On May 19, 2019, at just before 10:30 p.m. ET, almost 14 million people watched as Jon Snow emerged from the Wall with a band of wildlings. (5.7 million more would watch within the next week.) Through eight years and seasons, Snow had gone from bastard son to undead King in the North to rightful heir to the Iron Throne, all the way back to a man with nothing (aside from his direwolf). He’d looked the Night King—and the Mad Queen—in the eyes and lived to tell the tale. Taking one last look back at the Wall, Jon Snow forged ahead toward a new life with hope and relief filling his war-torn face, as the screen cut to black.
Game of Thrones had ended.
The HBO series had started humbly, and on slightly shaky ground—the show’s pilot infamously had to be reshot, and largely recast—but Thrones grew to become the defining television series of the 2010s. The show chopped off its protagonist’s head at the end of Season 1; at the end of Season 3, it killed off nearly every member of the family the audience had been told to root for. Thrones introduced most of the world to now-megastars like Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Kit Harington, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, and Emilia Clarke. And each year, its audience grew, from 2.5 million average viewers in the first season to nearly 12 million in the last season. Game of Thrones was a phenomenon; perhaps the last TV show that will ever be considered such.
Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming, doesn’t really remember what he was doing on that May night. “I didn’t watch it,” he assures me. Bloys never watches any of the shows live—he’s already seen them so many damn times when they hit the air. Maybe, though, he was following along as the world grappled with the fact that Bran Stark had stunningly become king. “You could see the debate starting,” Bloys says, raising his eyebrows in a way that indicates he knows how much of an understatement that is. “And the debate has subsided. But it’ll probably go on for ages.”
Fuzzy as his memory is of that night, though, Bloys knows for sure that he didn’t spend it pulling out his hair, ruined by the anxiety of losing the biggest show on television—one that had buoyed his network for half a decade, precisely at a time when Apple, Disney, and HBO’s own parent company, WarnerMedia, were diving head-first into the streaming business, ramping up production to levels that might swallow HBO’s more boutique operation whole. It was a much more serene night for Bloys, mostly because he’d spent the last two to three years pulling his hair out, preparing HBO for the day Game of Thrones went off the air.
At the onset of 2019, the end of Game of Thrones, and specifically how HBO would carry on without it, was deemed to be the defining story of the year. “Game of Thrones’ series finale is approaching. How will HBO survive after it?” asked the Los Angeles Times; “winter is finally coming for HBO,” Variety declared. For years, the premium cable network had triumphed—critically and commercially—on the wings of Thrones’ dragons, as the show turned into a sun around which everything else revolved. So industry watchers assumed that the galaxy would collapse in on itself without its center of gravity.
In retrospect, the Thrones finale is when HBO’s 2019 fortunes turned, at least in terms of narrative. The controversial end of Game of Thrones brought the beginning of Chernobyl, Craig Mazin’s miniseries that found a surprisingly sizable audience and went on to garner 19 Emmy nominations. Meryl Streep arrived, crucifix sitting on her bottom lip, along with the second season of Big Little Lies, which eclipsed the first installment’s commercial success to the tune of 10 million viewers per episode. As summer progressed, Sam Levinson’s Euphoria, the first HBO show to focus so heavily on young adults, wrested control of the cultural conversation, one onscreen penis at a time. Then came the second installment of Succession, arguably the best season of TV in 2019; at the same time, Danny McBride returned to HBO with The Righteous Gemstones, connecting more than he had with Vice Principals or even Eastbound & Down. And as the calendar turned toward fall, HBO released its first stab at a superhero show: Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen, a feat of complex storytelling and creative worldbuilding that has seemingly pulled off the impossible by successfully adapting Alan Moore’s legendary comic. Where there was one behemoth show, soon there were critically acclaimed series for every type of audience. And if Game of Thrones was the last vestige of monoculture, then HBO, it turned out, was perhaps the last brand-name network in TV.
When Casey Bloys took over from Michael Lombardo as president of programming in 2016, he knew that winter was coming. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had already stated that they planned to end the show after eight seasons, and Bloys wasn’t going to push them off that resolution. “They have a very specific plan about the number of seasons they want to do,” he told the Television Critics Association in 2016. “Believe me, as the new [programming executive] coming in, if I could get them to do more, I would take 10 more seasons. But we take their lead on what they think they can do the best version of the show.”
Bloys was taking over at a volatile time, not only because Game of Thrones was ending, or because Veep and Silicon Valley—two highly successful comedies that Bloys shepherded as HBO’s head of comedy—would also end in 2019. The landscape in 2016 barely resembled the one in place when Bloys first came to HBO at the beginning of the 21st century. The advent of streaming demolished the concept of synchronized viewing, while cord-cutting in general not only diminished viewership numbers, but the very system that was used to quantify those numbers, as tech companies learned that they could release metrics only when it served them. As network TV began to falter toward the end of the decade, Netflix started a talent war, scooping up the likes of Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes for hundreds of millions of dollars. At the same time, the company accelerated production in a wager that the route to domination was not necessarily through quality, but sheer quantity. Others followed, and by 2016, the amount of scripted TV had risen by 71 percent.
In the midst of this chaos, there was Game of Thrones, a show that both had an impact not seen since the early 2000s and fortified HBO’s standing as a purveyor of important, quality television. Talking to him now, Bloys seems part wistful and part resolute. He’s the kind of person who tries to find the positive side to every situation, especially when said situation relates to HBO and he’s in the middle of an interview. “I was lucky enough to work with them,” he says of Benioff and Weiss, “but the show was already what it was.” Bloys is mild-mannered, but professionally audacious and seemingly competitive; it almost seems like he was looking forward to the challenge of a post-Thrones life. “Sometimes, when there’s a show that big, it can confine you to an extent. You start to get afraid: What if this isn’t the next Game of Thrones? That can paralyze you. So one of the things I wanted to do was be prepared for when Game of Thrones ended … and so ’19 was a very deliberate plan that had been in place for several years. A very deliberate attempt to replenish the slate.”
Hailing from the small Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem, Bloys got his start as an assistant at CBS. “I’ve always wanted to work in TV,” he says. “I was not a film person. … I’m not somebody who moved out here to work in movies and then found myself in television. I wanted to work in TV.” After leading development at Wass-Stein Productions from 2000 to 2004, Bloys moved to HBO, where he quickly moved up the ranks; two years later he was given the keys to HBO’s comedy lineup.
By 2006—an era that can be reasonably titled AS (After Sopranos)—HBO had put impressive comedies on the air, from The Larry Sanders Show to the early aughts one-two punch of Sex and the City and Entourage, but the brand was still mostly recognized for its drama. With Entourage spinning its wheels, Bloys reinvigorated the slate, diversifying HBO’s comedy offerings with a range of different styles, tones, and perspectives: Flight of the Conchords premiered in 2007 and the Laura Dern–starring comedy-drama Enlightened in 2011; a year later, Bloys landed a truly culturally defining moment, getting into business with a burgeoning creator who’d been cosigned by Judd Apatow and would profess, at least jokingly, that she was “a voice of her generation.” By the time Veep and Silicon Valley had joined Lena Dunham’s Girls in 2014, Bloys had built HBO’s comedy roster into a team of juggernauts that could grab hold of the zeitgeist and a considerable number of trophies.
But perhaps the comedy that best proved what kind of exec Bloys is was Eastbound & Down, Danny McBride’s first HBO series, about a washed-up baseball player who disrespects anyone and anything that crosses his path. Underneath all of the bluster, Eastbound is about depression, the banality of existence, and the danger of male egotism; it’s the sort of sneak attack that would come to be emblematic of Bloys’s HBO. Before Eastbound, McBride had garnered only limited critical praise for his dark comedy The Fist Foot Way, but Bloys was nonetheless hands-off as McBride and his cocreators, Ben Best and Jody Hill, set off to make their show. “He’s never been afraid about pushing the envelope,” McBride says. “I think other people would’ve been a little scared with some of the choices we were making and some of the things we’ve made through the years, and he never was.”
In Season 1 of Eastbound & Down, McBride’s protagonist, Kenny Powers, Jet Skis constantly, knocks a man’s eye out by throwing a baseball at him, and signs off monologues with, “Kiss my ass and suck my dick, everyone.” “To me, he always liked the most fucked-up stuff,” McBride says about Bloys, letting out a laugh. “Every time I’d think that we might have a problem with something, that would be the thing that Casey laughed at the most. I don’t know if that’s just the rascal in him, but he just likes when we provoke.”
