Game of Thrones shouldn’t have been a hit. No fantasy series had ever received more than cult fandom at best, and, The Lord of the Rings aside, almost all of its success on film had been young adult-oriented. And, GoT wasn’t actually a hit in its first season, with 2-3 million viewers per episode. It was niche enough that Parks and Recreation could drop a joke about how dorky Ben was for liking it.
But as it became clear that this was a growing phenomenon, other networks have tried to jump on the Game of Thrones bandwagon. Surely if they could find what made people fall madly in love with this particular show, they could rake in the viewers. The hunt for the next Game of Thrones was on.
One problem: there isn’t another Game of Thrones. There can’t be. There are very few novels or histories with anywhere near the popularity of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire — and the built-in fanbase was a huge reason the show had staying power initially. And the story itself is a unique combination of different traits: epic high fantasy of prophecy and apocalypse, gritty historical-style politicking, massive plot twists and shocking deaths, violence and sexuality, massively complicated histories and backstory, and deconstruction of the fantasy genre and our expectations for how fiction works.
But what was the secret sauce? If no other existing properties had all of these traits, which ones of them could be used to chase that next Game of Thrones? It’s worth checking them out.
Blood, Sword, and Leather
The bulk of the early GoT-wannabes were historical and violent. Action-based costume dramas, as it were, for people who thought “Blackwater” was Game of Thrones at its best (not that they’re wrong). There are two major reasons for the bloody histories to be the easiest focus: First, the producers don’t have to have the rights to history, like they would a novel series. Second, there’s a long history of Hollywood having success with violent historical drama — usually Roman, with “swords and sandals” flicks like Ben-Hur or Gladiator, but nothing said it couldn’t be medieval.
And so we end up with a pile of shows about men with beards (and occasionally women without beards) waving bloody swords and charging into battle. The most notable of these — both critically and ratings-wise — is probably History’s Vikings. With the advantage of taking place in one of the most shrouded-by-legend eras of medieval history — the start of the Viking Age and the exploits of Ragnar Lodbrok — Vikings has taken advantage of that to become a strong drama in its own right. It’s not the next Game of Thrones, but it’s been a success for History.
The same cannot be said for Netflix’s Marco Polo or FX’s The Bastard Executioner, both of which had big budgets and big ambitions, and largely fell flat. Yet the push to look to history mixed with legend for the next Game of Thrones continues — the BBC is pushing for a big-budget Trojan War series to compare to GoT with Troy: Fall of a City. Perhaps it will do better than ITV’s Beowulf.
But the most promising of the historical action series may already be airing on the BBC: The Last Kingdom, the story of England in the time of Alfred the Great (with Rutger Hauer popping up!), with the incipient nation on the verge of total Viking conquest. After a well-received first season, this historical epic is worth keeping an eye on to see if it can maintain its acclaim and rise in the ratings.
The Councilroom Backstabbings
One of the very best scenes in all of Game of Thrones took place early in its third season, when the Hand of the King and most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms, Tywin Lannister, finally arrived in the capital. The members of the Small Council all play a game of musical chairs, each trying to sit near the new center of power, although the ever-pugnacious Tyrion takes a different tack.
This is the political/historical side of Game of Thrones. While the story’s reputation for being “history” is somewhat overrated, the idea that the backbiting, struggles for status, easy betrayals, and ruthless attempts at eminently petty politics are the core of the story aren’t necessarily wrong.
The most-acclaimed of any series on this list is Wolf Hall, a BBC miniseries that aired on PBS in America. In the Masterpiece Theater tradition, it’s the adaptation of a novel about the historical battle for power in Henry VIII’s court between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More. But with a collection of Game of Thrones actors — Jonathan Pryce, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and Harry Lloyd, for example — and similar themes.
