There are dragons in "Game of Thrones."
For anyone who asks me why I think it's the best show on TV right now, that will always be my first answer. Dragons. Done. It wins.
Fantasy lovers, like me, have been waiting for mainstream networks to bestow a show like "Game of Thrones" upon us for a long time. There was "Xena," of course; the BBC's current family-friendly series, "Merlin"; and some popular miniseries like "Wizard of Earthsea," among many others, but there has been no serial drama that inhabits this world that we are used to seeing in other formats. Not to mention, "Game of Thrones" has actual high production values and the gravitas of a historically accurate period drama.
But "Game of Thrones" (both George R.R. Martin's novels and now in its HBO adaptation) also does some things that we don't expect from our fantasy narratives, and that is why the series will survive past Season 2 -- even if many of your favorite characters will not.
The series actually shows us the perspective of its female characters. They are not just the objects of the male protagonists, which is uncommon in mainstream fantasy stories onscreen and in-book. (I Iove you, "Lord of the Rings," but it's true.) As a viewer, you are invited to identify with these women, from the despicable to the most innocent, because they all have some redeeming qualities we can relate to, whether it's ambition, fear or defiance.
Not all of these women fight for the throne (though some do and some succeed), but all of them are active participants in the fight for political and personal power. As Lauren Davis from io9.com puts it, "Martin doesn't forget that women have their own way of fighting these battles of politics and power that is not necessarily more or less valid." And rumor has it Season 2 will adding a particular, prominent, non-stereotypical female character to the growing roster for fans to look forward to, as well. In the book, "A Clash of Kings," she's a female knight and how she's treated by others is an important example of how strong women are actually viewed: not as desirable (think Lara Croft or Katniss), but as repulsive.
When it comes to other fantasy stereotypes, "GoT" loves to set up tired genre cliches in its narratives and then tear them down abruptly. Season 2's opener was no different (click here to read a recap), and no matter how hard you convince yourself the episode is leading you down the path you want it to, at the end of the day, you are forced to face the cruel facts: The honorable man probably won't win, the main character probably will die, the myserious bastard son probably won't find out who he really is, and nothing -- nothing! -- will probably turn out for the best. It's utter torture, and you'll repeat the phrase, "Damn you, George R.R." to yourself a hundred times per episode while clutching your stuffed Direwolf. But that's also what makes the series so engaging: You have deep, conflicting feelings about all the characters, and you have no idea what is going to happen to them. Ever.
"GoT" may also give us zombies and award-winning actors like Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage, but the number one reason it resonates so strongly beyond the borders of its genre is that it provides a hard, nuanced look into the dynamics of power underlying politics, gender, culture, sex, violence and society. In fact, dragons aside, I think you'll find that the American dream is much closer to the fantasy George R.R. Martin has created than the fashionable nostalgia of "Mad Men."