If headlines were to be believed this fall, the showdown of the year was going to be Prime Video's The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power versus HBO's House of the Dragon -- two expensive extensions of much-loved fantasy franchises that came out within a week of each other and invited heaps of inevitable comparison. Because that's what happens when everyone is wearing velvety robes.
"It's not a death match or anything," Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin told The Hollywood Reporter in July. "We don't have to be bracketed together."
But they totally were.
It's natural that two big-budget fantasy shows would draw comparisons, and humans love to pick sides, even for relatively lighthearted conflict. The Beatles versus The Rolling Stones. Star Wars versus Star Trek. Marvel versus DC.
But after scrolling through one headline after another about which show would win ("Win what?" I thought), competition hardly seemed the point. As someone who likes watching shows in the fantasy genre, for roughly a month and a half I got my fill of power struggles, politics and capital P plot, but in the manner I prefer. I won't watch Succession unless they give everyone long, platinum blond hair.
On TikTok, I watched a deluge of videos dissecting Sauron and Daemon. My group chats were poppin' with dragon memes, and friends made compelling arguments over beers about wizards in middle-Earth.
Forget ROP versus HOTD. If you're the type of person who's into this sort of thing -- you know, the gloriously stodgy speeches filled with portent, and the questionable wigs -- we are living in a time of abundance. This isn't cause to fight. It's cause to celebrate.
We did it, babes. The nerds won.
I was so wrapped up in ROP and HOTD, I didn't even get to Disney Plus' Andor until it was about to wrap up in late November. What a blessing from the fantasy gods to have yet another show just waiting to be consumed.
Andor might be one of the best examples of why it was good to be a fantasy fan in 2022.
The fantasy shows that are coming out don't all have to be big, broad swings aimed at pleasing everyone. There's room for nuance like there's never been before because one show doesn't have to accomplish everything. In writing about Andor, my colleague Mark Serrels pointed out that the show is the first time viewers really got a sense of the Empire's "unassuming creep of fascism" on a ground level. The space wizards sat this one out, and the show was better for it.
Also digging into familiar intellectual property is Netflix, which is closing out the year with Wednesday, an Addams Family spinoff that's become its third-most-watched show. It follows Wednesday Addams at a boarding school for outcasts who are werewolves, vampires, gorgons and the like. Wednesday chafes at living in the shadow of her mother Morticia, who was popular and successful as a student. All the while, the teenager doggedly pursues a mystery at the school. Wednesday shares a good bit of DNA with The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina -- another dark, spooky-aesthetic show about a determined teenage girl attending a school of magical kids and balancing big problems with the foibles of adolescence.
But they're not the same show, and it's encouraging that Wednesday could still have a shot after CAOS got canceled. We can always use more TV programs featuring self-assured, borderline-cocky girls with cool powers.
For once, the lament "this is why we can't have nice things" doesn't apply. We can, and we do.
And at least for now, it feels like a moment of safety for fantasy fans, where even if a show pops up that is not great, it won't tank the larger movement. In his review of last year's Wheel of Time adaptation on Prime Video, CNET's own Richard Trenholm said, "The fantasy genre more than ever has scope to be wildly imaginative and deliciously unique," while calling the show "formulaic fantasy filler." Though I'm not advocating for the production of similarly lifeless shows, I'm glad one won't ruin the fun for everyone else.
Will there come a time when fantasy television reaches a saturation point? Where I can't stand to learn the geography of another fictional continent, or remember the Halbrands and Adars of it all? Maybe.
But until then, I am content. Casually floating on an inner tube on the Sundering Sea, just happy to be there.