Warner Bros. Discovery really wanted another “Game of Thrones” show.
Even before the era-defining series ended in 2019 with a finale that everyone famously loved, HBO contemplated story ideas for six different spin-offs, and even spent $30 million on a scrapped pilot starring Naomi Watts that wasn’t up to snuff.
But eventually, former WarnerMedia chairman Bob Greenblatt and HBO chief content officer Casey Bloys decided on “House of Dragons,” which was ordered directly to series and which will cost just a bit under $20 million per episode for a 10-episode season.
The series is based on characters and concepts from creator George RR Martin’s 2018 book “Fire & Blood,” and was developed by him and co-showrunners Ryan J. Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, a veteran director of “Game of Thrones” known for his ability to create cinematic battle sequences while not losing track of character beats.
Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has made it clear that he wants HBO Max to reach 130 million global subscribers by 2025, and certainly a broadly appealing show based on one of the network’s properties is going to be a big part of that plan. But while a spin-off might seem like a sure thing, history has shown that’s far from the case.
Spin-Offs Fail More Than They Succeed
The history of the spin-off is a mixed bag.
One of the most popular is, of course, “Frasier,” which ran for 11 seasons and won 37 Emmys, and is just as beloved as its progenitor “Cheers.”
But “Joey,” which NBC dearly wanted to continue to the success of “Friends,” was canceled after two seasons, with eight episodes not even airing. (The Zoomers that binge-watched “Friends” back into the cultural spotlight seem completely unaware of this series’ existence, which is warranted.)
The history of television is littered with spin-offs that read more like desperate cash-grabs than honest attempts to continue to explore the world of a popular show, such as the infamous debacle “AfterMASH,” which spent the ’80s as a cultural punchline . Same goes for the “Happy Days” spin-off “Joanie Loves Chachi.”
There were multiple attempts to spin-off “The Golden Girls,” none of them are fondly remembered. Even the biggest fan of “Dawson’s Creek” might not be aware that the spin-off “Young Americans,” even existed.
Then there are the more in-between shows.
While “Star Trek” fans passionately debate whether the original is better or if “Star Trek: The Next Generation” holds the crown, there are plenty of “Star Trek” spin-offs that are just kinda…there. They have decent fanbases and ratings, but only really register with the diehards.
Creating a long-lasting television that draws in a dedicated audience, be it broad or more culty, is a difficult bit of alchemy. It takes a strong central idea, the right actors and directors, the correct cultural timing, and the sort of creative spark that can’t be faked. Recognizable characters and a familiar world can help draw in the curious onlooker, but ultimately a television spin-off has to stand on its own legs, very quickly.
What Are Critics Saying About “House of Dragons”?
In a strange bit of cultural timing, “House of Dragons” isn’t just competing with “Game of Thrones.” It’s also competing with “Better Call Saul.” And let’s just say “House of Dragons” has its work cut out for it.
“Better Call Saul” recently aired its season finale, and has now been basically appointed as the greatest prequel ever, one that many feel surpassed “Breaking Bad.” It deepened the central ideas of its parent show, while also challenging them, arguing that it’s possible to reverse one’s moral rot, all while creating a show that felt both distinct and like a logical extension of “Breaking Bad.” So…that’s a lot for “House of Dragons” to live up to.
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So there are plenty of reasons from HBO’s side for another “Game of Thrones” series, even if many weary fans might view it as unnecessary wringing more juice out of well-known intellectual property.
And while skepticism is certainly warranted, there are valid creative reasons for a new “Game of Thrones” based series.
The pitch for “House of Dragons” is that it could address one of the central complaints about “Game of Thrones.” (No, not the Bran thing.)
“Thrones” featured so many characters, locations and families that it was often hard to keep track of it all. The show was so sprawling that some ideas felt underdeveloped or were only touched on fleetingly. A single episode might feature eight or more plot lines at once, and therefore not all of them felt fully realized.
Many fans pointed to episodes like the stand-out “Blackwater” as the show at its best, as it stayed in one place, told one story and featured one set of characters, and delivered on all the show could do.
In theory, a series that took that more focused-in approach on just the Targaryen family could achieve a similar effect. The Targaryen are one of the main families in Martin’s world, and before Daenerys Targaryen, the family members battled for the throne long before she set out to conquer the world.
But while the early notices are overall leaning positive, the show is already being criticized for lacking the humor and depth of “Game of Thrones,” and not feeling more distinctly like its own entirety, the way “Saul” did.
While critics like the main plot of the ineffective King Viserys I Targaryen, played by Paddy Considine, trying to find a successor while his conniving brother Prince Daemon Targaryen, played by Matt Smith, vies for the throne, other story ideas struggle to come into focus , and many of the antagonists, including a villain named the Crab Feeder, are very one note.
It’s also a common complaint that the show just gets downright confusing, as there are separate characters named Rhaenyra and Rhaenys, and the white wigs don’t just mostly look bad, they also make it hard to tell many of the characters apart.
But critics agree the show is well acted, especially once Olivia Cooke arrives, and the action sequences are up to snuff. Plus, there are apparently lots and lots of dragons, as this show knows what the audiences want.
Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall liked the idea of a more narrow focus…in theory. But unfortunately finds the Targaryen a bit boring, although he praises Considine’s performance as a dithering king.
Variety is mostly onboard, but thinks the show needs to develop its characters more, “Scenes tend towards the short and pointedly written, giving us much data but only the general contours of characters.”
Flawed but overall good seems to be the emerging consensus, as Ringer’s Alison Herman thinks the show does a good job setting up the characters, stakes and central plot, and finds the visuals suitably impressive, but finds it to be weirdly paced, and ultimately declares “House of the Dragon works so hard to replicate ‘Thrones,’ effectively and attentively, that it rarely tries to differentiate itself.”
Entertainment Weekly thinks the pilot is kinda eh and it takes a while for the show to find itself, but things pick up as it goes along. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
Another mixed review, this time from The Hollywood Reporter, which appreciated that the show challenges the patriarchal structures of the Targaryen family. But Daniel Feinberg thinks that all the wigs look bad, bad, bad! “Some people look fine in a Targaryen blonde wig, but the Targaryen blonde wigs don’t actually look good on anybody.”
Buzzfeed’s Eric Thurm wasn’t expecting much, but is forced to concede “House of Dragons’ “slaps.”
Hey, not all reviews are mixed. The Guardian loves it!
IGN warns there’s a lot of incest in this show. About a 1000% more incest than any other show.
But on the other end of the spectrum, The Daily Beast just thinks the entire thing is “dull,” noting that “What’s missing, unfortunately, is anything remotely novel, causing it to flirt perilously with pointlessness.”
The Washington Post finds the show slight and unnecessary, and lacking the grandiosity of “Game of Thrones,” while allowing that it’s not without its charms.
Been there, done that, says the Chicago Tribune.