Critical Reception of Game of Thrones: Reviewing the Reviews

When I began the research for this topic I had anticipated slogging through several critical reviews from a variety of publications. What I did not anticipate was just for season one of Game of Thrones I would encounter such a variety of publications, critical styles, interpretations, and reviews written during various points in the first season. From reviews that hailed the series, to others devoted to trashing every element over several paragraphs, there is no limit in the variety of critical reception that Game of Thrones has encountered. My goal is to present a detailed analysis of several reviews from well-known critics and publications in relation to their associated approval ratings written in regards the first season. These reviews originate from various air dates within the series and therefore show the evolution of criticism and intertextuality found within the reviews[1]. By analyzing reoccurring criticisms and themes from the reviews, one can determine the general perception that television critiques hold in regards to Game of Thrones.


George R.R. Martin – Consultant.

In order to better understand the evolution of critical reviews of Game of Thrones, one must start at the beginning. When the announcement of George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire was to be adapted for television, specifically adapted for television on HBO, a certain amount of build-up was generated. The first season was not aired until April 2011, but news broke of the adaptation back in 2007[2]. It was announced through Variety and confirmed shortly thereafter by George R.R. Martin that the rights to his fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, had been bought by HBO [3]. Executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had approached Martin and as part of the arranged agreement both Benioff and Weiss, save for one episode, would write each installment[4]. Martin himself would pen one episode himself per season, and serve as a co-executive producer on the show[5]. Martin expressed not only how Benioff and Weiss impressed him when they approached him about adapting the show for television, but also the involvement of HBO on the project[6]. He went on to state that the best drama on a Saturday night was found on HBO, citing such shows as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, and his current favorite addiction, Rome[7]. Martin felt that HBO represented quality in writing, acting, set design, and productions values[8]. These types of qualities have long been associated with HBO in regards to its original programming as noted by Janet McCabe and Kim Akass[9]. They further state in regards to when HBO produces original programming that it is generally assumed that the resulting show would be top of the line programming[10]. Essentially HBO epitomized all the qualities that Martin wished for the adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire[11].

One does not simply

Make it stop.

Leading up to the debut of the series, Benioff and Weiss had four years to build anticipation and to entice a potential audience beyond the established fan base built around Martin’s books. Beyond the particulars of the acquirement, there was further interest in what manner the books could be adapted for television. The series itself, as Variety described, was aimed at a distinct adult audience[12]. As well, the sex and violence within the series was comparable to the content of shows such as Rome and Deadwood, which had both originated on HBO[13]. In 2010 it was officially announced that HBO had ordered a pilot episode to be filmed for Game of Thrones[14]. This announcement brought forth the first and most often noted criticism that has followed the show since that time, is the association with the fantasy genre[15]. Previous to Game of Thrones, the closest contender to be considered for HBO as part of the fantasy genre was True Blood[16]. To combat this Benioff and Weiss made efforts to emphasize the series as a character drama[17]. At the same time, they did not recoil from the fact that the show was based on a fantasy series. Benioff remarked in a 2008 interview in regards to his current projects he was working on a series for HBO[18]. While he did not disclose that the project was indeed Game of Thrones, he described the project as The Sopranos set in Middle Earth[19]. By associating the show with previous HBO successes which had generated a large audience, it made the premise of a fantasy show approachable. The association by means of the style of HBO productions with the upcoming Game of Thrones closed the gap between the familiar and the unfamiliar for the general audience who might not be acquainted with the elements of the fantasy genre.

As the air date for the pilot episode approached, the first critical reviews and speculations surrounding the series began to appear in various publications. One of the reviews which appeared before the air date was from The Hollywood Reporter. The author, Tim Goodman outlined the history of the process of adaptation for Benioff and Wiess, the general premise of the show, and a brief breakdown of the characters and anticipated story line[20]. The overall review is positive and makes sure to note that even though the story line is complex, they keep a tight hold on the narrative and provide a deep understanding of the characters that allow the show to remain accessible[21]. The most important comment to note in the review is in regards to that the show is a fantasy narrative. As Goodman notes, regarding the accomplishments of the series, the fantasy world was exceptionally well-conceived in comparison to other fantasy shows on the air at the time such as The Borgias and Camelot[22]. He goes on to note that the writing, acting, and visual appeal elevated the production beyond its contemporaries[23]. He summarizes Game of Thrones is the result of a successful pairing of Martin’s acclaimed fantasy series with television resulting in a portrayal that illuminates and expands on the books themselves[24]. Much like Benioff and Weiss, Tim Goodman makes the effort to close the gap of accessibility between the narrative and the audience. The tagline echoes the repeated statement in which Game of Thrones has all the same elements to lure viewers found in shows such as The Sopranos[25].


Sean Bean forgets where he is.

Not all reviews were as glowing and as willing to build the bridge between audience and narrative. As seen in the USA Today review by Robert Bianco, the author has no reservations addressing the current fans of the book series as his target audience in his review[26]. He opens the review by directly addressing them and essentially alienates anyone who is not a fan of the book series[27]. He continues this trend throughout the opening paragraphs, speaking about how fans of the books will feel that the wait for the show was worthwhile[28]. It is not until the end of the fourth paragraph that Bianco addresses the greater audiences and leads into a summary of the premise[29]. What Bianco does do well in the review is distancing Game of Thrones from comparisons of Lord of the Rings[30]. Bianco states that unlike Lord of the Rings where its narrative was a noble adventure quest, and a clear battle between good and evil, Game of Thrones cannot possibly compare[31]. Rather it is dependent on its complicated narrative where no individual ever comes out the true winner in any given circumstance[32]. As well, the show lacks the joy and the universal appeal of Lord of the Rings[33]. He further states that unlike productions such as Lost and True Blood, Game of Thrones lacks the strength to transcend its genre to appeal to a greater audience[34]. In summary, he essentially states that the show was created for fans and the audience beyond its established fan base will either love or loath the show[35].

As the series got underway the tone and focus of critical reviews began to shift. While the overall show was still positively received, critics began to point out particular issues found within the first few episodes. One major criticism which continually resurfaced was that the plot was too unwieldy for an audience who had not read the book series[36]. In David Hinckley’s review for the New York Daily News, he states that this did not make it a bad show, but it leaves the general audience behind just trying to sort out the characters and plot lines[37]. What he does point out, which is a major flaw of the series, is ability of the audience to keep up, and if this is not possible at the end of just three episodes the audience may give up on the series[38]. Hinckley does not shy away from disclosing that Game of Thrones is indeed a fantasy series and indicates that those who enjoy fantasy are the ones who will most likely find an interest in Game of Thrones[39].


Can you name them all?


When you’ve read the books, but none of your friends have.

Maureen Ryan echoed a similar criticism in her review for the Huffington Post[40]. Her criticism being the show constantly shifted from one plot line to another, leaving the viewer scrambling for context[41]. The result is viewers may lack the interest to continue to invest their time in watching the show[42]. Ryan also appears to be sub-group of reviewers who have read the books before watching the series. Ryan goes on to state that the show lacked the boldness of the world that Martin had created in the novels[43]. Rather, in an effort to contain all the content from the first novel in A Song of Ice and Fire, the show fails to capture the emotional depth and thematic complexity[44]. In order to remedy this problem, Ryan suggests that each episode be written in the format typical to a television drama[45]. These elements included shaping the episode so that it has a beginning, middle, and end, rather than one continuous narrative abruptly ending and restarting for each episode[46]. Ryan’s review is also unique to previous offerings in that she makes the effort to compare and contrast the show and books extensively and in-depth[47]. While her review is almost entirely composed of criticism, she ends it with a recommendation to watch the show if the producers are willing to make adjustments for better screen adaptation in the future[48]. Ryan’s take is distinctive compared to all previous offerings as is she is the only reviewer who makes no effort to discuss the show in regards to genre. Rather, she avoids the topic entirely and gives an extensive and very impressive breakdown of the show in comparison to the novels, while still providing an effective criticism of the show.

