HBO Ups The Ante On Its Commitment to Fantasy

For folks fretting about whether HBO’s actually going to roll with a full seven seasons of Game of Thrones, I think you can probably relax. Over the weekend, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that the network apparently has signed up Tom Hanks’ Playtone to do six seasons of its planned adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, each at 10 to 12 episodes. Obviously, things could fall apart, and I’m not sure what the very sizable order will mean for how the story changes from page to screen: will they be lingering in the narrative? Throwing Anansi Boys in the mix, too? But the fact that the initial plan is for six seasons suggests huge hopes and huge ambitions — as well as sizable cojones — at HBO. And given that American Gods is a single novel, if the network’s willing to blow it out to 60-plus episodes of television, I imagine they’re ready to go the distance with the existing material of Game of Thrones.

I’m utterly fascinated by HBO’s decision that fantasy is the place for them to take a stand. I love it, of course. Even more than conquering the box office, the premium cable channel to end all premium cable channel’s decision to embrace genre fiction is a major mark of validation. But it also strikes me as a risky one. HBO has always relied on good reviews, on Emmys, on the sense that it’s doing something profoundly different and better than other networks, to get audiences to pony up the subscription fees that let them turn out highly unusual programming. The high priesthood of criticism hasn’t uniformly accepted fantasy as a serious genre, whether it’s Ginia Bellafante’s headache-inducing dismissal of Game of Thrones as a dudely fantasy, or the fact that (though the magazine did do a feature on the long-awaited A Dance With Dragons) the New Yorker has yet to review the show. By contrast, Nancy Franklin got to John From Cincinnati just two weeks after the show premiered in 2007. True Blood‘s always intentionally been treated as if it’s been froth, which is probably due in part to its origins in Charlaine Harris’s paranormal romances as well as in its embrace of its status as high-concept, good-looking, violent candy.

The Wire and The Sopranos were easy shows for critics to embrace, if only because they were morally challenging variations on familiar forms: the Dickensian social novel and the tragic American family novel. Championing them was a way to show your sophistication, as well as the quality of your education. That’s not to say that Game of Thrones hasn’t been reviewed, and reviewed very, very well, just that it hasn’t conquered everyone’s hearts yet, and I think part of that has to do with its genre. And certainly fandom has a critic-proof power.

Neil Gaiman has much more mainstream cred than George R. R. Martin does; to a certain extent, he has transcended the label of fantasy. And it may be that if American Gods succeeds, it’ll end up casting a backwards glow on Game of Thrones. But HBO has long relied on critical acclaim to attract audiences to shows they might otherwise find baffling or unattractive. It’ll be interesting to see what the long-term impact of the network’s investment is on where fantasy fits in the pantheon.