With one season left in Westeros, it’s time to gaze over the horizon of peak TV.
The weeks when Game of Thrones is airing, it feels like there’s nothing else on television. Some of this is by design; the web’s biggest publications treat the series like an extended version of the Super Bowl, churning out recaps, think pieces and theories that will almost assuredly find an audience. And there’s a pretty simple reason for this: Thrones is just that popular.
The premiere for the penultimate season was pirated around 90 million times, and the finale was legally watched by a record number of people on HBO. Even a ratings powerhouse like AMC’s The Walking Dead has had to endure a decline in viewership, but Thrones’ audience continues to grow. Chances are, you know a good amount of people in your social circle who watch Thrones — and even if that’s not the case, it’s commonly accepted that if you’re a fan, logging onto any form of social media after an episode airs bears the risk of spoilers. Compare this to something like Showtime’s Twin Peaks, another Sunday night series that had the misfortune of sharing a timeslot with Thrones for several weeks, and if you’re a fan of both (which I am), there’s not much of a debate for which to watch first. Unless you plan on staying off Twitter, Facebook and muting your texts, you’re checking in with Westeros.
It’s a sensation that feels increasingly alien in our TV landscape and has prompted a few critics to ruminate on whether Thrones will be the last show considered event television — in other words, a series a ton of people watch live at the same time. The common thread for these arguments: there’s just too much TV out there, with 455 scripted series and counting.
Thrones will have one more season, possibly premiering as late as 2019, to capture our collective critical attention, but can any series take its mantle and come close to its soaring popularity? There are a few candidates on the air to consider — or nothing at all.
From a pure ratings standpoint, Westworld seems like the heir apparent to Thrones’ crown. The show’s first season drew higher numbers than its HBO counterpart, a promising sign for future seasons. For Westworld, that momentum might rely on its quality, and how it was drawing viewers in the first place.
Like Lost, Westworld’s appeal is through its (at times, literal) puzzle box storytelling, packaging mystery upon mystery for the Hosts — the artificial beings that comprised the theme park — and the humans that enslaved them. Much of the online banter surrounding season one was theorizing the show’s biggest secrets, and to Reddit’s credit, they accurately predicted many key twists. At times, however, it felt less like a TV show and more an exercise in problem-solving, the same issues that eventually plagued Lost.
The second season can ostensibly change things. There are some mysteries to be solved, to be sure (How many theme parks are there? Is this even taking place on Earth? How many more times will James Marsden be murdered?), but the first season ended with the Hosts freed from their park narratives — and any limitations for harming the human guests. The most memorable sequence of the first season two trailer was Dolores (the Emmy-nominated Evan Rachel Wood) gunning down guests on horseback, which suggests less speculation and more unrepentant chaos. I’m still along for the ride; we’ll see if even more viewers are in 2018.
The actual metrics for Stranger Things is unknown, thanks to Netflix’s unwillingness to release any ratings for its original programming. But enough information was gleaned to discover that it’s one of their most popular shows — which, no shit!
You just had to be on the internet in the summer of 2016 to know Stranger Things was a hit, whether it was folks incessantly geeking out over the adorable antics of the Stranger Things Kids™ or the obsession with Barb, a minor, unappreciated character that inexplicably nabbed Shannon Purser an Emmy nomination. It’s not scientific by any means, but when I was watching this year’s Super Bowl with some friends at a crowded bar, there was a collective roar when a 30-second teaser aired for Stranger Things 2. People really, really love this show.
The main issue — and it’s a big one — for Stranger Things taking Thrones’ spot is distribution. Being a Netflix Original, the new seasons are released in full, allowing users to binge the show at their leisure. Season two premiering in October doesn’t mandate everyone binges it all at once. Hell, you could wait until Thanksgiving to watch the season (though good luck avoiding spoilers online). I’m a fan of Netflix and other streaming service’s distribution models and how they cater to the individual. However, it means no Netflix series — not even Stranger Things — can capture the zeitgeist for weeks on end, like Thrones did for two months this summer.
This Is Us
Set aside the jokes about endlessly manufacturing tears from its audience (not to mention, the greatness of old-age makeup Mandy Moore) and NBC’s breakout hit last fall, This Is Us, is the biggest network drama to come out since Empire. It drew viewers in, hitting over 12 million for the season one finale, and was generally praised by critics — particularly the lead performances from the likes of Sterling K. Brown, and yes, Mandy Moore.
Being a network show plays to This Is Us’s advantage, making it more accessible to a larger audience, and good word-of-mouth should further boost its ratings once it returns later this month. Yet oddly the series could face a similar issue to Westworld in the long run.
A multigenerational family drama might not seem like the type of show that leans toward a central mystery, but This Is Us is holding out the truth behind the death of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), the Pearson kids’ idolized father. It’s a tragedy that looms over everyone, but withholding the details has spawned audience theories — as bold as Jack dying on 9/11 — and frustration that the series continued to stall answering it in the finale. It’s worth contemplating how many viewers This Is Us could shed when it eventually reveals Jack’s death and we’re given the full picture.
A show that hasn’t aired
Vague but true: There could be a show to usurp Thrones that hasn’t aired yet. It’s impossible to predict what the show would be (how many people are excited for Damon Lindelof’s take on Watchmen?), or if a spec script for such a series even exists. But it could draw inspiration from Thrones’ ambitious world-building and narrative subversion.
Moreover, with the recent popularity of shows like Thrones, Westworld and The Walking Dead, a science-fiction or fantasy drama with some established source material would ostensibly appeal to the largest audience. It’s certainly held true for Hollywood.
The television landscape is increasingly diluted, there’s niche shows that can cater to almost everyone. Auteur-driven work is flooding to the small screen — TV has become the new arthouse cinema. We can fall in love with a show like AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and see it end on its own terms in four seasons, even though fewer people watch it live than the population of Topeka, Kansas.
The way we consume these shows have also evolved. I’ve already talked about the streaming service model, and the vestiges of traditional TV watching — as in, sitting down at 9 p.m. on a Sunday for seven weeks straight — will continue to fade. If and when Peak TV finally hits its peak, the success of Thrones may never be duplicated again.
So in the meantime, despite illogical traversing through Westeros from its characters and lazy, hurried writing from the creators, Thrones is a cultural experience worth cherishing for one more shortened season. We might as well enjoy it while it lasts.