Amazon's The Wheel of Time tests fantasy appetites after Game of Thrones' success as The Great season 2 proves it really is

The Wheel of Time trailer. Video: Amazon

When The Fonz water-skied over a sea pen housing a shark in that infamous episode of Happy Days there was no deep analysis from my end.

All this then eight-year-old witnessed was a plausible scenario featuring a guy in a leather jacket strapped to a pair of implausibly wide planks executing an audacious act of water-sporting heroism.

The fact Henry Winkler - a short, funny man - was ever cast as the intimidating, albeit charismatic, Milwaukee thug, Arthur Fonzarelli, in the long-running American sitcom, was always odd to begin with, so why should anyone read into something as prosaic as Fonzie v Fish?

Yet, read into it, they did.

In 1985, US pop culturalist Jon Hein looked back at the 1977 episode from season five of Happy Days and coined the term "jumping the shark"; a shorthand way to describe the moment when a TV series, or any creative franchise, begins to go bad.

That term is now nestled nicely into the vernacular and can be applied to anything from politics to fashion design to urban planning, but I sometimes wonder whether its origin wasn't a bit off the mark?

Yes, in hindsight, Fonzie on water-skis was a bit silly, but surely if there was a moment when things really started to get bonkers in Garry Marshall's Rockwellian love letter to the Midwest of the 1950s and '60s, it was when Mork from Ork turned up.

Mork was an alien.

An alien.

Anyway, no one seemed to care that much. Mork got his own spin-off show, Happy Days lasted for another six seasons and Marshall's creative crucible produced a steady stream of Hollywood heavyweights including sister Penny, Ron Howard and Robin Williams.

Back then, we barely batted an eyelid at dumb stuff (Skippy, Don Lane) on telly. Compared with today's snobby strata of streaming sophisticates, we were an audience of credulous simpletons; often with only two channels and an extremely high tolerance for repeats. We'd watch any old dross and be grateful for it.

Forty years later, there is so much content and so little time to absorb it, audiences can afford to be discerning, indeed they must be out of sheer mental preservation.

It's a little sad we've become so flinty and I realised how much my own credulity has been straitened compared to that eight-year-old cheering on a waterborne greaser when, in adulthood, I had my own "jumping the shark" moment, or more specifically, my own "riding the dragon" moment.

It was in season eight of HBO's Game of Thrones when Jon Snow climbed onboard a giant, be-winged, fire-breathing lizard and flew away.

That was the moment I could no longer hide from the fact Game of Thrones was a fantasy series.

Fantasy is, well, an acquired taste.

With a pop culture closet proudly free of dungeons or dragons or orcs (I prefer Orkans), it was a miracle I joined the hordes of viewers sucked in by the lavish series based on the books of George R. R. Martin and I suspect I form part of a cohort which rode the GoT train for everything but the fantasy components.

We were there for the dynastic plotting, the familial infighting, the betrayals and backstabbing. We were there for the sex and the nudity and the violence and the sets and the locations. We were there for the costumes.


For a while, viewers like us were able to turn a blind third eye whenever a fantasy element was hinted at in Game of Thrones because, for most of the series, it was done so sparingly. We could write a White Walker off as perhaps some kind of homeless man lost in the snow, or a large egg something that might produce a double-yolker rather than a mythical reptile.

As GoT wore on and the fantasy ramped up, we were the ones who could be heard sniffing "Not another bloody giant" under our breath, the same way Oxford academic Hugo Dyson apparently groaned "Not another [expletive] elf," when subjected to the latest excruciating excerpt from colleague J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Which brings us to Amazon Prime's new series The Wheel of Time, streaming from November 19.

Amazon's The Wheel of Time will test appetites for high fantasy in a very competitive viewing arena. Picture: Amazon

Amazon's The Wheel of Time will test appetites for high fantasy in a very competitive viewing arena. Picture: Amazon

Like GoT, WoT is a sumptuous viewing extravaganza based on a series of revered novels, this time by Robert Jordan.

And like GoT, WoT is pricey.

Mounting his own quest for a MacGuffin of the streaming age, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos reportedly commissioned The Wheel of Time as Amazon's answer to HBO's ratings juggernaut of a decade earlier and was willing to pony up to claim the title.

By the time the creators of Game of Thrones (HBO has a prequel series coming next year) were testing our loyalty with flying zombie denouements, they were spending about $8 million per episode. To compare, from the get-go, Amazon (as well as commissioning its own Lord of the Rings series) is spending about $10 million per episode on The Wheel of Time (much of it filmed in Prague) and has already given the nod for a second series despite the fact it remains untested in a market far more competitive than when GoT came on the scene in 2011.

HBO's Game of Thrones prequel - House of the Dragon - is coming in 2022. Video: HBO Max

And make no mistake, WoT - starring Gone Girl's Rosamund Pike as a sort of sorceress who likes the colour blue - is fantasy, high fantasy to be accurate; intellectual, complex, epic, and potentially alienating to flighty viewers who don't like their TV diet overly intellectual, overly complex or overly epic.

As much as we must gird our loins for spectacular scenery, CGI magic, armies of beasties and flowing robes, we must also prepare for turgid, double-negative laden dialogue along the lines of: "I swear to speak no word that is not true ..."

And what self-respecting high fantasy story doesn't have a rag-tag team of lovable rogues embarking on a quest and an ominous "dark one" lurking somewhere in the shadows?

If only that dark one turned out to be The Fonz.


Truly great

If you haven't yet watched Season 1 of The Great, now is the time. Video: Stan

Certainly not fantasy, but not fact nor fiction either, Hulu's genre-bending series The Great is back for a second series on Stan from November 20.

Owing much to Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story or even Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, The Great follows the rise of Russia's Catherine the Great from a powerless, aristocratic breeding vessel for a vapid, brutish monarch to a ruler in her own right.

Elle Fanning is impressive in The Great. Picture: Stan

Elle Fanning is impressive in The Great. Picture: Stan

Elle Fanning - smart and funny - is making the most of a career-defining lead role while creator Tony McNamara (the Australian responsible for the excellent The Favourite) has found himself with a genuine streaming hit on his hands.

Gillian Anderson features in Season 2 of The Great. Picture: Stan

Gillian Anderson features in Season 2 of The Great. Picture: Stan

This season features the arrival of Gillian Anderson (everywhere these days) as Catherine's mother Joanna, contributing to an already sound cast which is clearly having great fun producing something fresh and different.

Back to reality

Swap Shop is airing now on Netflix. Video: Netflix

Lacking the adventure of American Pickers (that Mike Wolfe is as charming as the dark one himself), the structure of Pawn Stars or the pedigree of Antiques Roadshow, Netflix's Swap Shop must rely on a hook whereby its teams of collectors and junk merchants are turned on to deals via a long-running Tennessee radio show.

It's supposed to first in, best dressed for those arriving to a vendor wanting to offload some old wares, so we're to expect a little competition but, in reality, there's not much racing around going on and we're left with the usual suspects (hipsters, rednecks, Japanese country music performers) driving around the south and sifting through paddocks of rusty tractors and attics of kitschy religious relics.

Netflix is filling a hole here, a hole to which antiques tragics are inexorably drawn before we find ourselves plummeting down a deep creative void for hours, lost in a world of partially decayed cat skulls and skeletal Ford Mustangs.

But, you know, one man's trash ...


This story Will The Wheel of Time be the fantasy series to rule them all? first appeared on The Canberra Times.