(CNN)– HBO has followed the majesty of “Game of Thrones” with what might be called “games of thrones” in “House of the Dragon,” a series whose epic visual grandeur belies a smaller, less addictive power struggle more centered on the Targaryen line. It’s not bad, and there are plenty of dragons, but it doesn’t produce the kind of characters that defined and elevated its predecessor to the prestige of TV royalty.
Building on author George RR Martin’s prequel “Fire & Blood,” the new series has the downside of being set nearly two centuries before the key events of “Game of Thrones,” which take place 172 years before Daenerys Targaryen was born. . That increases the pressure to sink or swim, or rather, rise or sizzle, strictly on your own terms.
The current occupant of the Iron Throne, King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), is as irresponsible as monarchs, so much so that his brother Daemon (Matt Smith, who plays a prince very different from his role in “The Crown”), he is a ruthless rake who openly craves power.
Above all, Viserys yearns for a male heir. With his wife pregnant again, his teenage daughter Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), an accomplished dragonrider, realizes that her fate depends on whether a child is born, as does her uncle’s as another possible successor. (As an aside, all those flowing blonde and white Targaryen locks should secure a post-styling Emmy, at least.)
Virtually everyone seems to be playing angles that suggest they’re a step or two ahead of Viserys, including the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), who wields quiet authority without raising his voice above a hushed whisper.
Martin shares the show-created credits with Ryan Condal, a newcomer to the world of “Thrones,” with Miguel Sapochnik (who directed some of the most memorable episodes, including “Battle of the Bastards”) also in charge of the show.
However, while HBO has clearly opened the piggy bank to make sure the look is as sumptuous as one would expect, and composer Ramin Djawadi’s slightly modified score goes a long way toward rekindling the mood, such series are character-driven. Simply put, the occupants of this realm initially pale next to Tyrion, Arya, or indeed any of the Lannister or Stark children.
Crafting a time jump from a decade to the middle of the season, the story gradually becomes more compelling over the six anticipated episodes, with moments as brutal and bloody as anything produced by “Thrones.” There is also the vague threat of war on the outer reaches of the realm and the periodic use of dragons as the ultimate weapon in medieval-style aerial warfare.
The vigorous debate that surrounded the final season of “Game of Thrones” somewhat obscured the exalted place that the series occupied until then, maintaining a level of excellence practically unmatched. Notably, it was finished in 2019 before the launch of several streaming services that have significantly increased the level of ambition and investment in fantasy television.
When the original began, Cersei’s character said that when you play the game of thrones, “you win or you die.” In a way, that mantra reflected the huge stakes and huge rewards made and reaped by the program itself.
“House of the Dragon” tries to play a similar game, but 11 years after the debut of the first series, the world of television has changed. And at best, both this series and HBO will likely have to settle for a smaller, rated, less decisive win.
“House of the Dragon” premieres August 21 at 9 pm ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.