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TV Review: 'Game of Thrones' Returns With Its Ambitious Glory Intact

Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell

The Bottom Line

Proving again that a genre series can be as serious and challenging as traditional dramas, "Game of Thrones" kicks off what should be its most ambitious season -- which is really saying something for this dense, layered epic. 

Premieres

9 p.m. Sunday, March 31 (HBO)

Season 3 promises to be filled with even more characters and locations as the epic fantasy series proves it's one of television's finest dramas.

Much of the chatter that drives HBO’s addictive and outstanding drama series Game of Thrones tends to come from people who have read the books by George R.R. Martin, even though relatively speaking they are a minority. But they know a lot. They are very devoted and insider-y and can recall characters that barely have graced the screen -- and even then are covered in dirt and hardly recognizable. These book-first, awesome-television-series second types are way, way ahead of everyone else.

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They have conversations amongst themselves about what’s being left out from the books and how effectively the massive tomes are being divided into a TV series. And much of their driving internal force comes from wondering what David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the series creators, writers and show runners will do with the characters and events these fans already know the fates of; they can’t be satiated.

For the rest of us, well, Game of Thrones is first and foremost one of the most ambitious and creatively challenging (and rewarding) series on television. Secondly, it’s mighty dense. If you lack sufficient bandwidth in your memory or you haven’t “marathoned” the previous season right before staring the next one, break out the Advil.

That said, having watched the first four episodes of Season 3, there are barely a handful of series that generate this kind of fervent appreciation for the skills at hand. It’s like being in some epic tale that never ceases to be engrossing and creates a kind of demanding, spoiled attitude that culminates in this despondent and annoyed declaration: “Why do they only make 10 episodes a season!?”

PHOTOS: 'Game of Thrones' Season 3 Premiere: Westeros Meets Hollywood

And yes, after the first two 10-episode seasons on HBO, it’s clear that no other genre series has managed the leap to greatness quite as quickly as Game of Thrones. The series took fantasy, a la The Lord of the Rings, and made it as intellectually significant as the deep existential musings of Mad Men and as rigorously fast-paced and addictive as Breaking Bad by creating worlds and rules and legends that have no bearing on “the real world” but echo its deepest mysteries, worries, complications and mundane daily realities. In that sense, it takes what outsiders might consider “some sci-fi show” and turns it on its head, revealing that great art can come from any genre provided (in the television landscape) if the writing, acting and ambition are there.

Season 3, starting at 9 p.m. Sunday, can be comfortably described as insanely ambitious. In a series that already has so many characters and interwoven storylines, viewers get two fascinating new characters in Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds), the King-Beyond-the-Wall and Olenna Redwyne (Diana Rigg), a new location in Astapor, bands of warriors forgotten since Season 1 and enough fallout and intrigue from Season 2 to last a whole lot longer than 10 episodes (the third book in Martin’s series will be split into this season and the next because it was so massive).

PHOTOS: 'Game of Thrones' Season 3 Character Posters

Benioff and Weiss have said that Season 3 will, in fact, be the most packed of all because it builds so many stories (and necessitates new arrivals) but that moving forward there will the typical Game of Thrones winnowing out, which usually means some popular character you think will live forever ends up with his or her head on a spike.

(In this area, so much praise must be given to the readers of Martin’s books because they haven’t spoiled anything for the rest of us -- though, given the influence of social media, they quite easily could if they wanted. It’s that devotion to quality television and not wanting to ruin it for anybody that makes shows like this so special.)

And in keeping with the no-spoiler rule, all that really needs to be said about Season 3 is that the first four hours are immensely enjoyable and leave you, at the end of each, pleading like a junkie for the next six. This, of course, is the curse of Thrones' finest achievement, and it does have one unfortunate side effect for the individual episodes: This sprawling story being told in only 10 episode doles out in an hour only precious morsels of plot from a variety of characters and clans, then abruptly switches to the next character or clan and so on. The end result is, despite the brilliant quality, a bubbling frustration for more, more, more.

But if that’s the main drawback of your series -- that viewers are so enraptured that they get frustrated in their desire for additional scenes, episodes or seasons -- then you’re doing something truly right. Here’s to a dense, layered, enterprising and fascinating journey through Season 3, and as many more seasons as need be to complete this incomparable fantasy.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine