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The Very Last Piece of the TV Monoculture

‘Game of Thrones’ is the last show that everyone watches at the same time. Enjoy it while you can.

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

Rewatching Game of Thrones’ latest season in preparation for Sunday’s premiere, I realized something embarrassing: Somewhere along the way I’d stopped thinking of Game of Thrones as television, even though that’s exactly what it is — impressive, exhilarating, captivating television.

As with everything surrounding Thrones these days, my memory lapse is more a statement about the show’s place in our cultural conversation than the show itself. Now more than ever, it feels inadequate to discuss Thrones as a simple TV show. This is less a formal distinction, in the vein of the ongoing critic wars over the definition of film versus television, than a metatextual one. Like other TV shows, Thrones is ultimately a longform narrative distributed in weekly, hourlong doses over several years. Unlike other TV shows, however, Game of Thrones makes an event out of seemingly minuscule details like premiere dates and episode descriptions. Unlike other TV shows, Game of Thrones’ actors risk their jobs by updating their résumés. And unlike other TV shows, Game of Thrones has ballooned into the flagship of an entire industry, encompassing future spinoffs, fan conventions, and self-styled Live Concert Experience. As both a phenomenon and a carefully managed machine, Thrones has more in common with Star Wars than Veep.

Put another way: Going into its seventh and penultimate season, Game of Thrones is Peak TV’s version of a blockbuster. That’s a status only possible in this overcrowded, well-funded, and critically-fawned-over era of the medium. Ironically, those are the very conditions that almost guarantee we’ll never see a unifying force like Game of Thrones again. Thrones is the last vestige of the monoculture, a dying and distinct model with its own advantages and blind spots. In its stead, we’ll be left with the fractured, micro-targeted landscape to which Thrones is the glaring, currently only, and possibly final exception.

Let’s start with numbers: Game of Thrones feels like an omnipresent hit because it is, in fact, an omnipresent hit, averaging more than 23 million viewers across platforms last season (with 9 million tuning in live for its quite-literally explosive finale, the most for a single episode in the show’s history). Compare that to shows like Girls, which had more than enough press but just a million-odd viewers, and also to The Big Bang Theory, a series whose most recent season-ender brought in a formidable audience of 18 million but lacked the media footprint to match. (The comforting rhythms that make a well-executed sitcom popular in the first place also work to mute any novelty-driven conversation around it.) Game of Thrones brings those worlds together, with the raw metrics of a Big Bang Theory and the conversation-dominating prestige factor of a Girls. Thrones has the benefit of an HBO budget and publicity boost in that quest, but it also provides a propulsive plot that supplies at least a couple of drop-everything-and-head-for-the-watercooler moments each season. Twists and spectacles that break through the noise like that are all but impossible to pull off these days, in part because Thrones itself raised the bar so high. What’s a single shocking death when held up against the Red Wedding?

It should be said that Thrones defies the odds not just in ratings, but the trajectory of those numbers. Big Bang Theory is still a network giant, though one that hit its all-time ratings low this past season. (Atrophy is another side effect of Peak TV; if it’s hard to get people to tune in, it’s even harder to keep their attention.) Thrones, on the other hand, just keeps getting bigger — even as the rest of television gets increasingly, inexorably smaller.

The Zen koan that defines Peak TV is that there’s something for everyone even as there’s nothing for everyone. The proliferation of shows that satisfy every niche from “adult-targeted cartoon about a depressed talking horse” to “feminist theory illustrated by a game Kevin Bacon” necessarily means chipping away at the monoculture that once characterized the network TV universe. The existence of ultra-specific sitcoms like Broad City and Difficult People is part of the reason there’s no longer a unifying one like Cheers.

This phenomenon, where “ratings success” is a subjective term and watching the same thing at the same time is more throwback than default, makes the Goliaths we have left all the more precious. Empire’s star has since faded, but for a while, it was fêted as the potential savior of network television; This Is Us has been rewarded for its in-demo dominance with not just one, but two additional seasons. And while cable, with its subscriber dollars and more limited reach, is somewhat shielded from the existential panic of industry-wide ratings depression, it’s not entirely immune from the pressure. Thrones value to HBO is obvious. Given that HBO has bolstered its drama lineup with another epic genre hit in Westworld, the pressure to produce a worthy follow-up may not be quite as intense as it once was, but a consensus show like Thrones — and the hold its network has over a captive audience — is still an endangered species. No wonder HBO’s doing its best to protect a treasured asset before its kind goes extinct.

Perhaps less discussed, however, is what a common language like Thrones does for its audience. As a critic, I’ve come to treasure the series I can reliably actually discuss with people, rather than simply recommend and make an elevator pitch for, preferably with a list of places it’s readily available for streaming. I’m an extreme case, but Thrones offers a similar benefit for most everyone who likes consuming and talking about pop culture, not just those who do so professionally. It feels good to have something that connects us; it’s why the popularity of a Harry Potter or a Star Wars gradually becomes as important to its appeal as the work itself. And the more culture silos us into perfectly personalized microclimates — a pattern that transcends media, but feels especially disorienting when it spreads to a true mass medium like TV — the rarer those shared touchstones become.

The more unusual a cultural common denominator like Thrones is, the more valued it is on both sides of the production/consumption divide for bucking an increasingly unbreakable rule. Game of Thrones wouldn’t have happened without the seismic changes in television that made space for its ambition; an adaptation of a still-unfinished series of novels by a former TV writer tired of dealing with constraints like budgets and actor contracts is the sort of project that only Peak TV could inspire. Those changes are the same shifts that left audiences receptive to once-trivialized genres like fantasy as a potential source of great art, just like the once-trivialized medium of television itself. But those changes eventually led to a TV ecosystem that can’t be reduced to just one or two or even half a dozen shows worth talking about, and even if Peak TV truly has hit its peak, those days seem increasingly further behind us.

For now, at least, we still have Thrones. And as curious as we might be to see who finally ends up on the Iron Throne, as legitimately excited as we are to see giant CGI dragons make their triumphant return to Westeros, it’s difficult not to detect a note of last-hurrah urgency to this second-to-last build-up, an attempt on all our parts to wring whatever contact high we can from the show while it lasts. Game of Thrones is a party at the end of a particular version of the TV-watching world. Let’s enjoy event television as long as it’s here to enjoy.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.