The limits of Casey’s light-handed approach were put to the test heading into the show’s second season. “We were shooting down in Puerto Rico, and on the very first day of the shoot, there is a scene where Steve Little is having sex with a prostitute. And in the dailies you could see straight into Steve Little’s butthole.” McBride lets out a gigantic laugh. “They were kind enough to tell us that we could go back and shoot the show … and the first batch of stuff they saw was just this man’s asshole. Casey was on a plane the next day, just to be like, ‘OK, I vouched for you guys, but please, no more Steve Little’s butthole in the shot.’” It’s the fact that Bloys didn’t tighten the leash—or even dump the show altogether—that really stands out to McBride. Even after such discretion, Bloys continued to ward over the show with a light hand, comfortable and confident enough to let the talent that he’d invested in in the first place continue to pursue their vision. “Generally speaking, the creators we’re in business with are wildly talented, creative people,” Bloys says. “So there’s a pretty good shot that if there’s something that is getting someone excited, we’re going to be excited as well.”
Talk to anyone who’s made a show during the Bloys era at HBO, and you’ll hear one word used over and over again: trust. “They give us a lot of input, a lot of support, but also a lot of trust. And that’s huge, because if you’re trying to build one of these things, you really need to feel like you are free to make some decisions, to make some mistakes,” offers Westworld cocreator Jonathan Nolan. Says Succession creator Jesse Armstrong: “What I recognize so much is a light touch, and, in a nice way, the decision has been made before you’re in the room if he trusts you or not. And if he trusts you, then you have got a license to give it a go and succeed or fail on your own terms.” “I just can’t overpraise the way that HBO runs their creative side,” says Alec Berg, an executive producer on Silicon Valley and Barry. “I mean, it genuinely sounds like I’m being a corporate shill, but … I hear rumblings about how companies are promising certain things and then getting into the calling the balls and strikes with stuff, and that just doesn’t happen at HBO. It just doesn’t.”
It’s a little weird, honestly, how uniform creators’ experiences with Bloys have been. (One more, from Insecure creator Issa Rae: “I’m absolutely spoiled in terms of the intelligence there, the creativity, the creative freedom, the trust, and the space given.”) Maybe it’s also to be expected—they are talking about the man who has the power to cancel their shows, after all. But spend a little time with Bloys and you get a sense of the person he is: sharp, focused, and genuinely interested in the process of making good TV.
Bloys does see himself as an editor (“I’m not a proponent of saying ‘Great, go do whatever you want.’ ... I think the best creators want the feedback”), but on a grander scale, he has been successful through a combination of tactile strategy and a collaborative management style. He’s used HBO’s own established legacy as a calling card to both retain and attract talent, bringing in people like Rae and Armstrong while keeping minds like Berg, David Chase, and Damon Lindelof on the roster. And with that talent in place, he’s let them chart the courses of their respective series.
“I do feel lucky to have come up under this culture where you spend what it takes,” says Bloys. “You go out of your way to spend for talent. You do things that maybe if you were at a company that only cared about the bottom line you wouldn’t do. But the emphasis on talent and treating talent well, I think, ultimately serves everybody well. It makes them feel good. It makes them want to work here. Other people see that we treat talent well. And then they want to work here.”
At this point, I notice crows beginning to gather on the balcony attached to Bloys’s office. It’s just a coincidence based on where Bloys chose to sit, but it almost looks as if they’re circling him. Which heightens what he’s about to say, or perhaps this is just the one time Bloys allows me to see his more competitive side. “It seems very obvious,” he says. “It seems like, why wouldn’t you do that? But I do realize it’s a specific culture within HBO.”
On top of the 2016 announcement that Game of Thrones was ending, Bloys’s first year as the president of programming was checkered by another profound development: AT&T began proceedings to acquire Time Warner, HBO’s parent company. Amid planning for life after HBO’s biggest hit, questions were raised about how the network’s new overlords would treat the boutique outfit that had, for years, license to subsist (and spend) on its own, at a distinctly measured pace. Those questions only intensified when the merger was completed in 2018, and after AT&T executive John Stankey critiqued HBO’s operation in a town hall at the network’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan. “We need hours a day,” said Stankey, never mentioning Netflix by name but speaking to the way the competitive landscape had changed. “It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.”
He continued: “As I step back and think about what’s unique about the brand and where it needs to go, there’s got to be a little more depth to it, there’s got to be more frequent engagement.”
Stankey’s statements caused a mini-meltdown among fans and TV critics, worried that HBO’s heyday was coming to a streaming-induced end. Kashmir Hill of The New York Times equated AT&T to the tobacco industry; “HBO’s best bet to hold its ground shouldn’t be to get exponentially bigger, but to stay strong at what it already does so well,” Alan Sepinwall wrote for Rolling Stone. “More is still more for Netflix, but it doesn’t have to be for everyone.” Seven months after the meeting, things seemingly got worse, as HBO’s CEO, Richard Plepler, who sat next to Stankey during the town hall, left the company; The Hollywood Reporter cited “shrinking autonomy” as a reason for his departure.
Bloys isn’t willing to get into the politics of the merger; as an executive with a background in development, he’s far more engaged in the creative process of producing television than disseminating it. And more than a year removed from Stankey’s speech, he spins HBO’s increased output—the network aired about 160 hours of programming in 2019, up nearly 60 percent from 2018—as a good thing. “He’s been jonesing over the last few years to make more shows anyway,” says Bob Greenblatt, head of WarnerMedia. “There was always a ceiling on the number of great things that you could green-light because of the budget.”
“We had spent a lot of money,” Bloys says. “And luckily AT&T, when they came in said, ‘Great. We bless that spending.’” Ramping up production meant ramping up HBO’s factory line—more development staff, more production staff, more marketing. “There was a feeling at first that it was like, ‘Oh, we’re really busy,’” Bloys says. “And I try to say people, ‘This isn’t an isolated time. This is our new normal.’”
But to Bloys, the uptick most of all presented a unique opportunity, that in large part explains HBO’s impressive, distinct year. “Once you kind of accept that not everything is going to be Game of Thrones, between that and also having more resources to do more, by definition, you have to try more.”
HBO tried a lot of things in 2019. One of them was a five-episode miniseries about a 1986 nuclear disaster, set in Ukraine, starring mostly British actors. “Craig [Mazin] pitched it as a monster story in which the nuclear reactor was the monster,” Bloys says of Chernobyl. “And it really was a page-turner.”
“It’s a bunch of different kinds of movies all wrapped into one,” Mazin says. “But the one thing that I wanted to be clear about was that I wasn’t making a homework show. This is not something where people would go, ‘I guess I have to watch this.’ Or that some substitute teacher is going to show to the science class while Mrs. Watson is out for the week.”
Before it was released, no one was exactly clamoring to revisit Chernobyl, but Mazin made a highly intricate, suspenseful, well-acted drama about systemic failure and the rejection of scientific fact, in the face of our current political climate. More and more people tuned in with the airing of each episode—on Monday nights, by the way, as HBO’s increased production pushed it to co-opt another day aside from Sundays. “I wanted to make something that would care enough about the audience to entertain them and grip them, while doing something that we all felt was important,” Mazin adds. “And [Casey] got that. … We just had a meeting of the minds.” When all was said and done, Jared Harris’s explaining, blow by blow, how the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred ended up being one of the most thrilling sequences of TV in 2019.
As ambitious as a stark look at Chernobyl? How about a stark look at being a teenager … on HBO, a network that has traditionally and aggressively skewed toward older white men. For the first time, the network went from examining the existential insecurities and fears of adults to examining the source of their existential insecurities and fears: their adolescent children. Bloys carefully considered what it would mean for HBO to do a teen show. “We really wanted to do something that was younger-skewing,” Bloys says. “What’s the HBO version of that? And that’s where Sam Levinson and Zendaya come in, where they’re not going to do a teen show that feels like it could be on the CW.” He catches himself: “Nothing against the CW—my kids love their shows.”
