Brow Beat

What Critics Got Right (and Wrong) About the First Season of Game of Thrones

Looking back on a time when the world-consuming hit was just another series premiere.

Anton Lesser as Qyburn in Game of Thrones.
Anton Lesser as Qyburn in Game of Thrones.
Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

Game of Thrones might well be the last TV show that we watch together, but the HBO series, which returns Sunday for its eighth and final season, certainly didn’t begin that way. Though eagerly anticipated by fans of George R. R. Martin’s novels (which the author had not believed to be adaptable for the screen), the first season of Game of Thrones was met with lingering snobbery toward the fantasy genre by some critics and enormous pressure to succeed The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood in HBO’s lineage of network-defining critical darlings. Of course, it became something much bigger: a cultural juggernaut that heralded new norms in TV storytelling, inspired countless copycats, and remained singularly epic in both scope and popularity.

Did critics see the colossus coming? It’s worth traveling back to a time when Game of Thrones was just another series premiere and revisiting the show’s original reviews from 2011, partly to see if the show’s initial episodes presaged its greatness (and its many faults), and partly to see what reviewers may have missed about its appeal. The show’s chattiness and its confusing tangle of storylines—both cited by critics as unnecessary hurdles for the audience—have become two of the show’s signature lures. Other reviews clocked the show’s chronic mishandling of race and gender issues, while committing faux pas of their own—such as the infamous head-scratcher of a New York Times pan that implied that fantasy is “boy fiction.” (According to HBO, the show’s enormous viewership is roughly evenly split, 55 percent men and 45 percent women.) Here are seven early critical reactions to Game of Thrones, in all their glory and cringe.

Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club (now at Vox)

Headline: “Game of Thrones (Experts): “Winter Is Coming’
Extremely early-2010s-y show Game of Thrones is compared to: Boardwalk Empire
What the review got right: “There’s a cold calculation to the scenes, as if HBO and the producers said, ‘Shit, we might as well toss some breasts in there. HBO will let us, and the audience will love that.’ ”
What the review got wrong: “The sheer amount of dialogue—when the show could do flashbacks to, say, important battles of the past—will be a breaking point for many.”

Ginia Bellafante, New York Times

Headline: A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms
Extremely early-2010s-y show Game of Thrones is compared to: The Tudors
What the review got right: “The series rejects no opportunity to showcase a beheading or to offer a slashed throat close-up.”
What the review got wrong: “The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this [sexual] illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to The Hobbit first. Game of Thrones is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”

Matt Zoller Seitz, Salon (now at Vulture)

Headline: ‘Game of Thrones’: HBO’s Dense, Demanding Epic
Extremely early-2010s-y show Game of Thrones is compared to: The Wire
What the review got right: “The difference between watching most other TV shows and this one is the difference between making yearly visits to another country for a couple of days at a time versus packing up and moving there.”
What the review got wrong: “Showtime’s historical series The Borgias has much less fanboy cred, but it’s got a lot more visual flair.”

James Poniewozik, Time (now at New York Times)

Headline: Epic Win! HBO’s Bloody, Bold Game of Thrones
Extremely early-2010s-y show Game of Thrones is compared to: Lost
What the review got right: “The eastern-continent scenes, however, suffer from a kitschy orientalism. The Dothraki are painted savages whose furnishings look as if they’ve plundered a Pier 1 Imports, and the dialogue here is especially stilted. (There is also one too many uses of the ‘have some guy explain the backstory while nailing a whore’ device.)”
What the review got wrong: “Where centuries ago there were dragons and sorcerers, now there are only steel and blood and the cheap grubbings of men.”

Maureen Ryan, AOL TV (now freelance)

Headline: Lost to history when the AOL TV archives were deleted; Ryan emailed her review.
Extremely early-2010s-y show Game of Thrones is compared to: Deadwood
What the review got right: “The series contains the kind of gorgeous vistas and spine-chilling moments you’d expect from a fantasy epic.”
What the review got wrong: “While a desire to diligently depict the incidents in Martin’s 807-page book … is admirable and even understandable, Game of Thrones needed to be shaped more aggressively to fit the needs of a television drama.”

Hank Stuever, Washington Post

Headline: HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’: A Lot to Sword Out
Extremely early-2010s-y show Game of Thrones is compared to: Rome
What the review got right: “There had to be a dwarf, right? It’s our good luck that it is [Peter] Dinklage, who is saddled like everyone else with pretentious-sounding medieval dialogue, but manages to speak it as though it’s a newly discovered work of Shakespeare.”
What the review got wrong: “But the fact remains that franchises such as Game of Thrones (which begins Sunday night) tend to repel those whose tastes in TV and movies are broad and omnivorous; we find ourselves intimidated by the required emotional investment.
We don’t want to be hard-core fans of anything. We don’t go to conventions or write e-mails to our favorite authors. We want diversion for an hour or so, then we’ve got other stuff to do.”

Troy Patterson, Slate (now at the New Yorker)

Headline: Quasi-Medieval, Dragon-Ridden Fantasy Crap
Extremely early-2010s-y show Game of Thrones is compared to: Sex and the City
What the review got right: “The opening title sequence … is a little masterpiece of welcoming design.”
What the review got wrong: “Too bad for HBO.”