HBO’s Leading Man: Casey Bloys on Perfecting ‘The Last of Us,’ HBO Max Streaming Merger and Axing Shows

Photographs by Adam Amengual

Casey Bloys was about four years into his tenure as a programming executive at HBO when he was driven to champion a project that was disliked by others at the network.

At first blush, the brilliantly raunchy Danny McBride comedy “Eastbound & Down” might have seemed out of place among the erudite offerings on HBO. When the series premiered in February 2009, HBO was still known for its New York-centric (“Sex and the City”) and Hollywood-set (“Entourage”) comedies. “Eastbound” revolved around Kenny Powers, a washed-up, foulmouthed, amoral former professional baseball player who heads home to North Carolina.

HBO brass weren’t sure “Eastbound” fit their high-end brand. But Bloys, then the network’s young head of comedy, knew McBride had something with the show. “I truly thought and continue to think the show is funny,” Bloys says. “And it was at a point in my career where I was learning how to be an advocate for a show. How to explain to people why something is good, why we should put our name and our money behind something.”

Six months after “Eastbound” debuted, Bloys got a promotion to senior VP. The experience of going against the grain for something he believed in helped solidify his view that the HBO brand was big enough to expand beyond its core strengths. It also set Bloys, now 51, on a path to becoming CEO of content for HBO and HBO Max, leading a loyal team that has defied the odds by delivering hit after hit in recent years despite never-ending turmoil in the TV industry at large and HBO in particular.

“He’s managing the jewel in the crown here, the single most important piece of real estate in media, which is HBO,” says Ari Greenburg, president of WME. “What they do at HBO sets the tone for the rest of the town.”

Adam Amengual for Variety

Through it all, Bloys has emerged as one of TV’s most respected executives. He’s impressed with a hot hand of shows — “The Last of Us,” “The White Lotus,” “House of the Dragon,” “Euphoria” and “Succession,” to name a few — that reflect his impeccable taste and strong programming instincts. He’s also well liked for being a straight shooter in making deals and for his ability to guide talent in a manner that’s not heavy-handed. Bloys’ deft touch has ensured that HBO remains a contender at a time of intense competition in TV. The premium network’s bespoke approach to developing and marketing content has only become more sought after amid the flood of new content and new platforms.

“It’s the most important job in media,” says Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav. “He is the master class of nurturing and developing great creatives outside and inside HBO and curating amazing content. The result is the strongest HBO in history.”

Bloys is also at the forefront of the next big shift in streaming, as he oversees the programming on a new mega-service combining HBO Max and Discovery+ this spring. The name for the platform is TBD, although “Max” appears to be in the lead. (And if it does become “Max,” Bloys is fine with that. While some shows rolling into the combined service — think “Dr. Pimple Popper” — do what they do well, they probably shouldn’t be on an HBO-branded streaming service.)

“Especially if we’re going to have a lot more reality programming, lifestyle programming, how much more do we want the HBO brand to take on?” Bloys says. “That’s a legitimate concern. And that’s what we’re talking about right now. What I think we all agree on is that we need to do is preserve and protect the HBO brand.”

Richard Plepler, HBO’s long-serving CEO, who left the company in 2019 after the AT&T takeover of Time Warner, offers even higher praise for Bloys’ achievements since he took on oversight of HBO’s original programming in 2016: “I would go as far as to say that the best decision that I made as CEO was making Casey head of programming.”

Most recently, Bloys’ skill has been borne out with “The Last of Us,” the new HBO drama series that has become a rare example of a hit video game adaptation, embraced by both discerning HBO viewers and players of the game (originally written by Neil Druckmann, who also worked on the show). Bloys hadn’t heard of the Naughty Dog/Sony PlayStation game — nor had his head of drama programming, Francesca Orsi — before TV writer Craig Mazin brought it in to them as a prospect. But Mazin had just delivered HBO a surprise smash with the 2019 miniseries “Chernobyl,” and Bloys was confident he’d have another winner with whatever Mazin was most passionate about.

“I don’t even play video games, but we were betting on Craig, not the game,” Bloys says. “You want someone who is so invested in the world and knows why things happen, why they wouldn’t happen, so you can have a real conversation and a real back-and-forth. You want someone who’s got an unshakable knowledge of ‘Here’s the way we see the world, here are the themes we’re going for.’ The more he knows about it and the more excited he is, the better it is for us.”

“The Last of Us” takes place 20 years after a mass fungal pandemic wipes out much of the population — turning humans into grotesque, hungry zombies. Pedro Pascal stars as Joel, a smuggler who winds up on a journey with young teen Ellie (Bella Ramsey), who may harbor a potential cure. There’s plenty of action and horror, but the show’s relationships drive the narrative. That’s why initially, Bloys felt the first episode of “The Last of Us” was missing an emotional coda that would hook viewers.

“Casey said, ‘Hey, look, I’ve watched the first two episodes. And my audience gut is telling me we should turn this into one big one, because the ending of what was going to be the second episode is such a great ending, it will drive people forward,’” recalls Mazin.

Mazin’s first instinct was to panic at the note. But because the suggestion came from Bloys, he knew it was made for the right reasons. “This was heartfelt,” Mazin says. “It was ‘I think this will be better for the audience.’ And he was right. It was really a smart observation. He and I are cut from the same vaudevillian cloth. We want to make the audience feel things.”

Achievement unlocked. “The Last of Us” has quickly emerged as a bona fide success, with viewership growing each week (posting a new high with 7.5 million viewers for its fourth episode). That follows record ratings for “The White Lotus” as it finished its second season, and big numbers for the premiere of the “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon.”

Add last year’s Season 2 of “Euphoria,” and “we have more shows doing higher numbers than we’ve ever had in the history of HBO,” Bloys says. “And that goes back to when we had ‘Six Feet Under,’ ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Sex and the City.’”

Joe Cohen, CAA board member and head of scripted TV, credits Bloys with steering a strong team of executives and at the same time staying close to the creative process, in good times and bad.

“He’s a terrific leader,” Cohen says. “It’s not an accident that they keep having the success that they have.”

To many industry insiders, Bloys’ record is impressive in part because he’s pulled it off without the stereotypical bluster that often seems to come with the job.

Adam Amengual for Variety

“His voice might be quiet, but it’s more powerful in the creative community than anyone’s,” Zaslav adds. Indeed, Bloys is known as one of the most measured, evenhanded and calm execs in the TV business. “I admire him,” says Mazin. “He’s way less of a mess than I am. Casey, to some extent, helps buffer the anxiety because he doesn’t run around freaking out the way that I do. And he is very clever and very charming.”

Amy Gravitt, who has worked with Bloys’ for more than a decade and now heads the comedy department, still remembers the moment Bloys stuck his neck out for “Eastbound,” a show he truly believed in. “To us, [‘Eastbound’] was very clearly the future of HBO comedy. I think it speaks to Casey’s creative instincts and his creative conviction, that he was able to stand by his gut and take that leap. because every show is a leap,” she says. “And I think he has a strong gut for what story should be told next.” 

But here’s something that Bloys’ colleagues, and some of the writers and stars behind HBO’s biggest shows, have also learned through the years: That cool, youthful exterior belies the exec’s dry, often wicked wit. (All these years later, when asked which character from the HBO diaspora that he’d most like to hang out with, Bloys’ answer comes back like a fast pitch: Kenny Powers of “Eastbound.”)

“He has the darkest fucking sense of humor that I’ve encountered in Hollywood, and I love it,” says Issa López, the executive producer behind HBO’s upcoming fourth installment of anthology drama “True Detective.” “I’m Mexican, and we have this culture rooted in finding humor in death and in misery. I’ve met very few people in show business in the U.S. that got that. And Casey’s one of them.”

Bloys reveals that much of his wit comes from growing up young, closeted and gay in the steel town of Bethlehem, Pa. Now, he’s been married since 2004 to Alonzo Wickers, a First Amendment and media attorney, and together they’re the parents of 16-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. But back in his youth, “developing a sense of humor was almost a matter of survival, as anybody who grew up closeted in the ’80s knows,” Bloys says. “I was not an athlete, so I had to develop some sort of survival skill. I was lucky and fortunate enough to make a career out of it.”

