We’ve survived the fight between the Mountain and the Viper, and (for now) the battle for control of the Wall, and this Sunday brings the grand finale to the fourth season of “Game Of Thrones.” In the four years since the show began, a curious thing happened—it became a phenomenon.
The show was the biggest gamble the pay-cable monster had ever taken, a hugely expensive take on a genre that had generally been seen as niche and uncool, with too many dragons to attract the chattering classes that had turned “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” into must-see television, and potentially too much blood and gore to become the mainstream blockbusters that “The Lord of the Rings” films had been.
And yet thanks to an outstanding cast, high production values, and perhaps most importantly, a truly remarkable job of adapting George R.R. Martin‘s books by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the show picked up stellar reviews and proved to be a hit right out of the gate. But that was just the beginning. Viewing figures have skyrocketed with every season, and it’s now not just HBO’s biggest ever original series (recently overtaking “The Sopranos”), but one of the biggest dramas on TV, something that would have been unthinkable in the days of network TV dominance.
With this coming Sunday’s season finale, we’re probably approaching the halfway point of the show, and as such, it seemed like a good point to sit down and take a look back at the road to “Game Of Thrones.” HBO had already established themselves as a brand name for quality TV, and so we’ve picked out ten of their shows that directly or indirectly proved to be forerunners to their biggest ever blockbuster. Take a look below, and let us know your favorites in the comments section.
“Tales From The Crypt” (7 Seasons, 1989-1997)
Not the very first original HBO drama (it followed British co-production “Philip Marlowe, Private Eye” and Jim Henson and Anthony Minghella‘s excellent anthology show “The Storyteller“), but the first seminal hit, albeit somewhat overshadowed now by what came after, “Tales From the Crypt” was an anthology series based on the classic EC Comics horror series (though most of the episodes were actually lifted from other EC titles like “Vault Of Horror” or “Crime SuspensStories“), with each episode narrated by eerie old-school horror host the Crypt Keeper (a puppet voiced by John Kassir, who became something of an icon). The show doesn’t have much of an impact on pop culture these days, but was a big hit at the time, being recut for primetime showings on Fox, spawning theatrical features (1995’s “Demon Knight” and 1996’s “Bordello of Blood“), a Saturday morning cartoon, a game show, a short-lived sci-fi spin-off called “Perversions Of Science” and three soundtrack albums. While the anthology structure doesn’t share much DNA with “Game Of Thrones,” there were other crucial ways in which it served as a forerunner. Firstly, the way in which it married genre material with unrepentant, only-on-pay-cable nudity and gore, something that the network would try only sparingly over the next twenty years. Secondly, it was the first ongoing show to borrow big movie names for the network: A-list directors and producers Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, Walter Hill and Richard Donner were executive producers on the show (and all directed episodes), while helmers including William Friedkin, Tobe Hooper, Peter Medak, Brian Helgeland, Tom Hanks (!), Michael J. Fox (!!) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (!!!) stepped behind the camera for episodes. There was a who’s who in front of the camera, too, with faces like Kirk Douglas, Daniel Craig, Benicio Del Toro, Demi Moore, Donald O’Connor, Christopher Reeve, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Isabella Rosselini and Ewan McGregor all popping up (some pre-fame, some after it). These days, it’s a little ropey in places, particularly when the Crypt Keeper is involved, but can be a lot of fun too. With the success of the EC-indebted “American Horror Story,” maybe it’s time for a reboot? Indeed, Cinemax were said to be interested a few years back…
“Oz” (6 Seasons, 1997-2003)
Though overshadowed by “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” “Oz,” the network’s first hour-long drama, is essentially patient zero for the pay-cable drama as we know it. Without it, shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Sons Of Anarchy” on rival networks, and yes, “Game Of Thrones,” might not have existed at all. Created by Tom Fontana, best known for his work on “Homicide: Life On The Street,” and who had a writing credit on every one of the show’s episodes, it’s set in the Oswald State Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in which an idealistic manager has set up a unit called Emerald City, a controlled, experimental place with glass walls intended to show that even the most dangerous prisoners can be rehabilitated. It’s safe to say that the experiment doesn’t work. More than fifteen years since it started to air, it remains something of a high watermark for brutality on television, with rape, racism, death-by-fire and worse all on the cards from the off, and things only getting more grotesque from there. The pioneer of the kind of expansive cast that would come down the line, with early roles from notable TV figures like Christopher Meloni, Harold Perrineau, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Dean Winters and Edie Falco, there is still a strange humanism to the show. No matter how monstrous the characters get (and they are particularly monstrous, given that a large number of them are Aryan Brotherhood members, and the most obviously sympathetic character is Lee Tergesen‘s Beecher, an alcoholic who drunkenly ran over a child), there’s a kind of compassion towards all of them, with the twisted romance between Beecher and Meloni’s bisexual serial killer being a curiously tender example. Given what’s come since, it doesn’t quite stand up as the finest example of the genre. The realistic docu-drama style borrowed from “Homicide” jars awkwardly with the absurd Grand Guignol melodrama of the plotting, and the semi-poetic narration by Perrineau’s wheelchair-bound inmate often grates. But there’s still an enormous amount of compelling drama to be found here, and if nothing else, the way it pioneered making sympathetic figures out of those who’d be villains elsewhere can be reflected all the way through to “Game Of Thrones.”