We now move on to the reviews that denounce the series. When analyzing these reviews which proclaim the show unwatchable, some particular reoccurring traits begin to appear between the reviews. Nancy Dewolf Smith’s review for the Wall Street Journal opens with her stating her disdain for what she calls the “dark ages” of history[49]. The language used in her review is vastly different from our previous reviews. The tone is mocking and reads as juvenile in comparison to the well-constructed reviews and criticisms from our other authors. To give an example, she focuses on the fact that Game of Thrones has wolf pups, which in her view is “always cool”[50]. As well, she appears to mock the established fan base of Martin’s work. Dewolf Smith states that the goal of Game of Thrones is satisfying the infantile cravings of the audience for spurting blood, “quasilesbian” action, and random bare breasts just name a few from her extensive list provided[51]. It becomes obvious to the reader that the author is more interested in drawing the ire of fans rather than providing an educated and well fabricated critical review of the material. The narrative is never addressed and instead the audience is given her summary of all the shocking visual moments that bothered her. The entry itself is a mere four paragraphs amongst three other reviews of other shows. She ends the review making comments about leather thongs[52].

Jon Snow

“Sexual illicitness.”

Ginia Bellafante’s review for The New York Times brought the ire specifically of the female audience[53]. In her review she states that there is nothing within the show which would draw in female viewers and therefore that is why the sexual illicitness has been added to the production[54]. In an effort to further alienate her readers, she insinuates women do not read fantasy[55]. While she states there may be women who do read works similar to Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, she personally has never encountered one who would voice that they read from this particular genre[56]. She ends the paragraph describing Martin’s series as fiction for boys, not women[57]. While her article does provide some genuine criticism of HBO, it becomes problematic for the reader to move past her declarations. Her use of the word “women” in contrast with “boys” makes readers of the books seem juvenile. In the entire article, she not once refers to women as girls. While Bellafante’s article is far better in terms of language and methods of criticism compared to Dewolf Smith’s, she makes the mistake of targeting a particular subcategory of her readers. Her denouncing of not only the fantasy genre, but female fantasy fans has drawn responses and was not forgotten by the time the second season had rolled around. Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a direct response to not only Bellafante’s article, but to all critics who panned the fantasy genre[58]. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker mentions Bellafante’s article in her write up of the first season of Game of Thrones as a review of note that took the juvenile stance against the series[59].

Am I The Only One

We get it.

The reviews discussed in this work are just a small sampling of the endless critical opinions available on the first season of Game of Thrones. Aside from the few reviews which outright berated the series, even the most critical review found positives and a reason to recommend the reader to check out the show. This is seen in the repeated efforts within the reviews to bridge the gap between fantasy and non-fantasy fans, and by comparing and aligning the show with other popular HBO series as The Sopranos and other fantasy offerings such as Lord of the Rings. In the more critical vein, reviewers were also quick to note that non-readers may feel alienated and lost because the show does not go into as much depth regarding narrative and character development as the books. In these cases though, they are still quick to indicate that there is enough within the series to maintain engagement with the story[60]. What is dismaying as seen in the in depth look at some of these reviews, and the reviews which are not looked at in detail in this paper, is the ongoing sentiment regarding the fantasy nature of the source material. Even now, with the show in its fifth season, it will always be fighting the stigma that surrounds the fantasy genre and fans, in which critics seem to think they need to convince the audience the show is worth watching. In certain cases, the exaggeration of certain aspects of the show in an effort to mask the fantasy becomes tiresome such as in Linda Stasi’s offering for the New York Post[61].

As seen from the examples provided, the general critical reception of Game of Thrones has not only been received positively, but has stirred conversation surrounding several valid criticisms and of the series. These critical reviews provide not only insight into various facets of the series, but in most cases, draw non-readers of Martin’s work into the series. Through summaries, drawing direct comparisons and efforts to help the audience understand what exactly the show is about, the critical reception and its reviewers are an integral part of the promotion and viewing of Game of Thrones.

Contributor: Alyssa Hughes


[1] Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 31.

