Nathan‘s deep-dive into the world of epic fantasy on television.
In the wake of the global smash success of HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones, it seemed like every network, channel, and streaming service sought out their own epic fantasy. Bigger, bolder, and more expensive became the buzzwords as television executives started throwing millions (and in at least one case, billions) of dollars at big, CGI heavy shows.
In the last five years a laundry list of fantasy shows have premiered, including Wheel of Time, Rings of Power, House of the Dragon, The Witcher, Shadow and Bone, Carnival Row, His Dark Materials, The Outpost, See, Outlander, The Sandman, American Gods, and I can keep going on. For many fantasy fans, the beginning of this era was the fulfilment of our wildest dreams. So many of our favorites books would finally get adaptations; adaptations that were previously reserved for only the most popular books.
Sadly, this honeymoon period wasn’t meant to last.
As networks finally started rolling out these fantasy epics on our televisions, they weren’t what fantasy fans were expecting or wanting. We got shows that were underdeveloped with confusing and half-baked plots, weak character development, and shockingly bad worldbuilding (in terms of both the scripts and special effects). With few exceptions (I talk about my love of His Dark Materials here), these fantasy epics ranged from mediocre to flat out bad.
This leaves me with two questions:
- Is this the end of epic fantasy on television?
- Should this be the end of epic fantasy on television?
Let’s start with the first question because it probably has the most straightforward answer – yes, we are probably done with the heyday of epic fantasy adaptations for TV. There are a couple of related reasons for this.
From a business perspective, none of these shows have been crossover, four quadrant successes, especially when we compare them to the exorbitant amount of money spent on them. For a quick reference, here are just some of the budgets:
- The Wheel of Time (Amazon) – $10 million per episode
- The Witcher (Netflix) – $10 million per episode
- See (AppleTV) – $15 million per episode
- House of the Dragon (HBO) – $20 million per episode
- Rings of Power (Amazon) – $60 million per episode (includes the $250 million spent on just the rights)
Compare this to the more modest $2-6 million per episode budget for most non-fantasy shows. In order to get a good return on investment, these shows have to absolutely explode right out of the gate. And how many of them have actually done so?
According to the limited data that is out there, most of these shows get decent viewership, but not enough to justify these costs. The only shows that would be considered true ratings successes on this list would be House of the Dragon and Rings of Power, which were fueled by the online discourse pitting them against each other. The Wheel of Time got strong sampling early on, but the buzz quickly faded to nearly nothing. The Witcher started strong in its first season, but after mixed reactions to Season 2, the announcement that Henry Cavill is leaving after Season 3, and a prequel series that came and left with little fanfare, it seems that the franchise is already on its last breaths.
All of these shows were greenlit in the time when media companies and streaming services were throwing money at the wall to bring in viewers. These services had seemingly unlimited yearly content budgets, lead by Netflix, which spends an eye-popping $17 billion per year. If spending over $100 million was necessary to make a big splashy show that would bring in subscribers, these companies opened their pocketbooks.
But that time of unlimited spend is over, especially now that investors are realizing that writing blank checks to TV producers isn’t actually making these companies money. Media stocks have come crashing back to Earth, and there media executives are under renewed pressures to spend less on content. The largest media companies, from Disney to Netflix to Paramount to Amazon, are starting to pull back on their content spend. They are no longer spending $10-20 million dollars for one single hour of television. Many of the books that were recently optioned, such as Fonda Lee’s Greenbone Saga at Peacock and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy at Warner Bros., have even been confirmed to be dead or seem to be dead. Fantasy shows requires big budgets and big audiences, and those audiences are just not showing up.
But what’s going on? Why did Game of Thrones become a global juggernaut that printed money for HBO and George RR Martin, but no one else is able to break through in the same way? Why has no other fantasy series, with maybe the exception of House of the Dragon been able to achieve the same viewership numbers.
Well, I have some thoughts:
1. The Problem of Juggling Audiences
When you adapt a fantasy series, you essentially have two audiences you essentially have three audiences to reach: fantasy fans who have read the books, fantasy fans who haven’t read the books, and people who don’t read fantasy. To be successful and justify these hefty budgets, you need to appeal to all three audiences; you need a crossover hit. However, it is very difficult to balance these audiences. Rings of Power went for the established Tolkien fandom, dropping so many easter eggs and immersing the show so deep in Tolkien’s lore that it was alienating to people who maybe just watched the Peter Jackson movies. The Wheel of Time took it too far in the other direction. It tried so hard to appeal to new audiences that it alienated fans of the original books.
