On Game of Thrones and what the hell is wrong with me.

Yes, I know he's dead, but I like Sean Bean. Sue me.

I do not watch Game of Thrones. I have not read, nor do I intend to read, the books.

“Huh?”, I hear you say, and not unreasonably. Given my specs (Minor Fantasy Geek, Reader Of Big Books, and Married To Same), one could very well ask what the hell is wrong with me.

I’ll tell you what the hell: Everything I’ve heard/read/seen about both the books and the series based upon them (and I did watch a few episodes in the first season, and have seen a few scenes since) has impressed very firmly upon me that this is entertainment predicated on sadism, depravity, and hopelessness, and that’s all I need to know.

Both book and TV show may very well be laden with other things, too — the husband can’t stop talking about George RR Martin’s writing, and I’ve seen enough of the HBO series to know that there’s a little something called acting going on, not to mention the fact that I am surely a reasonable audience for representations of rich fantasy worlds — but I honestly don’t care. I’m just curious enough to follow online discussions and sort out the answers to questions that puzzle me about the plot, but for real: There is enough sadism, depravity, and hopelessness in the real world. I honestly cannot understand why I would seek it out in my entertainment.

Which brings me back to why I never liked Seinfeld.

Sadism? What would you call humor based in the foreknowledge that every.single.thing will go wrong for these people? Depravity – well, just consider the spectacular dysfunction of the relationships. And of course hopelessness – see: Point A. Moreover, there was not a single character in all of Seinfeld with whom I would have wanted to spend 20 actual minutes of my actual life. Why on earth give all of them 20 minutes on a regular basis?

I can handle death, pain, dismemberment, disappointment. I am, after all, the daughter of a dead man and an Israeli, to boot — you cannot frighten me with your human frailty and whatnot!

But I suppose I need just a whiff of hope. A bit of wiggle room for the human spirit and flights of grace — even in fantasy, even in comedy. Game of Thrones, no — but  Firefly and The Hunger Games, yes. Seinfeld, no — but WKRP and Sportsnight, yes. Is that too much to ask of my TV box?

Though looking at the above, it could be argued that I am, perhaps, due for a new sitcom in my life.

Hey, The Husband? I think I need to DVR Community and Parks and Rec.

Unless they make me sad, in which case I’ll stop.

‘Cause I have my day-job for that.

32 Comments

  1. corkingiron

     /  April 23, 2012

    I doubt that a series like this would be particularly popular in any time other than our own. It requires the belief that there is very little good in the world, and that we are – if not in the end times – at least in a fin de siecle. So we have a few characters who are trying to live honorable lives – where their words count for something and their actions mean something – whilst they are surrounded by corruption, an impending environmental disaster (Winter’s coming! Winter’s coming!) and the usual grotesque array of human cupidity.

    All of which is to say that your dislike of the series surprises me; it is the reader/viewer who brings the hope. And yes, George RR Martin dashes that hope again and again until it gets beyond annoying. And yet some characters persist; and we persist in cheering for them. Remember that “hope” was the only thing left in Pandora’s box when she opened it; the only thing still under human control when all the other evils were let loose in the world. Whether or not we see hope as a curse or a blessing (and I manage to back and forth frequently)it is an essentially human decision.

    And I agree with everything you wrote about Seinfeld.

    • Darth Thulhu

       /  April 24, 2012

      Ditto on Seinfeld. I was close to a social pariah for refusing to watch that show. The meta-premise is funny enough to carry the introduction, and a few episodes are worth it for the sheer compounding absurdity of the situations involved … but an entire season? The whole series? No.

      And I agree that “the reader supplies the hope” with Game of Thrones. Some jerks turn it around. Some honorable people live to fight another day. Some people you care about endure. Some light always flickers fitfully against the guttering darkness.

      Martin’s world is absolutely, brutally, monstrously sadistic. It is deeply modeled on historical humanity, after all. But no matter how fierce the lash and how terrible the tyrant, moments of light are everywhere a part of it.

      • (I’ll just note that my academic discipline is Middle Eastern Studies, which goes all the way back to the 7th century-ish, and just this morning I was telling my son about the Sweep of the Mongol Hordes, in which the Mongols literally laid waste to entire populations, and then stacked the skulls where they could be seen from far away. I followed this up with an aside about how people have been hanged from and outside of the walls of the Holy City of Jerusalem since it was founded, literally up to and including the British Empire. So there a solid dollop of “I get enough reality with my reality, thankyouverymuch” in all of this).