Perhaps any medieval or early-Renaissance costume drama might be compared to Game of Thrones fairly or unfairly these days. And yet it’s hard to imagine something like the CW’s Reign getting the greenlight on an American TV network without Game of Thrones proving that young people can love political costume dramas. It’s still a CW show, through and through, with sexy teens hooking up and backstabbing one another à la Gossip Girl or The Vampire Diaries, and string quartets playing Lorde in the 16th Century.
And while at a glance the CW’s brand may seem far away from HBO’s Game of Thrones, remember that many of the most inspiring scenes in Thrones occur when its teens, like Dany, Jon, Arya, or Sansa, break out and start kicking ass.
While the historical would-be Game of Thrones certainly have strengths, part of the appeal of the series is that it isn’t in the real world, and magic is possible. Despite that, fantasy series have only recently started appearing.
Playing It Straight
For MTV, the gamble is on people just wanting fantasy. Roughly the only thing the Shannara series has in common with Game of Thrones is that it’s based on some really long fantasy novels. But Shannara is pure, conventional fantasy — the sort that A Song of Ice and Fire was written to deconstruct.
And yet it’s hard to argue too much with the idea that much of the appeal of Game of Thrones is watching attractive people on nice sets do fantasy things. Shannara doesn’t look quite as good as Thrones, but it’s certainly not bad to just watch (and, given the show’s penchant for overdramatic fantasy declarations, it might better that way).
The Fantasy Deconstruction
Game of Thrones is fantasy, but it isn’t fantasy. That is, it deliberately tries to overturn generic expectations while also maintaining them. It kills off its heroes, even as it has long-lost heirs to the throne on quests likely to lead them to the crown. In other words, it derives from being being both conventional and unconventional. Not many other heroic fantasy series do that — but not all fantasy is Tolkien-like.
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy applies similar analytic and satirical methods to those different fantasy stories — specifically Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. Like Thrones, it takes a conventional premise, and makes it darker, sexier, more violent, and perhaps most important, filled with consequence for power. There’s also a playful edge to The Magicians in a formal way that makes the darkness tolerable, even fun. Grossman clearly loves the fantasy he’s deconstructing in his story, and engages with it directly in his prose.
How much this will show up in Syfy’s adaptation of the series is a continuing question. The consequences are there — every episode has its own story about how magic can destroy your life. Whether it can add the playful satire to the dark drama remains to be seen.
The Science Fiction Game of Thrones
Science fiction and fantasy have long been intertwined both conceptually and in marketing, so chasing down a sci-fi Thrones seems like a worthwhile endeavor. But there’s no single novel series that comes close to ASOIAF’s popularity, influence, and potential television adaptability. But as with The Magicians, Syfy gave it a go with The Expanse, which offered a darker, grittier take on the usually inspiring space opera genre.
But The Expanse, like many of the series here, lacked Game of Thrones’ most potent weapon: unpredictability. There’s nothing like the shock of seeing the lead character suddenly dead, as happened in Thrones’ first season. But in terms of bringing quality space drama back to television, it’s been more than welcome.
The Expanse won’t be alone for long, though. Spike TV, of all channels, is adopting Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, with Babylon 5 and Sense8’s J. Michael Straczynski writing. The Mars novels may lack the pulpy, bloody excitement of Thrones, but they’re well-loved in science fiction literature circles.
And there’s also The 100, a show that started as a mix of teen drama, Lord of the Flies, and Battlestar Galactica. But by the third season, it’s practically a fantasy epic, albeit post-apocalyptic. This is not a look for a main character you’d expect in anything but fantasy, for example.
Although The 100 focuses on choice and consequence, sex and death, there isn’t much to show that it’s directly influenced by Game of Thrones. That’s fine. The longer time goes on, the less likely networks are to stop chasing the impossible specifics of a next GoT, and the more likely they are to learn that it’s just that people can like speculative fiction, costume dramas, politics, violence, and genre deconstruction. There isn’t a secret sauce, or at least, not a duplicatable one. And that’s fine — the more good shows the better.