When a television network sends out a family tree flow chart along with screener DVDs, it's a sign that what you're about to watch may be a tad complicated.
To experience a program the way the public does -- without any help from such press materials -- it's necessary to put the family tree aside and just get immersed in the show. With HBO's "Game of Thrones" (9 tonight) that's not difficult to do.
A grand soap opera of epic proportions, "Game of Thrones" can be a bit talky in some episodes, but the series draws a viewer in with well-defined characters and a multitude of simultaneous stories whose plot turns are generally unpredictable. Let the squeamish be forewarned: It's an often violent tale told with nudity, profanity and sex -- including at least one incestuous relationship.
Starring: Sean Bean.
Filled with the distinctive locations and landscapes of a fictional, ancient realm, "Game of Thrones" introduces dozens of characters and relationships with purpose and a remarkable clarity given the density of the material.
For viewers, myself included, who have not read the George R.R. Martin novels upon which this TV series is based, there are a few moments of confusion about a relationship or motivation, but the show usually resolves these head-scratchers within a few minutes of when they arise. (Matters are more muddled when the characters discuss past history.)
It also helps that the show's opening credits zoom over a map of the locations where the stories take place, including:
Home of the Stark family, who are really the heart of the "Game of Thrones" story, this northern city is overseen by Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean). His wife, Lady Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), and children also reside there, including eldest son, Robb (Richard Madden), and fearless, tomboy daughter Arya (Maisie Williams), whose spirited idealism makes her one of the most compelling characters despite her young age.
Ned frequently proclaims, "Winter is coming," which means more in the Seven Kingdoms than it does in our world: Seasons can last a generation.
A man-made edifice north of Winterfell, The Wall protects cities to the south from mysterious ghouls that haunt a north-of-The Wall forest and wreak havoc in the show's opening scenes. Ned's brother, Benjen (Joseph Mawle), is a member of Night's Watch, which guards against marauders getting past The Wall. Ned's illegitimate son, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), trains to join the Night's Watch.
King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) summons Ned Stark to serve as The King's Hand after the death (murder?) of his previous adviser. The King is married to Cersei (Lena Headey), a member of the manipulative Lannister family, which also includes dastardly Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and scheming Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf who is called "the imp."
Tyrion is one of the more entertaining characters in "Game of Thrones" and Mr. Dinklage makes him a charming scoundrel, sort of a latter-day Dr. House.
The King's young son, Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), is heir to the throne and is intended to be married to Ned's daughter, Sansa (Sophie Turner).
Across the sea, Prince Viserys Targaryen III (Harry Lloyd), who burns with hatred for the king, plots a return to power by agreeing to have his sister, Princess Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) married off to Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), leader of the savage Dothraki, in exchange for an army of Dothraki warriors.
Tonight's "Game of Thrones" premiere, written by executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, sets the table for a feast of a series.
Viewers bored with predictable procedurals should welcome the opportunity to dig into this sprawling story, TV's most challenging serialized drama since "Lost." "Game of Thrones" may not have that show's heart but it does share a complexity in storytelling that's unmatched in prime-time television today.
• Read more about the page-to-screen adaptation of "Game of Thrones" in Sunday Magazine.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published April 17, 2011 4:00 AM