  2. Bookwoman

     /  April 23, 2012

    I loved Seinfeld, but could never understand why it was popular outside the greater East Coast metropolitan Jewish area. So many of the episodes were so particular to that setting and sensibility, that my husband used to occasionally turn to me and say, “Why would someone in Wisconsin want to watch this?”

    I agree with you that the characters are awful – to me, they’re so awful that they’re funny, which is why I also love Curb Your Enthusiasm. But it’s certainly not for everyone.

  3. wearyvoter

     /  April 23, 2012

    Regarding “Parks and Recreation”: Start with season two. That’s when they really got on their game. (I’m catching up online, because I am never home when it’s on.) “Community” is fun, and very meta. They like to play with the form. Sometimes it’s a swing and a miss, but when they’re on target, the show is very good.

  4. About 5 years after The Sopranos concluded on cable, I got tired of not knowing the references in the New York Times crossword puzzle. [The Sopranos Falco: ans, EDIE]. I checked the series out from the library and caught up. Same with The Wire, except that masterpiece hadn’t buried itself deep enough into popular culture to make it into the NYT crossword; that rec came from a friend. Same for Deadwood.

    I have no earthly idea about Community, Parks and Recreation, or Game of Thrones. I know I’m desperate for hope and not much fond of sadism, depravity or hopelessness.

    I’m working my way through The West Wing for about the 4th time; the boxed set finally rang my price buzzer low enough to buy. There’s no sadism, there’s no depravity, and the theme of every episode is hope. I’ve wondered more than once if Obama didn’t run his play book off the scripts from season 6: the unlikely “elect a minority candidate from an Electoral College vote-rich state for President.”

    The distance between then and now on the political scene provides me with enough depravity, sadism, and hopelessness to entertain the darker angels of my nature. The distance between then and know on the artistry of television scene is doubtful. What any of that says about politics or the artistry of media is murky.

    • Like I said downthread, Sopranos is way bleaker than GoT. That’s a show that really rubs the viewer’s face in his or her own darkest hopes and desires. Tony Soprano slowly morphed from an interesting but fatally compromised anti-hero to one of the most repulsive characters in any medium, ever. Watching his descent, one of entirely of his own making, really makes the back half of the show into something you have to bear more than you enjoy. On GoT, since there isn’t a center around which the show revolves from the 2nd season forward, you can sort of dip in and out of this character or that character and pick the ones that you identify with and root for.

      • (PS You might imagine I never watched the Sopranos either…).

        • That’s a definite stay-away. I think it’s more surprising that a show like that was a big hit than that Seinfeld was. Seinfeld was funny. But I guess people just really like the idea of gangsters doing violence to each other, which happened just enough to keep peoples’ attention.

          You might at least dip your toes into “Justified”. It has some of that moral complexity, but it’s also built around a character who, for all of his faults, is still an officer of the law doing his job to the best of his ability.

  5. OKay

     /  April 23, 2012

    I get your dislike of GoT. It reminds me of my dislike for hardcore death-metal. I flit from musical style to style all day, but that is one form of structured noise that closes my ear-flaps.
    I agree with Cork. These are the days for a good tragedy. If only someone would write one.

  6. Ash Can

     /  April 24, 2012

    Seeing as our household has only the most basic cable package and watches no primetime TV other than sports, cartoons, and Mythbusters, you could take what I know about any popular series, put it in your eye, and it wouldn’t make you blink. But I’ll take your word on Game of Thrones, since I too never warmed up to Seinfeld, for the same reasons you mention. My husband liked it, so I’ve seen at least parts of numerous episodes. In my estimation, it had its (isolated) moments, and a couple of the characters had a slight underlying charm to them, but that was never enough to overcome the overall unlikeableness of the overwhelming majority of the characters or the thoroughly uninteresting nature of the program.

  7. First of all, Parks and Rec is basically made specifically for people with your problem. It is about people who like each other and try, in their own ways, to make each others’ lives better. It’s also very funny. You should totally be watching it.

