Network: HBO
Air Dates: April 17, 2011 – present
Stars: Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Michelle Fairley, Emilia Clarke, Aidan Gillen, Iain Glen, Kit Harrington, Charles Dance, Liam Cunningham, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Richard Madden, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Alfie Allen, Jack Gleeson

Someone should time how long the opening credits sequence for HBO's Game of Thrones runs—it has to be the longest on all of television. And that's because the gruesome, captivating sword-and-sorcery series, based on author George R.R. Martin's best-selling A Song of Fire and Ice book series, seems to average at least one new character introduced per episode. Somehow—perhaps through the kind of magic seen on the show—showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss consistently weave a multifaceted and endlessly compelling yarn around Game of Throne's stacked cast.

During the show's debut season, breakouts like Peter Dinklage (as pint-sized shotcaller and ladies man Tyrion Lannister) and Emilia Clarke (the golden-haired dragon lady Daenerys Targaryen) received most of the attention, but season two saw a few previously limited performers step to the forefront in major ways.

Of special note were Alfie Allen, who gave the suddenly megalomaniacal Theon Greyjoy's violent quest for power a stark (no pun intended) vulnerability; Sophie Turner, the brave young actress who shares most scenes with that sniveling bastard Joffrey (Jack Glesson) and continually manages to hold her own; and Maisie Williams, the 15-year-old wonder who played little Arya's undercover survival within the Lannister family's guarded walls with a sympathetic toughness.

How Game of Thrones balances so many rich characters while delivering eye-grabbing moments of wild carnage and pricey visual effects is one of the show's many selling points. That just goes to show you the paramount importance of substance over style. —MB