Game of Thrones is the hit that keeps on growing. The epic fantasy series, now in its fourth season, has always considered a big draw for HBO, but recently blossomed into a ratings juggernaut unlike anything the premiere channel has seen since The Sopranos.
Most impressively of all, Game of Thrones isn't just going strong in Season 4 — it's continuing to grow, breaking its own ratings records almost every week. America is paying attention, and Westeros appears to be gaining new fans every day. That's impressive, especially considering Game of Thrones isn't exactly the kind of show you can drop in on unprepared.
So, what is it about this story of politics, war, and dragons that makes it so irresistible? Why is Season 4 building so strongly? Does it share traits with other Sunday cable hits like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad? Are the elements of these shows that other would-be hits can learn from?
No one can assume to know what makes a TV show capture a nation's attention, but we have a few theories about why Game of Thrones has managed to become must-see-live TV even in this era of DVRs and delayed binge-watching.
Appeal to Lots of Different People
We were going to label this section "broad appeal," but that's not quite right. We think one key to Game of Thrones' success is its ability to serve up "something for everyone"— not because every part of the show has broad appeal, but because there are enough different moving parts that everyone can find some element of the story that draws them in, even if they aren't big fans of every single thing that's going on.
Like fantasy? Game of Thrones has plenty going on for you: dragons, White Walkers, fire magic and smoke babies. Hate fantasy? Eh, ignore the dragons and focus on the political machinations of King's Landing. Wanna see badass fight scenes? You're pretty much guaranteed at least one fight an episode, and several giant battles every year. Couldn't care less about the big men wielding swords? Well, maybe the beautiful monologues and witty banter is more up your alley.
And it's more than just different genres at play. While some people complain that Game of Thrones' giant cast makes the story hard to follow, it also means there are plenty of different character types for people to pick from. Some fans are invested in seeing the Stark family rise again. Others prefer the moral ambiguity of the Lannisters and Tyrells. Maybe you're all about the rise of Dany, “Mother of Dragons”, or perhaps its the secondary characters who hold your interest.
Whether you like heroes, anti-heroes, or villains, tales of epic battles or subtle manipulation — it's all here.
Combine Quality and Fun
People like strong writing, whether we're talking compelling dialogue, complex plots, or intriguing world building. They like amazing performances from top notch actors. They like beautiful sets, stunning cinematography, and killer costume design. In a word, they like a high quality product.
But at the same time, people like to be entertained, especially when they turn on the tube. The beauty of a show like Game of Thrones — and The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad share this quality — is that it combines all of the trapping of "quality" TV with easily accessible, readily entertaining plot points and scenes. This isn't Mad Men, where you have trust that seasons worth of slow-burn character development will pay off in the occasional moment of jaw dropping emotions. Game of Thrones has moments like that, but it also has dragons, battles, and yes, boobs. Let's face it: It's just plain fun to watch.
Can't-Spoil Moments You Want to Talk About
OK, so those are reasons that Game of Thrones appeals to lots of people. But that doesn't necessarily explain why so many watch it live. For that, we have to talk about another key point: the fact that it's jam-packed with water cooler, don't-want-to-be-spoiled moments. Again, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, with all their shocking deaths and epic twists, are other examples of this factor at play.
Back in Season 1, fans learned the hard way that Game of Thrones is a show where no one is safe, and the only thing you can count on is that several times a season there will be an OMG moment so mind blowing, you'll hate yourself if you were spoiled. Oh, and another thing — in the internet era, everyone will be talking about it. If you don't want to have it ruined, you have two options: watch live, or cut yourself off from the internet entirely until you catch up. Guess which one most people prefer?
Plus, big shockers like Ned Stark's beheading or the Red Wedding make people want to talk. Half the fun of having your mind blown is going online and gushing about it with all your friends. Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr are the new water cooler, and people still want to take part in the conversation. Game of Thrones is good at giving people something to talk about.
Give Them a Reason to Tune In Each Week
On top of the big, shocking moments, something Season 4 has done perhaps better than any other season is provide a throughline that keeps people coming back every week — Tyrion's trial. From the moment that Cersei pointed to him at the end of Episode 2, this fan favorite's fate has been up in the air, and each week has put him on increasingly shaky ground. Combine that with more major deaths than ever before this early in the season, and it makes sense that more and more people are tuning in to Season 4 live every week. This year, it's not just the end of the season that promises big climaxes — this year, you don't want to miss a single moment.
Why do you think Game of Thrones keeps getting more and more popular? Share your theories in the comments below!
Catch the next episode of Game of Thrones Season 4 on June 1, 2014 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.