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TV Junkie: 'Game of Thrones' Review - Epic

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Even if you're not an HBO subscriber you probably know that "Game of Thrones" has its series premiere this Sunday at 9pm. There's been billboards and ads plastered all over town for months and last week HBO had "Game of Thrones"-themed food trucks plying their show-inspired victuals at select LA locations disclosed only via Twitter and Facebook. HBO also transformed the Hollywood & Highland archway in Los Angeles into a massive Ice Wall billboard, replicating the Ice Wall that encloses the northern Border of Westeros. You can even sit in an exact replica of the Iron Throne at the Hollywood & Highland center courtyard starting through April 17 (photo booth each day 11am-7pm).

Along the way, HBO has created several videos (see one above) as well as iPad apps, a production diary, photo galleries, and games among other offerings available at the show website. The one thing that appears to be missing from all this content are the genealogical charts of each of the royal houses depicted in the series that was provided to me as part of the press materials. These charts actually proved pretty handy as we navigated our way through the first 6 episodes because there are 7 royal bloodlines to keep track of as the fantasy world of Westeros builds towards a cataclysmic war.

This is HBO's big step into the fantasy world and they're firing on all cylinders - this is a great show. The one issue that might dilute the impact of "Game of Thrones" is that it will be one of 3 swords-and-armor shows that air on weekends, going up against Starz' "Camelot" and Showtime's "The Borgias." Flicking through these premium channels there's a chance you could get confused as you would be confronted again and again by various sets of actors with English/Irish/Scottish accents waving around swords with sumptuously-clad ladies plotting in the shadowy stone corridors of castles and keeps. But "Game of Thrones" has a couple of advantages: it's not a retelling of an already countlessly retold 1500 year old story (that Arthurian scholars will have an issue with), and it's not a dramatic depiction of a historic era (that history buffs will have an issue with). The production team behind "Game of Thrones" has had free reign to create a unique world based on the A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels by George R. R. Martin because Martin himself is involved in the production.

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We know some friends who are feverishly trying to read up on the novels before watching the series - in fact we saw some strangers reading the books on their iPads while standing in line for the "Game of Thrones" food truck in NYC a few weeks ago. If you had always intended to read the books, then this only kind of makes sense, but since TV and film adaptations of novels always leave huge amounts of details and plot points out, why would you build yourself up for disappointment?

The series is beautifully and realistically filmed in Ireland (like Starz' "Camelot") and Malta but you have to keep your wits about you while watching this show - it's complicated: the story constantly shifts from location to location and there is a veritable cast of thousands. Standout performers are Sean Bean as Lord Stark, Lena Headey as Queen Baratheon, and Aidan Gillen as Lord Baelish but those top three were extremely difficult to pick as there are several great actors who seem to be building great characters, only to be killed off a few episodes into the show to be replaced by another wave of characters (seemingly). What I'm saying is: don't drink too much grog on Sunday nights while watching this show, you will not know what the hell is going by the 4th episode.

Another great thing about this show is the performances by the younger cast members. Yes, this series is about bloodlines and honor and Machiavellian machinations but it's also about family. HBO's "Big Love" was supposed to be about family too, but other than some performances by the older kids in that show, the offspring were merely window-dressing (unfortunately). This is not the case in "Game of Thrones" where some of the best performances are by the youngest cast-members. Isaac Hempstead-Wright plays Bran Stark, the son of Lord Stark, and this kid is phenomenal - you get to see a lot of this world through his eyes in scenes that I thought were the most immersive. Maisie Williams plays his slightly older sister, Arya Stark, in a tomboy role where she is at least the equal of any other performer in a scene.

[Most of the following is revealed in the first episode as well as in the HBO "making of" videos that have been broadcast and are available online but if you are concerned about "Spoiler" then skip a paragraph.]
Speaking of tomboys, let's look at the female characters in the show as they really break with a lot of expectations. As mentioned, Arya Stark has no intention of being turned into yet another princess to be married off for political purposes, as her older sister, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) is being groomed for. Their mother, Lady Stark (Michelle Fairley) has run the household while her husband was off on various quests but she seems to have had enough of this and you will see her take on a quest of her own, against all advice. Queen Baratheon (Lena Headey) has the personal motto of "everyone but us is the enemy" and she enforces that motto with every manner of backstabbing and underhandedness. Queen Baratheon combines this with literally retelling events as they happen in the most untruthful and slanted manner possible, like an anchorwoman for a medieval Fox News. On what seems like the other side of the planet is the sophisticated and civilized Princess Targaryen who has been married off to a leader of a barbaric horde, obviously based on something like the Mongols. Targaryen needs to not only figure out how to survive her wedding night, but to become a leader with some control over her own destiny. Whereas the men's first reaction to a situation is to grab a sword the female characters are much more dynamic thinkers and, in a lot of ways, more interesting to watch.

We can attest that the production value set in the first episode/pilot has been sustained through at least the first six episodes which is reassuring as sometimes, even on the premium networks, a lot of money is pumped into the pilot only to see the quality diminish almost immediately. This is a fantastic looking show that was obviously well funded on all levels - a treat to watch and highly entertaining.