Bloys grew up on a steady diet of TV comedy reruns — “Gilligan’s Island,” “Bewitched” and the Norman Lear catalog. He knew he wanted to work in television, but instead pursued a degree in economics at Northwestern University.

“My dad started a software company in 1970 and was a very successful businessman, so even at Northwestern, the idea that he would pay for college and then I could major in TV and film, it was just not an option,” he says. “So economics seemed like a smart thing to do. And I will say, especially now, half my job is creative, but half is now dealing with budgets and finance. So the economic training does help.”

After college, Bloys took a gig at advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather in New York, which led to a marketing job at Paramount in Los Angeles in 1996. He soon figured out that the secret to making it in TV was to become an assistant. Bloys was hired at CBS under current programming boss Laurie Zaks, and then began working for comedy head Gene Stein. When Stein moved to Disney/ ABC, Bloys followed. Then Stein and Nina Wass opened their own production shingle, bringing along Bloys to serve as a junior programming exec with a seat in writers’ rooms. It was invaluable training.

“One of the things that was very helpful in my career was when I worked for Gene Stein and Nina Wass,” Bloys recalls. “Nina came from Witt-Thomas, and they were producers that were in the writers’ room. We did a sitcom at ABC called ‘Less Than Perfect,’ and I got to spend two seasons in the writers’ room, not as a writer but as their development executive. I got to see how the writers on a 22-episode show would try to crack a story and do it quickly. What was really interesting, I remember [showrunner] Mitch Hurwitz was a consulting producer on the show. And the writers would be trying to figure out why a story doesn’t work. As someone with an outside perspective, who’d come in a day or two a week, Mitch would go, Well, ‘what if you did this?’ And then it was just kind of like, ‘Oh yeah!’ It was interesting to see how you could help a writer unblock.”

Courtesy of HBO

In 2004, Bloys was recruited as a director of development for HBO Independent Prods., an in-house studio that had been tasked with producing projects for outside networks like CBS (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) and Fox (“Martin”). When that shut down, Bloys jumped over to the pay channel itself, working under then-programming boss Carolyn Strauss, a mentor who remains a close friend.

Besides “Eastbound,” Bloys championed a new wave of shows that would become signature HBO comedies: “Flight of the Conchords,” “Girls,” “Enlightened,” “Getting On” and “Silicon Valley.” It was his stewardship of “Veep,” and in particular his handling of a tricky showrunner transition when creator Armando Iannucci decided to leave, that impressed Plepler. Bloys personally recruited Dave Mandel, and the show didn’t miss a beat.

“It was Casey who called me and said, ‘you know, Dave Mandel might be available,’” Plepler recalls. “Oh my God. Are you kidding? How’s it possible? He said, ‘I think we can do it. Let’s go.’” Bloys’ idea was serendipitous, as Mandel took over “Veep” and the Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy continued to be an Emmy, ratings and pop culture juggernaut to the very end.

“I could give you 20 more examples where Casey had the right taste, judgment and temperament,” Plepler says.

Bloys’ big promotion came in 2016, after longtime HBO executive Michael Lombardo departed the company. “I was terrified,” Bloys admits. “A network like HBO is a very special thing. It had a great track record, and you don’t want to be the person who comes in and screws that all up.”

Plepler wasn’t worried. “His pride in HBO is transcendent. He’s a great steward of quality and excellence. He’s a rock star but always credits his team, who are also rock stars. He doesn’t lead with his ego, he leads with the work. It’s never about him. It’s about the work.”

That team includes Orsi as head of drama, Gravitt in comedy, Nina Rosenstein in late night and specials, Lisa Heller and Nancy Abraham in documentaries and also Sarah Aubrey at HBO Max. “We’ve all been working together for a long time and we all kind of understand how to work at HBO,” Bloys says. “I’m really proud of all of them.”

By then, Bloys had been around HBO long enough to know that he had to always have his antennae up for the next big thing that would keep the network the leader of the prestige-TV pack. He knew “Game of Thrones” was coming to a natural end and remembered how adrift the company seemed at times after previous juggernauts faded to black and before new ones came into view.

