'Game Of Thrones' Fights Genre Bias At The Emmys

09/17/2011 10:34 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Genre shows don't win Emmys. This isn't hyperbole so much as it’s an unfortunate trend. When you glance at the list of winners over the history of the awards, it becomes obvious that the Emmys love a prestige show with a glossy finish.

But this year that may change.

The latest longshot trying to buck this trend is "Game of Thrones" -- HBO's epic fantasy series nominated for Best Drama Series -- that celebrates its roots rather than hiding them away like some low IQ second cousin. Indeed, much of what makes "Game of Thrones" such a thrilling watch, especially for fans of fantasy, is its deep awareness of the genre's conventions.

The show has a tough task ahead of it if it hopes to win the category. The field is far from weak: Mad Men, the reigning champ, "Friday Night Lights," "Dexter," "The Good Wife," and HBO's own "Boardwalk Empire," are all up for the award.

According to Tom O'Neil -- author of a book on Emmys history and creator of awards-prediction site Gold Derby -- one of the challenges it faces is the awards show’s “snobbism.”

"The TV show that's won more than anything in history is about two uppity brothers squabbling over opera and red wine -- 'Frasier,'” O’Neil said. “When you get into a genre show like 'Game of Thrones,' all they see are all those severed body parts flying through the air and the unwashed barbarians running around and they go, 'Ew.’”

"Game of Thrones" -- based on the book series by George R. R. Martin -- has had widespread success, though, not just among skinny geeks in their mom's basements playing World of Warcraft, but with men and women of all stripes. The show has met with critical acclaim for both its finely drawn characters, and its bloody high-stakes action. “Game of Thrones” could be a breakthrough for other programs in the sci-fi/fantasy arena, which includes everything from the space drama of "Star Trek" to the mystical thriller of "Lost."

Or, it could end up yet another example of the Academy of Television Arts and Science's inability to recognize genre shows the same way they do realistic ones.

"Game of Thrones"' success thus far has been startling to those who know the awards, especially considering the number of nominations it's picked up. Aside from Best Drama, the show has been nominated in 12 other categories, including Best Supporting Actor for Peter Dinklage. "True Blood," when it was nominated two years ago, received only three other nods, in tech categories. In 1997, "The X-Files" garnered 14 nominations, winning three. "Lost" is perhaps the only thing close to a genre show ever to win the Best Drama award. Despite its mystical currents, it’s still a show about people of our world, shipwrecked on a classic desert island.

Fantasy and science-fiction tend to get a bad rap among critics, and not just in television. The genre bias extends across movies and literature as well, and has done so for many, many years. It's perhaps a holdover from the genre's genesis in the pulp magazines of the first half of the 20th century-- cheap, flashy stories printed on thin paper, read avariciously by young boys looking for a thrill.

"I think it has deep roots, going back a good 100 years or so," Lev Grossman, author of best-selling fantasy novel "The Magicians," said of the critical bias. "There's a cultural myth that because genre is heavily plotty, and because it is 'constrained' by genre conventions, and it's not realist, it's less meaningful."

In fact, when "Game of Thrones" debuted, a few reviews spent so much of their time insulting the genre that little space was reserved to discuss the actual merits of the show.

Troy Patterson of Slate called the show "quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap," which, he explained was not "a comment on its quality but a definition of its type. The reviewer happens to have an anti-weakness for that general sensibility."

Even more controversially, Gina Bellafante at The New York Times dismissed the show, and the books it is based on, as "boy fiction." After noting that while she did not "doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s," she concludes "if you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort."

Of course, "Game of Throne"’s chances become stronger when some people, including HBO, seem willing to cast it as a historical drama rather than a fantasy. It has the requisite semi-medieval trappings -- knights and ladies and jousting, squabbling monarchs, heads on sticks -- but aside from a few eerie scenes in the woods (and the concluding scene of the season), the show wears its magic lightly. Rarely do wizards stand across from each other hurling spells. There are no trolls, no orcs, no elves.

"Game of Thrones" creators David Benioff and DB Weiss don’t entirely agree with this assessment.

"We always want to be honest about our genre and not pretend we’re somehow above it... There’s something hugely pretentious and crappy about that," they wrote in an email. "'Game of Thrones' is high fantasy."

The books, and the show, take the major tropes of the genre and turns them on their heads. The dragon eggs of the early episodes do indeed hatch into dragons. The feisty child-hero, the noble bastard child, the wise fool, the cruel queen, the just knight -- these are familiar characters to anyone who reads fantasy.

Many critics attribute "Game of Thrones"' success to the simple fact that it's a good show. The writing and acting are strong, the world is well-drawn, and above all, the characters are compelling. It's also hard to discount HBO's golden touch. In the same way that "The Sopranos" is not just a gangster show, and "Deadwood" not just a western, a fantasy done by HBO isn't just a fantasy. It's an HBO fantasy.

It helps that HBO, as a subscription channel, has the money and the time to devote to a show that requires both to compete with the sets and graphics typically seen on the big screen. The network also gets to ramp up the sex and violence to whatever level they deem appropriate to the show, not to the ratings system.

While some in the industry say that "The Lord of the Rings"'s 2003 Best Picture win opened minds around Hollywood to the possibilities of producing fantasy films, others note that few fantasies on the same scale have been made since. "Game of Thrones," a classic epic fantasy, returns to the same grand dimensions of Middle Earth, though Westeros is a grimmer, grittier world than Tolkien ever created.

It's a bold, but also boldly traditional narrative, with intensely detailed settings and captivating tensions -- a win would honor the fact that no other show on television can do what it has done. The show has already picked up one Emmy for its title sequence.

But even if it doesn't dazzle at the Emmys, fans can at least take solace in the knowledge that HBO has promised to continue making the show, as long as Martin writes the books.