“Sex And The City” (6 Seasons, 1998-2004)
“Oz” was the show that got its foot in the door, but “Sex & The City” was the one that kicked it wide open. It was the first HBO show to really take over pop culture in the way that was restricted to network shows before that point (“The Larry Sanders Show,” which SATC essentially succeeded, came closest, but was always more of a critics’ favorite, its highest ratings a full seven million lower than its successor). Darren Star and Michael Patrick King‘s show, adapted from Candace Bushnell‘s book, essentially shaped a generation of women (and many men), making Cosmos the hottest drink around and putting Jimmy Choo on everyone’s shopping list. It’s harder to remember having been tarnished by the two increasingly awful movies, but the show itself, which revolved around narrator Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), the sexually confident Samantha (Kim Cattrall), uptight, preppy Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and careerist Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), was also very good for the most part; sharp and funny and, most importantly of all, sexually frank. “Oz” hadn’t shied from sexuality, but that show’s sexuality mostly revolved around prison rape. Here, though, as you might have imagined from the title, was a show that had sex at its very center, and in a more explicit and honest sense than had ever really been shown on TV, and particularly bold in making its older character, Samantha, the most unabashed and upfront about her sexuality. Obviously, Lena Dunham‘s “Girls” is the more obvious successor to the show, but sex is just as crucial to “Game Of Thrones” as the violence. Sometimes—often, even—it’s gratuitous and titillating, not least with the “sexposition” it pioneered (livening up lengthy backstory monologues by having an orgy in the background), but it also uses fucking to tell a story or reveal character in a refreshingly adult way, and that’s something that Carrie and her gang led the way towards.
“The Sopranos” (6 Seasons, 1999-2007)
Together with “Sex And The City,” “The Sopranos” put HBO on the map as a home for original television as one of the most acclaimed and lauded shows in the history of the medium, and until a couple of weeks ago, the most popular series in the pay-cable network’s history (the average audience for “Game Of Thrones” is now over 18.4 million people, beating the 18.2 million that ‘Sopranos’ got at its peak). “The Sopranos” came from modest beginnings though. It debuted from creator, David Chase, whose previous credits included the beloved “Northern Exposure,” but whose sole previously created series, “Almost Grown,” had lasted only ten episodes a decade earlier. It featured a cast, led by James Gandolfini and also included Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli and Lorraine Bracco, who would mostly only be familiar to those with an encyclopedic knowledge of character actors in crime movies. And it’s central premise—of a mobster who goes into therapy—was shared by a big studio comedy, the Robert De Niro/Billy Crystal vehicle “Analyze This,” that landed at almost exactly the same time, and threatened to overshadow it. Instead, it was the other way around, the plaudits for the series, and its eventual huge commercial success, stealing the admittedly successful film’s thunder, and paving the way for the endless and idiotic “is TV better than the movies” debate that pops up every so often these days, and which “Game Of Thrones” adds further fuel to the fire of. Ironically, Chase comes down firmly on the side of the movies, admitting that he basically doesn’t watch TV, and originally conceiving of “The Sopranos” as a film. We’re grateful it was stretched out, though as the deceptively tight plotting melded with a character study of an often monstrous, always human anti-hero, creating the template that so many continue to emulate today. The show proved to be appointment viewing in the same way that “Game Of Thrones” still is today, and like “Oz,” proved that a mass audience could deal with stomach-churning violence and creatively foul language without shying away. But perhaps more importantly, it was just terrific, with a caliber of writing and direction that could compete with not just anything else on the air, but anything in theaters too, and it’s telling that some of the show’s most prolific writers went on to continue the cable drama revolution, like “Boardwalk Empire” showrunner Terence Winter and “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner. And two of the show’s most frequent directors, Timothy Van Patten and Alan Taylor, were crucial in establishing “Game Of Thrones” (Van Patten, who helmed twenty episodes of “The Sopranos,” directed the second iteration of the “Game Of Thrones” pilot after HBO ordered significant reshoots on the original one, initially helmed by Thomas McCarthy).
