Game of Thrones: 5 ways the epic fantasy drama changed TV forever

As Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon gets ready to launch on Sky Atlantic with NOW, we look back at how the HBO fantasy series became a once-in-a-generation show.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 1 August 2022 - 1.07pm
Game of Thrones artwork - a falling crown

Stream every episode of Game of Thrones, plus behind the scenes extras on Sky Atlantic with NOW

It's hard to fathom now, but there was once a time when creating a big-budget fantasy series involving dragons, White Walkers and Three Eyed Ravens was considered a big risk.

HBO's Game of Thrones might have become the biggest TV event of the last decade, but when the show launched in 2011 the TV landscape looked very different. Cop shows, medical shows, comedy, mystery and thrillers were standard fare – universe-building fantasy was considered risky and niche.

Across eight seasons, not only did the show capture the imaginations of millions of viewers around the world, it also pushed the boundaries of what TV makers can do and what TV fans expect.

Stream every episode of Game of Thrones, plus behind the scenes extras on Sky Atlantic with NOW

Game of Thrones was supposed to be impossible to adapt for TV – the scale and complexity of George R.R. Martin's novels made it almost unthinkable. But in 73 episodes, the show redefined what was possible and changed TV forever.

Here are five ways Game of Thrones ripped up the TV rulebook…

1. Fantasy TV goes mainstream

Politics, corruption, families at war, revenge, lovers, villains, stacks of dead bodies – the themes and central premise of Game of Thrones sounds like a no-brainer for a TV hit. However, it was the setting and genre that led many to believe it would be impossible to cross over into the mainstream.

The out-of-date and misleading stereotype that viewers wouldn’t engage in a TV show involving dragons, kingdoms and a war between the living and dead has now been erased forever.

Fantasy is no longer a dirty word - instead, it inspires excitement as viewers go on the hunt for the 'next Game of Thrones'.

It’s no surprise to see Netflix, Prime Video and the BBC investing in major fantasy series in the last five years (The Wheel of Time, Shadow and Bone, The Sandman, His Dark Materials), and the upcoming Lord of the Rings TV series feels like it wouldn’t have been possible without the success of Thrones.

2. TV shows get super-sized

Why should a TV show be any less epic, visually stunning or lavish than a film?

Game of Thrones didn’t just match anything you’d ever seen on TV before, it smashed the glass ceiling and sets a new bar for cinematic experiences on the small screen.

Whether it comes to the ground-breaking CGI, the battle sequences that pile layer upon layer of detail (and corpse upon corpse) or the breadth of incredible filming locations that bring to life the Seven Kingdoms, this isn’t any ordinary TV show.

3. It embraced the fandom

George R.R. Martin’s novels already had a passionate fanbase that cared about every character and the complex history of the Seven Kingdoms.

But the step into TV escalated the fan fiction, expanded the theories and generated epic social media deep dives into possible endings, twists or connections between characters.

Game of Thrones become a huge industry which was talked about all year round. The filming locations became tourist hot spots, celebrities such as Ed Sheeran secured cameos and the most minor characters were turned into cult heroes.

The fantasy series coincided with an explosion in social media use, but rather than fearing the expectations, the production embraced the warmth, dedication and insightfulness of the community.

4. It didn't sugar-coat anything

The age of good guys and bad guys, honourable heroes and dastardly villains in TV shows are long gone. The most honourable characters can commit an act of betrayal and even the most despicable rotters can elicit our sympathy.

Game of Thrones doesn’t treat its audience like children by offering happy endings and heroes that save the day.

Beloved characters can be brutally hacked to pieces in the blink of an eye, storylines can suddenly explode at the swish of a sword and no subject matter is considered off-limits or too dark.

5. Anyone can die

The death of Ned Stark in season one, wasn’t just huge plot point for the show, it readjusted viewers' expectations of what sort of show Game of Thrones was going to be.

Sean Bean had been front and centre of all the publicity and advertisements for the show and was the most recognisable face in the cast, which was filled with a large number of newcomers and young talent.

Those who had read the books knew what was coming, but for the millions following the story on TV, the character they had expected to be front and centre of the series for many years was abruptly and brutally killed off.

It ripped up the TV rulebook, dispensed with tradition and the new lack of certainty meant we’ve been on the edge of our seats ever since.

Stream every episode of Game of Thrones, plus behind the scenes extras on Sky Atlantic with NOW

Stream House of the Dragon weekly from 22 August on Sky Atlantic with NOW

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