Streaming services, cable TV, and primetime television are fighting for your viewership now more than ever. UNBINGED is here to help you weed through it all, with reviews of the latest shows that highlight what we love, what we hate, and what we love to hate-watch, too. This week, we spotlight three big ticket shows hoping to revitalize the streaming service market. Sorry Netflix, but this is the big leagues. These are the shows that are vying for your interest, your time, and your subscription dollars. From the creatures and cretins in HBO’s House of the Dragon to the elves of Prime’s Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power to the Sith lords of Disney+’s Andor, these shows feature billion-dollar properties that have one goal in mind: to change the game.
Built from the ruins of a devoted fandom and new subscriber goals comes the latest reason to renew HBO Max. Though Game of Thrones fans have a reason to be wary after the searing disappointment of Season 8 and the betrayal of a “Storyline That Was Promised,” HBO hopes to win back the interest and devotion of an embittered following with House of the Dragon. With the help of pricey sets, an impressive cast, and a story that includes the beginning, middle, and end of an epic tale written by George RR Martin himself, it appears to be working.
So, what is the main difference between the two series? Other than a few centuries and a few dozen key players, much of the politics will seem familiar. While Game of Thrones was a fantasy adventure filled with sex, violence, incest and a promise of dragons in future seasons, House of the Dragon is a fantasy adventure filled with sex, violence, and dragons with a promise of incest; Targaryens are known for their “pure” bloodlines, and this series has dozens of them all vying for the Iron Throne.
Showrunner Ryan Condal and the good folks at HBO were smart in their story selection, opting for Martin’s Fire & Blood as the basis of the series, particularly the Dance of the Dragons, aka the Targaryen civil war. This sets up the series in a similar scenario as the early seasons of Thrones, offering political intrigue and court affairs.
As the series kicks off, King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) names his daughter Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock for her younger years, and Emma D’Arcy as an adult) as his heir, bypassing the tradition of male-only heirs, and thus vexing his brother Daemon (Matt Smith). When he remarries to his advisor’s (Rhys Ifans) daughter (Emily Carey as a young woman, and Olivia Cooke as an adult), matters are further complicated when she begins producing more heirs. Eventually, every Targaryen dragon rider will soon have a valid reason to reach for the Iron Throne.
While the first season is about setting up the chess board and introducing the players, it is also about rebuilding faith in the series and the brand. Wrapped in extravagant sets and costumes, House of Dragons’ core story will feel familiar enough to Thrones fans. If HBO doesn’t deter from the path set by Martin and his book, it should restore their trust as well. Bring on the mead, the tourneys, and the fire breathers. We are in for a hell of a ride.
Even before it made its debut, Amazon Prime was quick to point out that its new flagship series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power was one of the most expensive series ever created. And it certainly looked like it. But once the audience’s eyes adjusted to the splendor of the production and costumes, what was left?
Set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, the Amazon Prime series offers longtime fans a chance to plunge back into the realm of elves and Orcs, dwarves, and harfoots. Where men are at the mercy of magic and magical beings, which in turn is being threatened by the return of Sauron, the hovering all-seeing eye from the award-winning Lord of the Ring movies.
The series has a lot of ground to cover and an ambitious game plan to do so, with five seasons already planned, exploiting every footnote, appendices, post-it note, and grocery list left by J.R.R. Tolkien. Starring Morfydd Clark, Markella Kavenagh, Ismael Cruz Cordova, and Robert Aramaya, among dozens of others, the series will cover the epic story of Númenor and the rise of Sauron, which brought on the Last Alliance of Elves and Men.
The series has sparked debate among die-hard Tolkien fans and that is a good way to get them engaged, for now at least. But what does the series hold for the common folks, those who enjoyed only the movies and maybe the many memes it inspired? These people should know that the first season of Rings of Power is less in the spirit of Lord of the Rings and more in the spirit of The Hobbit. In terms of pacing, tone, and general storytelling it’s a bit long in the tooth. The journey is lovely to look at, but meandering at times.
The show itself is quite an undertaking. Over 30 characters, many of which are new to the franchise, each with their own storylines, their own set of objectives and ambitions, and their own obstructions. Even for an audience familiar with the subject matter it’s a lot. Watching the series is almost as laborious as the creation of the series itself must have been.
The Rings of Power is neither the tragic misconception of Tolkien’s life work nor a modern masterpiece of storytelling. Instead, it drifts in the middle. Right now, the series is weighed down by its need to set up the story and characters. To really allow viewers to get lost in the world of Middle-earth will take time. Hopefully, the payoff will be worth it.
In 2016, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story offered a new chapter in the sci-fi franchise that longtime fans were not expecting. The story was a departure from the Skywalker saga as the film focused on a rag-tag group of Rebels who gave their lives in exchange for offering hope to the Rebellion.
Though outside of the familiar franchise, the film was regarded as one of the best in the Star Wars chronicles thanks to its cast, a stellar script, and the final breath-taking 20 minutes featuring Darth Vader in all of his badass, light-saber wielding Sith glory.
Now, six years later, Rogue co-scribe Tony Gilroy returns to the world of Rogue One with Star Wars: Andor for Disney+. Set five years before the events of the feature film, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is the main focus of the series as we follow his development from scoundrel to hero.
When we first meet Andor in Rogue One, he is already a leader, but here, he is just one notch above a derelict. A thief who runs on impulse, he acts without thinking and suffers the consequences. Joined by Stellan Skarsgård, Forest Whitaker’, Adria Arjona, Kyle Soller, Fiona Shaw, and Denise Gough, Luna embodies Andor. He’s a man whose people and planet have been destroyed by the Empire, yet his spirit remains intact. In early episodes, it is difficult to see the self-sacrificing leader he will eventually become, but that is the journey promised by Andor.
Andor keeps the story grounded by keeping the action mostly on the ground, thereby making it the most relatable of the Star Wars properties. A smart move for a franchise that was quickly approaching fatigue as Disney continues to milk it for movies, series, and animated efforts. Though still rich with culture and the politics that drive the Star Wars universe, Andor is a more nuanced story that pulls from the characters and their actions, rather than the fanbase. However, those looking for another Mandalorian might be disappointed by the darker nature of the show.
In the end, Andor is less of a spin-off and more of a spy drama that makes use of its pedigree to tell an engrossing story. At its heart, it is a character study told against the backdrop of a revolution. We know the outcome for all involved, so audience interest must rely firmly on Andor himself. Thanks to Luna, we care, as both the actor and Gilroy have created a compelling character. Good news for those who have hit Star Wars ennui. ♦