I have often said here that I like my entertainment to be entertaining, that is, I don't need to see hyper realistic movies and tv shows - real life banalities don't interest me as much as going somewhere new. If I wanted to spend my time after a long days work watching joyless suffering I would simply turn on the local news. There's plenty of pointless misery in the real world, I have little use for subjecting myself to it by choice.
On the other side of the coin, there does have to be some commitment to reality in the shows I watch. If a movie is too self-reverential or wink-wink, or if the story is too light and frothy, I'm taken out of the story. A great example of grounding fantasy in truth is Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. Cinematically and to a large extent story-wise, his edict from the very beginning was not to make a fantasy film, but to make as realistic a depiction of Tolkien's world as possible.
This is a great way to approach every genre of film making, as it also harkens back to every actors fundamental credo - the search for truth.
Remember the Brady Bunch? Robert Reed, who played the dad, used to drive everyone involved in the show bat-shit crazy, because he was always dogged and determined to find truth and reality in the characters and dialogue. Sherwood Shwartz, the creator and EP, would shake his head and roll his eyes (I'm paraphrasing) - "Bob, it's just a television show!" But Robert was adamant, about finding his motivation and making sense of the words that came out of his mouth.
As a result, if you watch those shows, especially the first season or so, his performance as a loving but firm dad of six, rings absolutely true and brings real power and emotional resonance to a show that was conceived and created primarily as silly escapism.
Anyway, the point I'm making here is - as much as I love explosions, dragons, pointless nudity, foul language, talking robots and so on; for a movie to really grab and enthrall me, it has to have a foundation of truth - both emotional and logical.
Lord of the Rings works on all the levels that I love, primarily because it is first and foremost about the characters and the story. Effects, cinematography, stunts, and all the rest of the gravy is first rate, which really helps enthrall and take us to another world - but without the love in our hearts for Frodo and Sam and the rest of the gang, the whole enterprise would be like an empty sugary snack. Delightful to look at and taste for a moment on the tongue, but soon altogether forgettable.
As a bonus, Lord of the Rings is entertainment that everyone from about 10 years old and up can enjoy. It is deeply moral and righteous and tells it's story in a highly old fashioned and accessible way. My little girl is now 8 and certainly old enough to handled the action and violence, but I'll probably wait a few more years before reading her The Hobbit simply so she can better appreciate the deeper themes therein.
The other side of this though is that Lord of the Rings, and other epic blockbuster series of movies that I love such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. etc. have to steer clear of the truly darker issues that infect our species. Sure there is subtext, all of these franchises and especially Harry Potter delve quite a bit into realms of sexual politics and the moral quandaries of crime and punishment. But of course nothing like this is ever dealt with directly, it is after all for kids.
Literature on the other hand for decades has often dug deep to explore the more primitive and base impulses of humanity. The fantasy genre especially, of which I am by no means an expert, has of late been able to explore all the complexities, many of them exceedingly unpleasant, of the human being.
At the forefront has been George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" books. Like a really good soap opera, but with dragons. The books also are not shy about laying bare (literally) all facets of humanity. I have not read them, but if they are at all like the HBO television series "Game of Thrones" (and I'm told they are) they are replete with explicit language, gore and sex.
Friends turned me on to the television adaptation, and from the first episode I have been deeply hooked. Strangely, the show is heavy with two of the things that I hate most in entertainment. Children in peril and sexual violence against women. Neither elements are explicit, for the most part - but the implied threat permeates just about every scene and line of dialogue. Maybe it's because I'm a huge history guy, and the middle ages fascinate me so, that I am able to weather these ever-present potential calamities and enjoy the show so much. Or maybe it's because the show, despite it's darker elements, is in the end deeply moral and even righteous.
Martin likes to say that all of his characters, even the most despicable ones, have enough shades of grey that we can't simply hate or love any of them. I can buy this, but I can also see plainly that there are still good guys and bad guys, albeit more human ones. Most importantly, because of the great writing (story and dialogue) I care very much about the characters I'm following, and when they falter or sin it resonates.
And yes, the show has dragons. This takes me out of the real world just enough, that I never forget that I'm being entertained. This, along with the shows fearlessness in tackling the murkier and strictly grown-up stuff, makes for a potent mix.
I never will dismiss family friendly entertainment - I hope The Hobbit is a smash hit and I can't wait for more Avatar adventures, but I have to say, this truly grown up stuff that HBO is serving up is awfully compelling. Game of Thrones delves into the muck of greed and lust in a medieval setting, but by doing so gives this viewer a lot to chew on as it relates to the modern world and the struggles of power and politics that unfold globally and in our daily lives.
By exploring all facets of the human spectrum, including the profane, Game of Thrones reaches a level of power and resonance heretofore unseen (for the most part) in the genre of the fantastic. The one recent exception to this I would say was the Battlestar Galactica remake, which also wasn't afraid to get down and dirty. Not coincidentally, it was also my favorite tv show at the time.
I guess for such a stuck up conservative I really like my shows to be nasty after all! But deep down I know that's not really the case. What I am drawn to is truth fueled by passion, and Game of Thrones has it in abundance.
I can't wait for season 3!