MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's July, but if you're an HBO subscriber and a fan of intense explicit television, winter is here.
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MARTIN: Tonight, HBO will begin airing the penultimate season of its hit drama "Game Of Thrones." With more than 20 million viewers every episode, "Game Of Thrones" is the crown jewel of HBO's summer season, but there are other fan favorites which HBO is also rolling out in the coming week. So we thought we'd call NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans to hear more about what HBO has in store. Hi, Eric. Thanks for joining us.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: So I'm still looking through my dictionary for penultimate. What does that mean? The second to last. OK. Got it.
MARTIN: You work here. You'd know that. So HBO earned 111 Emmy nominations last Thursday, the most if any TV outlet. So what does this say about television right now and HBO's place in it?
DEGGANS: Well, HBO has always sort of sat, I think, at the top of the sort of quality television ladder. And it's been in this competition with Netflix. Netflix came along and kind of usurped HBO's formula for success in terms of getting these buzzy star-driven projects that could go out into the zeitgeist and make people talk about their outlet and then get people to sign up for them. You know, Netflix got 91 Emmy nominations, HBO got 111. And so they're both in this intense competition. And that's great news for TV fans, which means, you know, we're getting a lot of great television. And they're spending a lot of money to tell us about it.
MARTIN: So what can viewers expect tonight on "Game Of Thrones"? And what are you going to be looking for?
DEGGANS: "Game Of Thrones" started out as sort of an anti-"Lord Of The Rings" kind of a series, a place where heroism was rewarded with early death basically. And this idea that everyone's cynical and the people who succeed are mostly wealthy and powerful, even if they're horrible people, especially if they're horrible people. And the show has turned. And what we've seen last season especially is that some of the characters considered heroes have started to rise up. And so we know that there's going to be some epic battles as these key characters fight. And that's what I'm waiting to see.
MARTIN: This coming week, we get Dwayne The Rock Johnson as a high-powered sports financial adviser in "Ballers." And we get Issa Rae as a millennial trying to figure out her life in "Insecure." Now, have you seen these shows' new seasons? Do you have the sense that they're also finding their footing and winning a following?
DEGGANS: Yeah. You know, "Ballers" in particular, like, I've been told people who watched this show since it started because there's a tendency to shrug off this show as like a sports and Miami-centered version of "Entourage." It is not that. And it's not that primarily because of Dwayne Johnson. As good as he is in movies, he is a really good TV presence. And he makes you identify with this character. He's playing an ex-NFL star who decided to start a financial services company. He wants to help athletes who are like him hold onto their money, but he also wants to be a success in his chosen field. And in this new season, he's trying to bring an NFL franchise to Las Vegas.
On "Insecure," we saw Issa Rae kind of blossom. You know, she first cropped up on YouTube, "The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl." And she's searching for romance and love at a time when she's just broken up with this long-term relationship because of infidelity. And in this new season, we see her trying to figure out, how can she move on? Or should she move on? And it's a story about average millennial black women, which we have never really seen.
MARTIN: Do you see any throughline here about some sort of secret sauce that contributes to HBO's success? I mean, it isn't everybody's cup of tea. I mean, some of these programs are just too explicit for some people, so people don't want to pay that money. I mean, those premium channels are expensive.
DEGGANS: Yeah. I mean, the secret sauce is trying to come up with a show that not only pushes the boundaries of storytelling on television. You know, again, I told you about how distinct "Insecure" is. You know, "Game Of Thrones" is epic film-level production values done on a TV show level. It's doing something unique with the form. And it's also doing something that kind of touches the zeitgeist, that tells us something about where we are today or that feels like a fresh new voice on the scene.
And so at a time when we are trying to figure out how we feel about how people of color relate to the mainstream, and at a time when we're finding all these new modes of expression for people of color, it's a perfect time for them to come to the fore.
MARTIN: That's TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thank you.
DEGGANS: Always fun to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.