Earlier this year, business reporter Brad Stone published Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire. As the subtitle suggests, the book’s scope is much wider than the company’s entertainment arm, spanning from Alexa to Amazon Web Services to match the breadth of Bezos’s ambitions. But the book did produce a memorable—and illuminating—anecdote about corporate management of a creative enterprise.
In 2017, Stone reported, Bezos dressed down former Amazon Studios head Roy Price over the perceived failure of The Man in the High Castle, the dystopian drama adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. (Later that same year, Price resigned over allegations he had sexually harassed an executive producer on the show, which ultimately aired for four seasons.) Bezos, frustrated that The Man in the High Castle had not become a major hit, lamented that “this should not be that hard. All of these iconic shows have the same basic things in common.” He then went on to list, seemingly spontaneously, 12 aspects of a great series, including “moral choices,” “positive emotions,” “a compelling antagonist,” and “humor.” For a time, Bezos’s word became law, with executives required to submit spreadsheets explaining how each show fulfilled each criterion.
Stone later clarified that Bezos had since stepped back from overseeing Amazon Studios so closely. But the story still struck a nerve, and for good reason. Not only was the anecdote an over-the-top example of higher-ups inserting themselves into an area well outside their expertise; the mindset on display still seems to guide Amazon’s big-picture planning. The Prime Video streaming service may not be working off of Bezos’s specific agenda, but its latest effort—a show based on author Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, the first three episodes of which dropped last Friday—has a distinct whiff of programming by checklist.
Around the time Bezos outlined his storytelling strategy, he also reportedly issued a mandate for Prime Video’s next big milestone: to find the next Game of Thrones. The goal was, on one level, almost redundant; isn’t “the next Game of Thrones” just another term for “the next TV megahit,” and isn’t the objective of every TV show for as many people to watch it as possible? But for a service that won its first Emmys for a Jewish family dramedy about gender and sexual identity, the sorta-pivot made a certain kind of sense. It wouldn’t be consistent for the Everything Store to specialize in lower-budget series with the look and feel of an independent film—though over the years, Amazon has acquired plenty of those, too. (Annette, the recently released French rock opera with a singing puppet baby, was one of theirs.) As a company, Amazon is nothing if not vast in scale. Perhaps their productions should be, too.
Four years on, the plan isn’t without its payoffs. With two seasons under its belt, superhero spoof The Boys is popular enough to earn a spinoff and a surprise Emmy nod for Outstanding Drama Series. (The show subverts its genre enough to win over skeptics but holds enough mass appeal to compete with Marvel and DC, not just comment on them.) And earlier this year, Amazon announced its plans to buy the studio MGM for more than $8 billion, a move that would bring global franchise James Bond into the fold—and the opportunity to launch satellites like a TV show along with it. Neither development is, on its own, the “next Game of Thrones,” but they’re steps in the right direction.
Still, Amazon’s most obvious attempts to make Thrones’ lightning strike twice are also its most literal—and least imaginative. The ill-conceived Carnival Row may have had elements of high fantasy and an even higher budget, but it lacked much of a spark, including between its two leads. Other projects are even more blatant about following the Thrones playbook to the letter. HBO hit it big by betting on a book series beloved by fans but too expensive, unwieldy, or otherwise unadaptable to do justice without complete commitment to a multiseason endeavor. So Amazon bought the rights to two series of its own. (To be fair, it’s not alone in its goal of making Game of Thrones by numbers; Apple TV+ just wrapped the first season of a show based on Isaac Asimov’s millennia-spanning Foundation, while Netflix is adapting the heady, abstract Three-Body Problem with the actual producers of Game of Thrones.) Most famously, there’s the billion-plus-dollar Lord of the Rings adaptation, many details of which remain tightly under wraps. Until we learn more, let alone see the final result, we’ll have to make do with The Wheel of Time.
