Before Game of Thrones was everywhere, before televised White Walkers were even a twinkle in David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s eyes, vampires were the big cultural juggernaut. The creatures weren’t as unified as Game of Thrones, with just one show and one set of novels about the subject. Some of your friends followed shows like True Blood or Being Human, others read Twilight, while many were more into films like What We Do In The Shadows or Only Lovers Left Alive. But vampires as a pop-culture force were as ubiquitous as the phrase “Winter is coming” is today.
Since trends operate in a cyclical way, it’s unsurprising that in recent years, overdosed on bloodsuckers, we’re now in an age of vampire fatigue. They’ll come back eventually, but they rest firmly in their coffins for the time being. The same will apply to medieval fantasy after Game of Thrones draws to a close in two years.
Since it’s indisputably the biggest show on TV, many hopeful shows have tried to capture the vaguely medieval, Tolkien-esque ambiance: FX’s mercifully short-lived Bastard Executioner, that MTV elf show, Netflix’s Marco Polo, History’s Vikings, Starz’s Outlander. Even Showtime’s court drama The Tudors might not have featured mythical creatures, but the suspension of disbelief needed to see the wiry Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII made it borderline fantastical.
Make no mistake: Fantasy is not going anywhere. Game of Thrones has proven that genre television is far from niche – and that can of worms is likely stay open. But we will grow tired of fantasy geared toward vaguely medieval sensibilities. After all, it’s a genre in which the writers have the ultimate freedom — characters can all be polygamous and get around in flying cars if the writers so chose. Although it’s a long-running tradition in the genre, there’s no need for all these stories to borrow from the trappings of medieval Europe. And so as Game of Thrones ebbs, so will the particular manner of fantasy that features kings and castles and people who have far too many titles in addition to their name.
In its place, we’ll see a new and innovative kind of fantasy storytelling rise up. We already have it with AMC’s buzzed-about Preacher, a bizarre and fantastical epic whose dusty landscapes are a far cry from castles and drapery. Following that, HBO’s next high-concept series is about robots, the Wild West, and the future. The jury is out on whether it will have wide-spread appeal enough to be as popular as Game of Thrones, as its source material isn’t as widely known, but it will certainly have a presence in pop culture conversations — if only for the inevitable “Will This Be HBO’s New Game of Thrones?” ponderings.
But even barring the success of Westworld, the next big fantasy show on the horizon takes place in this day and age. American Gods is going to be huge — Neil Gaiman has as many fans as George R.R. Martin, and the show is adapted from his best book — and it’s not your childhood Arthurian-influenced Tolkien-esque fantasy.
It has a distinctly modern flavor: It’s racially and sexually diverse, it examines non Anglo-centric cultures, and there are gas stations and weird roadside hotels alongside ancient beings and fantastical battles. George R.R. Martin was heavily influenced by Toklien, and even when his world subverts its tropes, it contains its trappings. American Gods has its share of classical influences, but it has far more in common with stories from authors like Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood.
And because American Gods will be big, other shows will invariably scramble to jump on that particular bandwagon. Now, if you love your fantasy full of named swords and ominous mutterings about Realms and Kingdoms and Randomly Capitalized Words, don’t despair. Vampires were big in the ‘70s with Interview with The Vampire and Salem’s Lot, then they went back into hibernation until the 90’s and early 2000’s. Courtly fantasy will not vanish forever. But it’s high time for a new kind of fantasy, and post-Game of Thrones, the world will be ready.