[2] Michael Fleming, “HBO turns ‘Fire’ into Fantasy Series,” Variety (January 16, 2007):

[3] George R.R. Martin, “HBO Options Ice and Fire,” George R.R. Martin (January 18, 2007):

[4] Martin.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO’s Original Programming: Producing Quality TV,” in It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era, ed. by Marc Leverette, Brian L. Ott, and Cara Louise Buckley (New York: Routledge, 2008), 83-84.

[10] McCabe and Akass, 84.

[11] Martin.

[12] Fleming.

[13] Ibid.

[14] James Hibbard, “HBO Greenlights ‘Game of Thrones’,” The Hollywood Reporter (March 2, 2010):

[15] Hibbard.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Boris Kachka, “Dungeon Master: David Benioff,” New York Magazine (May 18, 2008):

[19] Kachka.

[20] Tim Goodman, “Game of Thrones: Review,” The Hollywood Reporter (April 15, 2011):

[21] Goodman.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Robert Bianco, “‘Game of Thrones’ Rides in Handsomely on HBO,” USA Today (April 15, 2011):

[27] Bianco.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] David Hinckley, “‘Game of Thrones’ Novices May be Thrown for Loss With New HBO Fantasy Series,” New York Daily News (April 16, 2011):

[37] Hinckley.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Maureen Ryan, “Review: With ‘Game of Thrones,’ HBO Attempts to Live the Fantasy,” Huffington Post (April 13, 2011):

[41] Ryan.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Nancy Dewolf Smith, “Servants, Swords and Sad Sex,” The Wall Street Journal (April 8, 2011):

[50] Dewolf Smith.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ginia Bellafanete, “A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms,” The New York Times (April 14, 2011):

[54] Bellafanete.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Alyssa Rosenberg, “Why Women Love Fantasy Literature,” The Atlantic (May 10, 2011):

[59] Emily Nussbaum, “The Aristocrats,” The New Yorker 88.12 (May 7, 2012): 68.

[60] Ken Tucker, “Game of Thrones,” Entertainment Weekly (April 14, 2011):

[61] Linda Stasi, “Fantasy Land,” New York Post (April 15, 2011):


Bellafanete, Ginia. “A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms.” The New York Times (April 14, 2011):

Bianco, Robert. “‘Game of Thrones’ Rides in Handsomely on HBO.” USA Today (April 15, 2011):

Dewolf Smith, Nancy. “Servants, Swords and Sad Sex.” The Wall Street Journal (April 8, 2011):

Fleming, Michael. “HBO turns ‘Fire’ into Fantasy Series.” Variety (January 16, 2007):

Goodman, Tim. “Game of Thrones: Review.” The Hollywood Reporter (April 15, 2011):

Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

Hibbard, James. “HBO Greenlights ‘Game of Thrones’.” The Hollywood Reporter (March 2, 2010):

Hinckley, David. “‘Game of Thrones’ Novices May be Thrown for Loss With New HBO Fantasy Series.” New York Daily News (April 16, 2011):

Kachka, Boris. “Dungeon Master: David Benioff.” New York Magazine (May 18, 2008):

Martin, George R.R. “HBO Options Ice and Fire.” George R.R. Martin (January 18, 2007):

McCabe, Janet and Kim Akass. “It’s not TV, it’s HBO’s Original Programming: Producing Quality TV.” In It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era, edited by Marc Leverette, Brian L. Ott, and Cara Louise Buckley, 83-93. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Nussbaum, Emily. “The Aristocrats.” The New Yorker 88.12 (May 7, 2012): 68.

Rosenberg, Alyssa. “Why Women Love Fantasy Literature.” The Atlantic (May 10, 2011):

Ryan, Maureen. “Review: With ‘Game of Thrones,’ HBO Attempts to Live the Fantasy.” Huffington Post (April 13, 2011):

Stasi, Linda. “Fantasy Land.” New York Post (April 15, 2011):

Tucker, Ken. “Game of Thrones.” Entertainment Weekly (April 14, 2011):