With "Game of Thrones" fever going on and the final episode of one of television's most popular offerings ever just around the corner, seemingly everyone and their brother is writing about HBO's swords-and-dragons fantasy series. Our editor Jeff Neal, a big-time "GoT" fan did so earlier this week. Why not share my own spin on things?
I come from a little bit different perspective, as I'm not actually a fan of the show.
(I know, I know. Get your gasps and shrieks of horror out of the way now. I'll wait.)
I have nothing against the show. It looks to have amazing production values and strong actors. I just never really got into it. To be honest, once it reached a certain level of buzzworthiness, I probably would have avoided it out of sheer stubbornness -- since everyone else is so nuts about the show, I've got to go in the opposite direction. And I also no longer have HBO access. But for the most part, it's just never grabbed me enough to think, "I HAVE to watch this!"
Politically speaking, there may be a reason for that.
Not long ago, while reading some articles online about the series (so I can keep up with what the heck everyone around me is talking about), I came across an article from a conservative point of view discussing what the writer didn't like about the series, its heavy reliance on sex and violence and morally ambiguous characters. In the article, I recall the mention of a study showing that, overwhelmingly, "Game of Thrones" was preferred by viewers on the political left, as compared to the right.
In writing this column, I tried to find that article again, and couldn't. I did find a 2016 piece from The Guardian referencing an E-Score study showing the same result, however.
While the author of the first article I read was clearly condemning the viewing tastes of the left, objectively speaking, he's probably onto something. Now, it's certainly a generalization. I know my share of conservatives who do enjoy "Game of Thrones." That said, the viewing habits of liberals and conservatives do appear to reflect archetypal hallmarks of their respective world views.
"Game of Thrones" -- and much of what has been considered "prestige" television over the last decade or so (your "Breaking Bad"s, your "Mad Men") -- have been favored by liberals. They have been steeped in characters -- protagonists, not traditional villains -- who display questionable moral traits (but arguably more "humanness"; we are, after all, messy beings who have our own agendas). The endings are not always neat and tidy, and justice is not always served. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to prefer crime procedurals. Think "NCIS" or "Law and Order." These shows feature traditional institutions of authority in a positive light, have a clear line of distinction about who is "bad" and who isn't, and typically have clear and morally satisfying resolutions.
Just for fun, let's reference another set of findings: Studies over the years that have found conservatives to show greater levels of disgust in general. You can Google this topic and find any number of references to it in your search results, but basically, when conservatives are shown images meant to provoke feelings of revulsion, such as carcasses or fecal waste, they display a higher level of sensitivity to these visual triggers than do those on the left.
Of course, depending on your political persuasion, you can spin these results into the analysis that best fits what you already believe. Liberals could take this as proof that conservatives are naturally inclined to fear that which is "other," and argue that this is why they are more likely to argue against open immigration, displaying a distrust out of disgust for those who look different. Conservatives could say that it's reasonable to show disgust toward things that are potentially hazardous, and the fact that liberals respond less negatively toward images meant to gross a person out demonstrates a lack of adequate discernment.
It certainly seems that's how red and blue watch TV too. Complex characters whose behaviors might disgust more conservative viewers appeal to liberal ones, and conservatives prefer portrayals of more traditional and safe protagonists.
And as usual, I'm right in the middle.
Reading about the TV study, I considered what I like to watch -- since I've never been a big fan of "GoT" or "Breaking Bad," nor of the more straight-along-the-lines police, hospital, or emergency services procedural. Aside from half-hour sitcoms, what I tend to love the most when it comes to TV are procedurals with anti-heroes.
How's that for sitting on the fence?
My favorites have tended to be variations of the "Sherlock" archetype -- including the Benedict Cumberbatch "Sherlock" series itself, as well as "The Mentalist" (in which the main character was a former fake psychic who uses his observational skills to solve crimes), and the medical reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic character, "House." Each of these features a brilliant but incorrigible smart-ass -- an enfant terrible who is the smartest person in the room, and makes sure everyone knows it.
I suspect there are people out there who would believe that I see myself much the same way, whether that's true of me or not. They're probably right.
The thing about most of these characters -- and some others I've liked who are a little different, like the title serial killer-of-serial killers in Showtime's "Dexter" or career art thief-turned-FBI asset Neil Caffrey in USA's "White Collar -- is that while they are not necessarily the most admirable people in the world based on their choices, they are still somehow likable. You don't necessarily look at them and revel in the fact that they're awful; you kind of root for them. They're witty. They care about the people who are close to them. And they're extremely good at what they do, so you respect their competence.
I can't speak to "Game of Thrones," but when "Mad Men" was all the rage, I tried watching a season of it to see what all the fuss was about. I found myself hating virtually all of the characters on the show. There was no one to root for; almost everyone was an awful human being, and those that weren't were removed enough from the center of the series that they didn't feel like someone worth investing that much emotional capital in as a viewer. Whenever anyone talks about "prestige" television these days and what a golden age we live in for the hour-long drama, I think back to my experience with "Mad Men," and realize similarly-regarded shows may not be for me.
Do our television viewing habits really speak to who we are inside, either on a political level or any other? Probably. When I was studying the craft of episodic television screenwriting in college, one of the crucial points my instructors made to us was to create characters that people could connect with on some level. Essentially, the viewer is inviting these characters into their living room each week (or these days, on demand via Hulu or HBO GO), and they aren't going to want to do that if they don't like who they see on the screen.
So maybe liberals do connect more with complicated characters who represent a world that doesn't function according to pie-in-the-sky moral codes. Maybe conservatives identify with characters who operate in a world where traditional institutions are respected, and the good guys are supposed to get the better of the bad guys in the end, because that's what's right. And maybe I just like shows about clever but socially maladjusted misfits because, well, I am one.
Or maybe we just like what we like, and it's not really as complex as some silly study would make it out to be.
As for me, I say happy "Game of Thrones" viewing, and based on my very limited knowledge of the show's goings-on, I'm going to predict Bran Stark sits on the Iron Throne. Hey, if people can pick NCAA Tournament brackets based on favorite mascots, I can make an Iron Throne pick.
CHRISTOPHER HARRIS is a staff writer for the Commonwealth Journal. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @charrisatCJ.