“Game of Thrones” is finally ending. And with it will end the weekly, yearly and really daily opportunities to write think pieces about “Game of Thrones.” At least since the end of "Mad Men" in 2015, “Game of Thrones” has been the undisputed king of TV criticism, from recaps to hot takes to long form, from rape to racism to realism. It is the show that has seemingly united all serious TV watchers in a collective ritual of brow-furrowing.
No wonder that some critics are writing about this as the end of an era — maybe, the best-ever era. Alison Herman, anticipating the conclusion two years ago, mused that "it feels inadequate to discuss ‘Thrones’ as a simple TV show," and insisted it was the "last vestige of the monoculture." Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture mourned: "What current scripted series besides ‘Game of Thrones’ has the power to move and enthrall viewers so viscerally, and in such great numbers, all at once?" Seitz argues that with the new Netflix model, where entire seasons are released at once, "we" no longer have a collective experience of event television. “Game of Thrones” united us, perhaps for the last time.
It's worth asking, though, who this "we" really is. Were all of us really fascinated with “Game of Thrones"? I can say for sure that I wasn't. I saw the pilot, was bored and irritated, and never watched again.
Were all of us really fascinated with “Game of Thrones?” I can say for sure that I wasn't.
Maybe that's a failure on my part. But just because our cultural gatekeepers write think pieces about the same show doesn’t mean that's the show everyone is, or should be, thinking about. Who and what is erased when critics obsess about the Iron Throne?
One thing that's erased is the fact that the massive critical buzz about "Thrones" was never quite matched by its ratings. The series smashed records for HBO; its season seven finale in 2017 was seen by more than 12 million viewers. But that looks pretty anemic compared to 2018's No. 1-rated show, “Roseanne,” with 20 million average viewers. The second and third most-watched TV shows of 2018 — “Sunday Night Football” and “Big Bang Theory,” respectively — both averaged close to 18 million viewers in 2018, according to Nielsen. “Bull,” which was No. 10 last year, did better on average then “Game of Thrones” did in its mega-hyped season seven finale — around 13.5 million viewers.
“Game of Thrones,” then, isn't really a universal viewing experience. Compared to “Big Bang Theory,” it looks more almost a niche interest. But that niche is one which happens to be composed of people who want to read think pieces (and write them). It generates a great deal of online conversation. But if you want to talk about the cultural zeitgeist as a whole, the American public is, for better or worse, a lot more focused on innocuous sitcoms filled with sexual innuendo than they are on confrontational fantasy filled with sexual violence and incest.
Critical disinterest in the most popular TV shows is understandable to some extent. I wouldn't want to write weekly think pieces on “Young Sheldon” (close to 16 million average viewers) either. But the disconnect is unfortunate for a couple of reasons.
First, very popular television shows can tell you about the culture they're a part of. “Big Bang Theory,” for example, vacillates between loathing and fetishizing nerd culture. It has something quite relevant to say about an America in which certain men associated with gaming, or comics, or rationalist subcultures simultaneously see themselves as despised and entitled to attention and power.
Second, critics can't do much to hold very popular shows accountable if they never discuss them. Thousands of words have been posted about the way “Game of Thrones” handles sexual violence. But many more viewers are exposed to these issues through Dick Wolf's proliferating “Law & Order” franchise, or the shamelessly pro-police “Blue Bloods” on CBS. Television writers often push for more diverse casting. But that advocacy is going to have limited effect when the most-viewed shows (which are, in fact, largely headed by white actors) are hardly ever discussed.
Critics are supposed to help people find worthwhile art. But there's not much room for boosting neglected gems when everyone is recapping that one show again.
And it's not just the most popular shows that are undermined by critics' singular obsessions. There are a lot of smart, funny, gripping, thoughtful shows that are mostly ignored. Critics are supposed to help people find worthwhile art, which in turn helps that art flourish. But there's not much room for boosting neglected gems when everyone is recapping that one show again.
"Counterpart,” for example, a brilliant spy show about alternate worlds with a dazzling performance by J.K. Simmons, just got canceled. It's a series about terrorism, imperialism, prejudice and borders. It virtually demanded a critical response, which was never forthcoming. Other shows, like “Santa Clarita Diet” on Netflix are in the odd position of being both widely praised and widely ignored. Critics recommend them … and that's about all they have to say. (Which is a shame, because “Santa Clarita Diet” is a very smart show.)
It's not really a surprise that certain shows generate exponentially more criticism and discussion than others. Part of why fans like art is because it's a way to connect to other people. Economists have found that listeners prefer to download songs that lots of other people have downloaded. Humans like to herd. People who like to talk about television have decided to talk about “Game of Thrones," so they can all be sure they're talking about the same thing.
There's nothing wrong with that. Here I am talking about “Game of Thrones” too, after all. Communal experiences can be exhilarating and unifying. But they can also exclude and distort. Maybe, though, we can use the end of “Game of Thrones” to ask what all those think pieces failed to think about when they were thinking so uniformly about the one thing. Our cultural conversation will be richer if, after our long sojourn in Westeros, we can take this opportunity to travel to some other places.