HBO’s “Game of Thrones” may be set in a fantasy realm on par with the Middle Ages, give or take a few dragons and direwolves, but the series itself serves as a cutting edge example of one of the directions scripted television is taking. While Netflix has embraced binge-viewing, dropping the first season of its smart but languidly paced political drama “House of Cards” in full all at once, shows like “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Scandal” and “Homeland” have taken what might be looked at as the opposite route. These shows demand to be watched live or DVRed at a spoiler-phobic fan’s peril — stuffed with plot twists, juicy developments and, sometimes, major character carnage, they’re primed for live reactions on Twitter and dissections afterward.
“Homeland” burned through what felt like years of story in its second season, while “The Walking Dead” has made it clear that no character can be counted on as safe and might be violently offed at any time. ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” has become a social media phenom and ratings hit thanks to the amount of viewers who flock to see it live and discuss it online, while Showtime’s upcoming “Ray Donovan” makes a bid in this direction with a pilot episode featuring enough developments to flesh out another show’s entire first season. These shows have a sense of immediacy to them — they’re far beyond your traditional cliffhanger, and they deliver narrative like a drug.
In its third season, starting this Sunday, March 31st, “Game of Thrones” has so much story to get out that its first few episodes don’t feel like whole so much as installments that end only because their allotted hour is up. The cast of characters remains sprawling and beset by dangers on all sides — Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is up north beyond the Wall with the wildings and their king, Mance Rayder (new addition Ciarán Hinds), while his friend Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) and the Night’s Watch are elsewhere in the same icy realm, both groups preparing for the incursion of the White Walkers.
Then there’s Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) off across the sea, her dragons growing as she looks to build an army and take back the Iron Throne. In intrigue-filled King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) has been displaced by the arrival of his father Tywin (Charles Dance), while his wretched nephew Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) prepares to marry a new fiancée, the savvy Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), while the essentially hostage Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) frets about her fate. Robb Stark (Richard Madden), still fighting against the Lannisters, had his own new bride, Talisa Maegyr (Oona Chaplin), and may have to deal with the fallout from that love match while managing his mother Catelyn’s (Michelle Fairley) betrayal of his orders. And then there’s Arya (Maisie Williams) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), and on and on, an ever-expanding kaleidoscope of intriguing characters.
What’s so impressive about “Game of Thrones” is how big it feels — more so than ever in scope in its third and so far very strong new season. Shot in locations around the globe and featuring a cast of dozens of major roles, it feels like TV’s answer to a blockbuster film, but one that doesn’t have to wrap up after a two-hour runtime. Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have created a world that seems very solid and palpable if frightening, brutal and incredibly difficult to exist in (there’s no neighborhood in which you’d want to buy a condo in “Game of Thrones”). It’s one that, despite the growing stakes, including war on many sides and magic creeping in, makes room for moments of humor and warmth (especially in the odd couple pairing of Jaime and Brienne).
As I’ve written before, “Game of Thrones” has never been about something larger in terms of theme, not in the way of a “Mad Men” or a “Girls,” and that’s a constraint, but it does succeed terrifically in the goal it has set for itself — in being an intense, incredibly engaging yarn, one with production values that this year in particular are remarkably good. In an age in which there’s less sense of urgency in TV and plenty of devices to let you consume shows on your own time, “Game of Thrones” makes a very good case for watching live, if only to share with other viewers in the moment: “Can you believe what Daenerys just did?!”