I’ve started watching this show called Britannia recently. It’s set in ancient England, around the time of the Roman invasion. Rivalling celtic tribes are faced with the threat of foreign powers as all the while these creepy druids go around casting spells and speaking in prophecy. It’s a decent watch. Nothing special but enjoyable enough, with some fine performances and pretty solid effects. The writing can leave a lot to be desired, although I like the creative directions, but yeah. It ain’t terrible. In fact it’s being called The Next Game of Thrones…
It’s quite the claim, that. And Britannia is far from the first show to be given such a handle. Pretty much ever since Game of Thrones’ particular blend of tits and dragons won the conversation battle around watercoolers the world over other networks have been trying to copy it. Weird thing is that now we’re at a stage when even HBO is trying to find their own clone.
Season eight of GoT is currently filming in Europe but season eight will be the last. After 2017’s shortened season seven reached record audiences across its seven episodes (to be fair, those episodes were all pretty long), Thrones Ocho will be just six episodes long. Chances are they’ll be touching upon movie lengths in runtime – Thrones can do whatever it wants at this stage – but once those precious offerings are done… then winter will have come and gone for good.
Which leaves HBO in a tricky place. They’ve been the designated home of Good TV for several years now, with Thrones as its flagship. The Sopranos was the king before that, although they lost the crown to AMC for a while there during the time of Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But that was a hot streak and HBO was still HBO. For a while there, if it was on HBO then it automatically passed the test in an increasingly crowded telly market.
However HBO has taken some Ls recently. Vinyl wasn’t as good as it wanted to be. Boardwalk Empire ran out of steam. The Leftovers is done. Silicon Valley kinda blew it, True Detective never had it (despite the hype) and Veep is running to a close. Westworld? It has its fans. But it certainly doesn’t touch on Thrones. Then along came Netflix, muddying all the waters.
So HBO is in a situation where the last great universal hit on television is almost done and they need to find a way to replace it, or risk losing subscriptions. It’s a different quest to the other networks who are out there trying to fill the current void (and even before there was a void: hang off the coattails) with their own sexy/violent fantasy shows in the typical way that the soulless corporate machine, not content with its own vapid inhumanity, has to take any popular, dangerous and challenging subculture and co-opt it and reshape it into something tasteful that they can sell with ad spots withheld for fast food and beauty products.
Of course, there’s an obvious answer to this problem for HBO. The same one that Vince Gilligan came to after Breaking Bad ended… SPINOFF, BABY! Apparently there are as many as four active ideas for Game of Thrones spinoffs out there, with roughly a billion other possibilities given the vastly populate world with a variety of rich cultures and a long tapestry of histories and legends that George RR Martin has sculpted. Call this the Star Wars model. You just keep on producing new ones every year in perpetuity.
Interesting comparison too because it was announced recently that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have rumoured to have been given a Star Wars trilogy. Weird given that Star Wars is squeaky clean compared to old mate Thrones. Then again, tits and dragons will only take you so far. Benioff and Weiss have also proved their brilliance for plot development and, especially, character development - which are arguably the two most important aspects of film and telly. Either you keep the audience guessing or you get them to fall in love with the characters.
GRRM is sure living off the spoils of his successes so HBO might as well too, they’ve already learned how to take things off script and Martin’s produced a number of side stories already. They could do that and never run out of content… although us folks might get bored. The Star Wars model is still new and two and a half hours a year isn’t a huge commitment compared to a recurring series. Better Call Saul is well liked by fans and critics but it’s got nothing on Breaking Bad’s cultural impact. Same is likely to happen with Thrones spinoffs. HBO’s real problem isn’t Thrones-specific, it’s just that Thrones is still there protecting them from the inevitable. Their real problem is that Netflix increasingly has all the cool stuff. Largely because Netflix’s model makes more money and they can afford to take punts on interesting, risky programming.
So what’s Britannia like? Same as the rest of them. It’s gorgeously shot for one thing, mixing in a blend of colours which Thrones, with all its darkened corners, never would. The title cards are probably the best part of the whole thing. Very folksy with its magic and spirits and that’s always hard to get a line on since it’s basically a cheat code when you can bend the metaphysical, making it tough to hold an audience’s trust. The acting is mostly great. Some seasoned vets and some new ones, special shout out to Danish thespian Nikolaj Lie Kaas for his work especially. His Hound/Arya combo with Eleanor Worthington-Cox is probably the best part of the show and yet they kinda refuse to commit to it.
Lots of interesting imagery happening here too… the problem is that the writing isn’t that great. It’s a bit surprising that, since the show is helmed by playwright Jez Butterworth and covers such a fascinating time in history, this clash between cultures and religions, between pastoral paganism and the supposedly modernised Roman Empire. Perfectly watchable but hardly compelling. A few of the character dynamics are too formulaic, others are simply tenuous. And they really don’t go hard enough at the stuff that sets it apart from all the other Not-Thrones mimickers, which is a shame because there’s a great show in here somewhere.
Britannia’s made by Sky and Amazon in conjunction. Which in turn makes you wonder if it had been funded by Netflix, what sort of show we’d have gotten instead. I guess that’s the whole problem.
Yeah g’day, cheers for reading TNC and all that. Make sure to slap an ad before you go.