“The Wire” (5 Seasons, 2002-2008)
Some might have assumed that “The Sopranos” would always remain HBO‘s most seminal achievement, but over time, “The Wire” might have just snuck past it. That wasn’t the case when it was on, however. The show was always a critical favorite, but struggled in the ratings, often facing cancellation before getting a reprieve, and the cult only grew thanks to the coming of the DVD box set age, where audiences were able to digest it at their own pace. That’s the perfect way to do it, really, because the show, a Dickensian epic from David Simon—a former journalist, and Tom Fontana‘s former colleague on “Homicide” (based on a book by the writer)—was the most obvious example of television as novel, with a frankly intimidating number of characters, sprawling plotting and a generally dense approach to storytelling. To begin with, it starts simply enough, centering around a wiretap investigation into the drug-dealing operation of crime boss Avon Barksdale, but the show’s scope expanded more and more over time, taking in Baltimore’s dock workers in the divisive second season, the political world in the third, the school system in the fourth, and the press in the fifth. The result wasn’t so much a cop show as a portrait of a city, and of society at whole, with a fierce socio-economic viewpoint that extended from every character, from the kids dealing on the street corner to the highest levels of political power (all acted, as is usually the case with HBO, impeccably). It might seem a world away from Westeros, and certainly few could accuse “Game Of Thrones” of social realism. But its ever-expanding scope (reflected by those initially magical opening credits, which have grown every time a new location is featured on the series, and now seem to run about the same length as a network sitcom) and vast cast of characters are direct descendants of Simon’s Baltimore tale. Would viewers be able to follow stories from The Wall to King’s Landing, and remember all those faces, without having been trained on “The Wire” first? Probably, as the show regularly attracts audiences several times bigger than its predecessor ever attracted. But at the same time, it undoubtedly helped creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss think that they could crack the novels, and HBO to believe they could pull it off.
“Carnivale” (2 Seasons, 2003-2005)
Imagine the outrage that would have resulted from the hardcore if “Game Of Thrones” had never connected with a wider audience, and had been cancelled after two seasons. In fact, imagine if fans hadn’t been able to find out what happened from the books, because there were no books. That’s essentially the story of “Carnivale,” at the time HBO’s most ambitious series, and, when it launched, their biggest ever-debut for an original show. A passion project of creator Daniel Knauf, who’d been working on it for over a decade, it’s a furiously dense, complex-to-the-point-of-inscrutability piece of work, like a David Lynch version of Stephen King‘s “The Dark Tower” by way of John Steinbeck, following two-figures in Depression-era Dust Bowl America: Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), a young man with healing powers who joins a carnival, and Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), a terrifying preacher with his own supernatural abilities, who are drawn on an inextricable path towards each other. The show was epic in scope and mythological in background, with the kind of detailed backstory that results when you develop a project for a decade, with Hawkins representing a creature of light, and Crowe one of darkness. It wasn’t necessarily any more complex than the still-only-hinted at gods of ice and fire in “Game Of Thrones,” but the show as a whole fell between two stools somewhat: too supernatural for the arty ‘Wire‘ crowd, too lacking in immediate genre hooks and T&A for the geeks, and with a melancholy, difficult tone that asked you to do much of the work. Knauf intended each season to tell half of a “book,” with three books and six seasons planned, but when ratings plummeted in the second season, and producers couldn’t agree on lowering costs, the show was cancelled with many of its mysteries left unrevealed. Still, its cult has grown in the decade since it premiered, and the show’s sheer weirdness, while not immediately repeated (although David Milch‘s “Deadwood” follow-up “John From Cincinnati” might be even more difficult), helped pave the way to “Game Of Thrones.”