“I had been there through the end of ‘Sopranos’ — the ‘What are they going to do?’ That was a big moment,” he says. “And you do realize, you make it through those times. It’s hard in the moment to live up to those expectations, and I think everybody thought well, ‘Boardwalk Empire’ was going to be the next ‘Sopranos.’ Anytime anybody tries to tell you what the next whatever is, nobody knows.”

Yet HBO’s streak continued: “Big Little Lies,” “Chernobyl,” “Watchmen,” “Mare of Easttown,” “Insecure,” “Barry” and the rest of HBO’s recent hits. Bloys understands the pressure will never let up, however, and even offers his take on what the next headline will say.

“I’ll write the article for you,” he quips. “What is HBO going to do after ‘Succession,’ ‘The Last of Us,’ ‘House of the Dragon’ and ‘The White Lotus’? There’s always going to be something you have to kind of re-prove. That’s the nature of the job.”

And then there’s the other burden of the beast: A seemingly perpetual level of upheaval at HBO’s parent company over the past five years. When then-owner AT&T first announced plans to launch the HBO Max streaming platform, content oversight of that channel was given to then-TNT/TBS head Kevin Reilly rather than HBO leaders. That was unsettling to the tight-knit team at the pay cabler.

“I have to admit that I was concerned,” Orsi says of the divide between HBO and HBO Max. “I wasn’t entirely sure in the beginning what were the markers of an HBO Max show, and there were certain things that they were buying that could have been right for us and vice versa.”

The acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T in 2018 began a tumultuous run at the company (soon rebranded as WarnerMedia), and HBO wasn’t left unscathed. An exodus of HBO lifers began, including Plepler in 2019. Bloys started reporting to entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, who was ousted a year later, along with Reilly, by new WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar. Bloys then reported to Warner Bros. chair/ CEO Ann Sarnoff and took on HBO Max and TNT/ TBS/TruTV content oversight.

The corporate structure was radically changed again barely three years later when WarnerMedia and Discovery merged in 2022. Kilar and Sarnoff were out, and Bloys doesn’t oversee the Turner networks anymore. But he now reports directly to Warner Bros. Discovery CEO Zaslav, who signed Bloys to a new five-year deal in October.

Whew. That’s a whirlwind Bloys doesn’t care to revisit. “I don’t think there’s any reason to go back there, but I will answer that by saying I feel really good about the current ownership and our future,” he allows when asked about those bumpy AT&T years.

When Bloys took over HBO Max originals in 2020, it had already been established with HBO-like product. But with cost-conscious Discovery coming in, it was clear that there would need to be more of a delineation. “The kind of shows they were going to were a little bit too HBO-adjacent,” Bloys says. “Now on the one hand, I’m thrilled because a good show is a good show. But from a business point, of view, what I want to make sure is if I’m spending a certain amount of money on HBO programming, any money I’m spending beyond that, I want to make sure that those shows have a job to do — which is to push out from the HBO programming.”

Moving forward, Bloys points to successful Max originals like “The Flight Attendant” and “The Sex Lives of College Girls” as great examples of shows that “broaden out from HBO.” And on the drama side, the push will be much more into popcorn and familiar franchises — inspired already by what James Gunn and Peter Safran did with their Max series “Peacemaker,” which was based on a character from the “Suicide Squad” films. Now, with Gunn and Safran overseeing the DC output at Warner Bros., HBO Max is a big part of their future plans.

Bloys’ formidable lineup includes “House of the Dragon,” with Matt Smith (left) and “Euphoria,” featuring Hunter Schafer and Zendaya. Courtesy of HBO

Among announced projects in development, “Creature Commandos,” which Gunn has been writing for a while, is moving forward, while “Waller,” starring Viola Davis, is in active development. As for the others that Gunn and Safran have mentioned (“Lanterns,” “Paradise Lost,” “Booster Gold”), it will come down to first finding writers and then seeing where things go from there.

“As I talked to James and Peter about it, we’re going to develop these things and hopefully they’re all great,” Bloys says. “If they’re not, we’ll have other options and we’ll see. But what’s most exciting is that they’ve got a plan. Anything that James is excited about in terms of DC, I’m good with. I just want to make sure for Max that they’re the best shows that we can do.”

