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Television review: 'Game of Thrones'

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Barely a few minutes into HBO’s epic “Game of Thrones” series, it’s clear that the hype was right and the wait was worth it.

Sean Bean answers a question, as co-star Emilia Clarke watches, at the HBO panel for "Game of Thrones" in Pasadena, January 7, 2011. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Based on the bestselling fantasy book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin - often referred to as “the American Tolkien” - HBO is betting that fans of “The Lord of the Rings” will come to this for a sprawling, interwoven tale of feuding families, swords, sex, carnage, beasts, frayed loyalties, deception, intrigue and the pursuit of power.

As well they should. “Game of Thrones” has all the elements (many described above) that lure viewers to shows like “The Sopranos,” et al. That it’s a fantasy series shouldn’t scare anyone away, because - like “Lord of the Rings” - there’s a real allure to costume-dramas that pair dense mythology with all of the crowd-pleasing elements of war, honor, pride, lust, power and, yes, even humor. Thrones has all of those in spades and supports them with exceptional storytelling, strong writing, superb acting and some stunning visual effects.

Writers and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will certainly have their hands full dealing with die-hard fans on what they got right or wrong (or left out or put in that may have not been in the books), but they have the backing of Martin, who worked closely with the duo, and that should count for a lot. Perhaps more important to those people who haven’t read the books or heard much about this series, Benioff and Weiss kick things off immediately - with action, blood-shed and eeriness. Director Tim Van Patten creates a beautiful, haunting, visual template of vast expanses (Northern Ireland, Malta), white snow and dark shadows while also allowing the visual effects to pack a wallop.

That kind of start to the 10-part series was essential because “Game of Thrones” is a complicated story with numerous characters and a dense, interwoven back-story. Though it demands attention, “Thrones” never once bogs down. It’s the kind of drama where, when the first episode ends, you wish the nine others were immediately available. And that validates HBO’s notion that television is the perfect medium for a fantasy series done right. Getting Martin’s “Thrones,” the gold-standard, could end up landing HBO its next franchise.

“Thrones” is set in the fictional land of Westeros, where various clans - or houses -- have lived and fought for generations in different realms, until the Targaryens invaded and united the Seven Kingdoms under the Iron Throne. Now, years later, there’s a battle for the throne.

Right from the start, Thrones starts telling as many as four stories, involving the House Stark, run by Lord Eddard Stark (Sean Bean, who will be familiar to “Lord of the Rings” fans); House Baratheon, run by King Robert Baratheon (the wonderful Mark Addy), House Lannister, which is linked to House Baratheon because Queen Cersei Baratheon (Lena Headey) was born a Lannister; and the exiled House Targaryen, where Prince Viserys Targaryen III (Harry Lloyd) wants to reclaim the Iron Throne and all Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. To do that, he’ll need an army, which is why he wants his sister, Princess Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to marry Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), who leads a tribe of vicious warrior horsemen.

Got that?

It’s actually not as confusing as it may sound. And there are more than a few unexpected surprises and even humorous detours (mostly provided by Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister whose whoring and drinking knows no bounds). A great series should challenge viewers to pay attention, to connect dots and anticipate connections. “Thrones” manages a superior complexity without ever making you think that you’ve lost the connection to the story. It’s paced with precision and the carefully crafted assemblage of characters unspools at such a rate that you can keep up while keeping tabs on their ever changing moods.

What that means, essentially, is that there’s a tight grip on the storytelling and a real understanding of who each person is - traits that make the complexity easier to bear.

It’s difficult to single out the most accomplished parts of “Thrones.” The ambition is immense, the fantasy world exceptionally well-conceived, the writing and acting elevating the entire series beyond contemporaries like “The Borgias” and “Camelot,” and the visual appeal continues to surprise with each episode.

What we have here is the successful pairing of an acclaimed collection of fantasy books with a television series that illuminates and expands what’s on the page.

Worth the wait? Absolutely. And even if you have no idea what all the fuss is about, you should get in from the start to absorb Martin’s fantastical tale.