“Deadwood” (3 Seasons, 2004-2006)
A show whose premature cancellation we will NEVER stop mourning, maybe we need to get beyond the cruel way that the excoriatingly brilliant “Deadwood” was snatched from us, and concentrate instead on what a mini-miracle it was it ever got made at all. Firstly, show creator David Milch originally pitched HBO a show about gold and currency in ancient Rome, but since “Rome” was already in the cards at that point, he was asked if he could transpose his ideas about the formation of civilization from chaos to another historical milieu. Milch chose the American West (and can you imagine what kind of vernacular he would have evolved for Ancient Romans to spout?) and specifically the real-life town of Deadwood (based particularly on the book “Deadwood: the Golden Years“) in which to have his epic, grandiose yet immensely grubby stories play out. Next, he attracted a ‘Thrones’-level ensemble of central unknown/rediscovered regulars, surrounded by reliably characterful supporting faces, chief among them, of course, Ian McShane as the indelible Al Swearengen. But the real star of the show was Milch’s dialogue—arch, baroque and anachronistically profane, no show before or since has ever sounded quite like “Deadwood,” and even the most literate and witty of ‘Thrones’ characters can’t hold a candle to the grotesquely brilliant zingers, curses and metaphors that made practically every line so chewy, so rich and so addicting. Otherwise, in terms of the elements it displayed that “Game of Thrones” would go on to use, it has maybe fewer of those than others on this list, but one way in which “Deadwood” could give it a run for its incestuous, head-splitting, torture and murder-loving money, is in the sheer depravity of some of its characters. From ambivalent bastard Swearengen, to ruthless gambling house owner Cy Tolliver, to Wu, the Chinaman who feeds human bodies to his pigs, there’s no perversion, corruption or dreadfulness that the show didn’t positively glory in, meaning you could trace a pretty straight line from that to Joffrey or Roose Bolton’s bastard, if you cared to. Mainly, though, “Deadwood” set a high watermark for just how far we’d be willing to follow a central character, no matter how compromised, if he was well-drawn and well-played enough, and it leaves us with just one overwhelming question: why in name of all that’s holy hasn’t Ian McShane had a guesting role on ‘Thrones’ as yet?
“Rome” (2 Seasons, 2005-2007)
It’s been rather superseded in the HBO pantheon since, but back in 2005 if there was one single show that pointed the way for “Game Of Thrones,” it was definitely the BBC co-production “Rome.” Immensely costly, for the time (and for any time, really with the first season’s 12 episodes budgeted at north of $100m), the John Milius co-created show was also very successful, with HBO’s practice of airing each episode multiple times goosing the viewership figures per episode to an estimated 7m, not to mention an additional U.K. audience brought in by its first run on BBC2. And not just in expense and lavish historical recreation did it prefigure ‘Thrones,’ its swords-and-sandals backdrop (with added grit), battles and political intrigues, as well as its pulpier side, also seem like precursors, especially to ‘Thrones” desert sections–we can only imagine how much closer in look it might have been had the mooted future seasons, due to take place in Egypt and Palestine, actually played out. But we can only imagine, because the cost of the show, which knit two fictionalized version of real characters (an odd couple of Roman soldiers played by Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson) into the tempestuous historical events that occurred during Julius Caesar and then Caesar Augustus’ reigns over the newly established Roman Empire, proved prohibitive, especially for the BBC whose reluctance to foot their share in the face of waning viewership figures led to the series’ cancellation. The hammer fell midway through season 2, which accounts for the last episodes being so rushed and unsatisfying, which in itself also partially accounts for the show’s somewhat tarnished reputation now. And indeed while it was remarkable at the time, it really doesn’t have the depth of characterization, outside of its main cast and Ciaran Hinds’ excellent Caesar, that future HBO blockbusters like ‘Thrones,’ ‘Boardwalk’ or ‘The Wire’ would boast. Perhaps most telling, the show was originally pitched as a miniseries, and perhaps it would have been better had it stayed as such, with a sense now that the sprawl and scope of the endeavor simply got away from the show’s makers and financiers both. Still probably nobler that they simply ended it when they did than allow it to slide into a kind of cheapie historical soap opera–cable viewers in 2007 would have Showtime’s “The Tudors” for that instead.
