Game of Thrones is officially in its spin-off era. The first new series from the franchise to debut, House of the Dragon, is also inspired by the writings of George R. R. Martin, who serves as co-creator of the new series alongside showrunners Ryan J. Condal and Miguel Sapochnik — it just takes place 172 years earlier. The prequel series premiered on Aug. 21 in front of 9.986 million viewers, making it HBO's most successful new show to date, beating its predecessor more than four-times over. (Game of Thrones debuted to the tune of 2.22 million total viewers in 2011.) But while the audience may have expanded in the 11 years since the premiere of Game of Thrones, the favor of critics has actually declined.
Game of Thrones currently holds a Metacritic score of 86, however, that is based on all reviews from all eight seasons. Season 1 originally received 28 reviews, five of which scored the fantasy series as a perfect 100. Overall, that season earned a Metascore of 80. In contrast, House of the Dragon has 41 Metacritic-approved reviews and a Metascore of 68, with zero reviews resulting in a 100 Metascore. That's a pretty significant dip, and while it may be disappointing to some, it's not altogether surprising.
When Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, it was a rare fantasy genre show in a sea of reality television and sitcoms. Eleven years ago, the shows with the highest ratings on television included American Idol, Modern Family, and Grey's Anatomy. According to Deadline, of all the shows that aired during the 2010-2011 season on ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox (the major broadcast networks), V was the highest rated science fiction or fantasy show, but was the 57th most watched show overall and was canceled after the season. At the time, sci-fi and fantasy genres were severely lacking from network television, and so when Game of Thrones premiered on April 17, 2011, it was a novelty.
Though network television has remained pretty committed to procedurals and reality shows in the years since, streaming services have invested heavily in sci-fi and fantasy content. Netflix didn't fully enter the scripted TV space until 2013's House of Cards, but now its original slate is full of sci-fi and fantasy shows — Stranger Things, The Sandman, The Witcher, and Shadow and Bone, to name a few. Paramount+ has an entire slate of Star Trek spin offs, and HBO itself has upped its genre offerings, including Westworld, The Nevers, and His Dark Materials. The novelty of Game of Thrones' shocking twists and epic journeys (the incest, the dragons, the beheadings) has worn off.
Slate's Sam Adams wrote that House of the Dragon follows the Game of Thrones formula so closely, "it deprives House of the Dragon an element crucial to its predecessor's success: surprise." USA Today's Kelly Lawler described the show as occasionally "running through a Thrones checklist so as not to miss any element from the original series and anger a single fan."
Many Metacritic-approved critics who reviewed both Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon favored the original show. Brian Lowry's Game of Thrones review for Variety resulted in a Metascore of 90, but his review of House of the Dragon for CNN — in which he wrote that the show "doesn't produce the sort of characters that elevated its predecessor to prestige-TV royalty" — is reflected by a score of 65. Alan Sepinwall's Game of Thrones review for HitFix in 2011 resulted in a Metascore of 83, but his recent review of the spin-off in Rolling Stone resulted in a Metascore of 40. The Boston Globe's Matthew Gilbert also reviewed both premieres, but his reviews are slightly more in tune: Game of Thrones got a Metascore of 100, while House of the Dragon got a Metascore of 80.
Not only does House of the Dragon have to stand out among the many genre offerings and the legacy of its predecessor, it also has the burden of having to make up for Game of Thrones' somewhat controversial final season.
Time Magazine's Judy Berman assessed the challenge, writing in her review that the showrunners were tasked with "constructing a franchise out of a once-great series whose final season alienated many fans to the extent that, even in our IP-crazy times, few seemed to come out of it clamoring for more." (That review has a Metascore of 60.) And Berman wasn't the only critic to bring up the franchise's past sins. Even positive reviews, like the one from the LA Times' Lorraine Ali, which noted the "fizzling 2019 climax" of the original series, saying that it led to "slightly lower expectations" for the prequel series.
House of the Dragon is faced with a tall order. It has to please fans who love Game of Thrones, while also appeasing those let down by it, all while forging a path unique enough that audiences stop constantly comparing it to the show that came before it.