Can HBO's 'Game of Thrones' Upset the Emmy Race?

Nadine Froger

HBO’s new fantasy series Game of Thrones has established itself as a big, instant hit. When it first aired Sunday night, GoT fans chattered up a storm on Twitter. Monday morning, HBO immediately announced it had renewed the series for a second season. And now the question is whether it can go even further and also shake up the Emmy race.

HBO’s confidence in the show was evident at its pre-broadcast bash on Saturday night, when about 280 revelers walked a torchlit path past a half-clad, blindingly blonde ingenue on horseback (Emilia Clarke lookalike Mary Harris) into the drained 250,000-gallon True Blood lagoon on Warner's backlot Jungle set. Boasting still more lurid sex and violence than True Blood, Game of Thrones is fantastic in two senses: a rave-reviewed, Tolkien-meets-The Sopranos epic that could help make TV safe for the fantasy genre.

"Two powerful families are in a dangerous cat and mouse game for control," said HBO sales development exec Sharon Conner at the pre-party screening, dressed, like HBO's David Castro and Suzanne Baum, in a costume from Camelot, "as betrayal, lust, intrigue, and supernatural forces shake the four corners of the kingdom!"

More than two powers lust for Emmys, and late entry Game of Thrones is a player. Suddenly, the homicidally ambitious, incestuous, gratuitously nude denizens of Showtime's The Borgias have some period-melodrama competition, as does HBO's own Boardwalk Empire (which took over Santa Monica's pier last September for a themed party like Game of Thrones').

But fantasy isn't exactly catnip in some quarters. Slate's Troy Patterson dismissed GoT as "Quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap," and Ginia Bellafante's New York Times GoT pan ignited a fiery online fan uprising.  

Fantasy has had a tough time in awards land. Emmys snubbed Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Oscars snubbed multiple Harry Potters, and two Lord of the Rings flicks. When THR's Kim Masters told her NPR editor The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was Oscar bait in 2003, she was met with incomprehension. "This was in November, before the third one opened. When I said it was going to win best picture, he said, 'Do people really like those movies?' When I said it looked to gross $1 billion worldwide, he said, “What if people go but don’t really like them? Maybe that’s a story.'” Even today, fantasy is terra incognita to many cognoscenti -- there be dragons. Bellafante confessed that she doesn't know a single female fantasy fancier.

There's still a lot of antifantasy prejudice afoot, but True Blood's arc may bode well for GoT. Starting out with a relatively low-profile Emmy win for casting and noms for art direction and its swamp-adelic main title design in 2009, it got five noms in 2010, including an eyebrow-raising one for outstanding drama.

This year, even some GoT haters are bullish on its Emmy odds. "I will not be surprised to see the talents among the show's cast and crew grab some Emmys," says antidragon bigot Patterson. "More power to 'em!" The castmember with the most potential Emmy power looks to be its most recognizable face, Sean Bean, LOTR's Boromir and GoT's Lord Eddard Stark.

"I think GoT is the Emmy equivalent of those bloated financial institutions that were 'too big to fail'," says Indiewire critic Caryn James, who gave the show a more mixed review than Bellafante, James' successor as New York Times TV critic. "It's too big, expensive, and splashy for the Emmys to ignore, which should at least be good for some nominations beyond the usual tech-y categories. My guess is that actors might get some recognition, particularly Sean Bean. But I also can't see it winning much in the major categories if it goes head-to-head with much better dramas like Mildred Pierce."

Actually, while its dazzling cast, Todd Haynes/Jonathan Raymond directing/writing pedigree, and gloriously glossy period look do inspire Emmy dreams, some pundits say Mildred Pierce is not nearly dramatic enough, and maybe an hour too long. Mildred Pierce's and GoT's Emmy fortunes may turn on whether voters value sheer narrative propulsion over deeper, slower, meditative acting by more famous faces (Kate Winslet and Mare Winningham, who both lost the 1996 Oscar to Mira Sorvino, plus Oscar winner Melissa Leo, also an Emmy contender for Treme).

If the contest is decided by the profusion of boobs, Game of Thrones wins hands down. "I don't know if there's an awards bias against 'fantasy,'" says James, "but if there is, the sex and political intrigue saves GoT from being labeled that narrowly."

"We never talked about it as a fantasy show," says Angus Wall, the Emmy and Oscar-winning designer of the GoT title credits. "The approach is more sophisticated than that, very realistic." Wall thinks the show is an example of a looked-down-on genre that can scrappily stand up for itself despite its low status in the eyes of the lofty. "Kind of like the runt on the show," he says, referring to another Emmy hopeful, Peter Dinklage, who got SAG and Independent Spirit Award noms for The Station Agent and plays Game of Thrones' two-fisted, whoring, intelligently scheming dwarf, Tyrion Lannister. If anybody can deliver a roundhouse surprise Emmy punch, it may be Dinklage.