Veep for Comedy. Game of Thrones for Drama. And most of all, HBO itself. Going in, traditional wisdom said Veep was too smart and political; a fantasy show like Game of Thrones had never and would never win; and the new distribution channels like Netflix and Amazon had taken over from HBO as the hottest networks in Hollywood. Traditional wisdom got it wrong. HBO crushed the competition because of its system of putting great writers in charge of its shows and giving them the freedom to do what they do best.
2. Why do you think those shows are so successful? What makes them so special?
All the best shows in the history of television transcend their genres, which means that they hit the special story beats of their form but also twist them in an original way we’ve never seen before. Veep and Game of Thrones both use this strategy to perfection.
In my opinion, Veep is unquestionably the best, and best written, comedy on television. It hits all the special story beats of the ½ hour comedy, but with much more depth and originality than the standard American sitcom. Unlike thestandard comedy that gives its lead a single identifiable flaw, Veep gives all of its characters multiple and serious flaws, and the comedy always comes out of these flaws. The show is also quite advanced in how it sets up the comicoppositions among the characters, which not only makes it very funny but gives it among the best plots in TV comedy.
Best of all the stories are always politically incorrect in the extreme. The comedy is probably the most aggressive in the history of American television, and that is only possible because it is on HBO.
Game of Thrones, like all the shows that were nominated for best drama this year, is a serial drama, which means that it weaves multiple characters with season long arcs. Right away this allows the show much more complexity of character and plot because it has an entire season to play these out.
Game of Thrones uses the fantasy and action genres, but it transcends these forms by borrowing techniques from Historical Drama, the most complex of all story forms in any medium.
In writing a Historical Drama, the writer has two central story challenges: 1. weave the desires and actions of a huge cast of characters within each episode and over the course of the season, and 2. connect the characters to the larger society and the historical forces that are strongly affecting, if not totally determining, the characters’ fates. Game of Thrones is extremely good at overcoming both of these challenges.
But the stroke of genius that sets this show apart is the way novelist George R. R. Martin and show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss use a tournament story structure to shape the hundreds of characters and events over multiple seasons. The game of thrones begins with seven or more major contestants for the big prize, but it’s eventually going to end with one. Notice this creates a huge vortex that will funnel down to a single point.
This one technique gives Game of Thrones both the broadest and most complex plot in the history of television, while at the same time giving it overwhelming dramatic power. Content x impact = knockout punch.
3. Some people were disoriented by the last season of Game of Thrones, and some were truly disappointed. What’s your opinion?
Spoiler alert: this answer divulges information about the plot of the show.
A show doesn’t necessarily win for its best season, and that is certainly the case with Game of Thrones. This season the show was even more guilty than usual of treating its characters sadistically. But that has always been part of the show.
One example of this sadism did provide what was for me the most shocking and dramatic scene I have ever witnessed in TV or film. I should say two scenes because the first scene was the all-important set-up that made the drama of the second scene possible.
In episode 9, Stannis has been desperately fighting to conquer Winterfell, but he is now in a trap. His young daughter, Shireen, worships him and he has shown her great love. He tells her he has a hard choice, but she supports him and wants to do anything she can to help. They hug, and he whispers, “Forgive me.”
This intimate scene brings father and daughter closer than they have ever been, and brings the audience into that deep love as never before. And so the shock, for her and for us, is all the greater when Shireen is then led to a pyre where she will be burned at the stake as a sacrifice for her father’s will to power.
Notice all the techniques in these two scenes. First, the writers pull from the ancient myths, in this case the Agamemnon story where he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia so he can make war on Troy. Second, we see how revelation is the key to plot, and a revelation with betrayal is the best reveal of all. Third, a reveal must be set up, and that happens when you lead the audience’s expectations in the opposite direction of where you will actually take them.
One more point on the quality of this season. It’s instructive that the biggest flaws in the show this season came from too much plot, a problem almost no other show has. With so many characters and story strands, especially the later episodes in the season suffered from storylines that were resolved too quickly. But given that the biggest problem most writers have in trying to reach the professional level is an inability to plot, this excess of plot is a weakness we would all love to have.