How Fantasy TV Roared in 2022

If you were to think of high-profile TV shows as stars streaking through the pop culture firmament, then the appearance of three highly anticipated fantasy series a month apart might be considered inauspicious.

If nothing else, fantasy TV is currently dominating small-screen conversation like it hasn’t since « Game of Thrones » ended in 2019.

« If you’re a fan of fantasy or if you’re just a fan of good storytelling, this is a great time for you, » said Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who plays a queen regent in « The Lord of the Rings: The Rings. of Power,” during a Q&A with the Television Critics Association.

This series, based on appendices and other text snippets in JRR Tolkien’s « Lord of the Rings » novels, premieres September 2 on Prime Video.

It was preceded on August 5 by « The Sandman » on Netflix, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s beloved comic book series, and last Sunday on HBO by « House of the Dragon », a prequel to « Game of Thrones ». « , based on George RR Martin’s novels « A Song of Ice and Fire ».

All three shows took years to prepare; all three carry the heavy weight of fan expectations, but also the desirability that comes with being tied to beloved literary properties.

Allan Heinberg understands these expectations. He’s not only one of the creators of « The Sandman » series, alongside Gaiman and David S. Goyer, he’s a lifelong fan of the comics.

« I’ve lived with ‘The Sandman’ now for 34 years as a fan, » Heinberg said in a phone interview. He’s been living with the idea of ​​bringing the comics to the screen for almost as long, around 25 years.

Heinberg called « The Sandman », published between 1989 and 1996, « a very unique, unusual, powerful and inspiring work (created by) love and curiosity about how life works and how death works, and about the way we love another. »

Interestingly, he doesn’t see « The Sandman » as a fantasy series, but more of a relationship drama and family saga, though he did acknowledge that some of them are set in fantasy realms.

Likewise, Patrick McKay said he and co-creator JD Payne didn’t consider « The Rings of Power » to be a fantasy drama in the mold of « Game of Thrones. » But that and « Sandman » certainly fit the bill if you define fantasy television as creating worlds outside the rules of everyday human experience and telling complex, serialized stories within those worlds, which is the definition put forward by Robert Thompson, television and pop culture. professor and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Fantasy contains « an element of the paranormal, things that don’t actually happen on planet Earth, which makes it share dramatic territory with science fiction, » Thompson said in a phone interview.

And those things make sense « as long as you’re willing to accept the fact that this is a parallel world and not the one we live in, a world that has orcs and elves and magic and all that. »

Clearly, the fact that books like Tolkien’s have been greedily devoured for decades – the « Rings » trilogy was first published in 1954 and 1955 – shows that consumers of culture are willing to take that leap. .

But « Game of Thrones » prepared viewers for the kinds of big-budget fantasy shows getting the green light today, not just « Rings » and « Dragon » and « The Sandman, » but titles like « The Witcher. » « , « The Wheel of Time » and even « Stranger Things ».

« I think HBO took a huge risk on ‘Game of Thrones’ originally, » Heinberg said. “And the response indicated that there was a huge appetite and a passion, and that absolutely allowed streamers to invest those kinds of time and money to tell those kinds of stories because they saw the proof that an audience existed, a highly coveted audience.

« So I’m deeply grateful to ‘Game of Thrones’ and the success of that show. »

Thompson, however, argued that while « Thrones » made it easier to sell fantasy series, « it’s an example of a trend that was already happening and was going to happen » – fueled by extraordinary developments in technology generated by computer and digital; the rise of serialization in the 1980s with shows like “Dallas” and “Hill Street Blues”; and the emergence of the anti-hero as a brand of so-called prestige television, the Tony Sopranos, Walter Whites and Vic Mackeys.

Evil, or at least morally ambiguous, characters abound in shows like « Thrones, » which tell the story of noble families fighting for control of a vaguely medieval kingdom, and an apocalyptic battle for existence among humans. and the supernatural beings known as the White Walkers.