2. The Problem of Worldbuilding
Despite worldbuilding somehow becoming a bit of a controversial term lately (thank you Stephen King for that unnecessary discourse), worldbuilding is important to any epic fantasy. Fantasy authors introduce readers to a brand-new world, with unique geography, politics, religions, cultures, economies, and more.
Books have an advantage because there is the visible or invisible narrator; as fantasy fans we may complain about the info dump, but they are effective at conveying information quickly to the audience. Fantasy shows don’t have this same luxury. They pretty much have only a couple of options: awkward voice-overs, awkward dialogue in which characters explain to each other things they should already know, or vastly over-simplify the world (and most shows use some combination of all three). This reduces all fantasy series to just the basics, which makes them all feel the same.
The Wheel of Time and Rings of Power look exactly the same (one with just a higher budget). The Witcher and See look just like those shows with a grey filter applied. Shadow and Bone just throws in some steampunk elements. These are all the same generic fantasy worlds because those are the worlds that are able to be built efficiently (both in terms of the script and production), and therefore none of them are particularly exciting.
3. Playing It Too Safe
Rather than taking a chance on one of the more exciting or unique fantasy books out there, television executives keep choosing the books that most resemble Game of Thrones. We are living through a period of great diversity in fantasy storytelling in books, but it is the same old European medieval inspired series we get on the screen.
Heck, even the most successful new fantasy show, House of the Dragon, is just a rehash of Game of Thrones. All of the other more original spinoff ideas have been rejected by HBO.
As viewers, we cannot help but compare them to Game of Thrones, and these shows can only suffer for it. Game of Thrones was a fantastic adaptation of the books (let’s not talk about when they went past the books) and we all now have deep nostalgia for it. We need fresh fantasy worlds to explore.
4. Thinking That Money = Success
Just because a show has a massive budget doesn’t mean it’s going to be good; Game of Thrones only had a $6 million budget for its first season. Yes, I want to be wowed by the world and magic, but I’m mostly watching shows for the characters.
All of the new fantasy series, from Rings of Power to House of the Dragon to The Witcher seem just like expanded Wikipedia articles. These aren’t people, just chess pieces the writers are moving around a board to make things happen. Game of Thrones understood that we need to care about characters before the real action can begin.
5. Lengthy Production Timelines
Season 2 of Carnival Row premiered four years after Season 1. Season 2 of Shadow and Bone will arrive two years after season 1. Neither Rings of Power nor House of the Dragon are expected back in 2023. It has been a year and a half since Wheel of Time Season 1 and over a year since The Witcher Season 2, and neither have premiere dates.
TV show are not events in the same way movies are. We watch TV because they are comforting in their regularity. We know we can sit down at the same time every week (or, for shows with a binge released the same time every year) and dive into our favorite shows. Shows that were only just building momentum in their first seasons lose all of that momentum when they are off the air for two, three, or even four years. Game of Thrones always premiered in the spring for a large part of its run. These shows have gotten so big in their productions that they can’t do that anymore, and it’s a problem for keeping audiences caring.
6. Misinterpreting What Made Previous Hits Successful
Above all else, TV writers think that Game of Thrones was successful because it’s dragons, big battles, and expansive world. But these things are not what made us fall in love with Game of Thrones in the first place. We fell in love with a small cast of characters (the Starks) with a pretty narrow focus before the world got crazy big, chaotic, and magical. Now, every fantasy show comes out guns blazing. They introduce us to an overly grimdark world with tens of characters and plotlines before we can get invested in any of them. It’s hard, but shows need to start small before growing.
With media companies dealing with runaway inflation, a looming recession (at least in the US), and the failure of previous epic fantasy attempts, should we just give up on fantasy television?
Despite all of the problems I’ve already talked about, I wouldn’t go that far. Fantasy television still has a lot to offer us. As many Wheel of Time and The Witcher: Origins we get, we also get beautifully written and entertaining shows like The Sandman or The Last of Us. Not only are these shows giving us great content to consume, but they have also reinvigorated the fantasy genre as a cultural institution.
Prior to Game of Throne, fantasy was the domain of the socially outcast nerd culture, but Game of Thrones made it cool; it brought it into the mainstream. While we can complain about the over-corporatization of fantasy as a result, this had lead to the objective increase in the sale of fantasy books and new opportunities for fantasy authors and fans alike.
Fantasy is a beautiful genre because it is able to comment on the human condition in abstract and slanted ways. Fantasy is a beautiful genre because it can transport us to another world for a few hours. Fantasy is a beautiful genre because it has no rules. I would never want to say “No more fantasy shows!” or anything else that pushes fantasy back to the margins. Fantasy is cool now, and it should stay that way.
All media fads are cyclical. So maybe this is the end of the epic fantasy tv show – but hopefully one day we find another fantasy show that brings us all together like Game of Thrones.