“True Blood” (7 Seasons, 2008-2014)
With a small handful of exceptions (“Sex & The City” being the most prominent), the first couple of decades of HBO shows were original material, developed specifically for television, but that’s changed over time, with adaptations becoming more and more prevalent on the network. And that’s partly because of the enormous success of “True Blood,” which took as its source material Charlaine Harris‘ “The Southern Vampire Mysteries” series, made up of thirteen novels released between 2001 and 2013. Though they diverge significantly, both book and series focus on Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a waitress who discovers a Southern Gothic underworld made up of vampires, werewolves, witches, faeries and much more besides. “American Beauty” creator Alan Ball, an HBO darling after “Six Feet Under” (one of HBO’s most seminal shows, but not one which shares much DNA with “Game Of Thrones,” it should be said) was the man responsible, and created something rather divisive: the show has a huge fanbase, landing handily at the same time as vampire phenomenon “Twilight” and being placed as a sexed-up, more gory version of that for adults, but TV critics have mostly (and, we’d say, correctly) dismissed it as campy, unevenly acted and sloppily plotted. But after a slow start, it grew hugely, and became the networks’ biggest show since “The Sopranos.” Which, crucially, opened the door for “Game Of Thrones.” “Carnivale” aside, genre fare hadn’t been popular with HBO commissioners: there was almost the feeling that the network was above such childish things as vampires and wizards. But “True Blood” demonstrated that taking it on and giving it a veneer of class from an Oscar-winner like Ball could lead to blockbuster ratings, especially when it came with lashings of nudity and sex, and with a pre-existing book series to help draw in existing fans. This was HBO gone Comic-Con, and the successful results spoke for themselves. “Game Of Thrones” was actually in development before “True Blood” hit screens (Benioff and Weiss pitched the idea of adapting the books to the network as far back as 2006, and work began in earnest in 2007), and it’s always possible that HBO would have pulled the trigger had Ball’s show never existed. But it certainly must have helped to have a precedent like this one.
“Boardwalk Empire” (5 Seasons, 2010-2014)
So, how fast can George R.R. Martin type? He better pick up the pace, because with “Boardwalk Empire” officially ending this year (the fifth and final season will start to air in September) we’re not going to have anywhere else to go for our expansive, expensive, lovingly detailed, character-driven ensemble drama fix. Which is not to say ‘Boardwalk’ isn’t a very different beast from ‘Thrones’—its drama is slower-moving, and it is more anchored by a central character, in the person of Steve Buscemi’s defining Nucky Thompson, than ‘Thrones’ ever was (except maybe briefly with Nedd Stark and we all know what happened there). ‘Boardwalk’ has become a fixture for many of us Playlisters, but part of its character (and possibly part of its snob-value) is that it’s not quite the mass-appeal blockbuster that ‘Thrones’ has snowballed into: its viewership figures, reaching a high of around 3m in seasons one and two, have declined in the last two seasons to around 2m, so safe to say it won’t be troubling “Game of Thrones’ ” recent levels of 7m and climbing. Which makes it something of a connoisseur’s treat, and indeed, even at it most dramatically inert (we’re fans, but the series has its fallow moments even for us) there is a huge amount to admire and enjoy in any given episode. From the start, the Martin Scorsese-shepherded project (he also directed the pilot—his first TV project since an episode of Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” in 1986) has been so rich in period detail it almost feels like “Game of Thrones’ ” alternate universe—they say the past is another country, and this show has always felt both exotic and immersive, as only a lived-in world can. Series creator Terence Winter’s stately, absorbing writing has become the show’s stock in trade and rarely does the dialogue hit a bum note, especially coming out of the mouths of simply one of the finest ensembles ever to grace the small screen. Aside from Buscemi, the show has given Gretchen Mol, Michael Pitt, Shea Whigham, Michael Shannon, Stephen Graham, Michael Stuhlbarg (oh how we love Arnold Rothstein), Kelly Macdonald (admittedly more in earlier seasons than now), Bobby Cannavale and Jack Huston legitimate watershed career moments, and they have all torn into them with relish. But perhaps the most lasting way ‘Boardwalk’ laid ground for ‘Thrones’ is almost by way of cautionary tale: while episode for episode it provided some of the meatiest, richest TV you could ask for, with graphic sex and violence that definitely pushed the boundaries back, that slow decline in viewership suggests that perhaps the cinematic nature of its storytelling actually counted against it. In fact often, an episode would leave you so replete that there wasn’t that same sense of “I wanna binge!” appointment-to-view urgency around the next. It’s a lesson ‘Thrones’ has learned well, with its clever cliffhangers and shock-and-awe tactics, but we can’t help but wonder which show, in the fullness of time, will be the one that will most reward rewatching.
Honorable Mention: As we said, these are the shows that seemed to be the obvious forerunners to “Game Of Thrones.” But HBO’s had plenty of other quality series over the years, all of which played some small part in the show. You might not be able to see the obvious DNA match from “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Storyteller,” “Six Feet Under,” “Entourage,” “Big Love,” “Tell Me You Love Me,” “John From Cincinatti,” “In Treatment,” “Hung,” “Bored To Death,” “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” “Eastbound & Down,” “How To Make It In America,” “Luck,” “John Adams,” “Band Of Brothers,” “The Pacific” or “From The Earth To Moon,” among many others, but the veneer of quality they set up helped establish the brand name in a big way. What was your own personal favorite HBO show? Let us know below. — Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang