We watched on OLED and LCD televisions. OLED wins by a mile, but it's still muddy.
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(Spoiler warning: This article includes plot points for the most recent "Game of Thrones" episode.)
Last night, millions of viewers tuned in to see "Game of Thrones" episode “The Long Night,” where a rag-tag band of Dothrakis, Unsullied, and Stark forces made a heroic stand against the undead army of the Night King. This battle marked the official switch from “winter is coming” to “winter is here” and capped off eight years of speculation about what that would look like. Turns out, it doesn’t look like much. Twitter’s reaction was, well, stark.
We decided to test out the show for ourselves and see whether a really fantastic television could make a difference in the viewing experience. On Monday afternoon, about half a dozen Reviewed staffers watched the episode on a $2,000 LG OLED TV in our television testing lab.
OLED TVs provide the clearest picture money can buy. This is because every pixel on an OLED TV is self-illuminating—they don’t rely on a backlight like typical LED TVs. So while non-OLED TVs are forced to render The Battle of Winterfell with anywhere from one to a few hundred separate light sources, an OLED has millions of self-illuminating pixels that are capable of turning themselves off completely. This remarkable level of contrast is one of the reasons why OLED TVs aren’t just the best for dark action sequences—they’re among the best TVs on the market, period.
For comparison, we also played the episode on a 55-inch Samsung RU7100 television, which uses a more traditional LCD screen. At $600, this is much more representative of most people’s viewing experience.
The first thing we noticed was that, yes, you could see a great deal more in the shadows on the OLED TV. The OLED was not clear enough to see more characters in the shot, but we could see more of the characters—and that counts for a lot. It was only on this viewing that we could truly see the stricken expression on Jorah Mormont’s face when he returns from the failed Dothraki cavalry attack. For one of our testers, it was the first time she could see that the rider was Jorah, and not some nameless character.
That said, “The Long Night” is really, really dark, and even when viewed on the best of televisions. There are still entire segments—Bran demoing his crow flight simulator comes to mind—mired in inky inscrutability.
We’ll give a quick caveat here that we watched this over through the HBO GO and Amazon Prime apps over a WiFi connection. It’s suboptimal, far below what you can expect from the eventual Blu-Ray releases. But it’s also how millions of people experienced the show, and that number will continue to rise as cord-cutters multiply.
Such criticism might be dismissed as armchair cinematography, but there’s a root issue here that should be addressed. Television shows will continue to progress towards a film-like aesthetic so long as they remain popular and profitable. But whereas films are designed for a dark theater environment, our televisions live out in the wild under a variety of lighting conditions that can make enjoying them a challenge.
The problem isn’t going away. A quick look at a recent hits ("Walking Dead," "The Handmaid's Tale," "Black Mirror," and all the Marvel shows on Netflix) as well as what’s in the pipeline ("Stranger Things" season 3, "The Mandalorian," "What We Do in the Shadows," and "Watchmen") suggests that “dark” shows will continue to dominate.
So what’s the solution? Should we all run out and upgrade our TVs simply to satisfy the creative vision of the showrunners? If so, at least the options are getting cheaper. A good OLED television can be had for well under $1,500 on Amazon, though that's more than many are willing to pay for a TV.
Or, on the other hand, should Hollywood concede that our modest living rooms simply aren’t equipped to handle their increasingly absurd levels of murkiness, and—unless they want to front us some money for a new TV or reimburse us for a visit to the optometrist—maybe kick the brightness level up a notch?
After all, the night may be dark and full of terrors, but your television shouldn’t be.