Matt Smith stars in HBO's "House of the Dragon," premiering...

Matt Smith stars in HBO's "House of the Dragon," premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. Credit: HBO/Ollie Upton

THE SERIES "House of the Dragon"

WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Based on George R.R. Martin's "Fire & Blood" — a 2018 deep-dive history into House Targaryen of Dragonstone which once ruled the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros — this 10-part prequel to "Game of Thones" begins with a crisis.

King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine), the fifth king of the Seven Kingdoms, has failed to get a male heir. His advisers tell him he has to make a decision, and fast. Should his younger brother, Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), ascend the Iron Throne upon his death, or should his firstborn daughter, the ruling princess of Dragonstone, Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D'Arcy)? Viserys names his daughter. Eventually, Viserys' new wife, Lady Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), has a son, which presents yet another complication: Should he be named successor instead?

What's so special about the Targaryens, by the way? They have dragons — lots of them (there will be 17 in the series) and have deployed these fire-breathing beauties to maintain peace throughout the Seven Kingdoms. (Events of "Dragon" unfold about 200 years before the events of "Game of Thrones.")

MY SAY In a later episode of this first season, Daemon decides to introduce Rhaenyra to the dark side, which in the context of any typical "adult" HBO drama (starring dragons or otherwise) almost always means sex. As both uncle and niece wander amid the writhing bodies of a darkened brothel, she innocently wonders, "what is this place?"

Her depraved tour guide responds with all the gravity of someone alerting Kmart shoppers to the special in aisle 12: "It's where people come to take what they want."

While certainly an isolated instance of hackneyed scene-setting and boilerplate writing, and not even a representative one, this little example does point up a nagging problem with the most important prequel in TV history: It's not consistently good and in a few too many moments (like this one) eye-rollingly bad.

Maybe the bar was always set too high for "House of the Dragon" and a backlash inevitable, given the backlash to the final season of "Game of Thrones." But that doesn't mean "Dragon" had to make itself such an easy target.

Regrettably, it has. There's a plodding, unengaging quality to this newcomer, and a sense that it's just the first of many HBO soldiers on "IP" (intellectual property) foot patrol. "Game of Thrones" was a worldwide hit for the network and new owner Discovery isn't about to let that golden opportunity pass it by. There are several other spinoffs in the pipeline, which may explain why this one often feels like a watered-down version of the original. 

But more than anything, what's wrong with "House of the Dragon" are those overblown expectations. Martin (a co-executive producer) wrote "Fire & Blood" as a conventional history as opposed to conventional novel (the rootstock of "Thrones" was, of course, "A Song of Ice and Fire"). The difference between both is immediately apparent on screen. History is the nuts and bolts of storytelling — sifting facts, linking tangents, looking for the human element behind some long-past event. Martin's deep dive into the Targaryen back story was exhaustive, analytic and (above all) obsessive.

Same here, and then some. Viserys is fundamentally a good guy, but a weak king. He wants to do the right thing (name his daughter queen and successor) but lacks the political imagination to understand why that might be problematic. For such a prominent character, he's not particularly interesting nor (like that series that revolves around him) all that engaging.

Even though an "epic fantasy," "House of the Dragon" does want us to see our world through its lens — how good intentions can lead to bad outcomes or how family dynasties rot from within. "Thrones" fans know what became of the mighty Targaryens — "House of Dragons" establishes why that fate was inevitable. 

For that reason, "House" often does work well as straight history. It's that fantasy part that's missing. Other than dragons, there's little magic or mystery in this corner of Westeros — or that epic sense of wonder that made "Thrones" so thrilling through the first seven seasons. At least those dragons are fun.

BOTTOM LINE Wan facsimile of "Game of Thrones."

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