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Inside the quest for TV’s next big fantasy hit

In the wake of Game of Thrones, major studios including HBO, Netflix, and Amazon are all vying to create the next big fantasy TV success.
Once upon a time…fantasy was a genre of entertainment that was practically banished from the realm of television. Even the delightfully cheesy sword-and-sorcery epics like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Highlander: The Series that once aired at weird times on weird channels thanks to the wonders of syndication back in the 1990s had vanished, as if some evil network exec had cast a spell over the entire medium. All seemed lost.

And then came Game of Thrones. Just as The Sopranos successfully imported the gangster genre to the small screen, the hottest HBO show of the 2010s brought a big-budget and big-tent approach to mythical storytelling. In the process, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss turned George R.R. Martin’s book series about the power struggle for the Iron Throne of Westeros into not only the most popular television show in the world (watched in more than 170 countries) but also the most decorated (a record 59 Emmy wins).

“What Game of Thrones did so brilliantly was to take a complex fantasy story and spool it out in a way that was broadly accessible and yet incredibly elevated,” Marc Resteghini, head of U.S. TV development at Amazon Studios, says with audible awe. “It’s a credit to them in terms of executing at an A+ level in a way that brought fantasy to this huge audience and proved that globally there was a real hunger for it.”

But now that Game of Thrones is gone, has audience hunger for such material gone with it? Studios are betting the answer is no. Amazon’s series adaptation of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books — a noted influence on Martin’s writing — premieres Friday, and the e-commerce giant also has a new Lord of the Rings show debuting next year.

Meanwhile, HBO is going back to the Westeros well in 2022 with House of the Dragon, a prequel series about the glory days of House Targaryen based on Martin’s 2018 novel Fire & Blood — and the network has more spin-offs in development, even if they won’t say exactly how many.

“George R.R. Martin created a very large and detailed universe. What’s great about it is there are road maps and histories and characters that lend themselves to adapting for TV,” HBO’s chief content officer Casey Bloys told EW earlier this year. “I’d rather not come up with an arbitrary number [of sequels]. I really try to talk to each team about, what are the stories we’re telling? What are the characters worth highlighting? The number of shows that I want is the number of shows that are good.”

House of the Dragon

Emma D’Arcy and Matt Smith in ‘House of the Dragon’ | CREDIT: OLLIE UPTON/HBO
Speaking of quality control, can House of the Dragon recapture the passionate Game of Thrones fan base after all the fiery reactions to dragon-riding Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) burning a city to the ground rather than saving it? Sean T. Collins, a TV critic who cohosts the Westeros-themed podcast The Boiled Leather Audio Hour, believes the prequel could actually build on the original’s controversial conclusion.

“Ironically, I think Dany’s meltdown will help prepare people for House of the Dragon,” Collins says. “You have a lot more people like Dany melting down; there’s big dragon action, and cities get lit on fire. People unhappy with the way Game of Thrones ended could reevaluate it once they see this new show and are like, ‘Oh, that’s how the Targaryens operate. I get it now.'”

Building a franchise of multiple stories set in the same universe is a model that’s worked wonderfully for Marvel’s superheroes, and HBO isn’t the only platform trying to build a fantasy equivalent. In December 2019, Netflix launched the first season of The Witcher — starring Henry Cavill as the monster hunter Geralt of Rivia — based on a book series from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The show proved so successful (Netflix said it was viewed in 76 million households in its first month alone) that the streamer has since released an anime prequel film and has more spin-offs on the way.

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