheral to the story, and you get no fairy-tale vibes at all. GoT actually has more in common with slightly ponderous period dramas than with most fantasy yarns Ive seen. It's like The Tudors, but with made-up characters - which some would argue makes it exactly like The Tudors.
So, how does it hold up as a Tudor-esque drama in its own right? I find it has other negative virtues, apart from the important one of not being better than Once:
It's not orcs-vs-elves fantasy: I have some problems with the fantasy genre, which is why I haven't really read that many books belonging to it, though I'll gladly watch a film or TV programme with a fantasy theme. Fantasy so often ends up as a fairy-tale with all the fun somehow sucked out of it. I think the trouble may be that fantasy writers, in their eagerness to impose some sort of order and method into the lawless lands of fairy tales, oversimplify matters and divide their imagined world into good, beautiful magical creatures like elves and unicorns vs bad, ugly magical creatures like trolls and orcs. In the frequent battle scenes, it's not hard to spot which is the army supporting truth and light. This is a lot less interesting than fairy-tale figures, who tend to have their own agenda and aren't lined up in some larger, overblown fight of Good vs Evil. Some of them may be more mischievous than others, but there's no fail-safe rule as to whether you'll end up better or worse for encountering them. I bet the poor girl who was left coughing up toads as a punishment for being rude didn't think the fairy who cursed her was particularly "good".
All of which has absolutely nothing to do with Game of Thrones, and that's one of its advantages - it doesn't use the plot setup of The Lion, the Witch And the Wardrobe, Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. Its protagonists are humans - not the most complex you'll encounter, true, but at least not impossibly noble harbingers of light or confusedly motivated minions of evil.
The characters aren't too engaging: In GoT, apparently, you have to be prepared for key characters being sliced and diced at a moment's notice. I've heard it argued that this is a big point in favour of the series: it adds real jeopardy to the scenarios played out. I can see where this argument is coming from. The fight scenes in The Musketeers would have been more exciting if there had been any chance that one of the Musketeers might actually cop it. Also, there are times, in my favourite TV programmes, where I've sighed a bit over "miracle saves" where characters who should be gone geese climb back from certain death or even come back from the dead because they're too popular to kill off (though sometimes, of course, this plot device feels completely justified...). To pick a fairly uncontroversial example, bringing Clara in Doctor Who back after she'd faced a suitably heroic and affecting death in "Face the Raven" was unnecessary in my book - we would have been able to handle the loss, and so would the Doctor.
Here's the thing, though. When you really, truly care about a character - when they may, in fact, be one of the main reasons you are watching a TV series in the first place - your first reaction to a random killing off of this character won't be "oh, what fresh and daring storytelling". It will be "sorry, what?!". Blood sacrifices are necessary sometimes in a TV series, for plot reasons or absconding actor reasons. But adding deaths simply to add "edginess" and a "who lives and who dies" factor? I don't know.
Happily, I don't much care whether the characters in GoT get sliced and diced or not. They're not interesting enough for that. Tyrion Lannister's likeable enough - you can see why he's a fan favourite, as he's what passes for a fully-rounded character in this story. But much of his appeal is down to Peter Dinklage's laid-back cynicism in the role, and even Dinklage struggles with a script that could have done with being a whole lot funnier. Other clever characters, like Lord "Littlefinger" Baelish and sort-of-spy-chief Varys, also lack a certain bite in their banter. Elsewhere, you see familiar tropes like The Noble Outsider Youth or The Girl Who Wants To Fight, Not To Marry. They're nice, I suppose, but if they get killed off, I won't be heartbroken.
The villains are decidedly not seductive: I would usually not count this as a virtue, but I have my reasons not to look for a new villain crush right now - I'm quite happy with the one I've got, thank you very much. And even if I were on the prowl, I would not like to fall prey to someone who risked making a "Top Ten Hated Characters in Television" list, which tends to be the case with GoT baddies.
No fear, though, because boy are the villains one-note so far. Prince Joffrey's a whiny brat who can be relied upon to behave in the most reprehensible way imaginable in any given scenario - because that's what his plot function is. A Draco Malfoy haircut can't save him, nor can comely Harry Lloyd save Viserys Targaryen from being anything else than the pathetic shit who pimps his sister to a savage war lord in order to get an army and then spends the rest of his time being spectacularly ungrateful. (Granted, the sister is tiresome.) True, I've not come across Charles Dance in armour yet - here's hoping he won't test my resolve.
I know all this is damning with faint praises, but I'll say this much for GoT: I enjoy it more than The Tudors or The White Queen. But guys, don't think we straight women viewers don't notice all those gratuitous brothel scenes and bare-chested lovelies. I'm not averse to objectifying myself - villain snogging scenes are always appreciated (though not in a GoT context) - but it hardly makes a series a grand work of art, now, does it?