'Game of Thrones'

14 REV ThronesArthur Sean Bean
Helen Sloan/HBO

HBO’s fantasy epic has all the dramatic elements that lure viewers to shows like "The Sopranos."

Barely a few minutes into HBO’s epic series Game of Thrones, it’s clear that the hype was right and the wait was worth it.

Thrones is based on the best-selling fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin — often referred to as “the American Tolkien” — and HBO is betting that fans of The Lord of the Rings will come to this for a sprawling tale of feuding families, swords, sex, carnage, beasts, frayed loyalties, deception, intrigue and the pursuit of power.

As well they should. Thrones supports all of this with excellent storytelling, superb acting and stunning visual effects. Writers and executive producers David Benioff (Troy, The Kite Runner) and D.B. Weiss will certainly have their hands full dealing with die-hard fans on what in their adaptation they got right or wrong (or left out or put in that might not have been in the books), but they have the backing of Martin, who worked closely with the duo, and that should count for a lot.

Perhaps more important to those who haven’t read the books or heard much about this series, Benioff and Weiss kick things off immediately with action, and director Timothy Van Patten — an HBO vet with credits on Deadwood, Rome, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire — leads with a beautiful, haunting vastness of snow and dark shadows.

Although the 10-part series is complicated, with numerous characters and a dense, interwoven backstory, Thrones never once bogs down. It’s the kind of drama where, when the first episode ends, you wish the nine others were available right away. And that validates HBO’s notion that television is the perfect medium for fantasy (as opposed to doing a two-hour movie every few years). This could become HBO’s next franchise.

Thrones is set in fictional Westeros, where various clans, or houses, lived and fought for generations until the Targaryens invaded — and united the Seven Kingdoms under the Iron Throne — only to be exiled years later.

The story involves the House Stark, run by Lord Eddard Stark (Sean Bean, familiar to Rings fans); House Baratheon, run by King Robert Baratheon (the wonderful Mark Addy); House Lannister, which is linked to House Baratheon because Queen Cersei Baratheon (Lena Headey) was born a Lannister; and the House Targaryen, whose Prince Viserys Targaryen III (Harry Lloyd) wants to reclaim the Iron Throne. To do that, he’ll need an army, which is why he wants his sister, Princess Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), to marry Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), who leads a tribe of vicious warrior horsemen.

Got that?

It’s not as confusing as it might sound (and there are humorous detours, mostly provided by Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, whose whoring and drinking know no bounds). A great series should challenge viewers to pay attention, to connect dots and anticipate convergences, and Thrones manages that kind of  superior complexity without ever making you think you’ve lost the plot.

What are the elements that drove people to love a show like Sopranos? Was it the bad guys killing their rivals over turf? Was it the plotting and scheming — New Jersey vs. New York? Was it the nudity and sex? Complicated antiheroes? These are all prevalent in Thrones. The point is, don’t let the fantasy aspect toss you off course. A great drama can be set nearly anywhere, and Thrones proves that in every hour. Nuanced dialogue sets it far above most historical dramas, and there are quality performances throughout (especially from Bean, Dinklage, Addy and Maisie Williams as Arya Stark).

In the first six episodes, Thrones manages to juggle any number of stories without leaving the viewer wishing it would switch back to a previous thread. For such an epic series, that’s a most impressive feat.

It’s difficult to single out the most accomplished parts of Thrones — the ambition is immense, the fantasy world well-conceived, and the writing and acting elevate it beyond such contemporaries as The Borgias and Camelot.

What we have is the successful pairing of an acclaimed collection of fantasy books with a TV series that illuminates and expands what’s on the page.

Worth the wait? Absolutely.

Airdate 9-10 p.m.
Sunday, April 17 (HBO)