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HBO's Game of Thrones can't seem to get going

Lord Stark has much to contemplate in Game of Thrones. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, April 17th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Michelle Fairley, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jack Gleeson, Isaac Hemstead-Wright, Kit Harington, Lena Headley, Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, Harry Lloyd, Jason Momoa and a host of others
Produced by: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

HBO's first full immersion into the fantasy realm is thickly plotted but also clotted.

The blood flows freely while the storytelling tends to congeal in this 10-part adaptation of George R. R. Martin's four-volume A Song of Ice and Fire series. The Game of Thrones title is taken from Book One, with HBO making the first six hours available for review. Although nicely mounted and decently acted, they certainly are in no big hurry to get anywhere.

Numerous characters, a good number of them diabolical, populate the sprawling story at hand in this "deadly cat-and-mouse game for control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros." After a while your head may hurt if you're not already a full-fledged devotee of Martin's elongated tomes.

The key figure is Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean), who learns early on that his revered mentor, Jon Arryn, has died in the Westeros capital of King's Landing. Against the wishes of his wife, Lady Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), he agrees to replace Arryn as the "King's Hand" of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), who's become a corpulent alcoholic in pre-AA times.

How did Arryn die, though? Might he have been poisoned? And what about the marauding, vicious otherworldly "wildings" of the frozen tundra up north? They're briefly glimpsed in Sunday's opening minutes but otherwise are content to wait for another lifetime of winters before mounting a renewed attack. It's up to the men of the Night's Watch to keep them at bay after training at the dreary Castle Black.

Meanwhile -- and there are lots of meanwhiles -- the punkish, dethroned Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) intends to be restored to power. To that end, he makes a pact with the wandering Dothraki warriors, whose leader, Khai Drogo (Jason Momoa), is rewarded with a lithe blonde wife who's also Viserys' sister, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke). But the Dothraki horsemen seem in absolutely no hurry to attack anyone. Instead they keep riding and having parties while Daenerys learns how to satisfy her new brutish but protective hubby.

Meanwhile, the amoral Lannisters likewise crave power. They're led by Ser Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his twin sister, Cersei (Lena Headley), who also is King Robert's duplicitous Queen. Their younger brother, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), is a self-assured dwarf who enjoys spewing insults and the company of whores.

The Starks, for their part, have five legitimate children plus a bastard son named Jon Snow (Kit Harrington). He still doesn't know who his mother is. Nor does Ned's wife, who frets that history will repeat itself when he again goes off in the service of a whoring King who notes in Episode 6 that "killing clears my head."

There are some gruesome deaths to be sure, including a fallen knight slowly choking to death after his neck is perforated by a wooden spear during a tournament joust. Copulations also are recurring developments, with the Dothraki warriors particularly active.

As noted, though, the pacing is mighty sl-o-o-o-w for the most part. Any sense of urgency is missing in action. Instead the filmmakers seem intent on resolving little of real import by the end of the first 10 hours. Character development is one thing. But the story at hand regularly slows to a crawl, making HBO's at times pokey but otherwise magnificent five-hour Mildred Pierce re-do seem like a 100-meter sprint in comparison.

Some characters do resonate, though. Dinklage's dwarf makes for a nice, snippy diversion and the Starks' youngest daughter, Arya (Maisie Williams), is full of agreeable pluck. Addy's King Robert has some forceful scenes while Bean's comparatively goodly Ned Stark gradually develops into a character worth caring about.

But oh the machinations. And diversions. And overly long, leisurely scenes that keep sinking Game of Thrones into a quicksand of its own making. A full-blown battle of some sort would be welcome at any point . But through the first six hours, it can still be a chore to simply keep all of the characters straight. Let alone what kingdoms they inhabit and how many out-of-wedlock children they might have.