What Levinson created was a show that looked seriously at the modern world teenagers face today. Pulling from his own experiences with drug addiction, he cast his protagonist as a girl in the throes of opioid addiction and surrounded her with a group of characters dealing with their own serious obstacles: abuse, loss, low self-esteem, disillusionment at the hands of inept parenting. Each episode of Euphoria carefully, and boldly—the season’s second episode infamously featured a near record-breaking amount of male full-frontal nudity—delved into each character’s psyche with a stunning level of empathy, treating the teens just as any HBO show would treat its adult characters, and in total condemning the world those adults had created for their kids. “I don’t think we fully appreciate as a culture what we’re doing to teenagers,” Bloys says. “And I think the combination of those themes and Sam’s lens through addiction was a really interesting take on teen culture. I knew it was a little racy, I guess you can say. Like, obviously. But it was, again, well-made, well-directed, well-written, well-acted.”
That HBO was able to pull off what was, on paper, a very un-HBO show was a statement. “Look at the start of the year,” longtime TV critic Emily VanDerWerff says, “Disney and HBO, two of the most venerable media brands are poised to have huge years, but they’re huge years largely predicated on things coming to an end.” In April, Avengers: Endgame brought a close to the story that Disney and Marvel had been building for over 23 movies, while this December brings The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and last installment in the original Star Wars saga. “Disney’s 2019 seemed to be focused on shoring up this transformative decade that the company has had and cementing their hold on the box office. While HBO was sort of like, ‘We’re going to have this eye toward the future of what our network is.’”
Both VanDerWerff and Bloys point to the skyrocketing success of Succession as the clincher for HBO’s stellar year. A mild hit in its first season, the show blossomed into a sensation in its second, on the back of award-worthy performances by Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong, and a story that was both reflective of America’s current media landscape and just as twisted and knotty as any installation of Game of Thrones. “That was a very deliberate attempt to pivot away from Thrones,” Bloys says. “The idea was: Let’s do a contemporary family show.”
“It can sometimes feel like you’re doing a second season in a parody of the first season, and you’re anxious, you’re repeating scenes,” Armstrong says. But Succession upped its original ante (which, it’s worth noting, included sublimely tragicomic moments such as Tom’s bachelor party, Shiv’s wedding, and Kendall’s vehicular manslaughter), zeroing in on the corruptive nature of power, the scourge (and stupidity) of cable news, and the still-possible escape of the Roy children from under the thumb of their father. Also in Season 2, Kendall Roy rapped. “It felt like the show grew,” Armstrong says. And so did the hype around it: The show won multiple Emmys in September and this month has landed near the top of Best Of lists at The New York Times, Vulture, and THR. (The Ringer also ranked it no. 1.)
In October, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos said during an earnings interview that Succession would’ve been better served by his company’s strategy of releasing a season all at once: “If I liked the show a little bit less I’d probably burn out on it. Because I get aggravated every week waiting for the next episode.” But Bloys unsurprisingly credits HBO’s week-to-week release schedule for not only Succession’s rise, but Euphoria’s and Watchmen’s too. “I am a huge, huge proponent of week-to-week viewing,” he says. “It’s funny—when Netflix came out, I think the whole industry said, ‘Oh my gosh, should we be doing this?’ But I’ve come out very firmly on the side of a weekly release pattern. … You have an entire industry of people writing about TV and criticizing TV and obsessing about TV. To feed that once a week and to have people comment on it, and hate on it and love it is a lot. … You want people talking about your shows. You want people debating your shows. You want people having an opinion of your shows.”
When it works, it’s a self-replenishing cycle: Because of HBO’s legacy as a producer of quality TV that matters, viewers are compelled to sample its new products and continue to engage with them—read: to subscribe to HBO—until those new products go on to reinforce HBO’s power and convince viewers to sample the next line of products. Even knowing that no future show may match the ratings highs of Game of Thrones—and no new HBO show in 2019 did—the more crucial element is maintaining HBO’s prestige. But Bloys adds an important caveat, essential to making sure the wheel keeps turning: The new products have to be just as good—they have to worthy of the HBO stamp. “You have to do interesting shows that people do want to talk about.”
If Succession was the clincher, Watchmen was the capper. Damon Lindelof had cemented his relationship with HBO after three lightly viewed but critically adored seasons of The Leftovers. And with Warner Bros. retaining the rights to Alan Moore’s comic and looking to put them to use, HBO EVP and head of drama Francesca Orsi approached Lindelof. It wasn’t the first time he’d been asked to take on Watchmen, but a few years more removed from Zack Snyder’s film adaptation and given time to mull it over by HBO, things played out differently this go-around. “I had an idea,” Lindelof says.
Orsi had caught him in the middle of a deep dive on Ta-Nehisi Coates, which had in turn led to a deep dive on the massacre of Black Wall Street in Tulsa in 1921. “I’d never ever heard of it,” Lindelof says. “And I was like, how is this a thing that happened, and I don’t even know anything about it?”
“It was sort of communicated parenthetically to me that if I said no to Watchmen, they were going to move on and ask somebody else,” Lindelof continues. “So I at least engaged on like, ‘OK, if I were to say yes, what would I do with it?’ And over in the other quadrant of my brain, I was feeling really compelled to tell the story of what happened in Tulsa, understanding that if I could encase it inside some piece of popular fiction, people would be exposed to it without opting in.”
After “going off and having a think” on it, Lindelof pitched the idea to Bloys and his team. “I didn’t come in and say, ‘I’m pitching you a pilot.’ I said, ‘I want to introduce you to Watchmen. Here’s what this thing is. Because I’m going to assume that you probably don’t know what it is. Because it’s not like Superman or Batman or whatever.’ … Then the second part of the pitch was, ‘And now here’s what I would like to do with it.’ And I did talk about Tulsa, setting it in Tulsa, and thematically what I wanted to say about masks. And that the show was primarily going to be about race. And fanaticism.”
“If Damon wanted to do a show about, I don’t know—take your pick. If Damon said he wanted to do anything, I’d say, ‘Great,’ because I believe in him,” Bloys says. “He’s so incredibly smart, so conscientious. I know he cares about making high-quality television.”
“I found everybody to be incredibly trusting and engaged and excited,” Lindelof says of the pitch. “Then there was like a fair amount of conversation afterwards, which is the sign of a good pitch—well, I don’t know if it means that the pitch is good. It just means that the people that you pitched it to are curious and engaged. And then, Casey sent me an email later that afternoon or that evening, basically saying that he really liked it and wanted to take the next step.”
Working through the series, Lindelof was frequently anxious and insecure, daunted by the task of adapting a story its creator has famously dubbed as unadaptable. HBO helped ease that anxiety—“I do think that there is definitely a part of me that’s like, well, if this were complete and utter shit, then HBO wouldn’t do it”—while at the same time enhancing it. “Whatever I gained back in terms of stress with that consolation, there’s a huge bar and there’s a level of expectation that I now have to live up to because it’s an HBO show. And that terrifies me.”
But by now, Lindelof’s part of the family. Watchmen is HBO’s first entry in the superhero genre, but a quintessentially HBO foray nonetheless. The show, which has also found its way onto most Best Of lists, is gripping television, immaculately produced and plotted, well-acted—from Regina King to Jeremy Irons to Jean Smart—and loaded with big ideas. From a genre standpoint, it’s outside of HBO’s traditional lane, but it shares many of the qualities that made The Sopranos or The Wire great. “Damon works on a different level,” Bloys says. “He’s on a different plane than most people in terms of his ability to not only write interesting characters, but weave in themes.” Lindelof, meanwhile, is still just thrilled to be on HBO. “It’s Valhalla. It’s the hall of fame. It’s a big deal. And I guess I’ll never stop being intimidated by it.”
As of now, it’s still too early to know whether 2019 will be remembered as an outlier in HBO’s history, or a harbinger of a new Golden Age. The turn of the calendar brings a great amount of change, leaving the network without Thrones or Veep or Silicon Valley, but also without Chernobyl, a miniseries, and Watchmen, with Lindelof refusing to commit to more episodes.
“I’ve been very candid with Casey and everybody over there from the jump, in terms of one of the things that I love about the original Watchmen, and the reason that I think it’s a master work and has endured all this time, is that it had a beginning, middle, and end,” Lindelof says. “And I think that when I went in and pitched them, I said, ‘Look, this season is going to have a real feeling of completeness, in the same way that a season of True Detective does, or a season of Fargo does, or the way that Big Little Lies did.’”
Ironically, all of the shows mentioned by Lindelof did technically have second seasons, but he still promises that another season of Watchmen isn’t currently on his mind. “Obviously as the season was ending, they checked in with me and were sort of like, ‘Where’s your head?’ And I haven’t said anything to HBO that I haven’t said publicly, which is if I had an idea for what the second season of the show was going to be, then I would probably be inclined to proceed. But I have not had that idea yet.”
