“Game of Thrones” last week supplanted “The Sopranos” as the most-watched show in HBO history, with an average gross audience of 18.4 million people this season, surpassing the 18.2 million who watched the hit mob drama in 2002.
A New Jersey mob drama and a sprawling fantasy series set in the fictional Seven Kingdoms of Westeros might not seem to have much in common, but as the Season 4 finale of “Game” approaches Sunday, June 15, here are 10 things they’ve helped teach us:
1. Sexy isn’t a height or a weight or a haircut.
There are plenty of conventional beauties — female and male — in “Game of Thrones,” but only one actor’s been as essential to the show as James Gandolfini was to “The Sopranos,” and that’s another Jersey guy, Peter Dinklage, who’s stolen every scene he’s been in — and plenty of hearts along the way — as Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf son of one of Westeros’ ruling families.
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2. Even hit shows need time to build.
Like “The Sopranos,” which saw its largest viewership in its fourth and fifth seasons, “Game of Thrones” is up from Season 3, when HBO reports it averaged 14.4 million viewers. Credit DVDs and services like HBO Go for letting people catch up on a show that’s hard to start in the middle. (And take all number comparisons with a grain of salt: “The Sopranos” scored its ratings in a different TV universe, without HBO Go but also with less basic-cable competition.)
3. Even hit-producing networks need time to build their next hits.
Before “The Sopranos” cut abruptly to black — this week, it’ll be seven years since the night you thought your cable went out — HBO was already thinking about a tomorrow without the show that helped establish it as a destination for extraordinary original programming.
Yet “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Newsroom,” “Treme,” “Luck” and even the vampire hit “True Blood” have all failed to capture the public’s imagination in quite the way a mob boss with mother issues once did. Who knew it would take dragons to bring viewers roaring back?
4. Violence still sells.
Maybe it’s coincidence, but the announcement that “Game of Thrones” had passed “The Sopranos” came on the heels of an episode in which a particularly nasty fight ended with the explosion of one of the participant’s heads.
5. Sex also still sells.
From the Bada Bing to the boss’ bedroom, topless women were as much a part of the not-so-secret sauce of “The Sopranos” as the periodic whackings. And “Game of Thrones” inspired a blogger named Myles McNutt to coin the term “sexposition.” It describes those scenes in which nudity appears to have been used to keep viewers from nodding off while important information was conveyed.
6. Women matter.
Yes, even when they’re not naked. Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and her two extraordinary daughters, Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams), are just a few of the characters who’ve proved that people will pay premium-cable prices to watch compelling, imperfect people of either sex.
7. Genres don’t matter.
The only fantasy is in thinking that a story inspired by the War of the Roses is only for Comic-Con fanboys.
8. Viewers like to be surprised. Even when they say they don’t.
Remember all those people who said they’d never watch again after (something they didn’t like that I probably still shouldn’t spoil here) occurred in the first seasons of both shows? Either they got over it or they were replaced (and then some) by more intrepid fans.
9. You never know who’s going to watch. Or even read.
Great shows go out and find their audiences. I never expected to love a mob drama (when I placed the first four episodes of “The Sopranos” in my VCR for review all those years ago, I swear I thought it might be a show about a choir).
Yesterday, I encountered a man at my gym who was reading one of the George R.R. Martin books on which “Game of Thrones” is based. He’s a few decades older than most of the people I knew who were reading the books before the show began, but he loves them.
10. Title sequences count.
Broadcast TV has cut back on the opening titles and theme songs that formed the soundtracks of many of our childhoods, but both “The Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones” have used theirs so effectively that I have only to hear a few bars of either to be transported into a very different world.