When you play the game of TV spinoffs, you win or you die. Well, maybe die is a bit too strong, but there's a lot at stake here for a certain premium cable network and its streaming service.
HBO is betting big that more than three years after mega-hit "Game of Thrones" aired its final (and poorly received) episode, there is still an appetite for Westerosi drama. It's making that bet with prequel series "House of the Dragon" (HBO and HBO Max, Sundays, 9 EDT/PDT, ★★ out of four), a gilded new drama that aims to recapture the phenomenon.
Unfortunately, phenomena are singular, and extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Trying to recreate one leads to dull, cookie-cutter series like "Dragon" – something that smells and sounds and looks like "Thrones," but lacks the substance of the original. For fans who love the world author George R.R. Martin created with his "A Song of Ice and Fire" series of novels, it's a deep disappointment.
Created by Ryan Condal and Martin, "Dragon" is a very different beast than "Thrones," pun intended. Based on Martin's encyclopedia-like book "Fire and Blood," it's a prequel that tells the story of one episode among the ancestors of Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke in "Thrones." The creators have likened it to Shakespeare's "King Lear": Not a world-spanning epic featuring 20-plus characters and locations, but rather a smaller family drama about the ruling dynasty in the capital of King's Landing.
That in itself is not really a problem. "Thrones" was always at its best when it focused on political drama instead of fantastical. But the spinoff's story of family angst amid the dragon-taming Targaryen clan is just not nearly as interesting as the heyday of Lannisters, Starks and Littlefinger in the original series. It's often just boring. And all the scenes of orgies, disturbingly graphic childbirth and dragon flying in the world can't fix a dull plot and a stilted script.
"Dragon" primarily tells the story of two women, Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower, played at first as teenagers by young actresses Milly Alcock and Emily Carey and then by Emma D'Arcy and Olivia Cooke after a midseason time jump. Spirited and independent Rhaenyra is the only child of King Viserys (Paddy Considine), a pushover of a king who longs for nothing more than a son and heir. He's stuck, for the moment, with his wild and slightly sadistic brother Daemon (Matt Smith, of "The Crown" and "Doctor Who" fame), who's next in line to the throne.
Viserys is also under constant pressure for favors from his "friends" and advisers, including powerful naval commander Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) and the ambitious Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) – the Hand of the King and Alicent's father – who wants to use her for his own political gains.
Debating on whether to watch: Can we trust 'House of the Dragon' after that last season of 'Game of Thrones'?
Poor characterization is a problem with every person we encounter. None of these characters are purely good or evil (well, Smith's Daemon is definitely pretty far on the evil end of the spectrum). And while this may reflect real life, we can't sympathize or connect with many of them.
The scripts do not help. The writers are heavy-handed with symbolism (many rats appear at moments of corruption for the characters, shockingly). They also chose a far more medieval effect in the dialogue (you can play a drinking game with how often someone says the words "mine own" instead of "my") that feels wooden. The words simply don't jump off the screen, which is a problem because "Dragon" is talkier than "Thrones." Yes, there are battles and sword fights, but they're few and far between. This Westeros is a place mostly of peace, which is great for the fictional citizenry but terrible for storytelling opportunities.
"Dragon" at times feels like it's running through a "Thrones" checklist so as not to miss any element from the original series and anger a single fan. Incest? Check. Sniveling prince? Check. Gore? Check. Sexual exploitation of women and girls? Check. Battle sequences so dark you can't really see what's happening? Check again.
Before "Game of Thrones" got bad it was good, very good. There was nothing on TV quite like it. "Dragon" doesn't feel unique or novel at all, and not just because rival fantasy series like "Lord of the Rings" and "The Wheel of Time" are around. It's because unlike TV's small number of spectacular spinoffs like "Frasier," "Maude" or the recently ended "Better Call Saul," "Dragon" hasn't nailed the sweet spot of being familiar yet new, enriching the old story rather than copying it.
Great TV shows aren't paint-by-numbers endeavors. They are original works of art, and each brushstroke is meaningful and dynamic, each color deftly chosen, all working in tandem to take our breath away. When "Thrones" was at its peak, it was truly breathtaking, creating drama, tension and even comedy unparalleled by its peers. Any spinoff didn't really have a chance to recreate that kind of greatness, but "Dragon," one of many developed by HBO, may not have been the best choice to attempt it.
The Targaryens are a dynasty described in "Thrones" as rotting from the inside, slowly failing over the generations until the last family members are left with no dragons, no money and no power. One can only hope that HBO doesn't let the world of "Thrones" fade into oblivion like its platinum-haired royals.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'House of the Dragon' review: Spinoff can't touch 'Game of Thrones'