    As to Game of Thrones – alright. I mean, every show isn’t for everyone. You are kind of overselling just how much hopelessness is present in the series; for all of the bad things that people do to each other, there are clearly characters in the show and the books that we can very easily root for. The Sopranos was a much bleaker show (I think it’s the bleakest show that has ever run on TV), built around a protagonist who was basically the nightmare-world version of a typical alpha-male type. And even that show had moments of grace and beauty amidst all the human wreckage.

    You’re not wrong for choosing to avoid GoT (or Breaking Bad, which is another pretty brutal show in terms of its view of humanity) but it is about more than human misery. Really.

    • I actually thought about this yesterday when we had our semi-monthly back-and-forth about how I should be watching Breaking Bad — from the little I’ve seen, I just can’t bear it.

      And I think that’s it, for me: There’s a threshold for suffering in entertainment that I can bear, and GoT, which clearly has a lot going for it, just crosses that line for me — nearly every time I watch so much as a single scene, in fact. I did catch Daenerys at the gates of Qarth and that was many kinds of awesome, for a whole lot of interesting reasons, but I had a hard time just reading io9’s recap of Sunday’s episode (in which reading this post was born!).

      I will say this: Art that is about human misery is about being human. There’s nothing that isn’t miserable, at some point or at many points, about being human. Even the good things end in ashes. So exploring how we live through, cause, react to all of that in our entertainment is entirely worthy and something I often seek out. But apparently I have an invisible tipping point in my mind where the amount of misery (and in this case, honestly: The depravity content as well – for instance: Really? A man whose many, many wives are also his many, many daughters? /shudder) is just that much too much more than the amount of Other Stuff and I just can’t bear it.

      And I’m going to set the DVR for Parks & Rec this minute.

      • You can start watching P&R right now, there’s an ongoing plot about a city council election but you’ll figure it out. If you like it and you go back to earlier seasons, you can probably follow wearyvoter’s advice and skip season 1. They were still figuring out the characters, especially Leslie, and it plays with a lot of the sort of cringe comedy that “The Office” made its bread and butter, but which I’m guessing you aren’t that keen on and, honestly, that Parks and Rec never did all that well anyway. Once season 2 starts and they have a handle on who Leslie is (a high achiever whose vision sometimes reaches beyond her own means and usually reaches beyond everyone else’s) then the show found its proper rhythms.

    • Bookwoman

       /  April 24, 2012

      And even that show had moments of grace and beauty amidst all the human wreckage.

      Indeed it did. And it had Edie Falco, who is a joy to watch even when her character is incredibly bleak (cf. Nurse Jackie).

  8. PS All of the above also goes a really long way to explaining why I don’t just dislike horror as a genre, I genuinely don’t understand how people can enjoy it. GoT I can at least understand, but horror is beyond me.

    • Ash Can

       /  April 24, 2012

      While I can’t watch realistic blood and gore (although I’ve learned from certain Japanese manga that I can handle cartoon-drawn blood and gore), I can appreciate horror as a genre because of the way it has — when it’s done well — of portraying an underlying understanding of and appreciation for the human condition and the eternal struggle of right vs. wrong. This shows up in classics like Dracula and Frankenstein, and any other time the genre is handled by someone with a good sense of plot building, character development, and suspense. Done well, it can go so far as to help us face our own fears, understand them better, and discover ways to deal with them. It can be metaphoric, allegorical, and even cathartic. And the components of a broader tale that fit the mold of horror can be suitable and even enhancing counterpoints to the characters and to other action in the story.

      I guess what I’m saying is that I see a delineation between using horror simply to shock the audience, and using horror as a tool to tell a well developed story. I don’t go out of my way to indulge in the genre, but I do understand, and have seen, how it can be genuinely and legitimately enjoyable.

    • Darth Thulhu

       /  April 24, 2012

      I don’t just dislike horror as a genre, I genuinely don’t understand how people can enjoy it. GoT I can at least understand, but horror is beyond me.
      The following may not make as much sense as I’d hope, and it is not something I normally ever get into in a casual discussion because of all the background assumptions built into it, but I think I’ve shared enough of the relevant background here that I can make a go of it …

      I don’t simply appreciate, but really, really like horror (and metal, while we’re at it). Two of the largest reasons for that are:
      1) As one who has been intimately abused in the past, the form and function of horror allows me to re-experience and process analogous emotions in a productive manner of “engaged detachment”.
      2) As a person of faith, horror lets me introspectively explore even the bleakest darkness and inevitably bear witness to the ever-present light.

