Dragons are once again about to nest in HBO’s (and HBO Max’s) 9 p.m. Sunday night berth after a three-and-a-half-year absence. “House of the Dragon,” based on the (thankfully completed) section of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy history textbook “Fire & Blood,” brings back the Targaryens and their rather ferocious-looking pets in a story set 180 years before the original. And there’s more good news. While the “Game of Thrones” final season disappointed many fans, the new series is actually an improvement on the original in crucial ways. And though it still makes a few vital errors, the series is overall competent enough to resuscitate a franchise that seemed ready to burn itself out.
There’s just one catch. This definitely isn’t the long sought after “Next ‘Game of Thrones.’”
Major streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have been rushing to replace HBO’s gargantuan hit, ever since the final season was announced. But “Game of Thrones,” a big-budget fantasy based on a series of (still!) unfinished novels, seemed more likely to go the way of “Rome” than to outdo “The Sopranos” viewership. By the final seasons, the production had spent too long breathing in its own hype and wound up an oxygen-starved shell of its former self.
Nevertheless, showrunners are obsessed with re-creating that sense of cultural phenomena. “Game of Thrones” created an entire content ecosystem to satisfy the endless gaping maw of the eyeball economy. But a lot of what made this ecosystem flourish had to do with the showrunners’ inexperience. They created a show (and kick-started an obnoxious trend in prestige TV) that got rid of straightforward televisual episodic storytelling, creating open-ended space that was filled in by fan theories and speculation. Websites were happy to give the show premium coverage for clicks. TV content today has changed tremendously as a result; not content with recaps, every show is now followed by explainers and fan-theories and tiny-details-you-missed.
“House of the Dragon” easily supersedes its predecessor when it comes to striking the balance between a season-long arc and satisfying episodes with actual beginnings, middles and endings. It helps that the showrunners this time are experienced; Ryan Condal previously co-created the series “Colony” and Miguel Sapochnik was the most imaginative and effective director “Game of Thrones” ever had. The series’ premiere deftly introduces nearly a dozen and a half characters (not counting the dragons). Even more impressive, over the six episodes provided for review, “House of the Dragon” manages to keep all the characters straight, along with their relationships to one another by boiling down convoluted machinations into an easy-to-follow palace intrigue drama about the impending line-of-succession crisis. That’s no small feat, considering the Targaryen family tree is really more of an incestuous infinity loop with tangled intertwining names — Rhaenyra, Rhaenys, Aemon, Aegon, Laena, Laenor. (Indeed, characters are most easily identified by how badly the extraordinarily unflattering silver-platinum wigs wreak havoc on their skin tones.)
Those wigs are one of the few major misfires in what is otherwise a visual feast. No one looks good in them, and they make everyone start to blend together. I guess we can blame “Game of Thrones” in part for this, given how established the Targaryens aesthetic became. But still, someone should have tried to do … something.
The other serious error “House of the Dragon” makes is attempting to replicate the shock value of the original. “Game of Thrones’” traumatic moments — especially in the first season — worked because they upended the expectations of fantasy viewers. A kind-hearted boy is pushed out a window by a handsome knight desperate to cover up his sex life; the ostensible hero is thoughtlessly beheaded by a selfish child; the good guys are slaughtered in the middle of a wedding. “House of the Dragon” attempts to horrify in its first episode with ghastly moments of violence, but it’s not upending any fantasy tropes in the process. It’s just violence for violence’s sake, inserted so people can say “'Game of Thrones' is back and as shocking as ever!” Thankfully, this dynamic seems to quickly dissipate, as if, having checked that box, showrunners felt freed from needing to do it again.
That being said, there’s a lot to enjoy in the new show, which is also surprisingly free of sexual violence, though not sex. (The brothels are back, albeit much reduced.) Matt Smith, in particular, is a standout as the black sheep of the family Daemon Targaryen. (We know he’s a black sheep because of his different name.) Paddy Considine brings serious gravitas as King Viserys, the kind of thoughtful ruler that Westeros is forever seeking. And all four actors who play the two women at the center of the story, Princess Rhaenyra and Lady Alicent (Milly Alcock and Emily Carey in the early going, Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke once the show reaches the Targaryen civil war “Game of Thrones” so often alluded to) are fantastic, even if Carey and Cooke both benefit from being allowed to have a normal hair color.
“House of the Dragon” is not, straight out of the gate, going to create the kind of buzz that catapulted “Game of Thrones” to societal prominence. The series will likely not create endless volumes of speculative clickbait. Even if it wasn’t so earnestly straightforward, the landscape has simply evolved (again). It also has immediate competition in the form of Netflix’s and Amazon’s big-budget series: “The Sandman” (which dropped a bonus episode this weekend) and “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” which arrives in less than a fortnight. Even if “House of the Dragon” has half the juice of its parent series, it probably wouldn’t be able to dominate all comers. However, if you’re just looking for rich fantasy television with a whole lot of dragons and drama, I’d cancel any recurring Sunday night plans.