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How ‘Westworld’ Overcame Setbacks to Shine as HBO’s New Tentpole

Just about anything you wouldn’t want written about your television show prior to its premiere was written about “Westworld.” Production delays, charges of casual misogyny, labor complaints invoking the phrase “genital-to-genital touching” — all dominated advance coverage of the series, and all provided fodder for anyone skeptical of HBO’s ability to execute a big-budget sci-fi drama as ambitious as anything in TV history at a time of executive transition in the cable channel’s uppermost ranks.

Then the show debuted, became a hit, and spoiled a perfectly good narrative about how it was destined for disaster.

With its season-one finale set for Sunday, “Westworld” is averaging 11.7 million viewers per episode across multiple platforms, according to HBO — the most ever for a freshman drama on the premium service. Speaking at a financial conference Tuesday, Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara compared “Westworld” favorably to HBO’s all-time biggest show.

“I am really, really excited about the opportunity that we potentially have with ‘Westworld,’ ” Tsujihara said. “If you look at the viewer data on ‘Westworld,’ its first year viewing on all platforms is greater than ‘Game of Thrones.’”

Comparisons of “Westworld” to “Game of Thrones” have been frequent since the former was given a greenlight. Both are sprawling speculative-fiction ensembles. Both are insanely expensive. (The budget for “Westworld” season one was a reported $100 million.) Both present a misanthropic worldview similar to that of other signature HBO dramas such as “The Sopranos” and “Deadwood.”

Ahead of the October premiere of “Westworld,” producers and HBO execs shied away from “Game of Thrones” comparisons. HBO programming president Casey Bloys notes that that standard remains ridiculous — “Game of Thrones” averaged 23.3 million multiplatform viewers last season and has won more Emmys than any scripted television show ever. But like Tsujihara, he now touts “Westworld” as a cornerstone of HBO’s future.

“I’ve been thrilled with the performance of the show from a ratings standpoint, from a critical standpoint,” said Bloys. “And what’s been really nice has been the fan engagement — the fan theories, the social-media interaction, the think pieces. All of this shows that ‘Westworld’ is really getting into the popular culture.”

With that seal of approval from the network — and the greenlight for a second season — “Westworld” has cleared the high bar set for it. When HBO confirmed this year that “Game of Thrones” would end after eight seasons, “Westworld” became a focal point for those wondering whether the network would be in for a rough road without its signature drama. That scrutiny intensified when, in May, HBO programming president Michael Lombardo exited and was succeeded by Bloys, who had been head of comedy development.

As programming chief, Bloys went to work shaking up HBO’s drama development pipeline, canceling another $100 million series, “Vinyl.” The network had already in January suspended production on “Westworld” while co-creators and showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy caught up on scripts.

Bloys insists that the production stoppage was much ado about nothing. “A lot of times when networks say, ‘Oh, the writers needed time to catch up,’ everybody smells bullshit and says, ‘No, no no.’ But in this case they truly did,” Bloys said. But not long after production resumed, “Westworld” again made headlines, this time after SAG-AFTRA sent a notice to members advising them of a misleading consent form presented to extras cast for an orgy scene that noted actors “may be required to perform genital-to-genital touching.” The form was subsequently revised and approved by the union.

Then, in July, Bloys faced tough questions at the Television Critics Association press tour about what some critics perceived as a permissive attitude toward violence against women in the pilot.

But since its premiere, “Westworld” has attracted a devoted fan base dedicated to floating theories about the show’s interlocking mysteries on Reddit and other message boards. Star Jeffrey Wright even tweeted last month about being stopped during an anti-Donald Trump protest by a New York City police officer who wanted to pick his brain about the show’s multiple timelines.

And critics have warmed to the way the series has pushed its female characters to the fore. In her recap of last Sunday’s episode, Variety‘s Maureen Ryan wrote that star Thandie Newton “is giving a hell of a performance as this show’s Daenerys,” comparing Newton’s rebellious madam Maeve to Emilia Clarke’s “Game of Thrones” character.

“To finally be able to share the first season with viewers and have them respond with such excitement has been an incredible experience,” Joy said. Nolan credited HBO, saying, “Casey and the entire HBO team have been and continue to be truly collaborative and steadfast partners.”

With the show’s success now established, Bloys envisions a future HBO programming slate in part defined by “Westworld.”

“I look at it as a really important building block on our drama slate,” Bloys said. “I have ‘Game of Thrones’ for two more years, I’ve got ‘Westworld’ hopefully for many seasons to come, and I can build other dramas around them. So it’s a really important building block for us.”

Having a massive genre hit in place gives Bloys an important ingredient in what he hopes will be a mix of dramas epic and small in scale. “It gives you a tentpole along with ‘Game of Thrones’ to maybe do some shows that aren’t going to be huge ratings bonanzas but will be interesting shows with a different point of view,” Bloys said. “It’s one piece of the puzzle. It’s a hard piece to get right.”

And Bloys is well aware that, because of a shift in its production schedule, “Game of Thrones” won’t be eligible for Emmy awards next year, leaving a possible opening in several drama categories for “Westworld” or another show — though he’s realistic about the chances of a first-year series breaking through. “But I won’t complain if it gets an Emmy nomination,” he quipped.

Regardless of its future on the awards front, “Westworld” has now accomplished enough for HBO that Bloys no longer needs to defend it. Instead he can enjoy its success. Asked whether those who predicted trouble for HBO post-“Game of Thrones” would need to eat their words now, Bloys laughed.

“Yes,” he said. “And I’m happy to help you eat them.”

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