So heading into 2020, HBO will be without not only Thrones, but many of the shows that made its year so successful. At the same time, WarnerMedia plans to release its streaming service in May, which will include movies from Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema, and series from TBS, TNT, and the CW but which will be strategically named HBO Max. “[HBO] is just synonymous with quality and sophistication and greatness,” Greenblatt says. “And it’s the reason why we named the new streaming platform after HBO. It’s the brand that we’re going to build on.”
The risk is that that brand-building leads to confusion. HBO Max joins HBO Go and HBO Now as streaming services that are, despite the similar-sounding names, not one and the same; HBO Now will remain in operation even after the launch of Max. And though it says it in the name, HBO Max is not HBO—the two are separate entities, with separate programming slates and development processes (Kevin Reilly, formerly an exec at FX, Fox, and NBC, was named HBO Max’s chief content officer in December 2018).
While the HBO brand will potentially raise the profile of shows like Riverdale or The Last O.G., there’s an equal chance that the streamer’s massive library will cloud the meaning of HBO’s brand. “People are going to perceive that as, ‘Oh, HBO has a streaming service,’” VanDerWerff says. “And just by virtue of the streaming business, not everything can be good.” As seen in the disparate reactions to the November releases of Apple TV+ and Disney+, volume is key to launching a streaming service. HBO Max will have plenty of it—in addition to all of WarnerMedia’s legacy titles, the company has also already green-lit a massive amount of original programming. But having so much content under HBO’s name risks devaluing HBO’s reputation for quality control. “Netflix can get away with [mediocrity]. Disney can get away with that,” says VanDerWerff. “HBO really can’t.”
Casey Bloys, though, isn’t too concerned: “HBO continues to be stand-alone. It is the core of HBO Max, but it is a stand-alone product and will remain that way.” Mostly, he sees it as an issue that will sort itself out once the streamer launches and everyone can see that HBO and HBO Max are two very separate entities. “You don’t want to do something stupid and increase the output to the point where it’s some sort of factory mentality,” Greenblatt says. “These are handmade cars.”
In 2013, Netflix’s Sarandos vowed to “become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” That so many seem so fearful of a future in which the second part of that statement comes true makes Bloys feel a bit warm and fuzzy inside. “When they were all coming out saying, ‘Don’t ruin HBO,’ I did have a moment of ‘You like us. You do like us,’” he says. As for Sarandos’s comment, and that hypothetical future, Bloys seems to indicate that it’s unrealistic. “I don’t want to get too distracted and lose sight of the fact that the number-one thing I can do is keep up the shows that live up to the HBO brand,” he says. “I am competitive … [but] I do think, to some extent, our biggest challenge is living up to what HBO has done in the past and continuing that.”
To that end, in 2020 HBO will bring back Curb Your Enthusiasm, My Brilliant Friend, The New Pope (a followup to The Young Pope), and Westworld, the third season of which ought to at least fill the void for internet theorizing left by the departures of Watchmen and Thrones. On top of that, the network has also reunited with Veep creator Armando Iannucci for a new comedy premiering in January, and will air Run, its first collaboration with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the latest big-name creator to work with HBO. The network’s first adaptation of a Stephen King work, The Outsider, premieres January 12; Lovecraft County, a Jordan Peele–produced series ambitious in theme (American racism) and scale (Lovecraftian monsters!), will follow. Even further along the horizon lay series from Joss Whedon (The Nevers), Julian Fellowes (The Gilded Age), Mike Judge (Qualityland), and of course, HBO’s first Thrones spinoff, House of the Dragon.
Bloys seems to have his head down, compulsively determined to keep HBO on the pedestal on which the viewing public has placed it, which paradoxically means pushing the network to places it hasn’t gone before. “That’s the philosophy that informs all of ’20,” he says. “Everybody overuses the word ‘curated,’ but hopefully it does feel like they’re all very different but you could easily say, ‘That feels like an HBO show,’ because they have those common traits of being well-made, well-written, well-acted. Thematically, getting at something other than just entertaining.” Bloys adds one last note of optimism. “Hopefully, doing both, you know?”
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.