Now and then, if you're lucky, you get what you paid for.
That hasn't often been the case at HBO lately. With a few exceptions (notably its most entertaining series, True Blood), HBO seems to have turned into the epitome of that old insult aimed at the nouveau riche: It has more money than taste.
Thankfully for fans of George R.R. Martin's ongoing epic fantasy, that is not the case with HBO's almost ideally done Game of Thrones (Sunday, 9 ET/PT; ***½ out of four). HBO might not be the only network that could produce Game; you can imagine it on the BBC with an equally good cast and starker production values. But it seems safe to say that no one else could do it better — or as extravagantly, with as much painstaking fidelity to Martin's vision.
Good is seldom the same as "easy." Sunday's return throws you right back into the middle of Martin's complex universe, populated by seemingly hundreds of characters, all involved in the struggle to rule the Seven Kingdoms. And in typical faux-medieval fashion, most have multiple names and titles, just to make it harder to keep track of shifting allegiances. Midway through, you may pray for a "Joe" or a "Bill" who's as trustworthy as Sean Bean's dear, departed "Ned" (shortened from the exotic "Eddard").
Ned's death has further destabilized the kingdoms, putting young Joffrey on the throne and sending the remaining Starks and much of the North into rebellion. New players, new threats and even new gods emerge, as a long winter and inevitable conflict approach.
This is a sprawling, exciting, blood-soaked story, filled with great set pieces and wonderful actors — led by Peter Dinklage, whose Tyrion Lannister gives Game what little humor it has. Don't, however, expect to find a rooting interest in this kingly competition. It's better to think of it as The Borgias with tiny dragons.
Yet that lack of an empathetic central focus is one of the reasons Game's appeal is deeper than it is broad. It's not just the genre and the at-times-pretentious solemnity keeping the series relegated to cult status; it's the absence of the kind of larger point or heroic goal that pushed fantasy's big-screen trinity —Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings— into mass acceptance.
At heart, those were clearly battles between good and evil, freedom and tyranny. Game is a contest among tyrants to see who rules them all. Some are more sympathetic, but in the end, who wins will likely mean little to those being ruled.
So take that title at its word. This is, indeed, a Game. Enjoy it, if you do, on that level. Just don't expect everyone else to play along.