As a story, The Wheel of Time hits almost all of Bezos’s self-proclaimed sweet spots, from “civilizational high stakes” (just look at that title!) to “wish fulfillment” (who wouldn’t want to go on a road trip with Rosamund Pike?). It also shares many traits, at least superficial ones, with Thrones in particular. Some are the series’ shared inheritance from common ancestors like J.R.R. Tolkien: CGI creatures (ogres called trollocs instead of White Walkers), Manichaean cosmology (“light and dark” instead of “fire and ice”), a potpourri of accents from across the UK (and some from Ireland, too). Others go back further still, to the hero’s journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell in the 1940s. The Wheel of Time follows five candidates for a prophesied figure known as the Dragon Reborn. Before they can go on to great things, Pike’s sorceress has to pick them up from the rural backwater where they grew up, as most chosen ones do. As Tatooine is to Star Wars, a region called the Two Rivers is to The Wheel of Time.
What The Wheel of Time does not share with Game of Thrones are the qualities that made the latter a crossover hit, impressing dedicated fans and attracting new ones by the millions. The blatancy of Amazon’s big play makes its failure all the more exasperating, if also anticipated. There’s a lemming-like logic at play that’s never a recipe for success but feels especially ill-advised given the sheer size of this investment. One gets the sense that companies like Amazon are spending billions-with-a-B on their “next Game of Thrones” without thinking too hard about why Game of Thrones became such a smash in the first place. It was never about the dragons and always about the people who feared, fought, and rode them.
Developed by writer and former Survivor contestant Rafe Judkins, Amazon’s Wheel of Time spends the six episodes shared with critics giving a crash course in Jordan’s richly detailed world, first laid out in 14 novels from 1990 to 2013. (After Jordan passed away in 2007, the last three books were co-authored by Brandon Sanderson.) As generic as some of the scenery may be—a tavern where the townspeople congregate could’ve been shot on the grounds of the local Renaissance Faire—there’s still so much to memorize that newcomers may require some flashcards. Pike’s character, Moiraine, belongs to an order called the Aes Sedai, which wields a force (small f!) called the One Power, historically restricted to women. She’s marshalling forces against the Dark One, a Satanic figure who caused an apocalypse some 3,000 years before the events of the show; the trollocs are his minions, along with creatures called fades and turncoat humans known as Darkfriends. Once collected, Moiraine’s charges set out on a journey from a region called Andor to a city called Tar Valon, home of the Aes Sedai’s White Tower (no, not that one). It’s a lot to take in.
The Wheel of Time is so busy spinning its lore it barely has time to lay out its emotional stakes. Lost loves and unstable upbringings, the stuff that’s supposed to drive a character for the rest of their lives, get crammed into mere minutes of the pilot. Where Thrones found clever workarounds to build its world efficiently, like turning the opening credits into a moving map, The Wheel of Time shortchanges its heroes in favor of details we haven’t been taught to care about. In doing so, it gets a genre show’s priorities exactly wrong. The most finely drawn backdrop in the world is a waste when the center of the stage can’t hold your attention. And neither the writing nor the performances are enough to make The Wheel of Time’s protagonists feel like individuals instead of generic archetypes. There’s no Arya Stark or Tyrion Lannister for the audience to latch on to.
But even for longtime fans who already know these characters, The Wheel of Time is not the masterful translation Thrones was, especially in its early seasons. For all its expense, most evident in the dramatic landscapes from all the on-location shooting, The Wheel of Time looks oddly cheap, or maybe just artificial. When the characters cross paths with a nomadic tribe known as the Tinkers, their costumes look like a knockoff Esmeralda fit from the local Halloween store. Nor do the trollocs seem especially menacing; people forget Thrones spent years building up to its ice zombies and adult dragons, letting knowledge and dread do as much work as the special effects. The Wheel of Time bets on spectacle over storytelling but doesn’t make the former effective enough to be worth the trade-off.
The floodgates opened by Thrones haven’t been without their highlights. It’s difficult to imagine Denis Villeneuve getting the green light for his multipart take on Dune, for example, without the show as its precedent—and Dune is exactly the kind of ambitious, immersive effort rewarded by tackling a tricky source text head-on. Outliers aside, though, the hunt for the next Thrones rarely feels motivated by infectious enthusiasm. Instead, shows like The Wheel of Time feel reverse-engineered from an ideal outcome. And, unlike in fantasies, prophecies in the real world aren’t guaranteed to come true.