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What blockbuster ‘Game of Thrones’ meant for the fantasy genre

For the millions of viewers around the world addicted to HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” winter is coming, this weekend. The television phenomenon, which upwards of 17 million people watch per episode, concludes its eighth and final season with no shortage of attention or critique. Jeffrey Brown reports on how the series became a sensation, where it fell short and what it means for the fantasy genre.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally tonight: For the millions of viewers around the world addicted to "Game of Thrones," winter is coming this weekend.

    Jeffrey Brown looks at the television phenomenon that concludes its long run on Sunday night.

    It's part of our regular arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Dragons, White Walkers, and ravens, Targaryens and Lannisters, seven kingdoms and one Iron Throne to rule over them.

    To follow every reference, you would have to be tuning in regularly to the vast fantasy world of HBO's "Game of Thrones."

    But the thing is, millions of people have.

    NPR television critic Eric Deggans:

  • Eric Deggans:

    This is a modern blockbuster, so 17, 18, 19 million people watching on a single night is a lot for our modern TV ecosystem.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Add many more through streaming and online services, and this "Game" has became an international phenomenon, turning its cast, many of whom have grown up before audience's eyes, into celebrities, and inspiring board games and product placement, tourist sites around the world where the show was filmed, fan-made artificial intelligence prediction models to gauge possible endings, and enough viral buzz on social media, including from the White House, to make this the watercooler discussion show of the age.

    Deggans says the timing was just right.

  • Eric Deggans:

    So, it came along at a time when geek culture rules pop culture. Shows that are about sword and sorcery or about zombies or about superheroes have now become huge mainstream entertainment statements.

    So you take a high-quality TV show in a genre that's very popular now, based on a book that had a wide constituency, and you pour in millions and millions of dollars in production to make it look amazing, and you wind up with a phenomenon like "Game of Thrones."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The bestselling book series was George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire," five volumes to date, brimming with detail and storylines that grabbed readers.

    Michelle Hope, a fantasy book editor, has worked with Martin and other award-winning authors.

  • Michelle Hope:

    The author makes it seem believable and visceral with these sensory details. And so, as we move through this story, we kind of trust the author to tell us believable details about this new world, so that when dragons are introduced, or zombies, or a face-swapping assassin, we're like, yes, I can picture that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Beginning in 2011, show runners David Benioff and Dan Weiss brought "Game of Thrones" to the screen, filming in Northern Ireland and locations around the world, with an enormous budget that allowed them to create mini-movies in every episode, and give Daenerys, the mother of dragons, Jon Snow, and a zillion other characters a new life.

  • Dan Weiss:

    We knew that there would be some resistance at first to the idea that a show set in this genre, as opposed to a genre like a crime drama or a Western or what have you, could be a serious drama and could be worthy of the same kind of attention as those other dramas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The audience built, along with the critical acclaim, an astounding 128 Emmy nominations and 47 wins, including three years as outstanding drama series.

    Michelle Hope thinks people saw something more than the otherworldly.

  • Michelle Hope:

    That's something that's powerful about fantasy, because we can see these really familiar problems in our own world in a sort of slightly detached fantastical setting.

    And so we then have this shared world, the shared vernacular to talk about these issues, with these sort of fake characters, and we can talk about problems in relationships or problems in society using the shared context of "Game of Thrones" and have actually conversations about things that make us angry or things that make us feel something.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Fans did get angry along the way. The show was criticized early on for its gratuitous-feeling sex and brutality against women, including rape.

    Eric Deggans thinks the producers listened, and changed their portrayal of women, who, in the last seasons, emerged as among the strongest leaders.

    But he and others noted another blind spot, in the lack of diversity and fully realized characters of color in this made-up world.

  • Eric Deggans:

    You have a fictional place. Given that this is a made up continent, why couldn't there have been more people of color that were a part of this society, in the same way that people of color are now a part of societies all over Britain and Europe and America?

    They might have had more courage, given the success of movies like "Black Panther" and franchises like "The Avengers" that have lots of people color involved in them now.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This final season has also brought a new round of bewilderment, and even anger from many fans, as slowly developed storylines and characters come rushing to their end.

    The television version moved beyond George Martin's novels two seasons back, and not everyone is happy with where the producers have taken it.

    Fantasy editor Michelle Hope, though, is very happy that millions of potential readers and viewers have now discovered her world, where she says they will find plenty of other fresh and diverse voices and visions.

  • Michelle Hope:

    I think there's room for tons and tons of diversity in fantasy, because we can imagine whatever world we want.

    And I'm excited to see, because of the popularity of the genre, like, lots of authors coming to it and taking a stab at it, and telling us what their world looks like and how their characters navigate through it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the meantime, on a Sunday night in May, winter will have come and gone, and perhaps we will find out at long last who sits on the Iron Throne.

  • No spoiler alert:

    Here's one character who has, but won't again.

    I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Was that really Jeffrey Brown? I think it was. You never know.

    Courtesy HBO

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