"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.
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.
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?!"