The opening scene of HBO's new fantasy drama "Game of Thrones" features a humanoid, but unmistakably otherworldly, creature hunting its prey—a couple of understandably terrified kinsman—in a remote wood. Take a long, hard look at the man-beast: it's the last time you'll see something so overtly fantastical for at least a half dozen episodes.
Based on the bestselling fantasy novel series "A Song of Ice and Fire" by George R.R. Martin, "Thrones" is set in a world that isn't medieval times-era Earth, but looks, sounds and smells a whole lot like it. It's a world of kings and queens, of knights and noblemen, a world which quickly becomes engrossed in an epic power struggle as two noble families compete for control over the fabled Seven Kingdoms of Westeros (don't worry, the names will grow on you).
The buzz: Fans of writer George R.R. Martin are all abuzz, of course. But it should be interesting to see how broad the appeal truly is for an expansive, high budget fantasy epic. It doesn't hurt that "Thrones" features a top-rate cast of character actors, including standouts Sean Bean ("The Lord of the Rings") as Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark, the Lord of Winterfell, as well as newcomer Maisie Williams as Arya, Ned's tomboy daughter who persuades him to teach her how to fight and Lena Headey ("Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles") as the icy Queen Cersei Baratheon.
The verdict: Those not intimately familiar with the fantasy genre need not be frightened of "Thrones": the writing is sharp, the characters multi-dimensional and the production is sharp, original and surprisingly understated. What's most remarkable about "Thrones," and what makes the series so accessible, is that so much is grounded in reality, save for the occasional ancient dragon skull, which looks no more outlandish than the T-rex display at a local natural history museum. The series gets even more confident in tone as it progresses and, in a nice surprise, grows funnier in tone as well, thanks mainly to imp Tyrion Lannister, played with much gusto by "The Station Agent" star Peter Dinklage. Do us a solid and add the pilot to your queue. Your DVR will thank us.
Did you know? HBO promoted the upcoming series by creating a "Game of Thrones"-themed food truck, with dishes inspired from the show conceived by "Top Chef' head judge Tom Colicchio. Even author George R.R. Martin stopped by for some old tyme grub!
"Game of Thrones" premieres Sunday, April 17, at 9 p.m. on HBO.