I'm very sad that Game of Thrones is about to leave the air.
I'm not sad because it's one of my absolute favorite shows or anything like that (though it's often a lot of fun to watch). No, I'm sad because writing about Game of Thrones is essentially a guaranteed way to garner enough readership to allow me to write about the other stuff I'm truly passionate about. Getting readers to check out my thoughts on Casual is tough; getting them to read about the adventures of the Westeros 5,000 is easy.
Plus, there's always something to write about the show, even if it's just complaining about the plot or some boneheaded move a character made. It's got everything you need to keep the online content mills humming along without too much pain.
But here's the thing: Game of Thrones wasn't always The Show. In fact, it's just the latest in a long line of Shows. It was preceded by Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which were preceded by Lost, which was preceded by The Sopranos. There have always been other shows people cared about running at the same time (right now, I would argue those are The Walking Dead, then the FX hour-longs not named The Strain or Tyrant), but they all paled next to The Show, which seemed to take down all comers. (If you're wondering why Penny Dreadful only lasted three seasons, when most Showtime shows wear out their welcome, well... let's just say Showtime would have been a lot less open to John Logan's idea to end the show if it had even a few more viewers.)
So even in our peak TV universe, there will be another show when Game of Thrones wraps up, and here's the thing: It's probably on TV right now, and it seems likely that it will be substantially different from GOT, just as GOT wasn't really like Mad Men or Breaking Bad. So, for instance, you might put your money on HBO's Westworld, but I'm guessing that's just too similar to complete the leap. (It reminds me, in a lot of ways, of ABC's attempt to clone Lost in that show's waning days with FlashForward. And we all know how that turned out.)
So what's it going to be? Here are my best bets. (I hear some of you saying, "What if it's a comedy?!" It will not be a comedy.)
Something on Netflix: I was really, really tempted to argue for Orange Is the New Black, which seems similar readership patterns for a few weeks after a new season launches, or Sense8, which seems like it might be on the cusp of some weird breakout to me. But I think Netflix's chief advantage (its "watch what you want, when you want" business strategy) is also the main reason it can't land the next Game of Thrones. These shows need time to build, even within seasons, and launching all of the episodes at once just doesn't afford that. GOT wasn't GOT until probably the Red Wedding. It was percolating all those years, but it needed all that time to finally break through with the mass, mainstream audience. Without airing week after week, it's hard to see a Netflix show doing the same.
Empire: If season two had been better, I would have argued for this show more forcefully. But a weird thing about Empire is that its recap traffic (one of the key indicators of The Show) was always a little soft. It was kind of a show that defied analysis, or the audience guessing what was going to happen next, and both of those are extremely helpful in building The Show.
American Crime Story: This one is intriguing to me, because People vs. O.J. Simpson showed very real signs of Show-ness during its run. It grew in interest from readers from week to week, its ratings held steady (mostly), and it had that great combination of being big and buzzy and feeling like nothing else on TV. But can The Show be an anthological miniseries? I would argue yes. It looked like True Detective was on its way for a while there (even when season two was a mess), and ACS has that "ripped from the headlines" thing that could help carry it over the top. But season two's subject matter, Hurricane Katrina, strikes me as a weird one in terms of really building the audience, and there's always the chance that season one was just lightning in a bottle.
UnReal: For as much as I think season two of this show proves it's going to have staying power, it's the kind of show that wears its heart on its sleeve (brilliantly so, I would add). And one of the chief appeals of The Show is that it drives speculation about what's going to happen next. I'm not sure UnReal has that in its corner, especially with its "case of the season" format.
The Americans: Maybe! But it's ending at exactly the same time as Game of Thrones, so it seems likely to stay in its shadow. (Though if GOT really does have reduced episode orders for its final two seasons, then that shadow is likely to be reduced as well. Maybe there's room to stand out? Nah. Probably not.)
Outlander: Another distinctly intriguing possibility. It has a lot in common with GOT (like a book series people can turn to and tease each other about and a rabid online fanbase that flirts with bursting into the mainstream), but it's on Starz, and I'm not sure Starz has the oomph to get a show to The Show status.
Mr. Robot: This is my pick, with one major, major caveat: season two could be absolutely terrible and sink its chances. (Remember: For a while there, it looked like Homeland would become The Show, and then season two happened.) Looking at traffic for various recap sites throughout season one of this show, it clearly had the kind of massive cult that usually serves as the seed for eventual The Show status. (Remember how Vulture essentially turned itself into the Mr. Robot site around the end of season one? Usually a good sign of a show that is catching on with the kinds of online TV fans who presage The Show status.) The big problem here is that the show really only has its central character as a Thing to Dissect at this point in time, but its unreliable narrator-ness gives it the sort of easy hook for online content mills and the viewers who love them to glom onto, and its visuals provide all sorts of opportunities for "Did you see this?!" posts. It'll need to avoid a major sophomore slump (something I'm distinctly skeptical it can pull off), and it will need to expand its universe beyond just Elliott. But if it can manage both of those things, it has as strong a shot as anything.
What do you think?
Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.