By Bill Keveney
Even if you haven't watched HBO's Game of Thrones, you've probably heard of it.
Maybe it was Big Bang Theory's Sheldon wielding Jon Snow's sword, Longclaw. Or Dwight teaching Erin the Dothraki language on The Office. Or Artie reminding his Glee friends about the fragility of their newfound social status using Thrones' ominous warning: "Winter is coming." Numerous other shows, from South Park to Parks and Recreation, have chimed in.
And, if more proof is needed that the third-season drama (Sunday, 9 ET/PT) has engulfed the public consciousness, there was the unironic tribute from an arbiter of pop culture status, The Simpsons,which adapted Thrones' elaborate opening sequence to the animated world of Springfield.
"The idea behind the opening was just kind of a love letter ... a fun mashup of these two beloved, crazy franchises," says Simpsons executive producer Matt Selman, who says 99% of the comedy's writing staff are fans.
"You could argue that The Simpsons writers are a bunch of fantasy nerds. You could argue that and you would not be wrong. But, to me, the biggest appeal of Game of Thrones is that it's an incredibly well-observed, character drama about human nature and the nature of politics and power," he says. "To me, the dragons and magic are not as interesting as the tragically flawed characters operating in a very real world."
Dragons, smoky spirits and the legendary northern marauders known as White Walkers share the stage with well-drawn characters in war-torn Westeros, where the ruthless Lannisters staved off the advances of Stannis Baratheon, one of many would-be kings, at the end of Season 2. It's a mix that's part of the appeal of the show, based on George R.R. Martin's epic book series, A Song of Ice and Fire.
"Essentially, it's a political drama, it's a thriller, it's an action film and it's a rom-com. It goes beyond fantasy. Aesthetically, it looks like a historical drama, but then there are dragons, then there are spirits," says Gwendoline Christie, who plays the single-minded warrior, Brienne of Tarth. "Because the relationships are so human, we can identify with it, but it also entertains our imagination because of the fantasy setting and because it's so epic."
The escapist element can provide a protective coating, too, says Natalie Dormer, who plays King Joffrey's betrothed, the power savvy Margaery Tyrell.
"It deals with all the problems and issues we deal with in our daily life: marriage, war, mortality, religion," Dormer says. "These are all very apt themes for the turmoil the modern world is going through, but it is safely encapsulated in a fantasy universe, so it's not too close to home," she says.
Of course, the sex and nudity may have something to do with it too, as Saturday Night Live surmised in yet another media take that both raised and exemplified Thrones' growing profile.
Martin tempers his enthusiasm, saying many TV shows and movies have captured the public's fancy. "Still, it's pretty cool that it's happened to a fantasy. That's pretty far out," he says. "Maybe it's a sign that fantasy and science fiction are finally gaining a wider cultural acceptance and not just being this little insular thing for geeks."
Martin, who says he has a ways to go on the sixth of what will be a seven-book series, says book fans, an ardent group that can help shape public attitudes, have responded well to the small-screen adaptation. "I think most of them love the TV series. There's always a small percentage who get upset at any divergence from the books and will write angry letters about the character's hair being a different color. But I think they're a minority."
Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, who knows a thing or two about catching the public's imagination, says Thrones is in the zeitgeist, engaging fans with its exploration of power and violence. It has crossed over from the dedicated fantasy fan base - the Sheldons and Dwights of the world - to a wider following.
"A big part of this is that the series has taken its time getting into the 'fantasy' stuff, namely dragons, instead building an amazing foundation of grounded and fascinating people whose fates we care about deeply," he says. "Tyrion Lannister is an iconic, unforgettable and wholly original character. It doesn't take a lover of swords and sorcery to appreciate that."
The broader audience is reflected in the ratings. Thrones drew 4.9 million viewers per episode in Season 2, a nearly 50% jump from its first season. Counting cumulative broadcasts of each episode, the series averaged 11.6 million viewers, a number exceeded at HBO only by The Sopranos and True Blood. (Season 2 DVD sales have set records for the pay-cable network, even in a soft home-video market.)
Those numbers, still substantially smaller than those recorded by broadcast network hits, don't explain Thrones' pull all by themselves. Intensity of devotion, rather than breadth, is a factor, and fantasy fans, as any Comic-Con attendee can attest, are among the most devout. Thrones fans also are active online, which can amplify influence. And, it doesn't hurt that some big fans work in the entertainment industry, says David Bushman, curator at The Paley Center for Media.
"A show with a small audience that is getting this kind of attention is a function of the fact it has a huge following with certain types of people. It just so happens many of those people are out there making TV shows," he says.
Some Thrones fans are of the bold-faced-names variety. Executive producer D.B. Weiss says SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels told him he watched the show with his house guest, who just happened to be Jack Nicholson.
Weiss' fellow executive producer, David Benioff, remembers another encounter. "Jennifer Lawrence grabbed me at a pre-Oscar party and said, 'Dude! You killed Ned Stark!' I was like, 'Hey, blame George Martin.'"
The execution of protagonist Stark (Sean Bean) was a wake-up call about the high stakes in Martin's first book, A Game of Thrones, and in Season 1 of the series. "People like it because you never know who's going to die," says Sibel Kekilli, who plays Tyrion's secret lover, Shae. "Everyone can die. Everyone can be powerful or powerless."
Momentum seems like it's building going into Season 3, HBO programming chief Michael Lombardo says. (A Season 4 hasn't been announced, but it is in the planning.)
"The first two seasons are very much setting up the dynamics that begin to play out in Season 3 and subsequent seasons. You have Daenerys' rise, you have the Stark family splinter and you have young King Joffrey ascending to the throne," he says. "Not that the first two seasons weren't full of action and blood and intense drama, but I think for all of us, it feels like it's just the beginning. And I think the response of the fans is that as well. It's a testament to George R.R. Martin. The show has a natural propulsion to it."
If Thrones has acquired some cachet in the real world, its characters are fighting for something more primitive and brute in their world.
"Power is the word we keep coming back to and this season, particularly, we see audacious power grabs and hellacious falls from power and mendacious schemes for power and I've run out of rhymes for '-acious,' " Benioff says.
Season 3 promises huge reversals, both triumphant and tragic, the producers say, but the ultimate power grab remains in the more distant future.
"The dragons are growing into weapons of war, but they're not yet game changers on the battlefield," Weiss says. "This season is more about intrigue and deception than all-out war. All-out war is next season, if we get a next season."