'The show makes me feel inadequate': Differing degrees of fandom

It’s one thing to know something. It’s another thing entirely to be conscious of how much or little you know compared to other people.

Last week, “Saturday Night Live” aired a sketch called “Game of Game of Thrones,” about a game show focused on HBO’s fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” The fundamental joke was that the contestants seemed to know the most arcane, obscure details about a fictional television show, but absolutely nothing about anything else:

A deeper — probably unintended — level of humor for me is that the questions and answers on the quiz show sounded very complex but were not terribly obscure within the universe of the show. They weren’t asking about minor trivia, background characters, facts mentioned in passing, or even touching the incredible depth of detail contained in the books on which the show is based. Instead, the questions were about major plot points and characters. “Who did Jaime Lannister kill to earn the name Kingslayer?” may sound complicated to someone who’s never watched the show, but the fact that Jaime killed the Mad King Aerys Targaryen is one of the two fundamental facts of his character, referenced and discussed repeatedly over the show’s three seasons, both directly and in passing.

It seemed to me that a normal viewer of the show — someone who hadn’t read George R.R. Martin’s source books, rewatched every episode repeatedly or spent hours looking up facts online, but had merely just watched every episode once during its original run should be able to answer at least many of those questions.

Immediately, I realized the absurdity of that thought. How odd — and telling of the times — to describe a casual viewer of a show as being someone who had “merely” watched every single episode. A decade ago, certainly two, someone who never missed an episode of a show might very well be described as a fanatical viewer. Our era of DVRs, DVDs and on-demand streaming is one when it’s easy to fit a show around your schedule rather than rearranging your schedule to fit a show. It’s enabled an unprecedented level of serialization on television, shows like “Game of Thrones” where episodes don’t stand alone but are inextricably bound together. Miss an episode of “Game of Thrones,” aptly called the “most complicated show on TV,” and you’ll be lost when you tune in the next week.

But just a day or two after watching the SNL sketch, I realized that even someone who never misses an episode can be pretty lost following the show.

Bill Simmons, the sports journalist who founded and runs the website Grantland, is a fan of “Game of Thrones.” Simmons is not a stupid man, and immerses himself regularly into pop culture. He hasn’t read Martin’s books or gone to any great lengths to research the show, but has still watched all the episodes — exactly my definition above of the normal fan who I thought should be able to identify major plot and character points in the show.

But on this podcast (starting about 44 minutes in),  Simmons talks about being unable to follow the plot and the characters.

“We’re six episodes in, and I don’t know what the [bleep] is going on,” Simmons says. “I really don’t, I just don’t know. I don’t understand. I feel dumb. The show makes me feel inadequate. I have to go on Wikipedia after to figure out who’s who.”

Simmons talks about not recognizing many characters, and not being able to remember the names of the ones he does recognize. There’s “Lady Whatever” and “Queen Whatever,” “the one who’s trying to get King Joffrey,” “the guy who’s been by her side for most of the time, with the beard,” and of course the immortal “the one guy.”

“Stuff happens in ‘Game of Thrones’ and I literally have no idea why it’s happening,” Simmons says.

Now, I’ve read the books, multiple times over the past decade or so. I’ve watched most episodes more than once. I’ve gone to online reference points to look up characters and events and places. So I am under no delusions about the fact that I know more about the show than most people watching it. But even as I warn people about how complicated the show is, I don’t fully appreciate just how daunting it can be even for someone who does it “the right way” and watches all the episodes, in order.

It’s not that I’m alien to that experience. Last week (at the same time the SNL sketch was running), I watched the new “Anna Karenina” movie. This was a two-hour film condensed from a massive, dense Russian novel, and it took me about half an hour into the film and a few trips to Wikipedia on my phone before I had the main characters straight and could tell which one was Anna and who was in love with whom — pretty fundamental questions. If I’d read the Tolstoy book, I might have followed along with no difficulty — and if I’d been watching it with a Tolstoy fan, their experience might have been very similar to mine watching “Game of Thrones” with a newbie.

Now if only they’d actually make that “Game of Game of Thrones” game show. As someone who is both intimately familiar with Westeros and can identify prominent public figures like Supreme Court justices, I’m pretty sure I’d clean up.