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'Rings of Power' and 'House of the Dragon' are giant gambles. Will they pay off?

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power" premieres today on Amazon Prime Video. Two weeks ago, "House Of The Dragon" premiered on HBO. Both of them are long-awaited prequel series to wildly popular fantasy hits - Peter Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings" movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novels and HBO's "The Game Of Thrones" series based on the books by George R.R. Martin. And both of them, it turns out, are among the most expensive TV series ever made. Our TV critic David Bianculli reviews them both.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Neither of these shows is likely to win any new fans, but what they're really focused on is retaining old ones. Both these shows are giant gambles. And HBO's, in some respects, already has paid off. An estimated 10 million viewers watched the premiere episode of "House Of The Dragon," and HBO promptly renewed that "Game Of Thrones" prequel, created by Ryan J. Condal and George R.R. Martin, for a second season. "The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power," created by Patrick McKay and John D. Payne, now follows. And its popularity will be evident soon enough. But I'm more interested in how well these prequels set up and are faithful to the stories they're expanding.

Based on the first two episodes of each, neither show is as great a prequel or as original as, say, "Better Call Saul." But both "House Of The Dragon" and "The Rings Of Power" are very true to their source material and look expensive and expansive. They're also more invested in establishing characters and conflicts than going for spectacle, at least initially. And that's very smart. Despite all the fantasy trappings, both "Lord Of The Rings" and especially "Game Of Thrones" essentially are soap operas at heart. The villains steal the spotlight, and the hostilities are right out in the open.

"The Rings Of Power," borrowing and learning from the final seasons of "Game Of Thrones," hands the narrative over largely to its female characters - a welcome change. The elf who is hunting the realm's biggest source of evil is a woman warrior named Galadriel. When she returns from a quest, her lover Elrond wants to reconnect, but she's interested only in getting the king to replenish her army. Morfydd Clark plays the warrior elf, and Robert Aramayo plays Elrond.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER")

MORFYDD CLARK: (As Galadriel) I'm not some courtier to be placated by idle flattery. I demand to speak with the king directly.

ROBERT ARAMAYO: (As Elrond) You have made that plain. So I will be equally plain. It was not your company who defied you out there, but rather you who defied the high king by refusing to heed any limit placed upon him. In an act of magnanimity, he has chosen to honor your accomplishments rather than dwell on your insolence. And again, you may find him less receptive than you might have hoped.

BIANCULLI: Another prominent storyline with a female focus is set among the Harfoots, a sort of ancestor to the familiar Hobbits. Markella Kavenagh plays Nori Brandyfoot, a curious Harfoot whose questioning nature is challenged and lectured by a village elder, played by Thusitha Jayasundera. Her speech sets the tone for the story, and it's a tone that's very true to the epic narrative it's now joining.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RINGS OF POWER")

MARKELLA KAVENAGH: (As Nori Brandyfoot) I wonder if there's trouble down south.

THUSITHA JAYASUNDERA: (As Malva) And what concern is that of yours, Elanor Brandyfoot?

KAVENAGH: (As Nori Brandyfoot) Haven't you ever wondered what else is out there? How far the river flows, or where the sparrows learn the new songs they sing in spring? I can't help but feel there's wonders in this world beyond our wondering.

JAYASUNDERA: (As Malva) I've told you countless times. Elves have forests to protect. Dwarfs, their minds. Men, their fields of grain. Even trees have to worry about the soil beneath their roots. But we Harfoots are free from the worries of the wide world. We are but ripples in a long, long stream, our paths set by the passing seasons. Nobody goes off trail, and nobody walks alone. We have each other. We're safe. That is how we survive.

BIANCULLI: Over on "House Of The Dragon," the threat is more immediate and comes in the form of former "Doctor Who" star Matt Smith, who is to this "Game Of Thrones" prequel what Peter Dinklage was to the original - its first and most dynamic standout character. He plays Prince Daemon, a white-haired ancestor of the House Targaryen clan who, at the time of this prequel, has 10 giant dragons under its control. Daemon's ascension to the Iron Throne has been blocked by his brother, King Viserys, who's played by Paddy Considine. And their sibling rivalry is pretty obvious, as the king tells him loudly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF THE DRAGON")

PADDY CONSIDINE: (As King Viserys) You have no allies at court but me. I have only ever defended you. Yet everything I've given you, you've thrown back in my face.

MATT SMITH: (As Prince Daemon) You've only ever tried to send me away to the Vale, to the City Watch, anywhere but by your side. Ten years you've been king, and yet not once have you asked me to be your hand.

CONSIDINE: (As King Viserys) Why would I do that?

SMITH: (As Prince Daemon) Because I'm your brother.

BIANCULLI: Yet as evil and angry as Daemon is, his niece is brave enough to confront him. She's Princess Rhaenyra, played as a young woman by Milly Alcock. And when Daemon pits his army of men against the kings, the princess swoops in, riding a dragon, and lands herself right between the two armies, defiantly confronting her rebellious relative.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF THE DRAGON")

MILLY ALCOCK: (As Young Princess Rhaenyra) I'm right here, Uncle, the object of your ire, the reason that you were disinherited. If you wish to be restored as heir, you'll need to kill me. So do it, and be done with all this bother.

BIANCULLI: The production values of both series are excellent and should please fans of the original works. But in this early going, so should the stories, and even in a fantasy realm, that's a lot more important.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "The Lord Of The Rings: Rings Of Power" (ph) and "House Of The Dragon." On Monday's show, Labor Day, we conclude our week of favorite music interviews from the FRESH AIR archive with Pete Seeger, one of the most important figures in American folk music, known for his union and protest songs, and with Bruce Springsteen, who interpreted the songs of Pete Seeger in a 2006 album. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAY ME MY MONEY DOWN")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I thought I heard the captain say, pay me my money down. Tomorrow is our sailing day. Pay me my...

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAY ME MY MONEY DOWN")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) As soon as the boat was clear of the bar, pay me my money down. He knocked me down with a spar. Pay me my money down. Pay me. Pay me. Pay me my money down. Pay me or go to jail. Pay me my money down. Well, if I'd been a rich man's son, pay me my money down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.