      On the front of personally enjoying horror as a detached engagement with trauma, I find that willfully walking into a controlled nightmare lets me carefully feel and reflect upon the depicted trauma, coolly appreciate the relevant insights into the darker parts of reality and human nature, and cathartically transcend any fears raised by the nightmare while nevertheless riding the relevant emotional roller coaster. The flavor of the fear can be calmly turned over, savored, and set aside, if that makes any sense, with the attendant adrenaline rush as a positive emotional experience. It helps me develop empathy for those who suffer, and helps me control my own emotional response when I encounter bigotry and darkness in the real world.

      And on the point of faith, that sense of emotional control helps me directly consider the breadth of hate and darkness in the world without succumbing to the emotion of despair. However weak, a light is always present. However bleak the circumstance, the unprovable miracle of grace abides.

      It’s fun.

      (Sorry to be weird😉 )

      • Ash Can

         /  April 24, 2012

        I for one found this analysis fascinating.

      • I agree with Ash Can, and thank you for this — and yet, I confess, it is very much as if you are speaking Greek. I believe that this is your experience, and yet I cannot begin to genuinely imagine it.

        But on the “weird” front, I’m totally with you.

      • Laura

         /  April 13, 2014

        Great response… I have a different relationship to horror though, I was also abused as a kid and my early fascination with the horror genre fed an addiction to terror, I have turned away from that because for me it is a dark indulgence that taints my spirit. Children who are abused know there is darkness but I think need to focus on the light.

  9. SWNC

     /  April 24, 2012

    I used to have a much higher tolerance for gritty fiction than I do now. I read the first 4 books of GoT, but I have no desire to re-read them again. I just cannot handle sexual violence or violence against children in my fiction at this point in my life. That may change in the future, but right now I feel like my real life has plenty enough grit in it.

  10. R_Bargis

     /  April 24, 2012

    Thanks for posting this – the sadism is one of several reasons why I stopped watching GoT after this last week’s episode. A minute into the completely unnecessary* and brutal torture scene on last week’s episode I wondered what the heck I was doing watching something so awful. I have better things to do with my time than watching people do terrible things in graphic detail for no better reason than “look at how eeeeevil they are!”

    *I get it, the idea is that Joffrey is a sick little jerk and the fish rots from the head. I still don’t want to watch a stupid torture scene. It’s not clever, it’s overdone.

    • I disagree with your opinion, but I guess that’s why it’s called an opinion.

      • R_Bargis

         /  April 24, 2012

        Thinking a thing is stupid is pretty arbitrary. For instance, for whatever reason I liked the Harry Potter books, and it’s a lot dumber than GoT.

  11. kathy.

     /  April 25, 2012

    The “sadism” claim is totally off-base, unless you are referring to the author. The series is extraordinarily violent, but every character commits every violent act for reasons that the reader will eventually come to understand. If you think about it, Tolkein’s orcs are far more hopeless a creation than anything in GoT. There is no purely evil creation in GoT. If you see Joffrey or Viserys as counter-examples to this claim, just remember the sickness that they exhibit, and the fact that both of those characters are also children.

    The best reasons to read the series are certain characters who make the GoT universe come alive. Arya, Danaerys, and Tyrion. I shudder to think what might happen to them in the future, but so far so good.

  12. LizR

     /  April 26, 2012

    You should definitely, definitely, be watching Parks and Rec. It’s all about people working together and bringing out the best in each other. Community is also a super fun and often sweet look at how a group of friends hangs together. If you’re looking for happy funtimes you might also want to check out Cougar Town. It’s not quite as good as the other two, but I swear that after the first, like, six episodes, it’s just a sweet show about a group of friends hanging out and not at all about Courtney Cox dating younger men (they’ve taken to subtitling the show with something mocking the name every week, and this week’s was “She’s marrying a man her own age, so why is it called Cougar Town?”).

  13. It’s the same with me. I can’t get why people love it so much, I love shows like Doctor Who or Sherlock. I just have this nagging thought in my head that we as humans can do better entertainment than that, but thats probably the idealist in me.