Its prequel, « House of the Dragon, » follows the ancestors of « Thrones » character Daenerys Targaryen, a dragon-taming royal family embroiled in civil war. And it obviously benefited from the success of « Thrones, » with nearly 10 million viewers watching the premiere on HBO and HBO Max in the United States, according to Variety, the largest premiere audience in HBO history.

« Rings », meanwhile, is set thousands of years before the events of « The Lord of the Rings » and « The Hobbit » books, and encompasses elves, dwarves, harfoot (prehistoric hobbits), men and other creatures. It is said to be the most expensive television series ever made.

Robert Aramayo as Elrond and Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in

“The Sandman,” on the other hand, is mostly set in the present day, but focuses on a supernatural being known as Dream, lord of dreams and nightmares, who seeks to undo the damage done to humanity after to have been held prisoner for a century.

The goal of all of these shows, naturally, is to attract viewers beyond what Thompson called the « guaranteed audience » already familiar with the source material.

Heinberg said the hardest part of making « The Sandman » was staying true to that source material while « carrying television, both for longtime die-hard fans and for people who didn’t have never read the books.

Whether he and his co-creators succeeded is still debated by those fans as well as TV critics, but « The Sandman » stood at No. 1 on Netflix’s Global Top 10 list three weeks after its debut. (Gaiman told fans on Twitter that might not be enough to warrant a second season, noting it’s « a very expensive show. »)

Tom Sturridge as Dream and Kyo Ra as Rose Walker in "The sand man."

Attracting viewers who are not yet familiar with « Lord of the Rings » was also a concern for McKay and Payne of « The Rings of Power »: for these viewers, « we hope that the human drama or sometimes the non-human drama of it will be as engaging and accessible to you as it is to maybe a super fan,” McKay said.

A popular theory holds that fantasy television appeals to viewers because it allows them to escape their everyday reality, but Thompson disputes this.

« If you’re going to escape…are you really going to want to escape with all the horrible things that happen on a lot of these (shows)? » he said.

« ‘Game of Thrones’ might be a different world, but it looks just as ugly as the one I’m in. That theory would argue more for the presence of shows like ‘Ted Lasso’. »

Steve Toussaint, who plays Lord Corlys Velaryon in « House of the Dragon, » would disagree that it’s full of nasty stuff, but suggested the fantasy elements help keep the ugliness palatable.

« Dragon » is about « this family torn apart, » he said in an interview. “It’s a question of ambition, jealousy, conspiracy. People also get their heads cut off. But I think we’re able to look at human behavior all at once… People still don’t like each other and so on, but there are dragons.

Steve Toussaint, who plays Lord Corlys Velaryon in

It’s a balancing act, however, between creating a world far enough from it that catastrophic events don’t hit too close to home, but not so far that viewers can’t get away. identify with the characters.

As Toussaint said, « If you don’t believe in the character we’re portraying, if you don’t buy in and don’t have empathy, all the swords and all the dragons won’t save you. »

McKay shared a similar thought during the TV Critics Q&A.

« I think when you’re telling a story in a world as large and complex and sometimes political and sometimes poetic as this, it’s really important to stay anchored to a mother and a daughter, or a couple of friends, or a father-son, or a husband and wife, as opposed to a Númenórean or a dwarf or an elf.

Ismael Cruz Cordova, who plays the Silvan elf Arondir in « The Rings of Power, » summed it up most movingly:

« I grew up in Puerto Rico, I grew up in houses with dirt floors and I had so many difficulties in my life. And every time I saw Tolkien – because I saved everything my money to buy my first DVD, « The Lord of the Rings » (film) – I felt in there I felt this spiritual and emotional connection, especially with the elves coming from the mountains, I found there a little house.

« The Sandman » is now streaming on Netflix. « House of the Dragon » releases new episodes every Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO and Crave. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” debuts September 2 on Prime Video.

Debra Yeo is an associate editor and contributor to Star’s Entertainment section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo


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