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"Game of Thrones" does have one other nagging similarity to the "Camelot" and "The Borgias" productions and that is the ubiquitous sex scenes that seem extraneous to any real plot lines. Is there some kind of premium network mandate that an hour-long drama needs to have a sex scene at the 18 and 36 minute marks? Because this shit seems to happen like clockwork. When an episode's script is submitted does it come back with the note from corporate: "Guys, where are the tits?" I'm sure some pervert academic is out there building chart that shows at what point in these shows there will be nudity and sex scenes but you don't need a PhD to see how predictable this is. I'm not a prude but why does every episode need to have this in it? It doesn't make sense. Let's be clear, "Game of Thrones" isn't any more guilty of this than any of the other shows mentioned, in some ways it's been more tasteful/less tasteless, but it would be great to see a show break with what is becoming a monotonous tradition.

Not to give violence a break, we could do with less of that as well - think about the implied violence in Hitchcock films, or how much can be said by a shot of a dooar closing or just seeing a sword swing through the air - do we need to see guts falling out of a guy, every time? I understand, we're adults and we can take it - however many boobies and severed heads you want to throw at us, and you get a lot of them thrown at you in "Game of Thrones" but sometimes less is more.
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I would like to extend a heartfelt apology to everyone who watched "The Paul Reiser Show" based on our listing of it in yesterday's TV Junkie Must-Watch Plan. If that show is what Reiser came out of retirement to do, then he should turn the car around and head back home. It was horrible. Also, why did NBC think it was a good idea to have that many expletives in a 8:30pm show slot? Pointless swearing in a bad show is not "edgy." I don't know how much "The Paul Reiser Show" cost to make, but NBC could probably have funded a few new shows for that budget - and they should. Please try again.
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The TV Junkie Must-Watch Plan: Tonight - "Real Time With Bill Maher," "Fringe," "Camelot," "Late Show With David Letterman" (Actress Tina Fey). Saturday - "Filthy Cities." Sunday - "Nature," "Game of Thrones," "The Killing," "After Lately"

Tonight

8:00pm Real Time With Bill Maher HBO - TV host Ed Schultz; former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele; journalist Amy Walter; physicist Michio Kaku.

8:00pm CHAOS CBS - The agents go under cover as lawyers in order to infiltrate an arms dealer's compound in Russia.

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8:00pm Friday Night Lights NBC - Season Premiere. Coach Taylor tempers high expectations for the upcoming season; Tami is frustrated with her new job

9:00pm Fringe Fox - The team desperately tries to remove William Bell's consciousness from Olivia's body before she disappears forever.

9:00pm The Ricky Gervais Show HBO - Ricky asks Karl if he would give up his life to live in a virtual-reality isolation tank; Karl discusses happiness and what he would ask for if he had one wish.

10:00pm Camelot Starz - Merlin begins his quest to find a sword fit for a king; Arthur spars with Leontes to prove himself to Guinevere.

10:00pm Sanctuary Syfy - Ranna tries to fulfill the laws that keep Praxis protected; Magnus figures out how the tremors and power fluctuations can be controlled.

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10:30pm The Whitest Kids U'Know IFC - Season Premiere. Baked beans; war letter; finger ring friends.

11:35pm Late Show With David Letterman CBS - Actress Tina Fey; comic Tommy Johnagin; The Gaslight Anthem performs.

11:35pm The Tonight Show With Jay Leno NBC - Actor John Travolta; the most-recently eliminated "American Idol" contestant; actress Leslie Mann; Eliza Doolittle performs.

12:35am The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson CBS - Actress Robin Wright; biologist Dan Riskin.

Saturday

9:00pm Filthy Cities Discovery - New Stinking York Dan travels back to the 19th century Manhattan where millions of immigrants crammed together.

Sunday

8:00pm Nature PBS/KOCE - Suvivors of the Firestorm Survivors of the 2009 bushfires that tore through Victoria, Australia, are nursed back to health at wildlife hospitals.

9:00pm Game of Thrones HBO - Series Premiere. A Night's Watch deserter is tracked down; Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark learns that his mentor has died; Viserys Targaryen plots to win back the throne; Robert arrives at Winterfell with his family; Ned prepares to leave for King's Landing.

9:00pm Masterpiece Classic PBS/KOCE - Upstairs Downstairs A German-Jewish refugee works as a maid at 165 Eaton Place, prompting a range of reactions from all the tenants.

9:55pm The Killing AMC - Sarah and Holder pressure Rosie's former boyfriend; Stan and Mitch plan their daughter's funeral; Richmond hopes to raise funds for his campaign.

10:00pm Iron Chef America Food - Garces vs. Paley Will Chef Vitaly Paley claim victory over Iron Chef Garces?

10:00pm Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate PBS/KOCE - Stories of forgiveness include Amish families whose children were victims of the school shooting in Nickel Mines, Pa.

10:00pm The Borgias Showtime - Lucrezia's Wedding Lucrezia's wedding is a disaster; the Borgia children's mother arrives; Della Rovere seeks the aid of the Medici family.

11:00pm After Lately E! - The Crudite