TV Eye: The next Game of Thrones

It’s pure fantasy for critics to call Shōgun the new Game of Thrones, but 3 Body Problem might just fit the bill.

15 April 2024

By Andrew Male

3 Body Problem (2024)
Sight and Sound

The Independent has called Shōgun “the next Game of Thrones”. US trade weekly Variety went with “the most transportive TV epic since Game of Thrones”, while Entertainment Weekly called Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks’s ten-part historical drama “another piece of ‘prestige TV’ in the same vein as Game of Thrones”. The reasons for these across-the-board comparisons are many. Reviewers, along with TV studios and streamers, have been desperate for another big TV hit in the vein of HBO’s smash adaptation of the George R.R. Martin fantasy novels (2011-19) and have been repeatedly let down by such big-budget damp squibs as House of the Dragon (2022) and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022). Also, with its grand vistas, murky colour palate, complicated world-building, magnificent costumes, huge ensemble cast and bursts of beautifully choreographed violence, this lavish FX remodel of James Clavell’s 1975 novel – about 17th-century English sailor John Blackthorne who becomes a Japanese samurai – does look and feel a lot like Game of Thrones. 

What it lacks – and it’s easy to forget that these qualities were an essential part of Game of Thrones, given what happened in its miserable final seasons – is life, wit and humanity. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who co-created Game of Thrones with Martin, invested their show with a dark, irreverent humour, most evident in the mordant world view of Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister. Shōgun, by contrast, feels like a show forever outmanoeuvred by its own respectful sensibilities. 

When FX first announced the show in 2018, network CEO John Landgraf told the Hollywood Reporter that, unlike the earlier 1980 TV adaptation, which starred Richard Chamberlain as Blackthorne and didn’t bother to include subtitles for the Japanese dialogue, this version would pointedly “tell the story from the Japanese point of view [and] the female point 
of view”. 

So while the series essentially remains centred around the perspective of Blackthorne, the pilot of a shipwrecked Dutch trading ship taken prisoner by samurai warriors, it also focuses on Sanada Hiroyuki’s Lord Toranaga, who plans to use Blackthorne’s ship in his war with other feudal lords, and Anna Sawai’s mysterious Lady Mariko, who operates as a go-between, translating on behalf of the two men. 

Shōgun (2024)

Despite the best efforts of Sanada and Sawai, however, neither Toranaga nor Mariko ever feel like living characters. In approaching the central Japanese roles with deference and respect, Kondo and Marks have made them noble, worthy and painfully dull, prone to speaking in wearisome poetic aphorisms. By contrast, Blackthorne, as played by the British singer and actor Cosmo Jarvis, is light relief. Delivering his dialogue in a broad approximation of Richard Burton stage-English, he remains central to the story, a captivating figure of stentorian buffoonery. Yet even here wit and charisma are in short supply. In fact, five episodes in, only one actor, Néstor Carbonell (Lost, 2004-10; The Morning Show, 2019-), has displayed the kind of wry vivacity we might associate with early Game of Thrones, his Portuguese trickster Vasco Rodrigues investing lines of boilerplate exposition with rhythm, humour, acuity and life.

Ironically, one TV show that is brimming over with all those qualities is 3 Body Problem, the new Netflix series by Game of Thrones showrunners Benioff and Weiss. 

Adapted from the Chinese writer Liu Cixin’s trilogy of science fiction novels about a female scientist during the Cultural Revolution who makes a decision that dooms humanity to alien colonisation, 3 Body Problem is the opposite of a respectful prestige adaptation. Working with Alexander Woo, showrunner on the second series of The Terror (2018-), Benioff and Weiss have merged storylines and characters from the three novels, simplified the theoretical physics of the original books, and controversially relocated the present-day events from Beijing to a prosaic liminal London of edgelands, back streets and anonymous tributaries. In doing so they have created a show that is visually unlike most post-Game of Thrones prestige dramas. In the series’ most dramatic and terrifying scenes (and there are many) the colour ­palette is rich and spectacular – no ubiquitous teal here – but for the present-day scenes 3 Body Problem exists in a world that looks and feels accessible, humble and real. 

That sense of the real is underlined by Benioff, Weiss and Woo’s decision to change the protagonist of Cixin’s trilogy from the cipher-like Chinese scientist Wang Miao to a multicultural group of Oxford University friends, played by Jess Hong, Jovan Adepo, Eiza González, John Bradley and Alex Sharp, and a British intelligence operative, Da Shi, fleshed out with endearing Mancunian gruffness by Benedict Wong. Apart from González, who struggles to convince as an expert on nanotechnology, all six of these characters feel grounded and flawed, their personalities fleshed out with a believable humour and bathos. 

Comparing it to Shōgun you realise that apart from Benioff and Weiss everyone learnt the wrong lessons from Game of Thrones. At its best, it was never about the spectacle, it was never about the dragons. It was always about the people.

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