Is Game of Thrones too complicated to enjoy?

Five hopeful kings from seven kingdoms make a play for the throne occupied by the secret child of incestuous twins and... Just try to keep up

In the second season of HBO's "Game of Thrones," King Joffrey will face off against a crowded cast of foes who want his throne... and his head.
(Image credit: HBO/Helen Sloan)

Between Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, and Game of Thrones, a fierce battle is being waged for the title of cable TV's best drama. If critics who previewed the second season premiere of Game of Thrones, which airs Sunday night, are to be believed, HBO's fantasy epic may be poised to take the crown. The series is "brilliant," "elegant," "rich," "fun," and "compelling," they rave. But is it too convoluted? In the new episode, five self-proclaimed heirs challenge the reign of child king Joffrey, who took over the recently vacant throne. Viewers also have to keep track of 44 other characters, according to HBO's website, and follow the storylines relating to past instances of incest, beheadings, betrayals, allegiances, and dragon births. Has the show gotten too complex for its own good?

It's way too confusing: At one point, says Neil Genzlinger at The New York Times, widowed Queen Cersei groans as yet another hopeful king stakes a claim to the throne: "How many is that now? Five? I've lost count." She isn't the only one. It takes more energy than it's worth to keep tabs on the show's many characters, each of whom gets just seconds of screen time. What's worse is that gratuitous scenes of sex and violence cleverly mask the fact that, despite the show having a number of plotlines, not much actually happens. In order to truly be great, Game of Thrones must get past the shallow viewing experience that appeals only to "Dungeons & Dragons types."

"They just can't wait to be king"

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Oh, please. It's perfection: Game of Thrones is remarkable in its ability to "tell such a sprawling story and keep numerous story arcs not only functioning but riveting," says Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter. The vast array of characters is so keenly drawn and each storyline packed with such engaging detail that after each episode, viewers are dying for more. A series this ambitious is unprecedented. That Game of Thrones pulls it off ensures its status among the top dramas on TV not just today, but in the past 20 years.

"Game of Thrones season 2: TV review"

In the end, the show is worth the headache: Watching Game of Thrones, you often wish "that the players would wear numbers" so you could keep them straight, says David Hinckley at New York's Daily News. But while it might take the 167 remaining hours in each week to figure out what happened in a one-hour episode, that one hour is "complex, beautifully produced, [and] splendidly acted." And once you do make sense of what you've seen, Game of Thrones "falls together like a good Western."

"Complex and rich Game of Thrones returns with death, war, power, and an annoying teenager"