It’s good to be the king. Or is it? Given the wealth of information available in fantasy literature, it seems like being the king is a lousy job. Take two new pay-cable series as evidence: HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Starz’ “Camelot.”
There are many similarities between the two shows. Both are faux medieval fantasy series concentrating on the trials, tribulations and usurpations of running a kingdom. Both have a manly appreciation for swinging swords and topless maidens. Both are based on well-read pieces of literature.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” comes from George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Fire and Ice novels. Shot in Ireland and Malta, the televised version has an epic, authentic look. (HBO is dumping about $5 million into each episode.) The large cast is uniformly impressive. Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings) does solid, center-stage work as the ostensive hero Ned Stark, beleaguered right-hand man to politically besieged King Baratheon (British comedian Mark Addy). The show’s other standout is Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) as Tyrion Lannister, the king’s self-serving but sympathetic brother-in-law.
For those unversed in the original novels, it takes studious attention to sort out the many people and places. Still, the show does a commendable job of keeping it all straight for viewers. (It took me well into the second episode to figure out that the dude the queen was secretly shtupping was her brother, but I got it worked out.) Basically, we’ve got a long-deposed royal family (the Targaryens) conspiring to take back the throne from King Baratheon. We’ve got loyal Ned Stark trying to protect the king and keep his own lordly line alive. And we’ve got incest-loving Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) hatching evil schemes inside the palace.
The show will appeal most to anglophiles, who relish keeping track of royal lineages and historical dates. The show eschews most of the traditional trappings of fantasy (monsters, magic) in favor of political intrigue. Producers have dubbed it “ ‘The Sopranos’ in Middle-Earth,” but it’s mostly a fictionalized rewrite of the Wars of the Roses.
“Camelot,” on the other hand, is the umpteenth re-imagining of the myth of King Arthur. Unlike “Game of Thrones,” which is likely to please literate types, “Camelot” will probably offend those well-versed in Arthurian lore. The producers of this show have taken great liberties with the story—not the least of which is casting King Arthur as a wussy, long-haired pretty boy (Jamie Campbell Bower) more suited to the cast of Twilight than this historic fantasy. (Oh, wait. He was in a Twilight movie.) Other cast members look good on paper. In practice, though, Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) spends way too much time being mysterious and chewing up the scenery as Merlin. Eva Green (Casino Royale) is sexy as all goth get-out playing manipulative witch Morgan. She chews the scenery more than Fiennes, but is more fun to watch.
With its bigger budget, more consistent acting and intrigue-filled scripts, “Game of Thrones” has the distinct advantage in this royal rumble.