Another DC project already in the works is “The Penguin,” a spinoff of “The Batman” movie, starring Colin Farrell, from writer-producers Matt Reeves and Dylan Clark. “The overlap of someone’s creative vision with the IP is the sweet spot for us,” says HBO Max head of originals Sarah Aubrey.

“The thing that Casey is so good at is he understands that it takes a long time to make something excellent,” Aubrey adds. “And he creates space inside of our schedules for things to, frankly, not work or need more development time, to get just right.”

Beyond DC, Bloys says good examples of the future of HBO Max include “Dune: The Sisterhood,” a “Dune” prequel now in production, as well as a prequel to the hit film franchise based on Stephen King’s “It.” “I think there’s a real opportunity for us to do big tentpole kind of shows, using Warner Bros. IP that maybe wouldn’t necessarily make sense on HBO. So together, it feels like a really complementary offering,” he says.

There have been plenty of learning curves for Bloys: Not everything based on established IP works out, as the “Gossip Girl” reboot proved. And refocusing HBO Max also came with some tough economic decisions, including the elimination of alternative and kids/family departments and a pullback in content, as previously renewed shows like “Minx” (now moving to Starz) were canceled and projects from mega-producers like Greg Berlanti and J.J. Abrams were scrapped.

“It has not been easy,” Bloys admits. “When I talk about it with the group here, it is somewhat cold comfort, but it is a fact that we’re not alone in trying to figure this out. If it was just us, I think you’d have people saying, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ But the entire industry, television and film, everybody is going through these really, really difficult, seismic changes.

“Historically, HBO has been incredibly profitable and made a lot of money. It allows us to take chances and take big swings. We’re all trying to figure out OK, in this new world, in a streaming environment, how do we do that?”

Adds Rosenstein, who oversees late night, news programs and specials: “I don’t think anyone’s looking through rose-colored lenses, but we still all feel like we can do the projects that we really feel passionate about and want to do.”

Talent reps say Bloys delivers the news, good or bad, in the classiest way imaginable. “He’s got really, really tough choices to make,” CAA’s Cohen says. “I believe that his intent is always to be straightforward, to cut right through and attempt to maintain good relations across the highest-end talent and also with us representatives. I think he’s terrific leader. It’s not an accident that they keep having the success that they have. Even if he disagrees or doesn’t like something he’s swift in all of his responses. He treats people with respect and reciprocity of spirit.”

Bloys has also been adept inside HBO at problem-solving to make projects work. When “House of the Dragon” co-showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik had a falling out, Bloys figured out a way to keep Condal on board as showrunner and bring in “Thrones” vet Alan Taylor while moving Sapochnik to a development deal. When “The Idol” exec producers Sam Levinson and The Weeknd decided the show wasn’t working and they wanted to scrap what they had already filmed and re-shoot everything in an expensive do-over, Bloys figured out a way to make it work financially in a cost-conscious climate. Insiders think it could be on its way to becoming a phenomenon in the vein of Levinson’s “Euphoria,” which also went through a bumpy early development before becoming the hit that it is now.

“I’m a big believer in just being as straightforward as possible, even if it’s unpleasant,” Bloys says. “Everybody cares about the work. And I’d rather just have difficult conversations in the most responsible way. It doesn’t make it any more fun. But sometimes it can be more maddening if someone is not saying something and trying to talk around it. I’d rather be like, ‘Let’s just cut to the chase, have this conversation and try to figure it out.’”

Now that some of the tougher calls are out of the way, Bloys promises that even as HBO Max evolves, “HBO is going to stay HBO. Nothing has changed.”

And that even includes budget — with an asterisk. “The conversation was, what’s the right amount of money in streaming, so that means what’s the right amount of money for Max originals? And conversations about library, does every single library show that we have on HBO Max need to be exclusive to HBO Max? I would say no,” Bloys says. “People kind of forget the history of television was windows, DVDs. These are expensive shows to make. The idea that they’re going to sit in a library forever and ever for $15 a month, that’s never how TV has operated.”

That’s where the idea came from to remove “Westworld” from HBO Max and instead sell it into the equivalent of off-network syndication: In this case, on the free-ad supported (FAST) outlets Roku and Tubi. Bloys said that decision was made after a conversation with “Westworld” executive producers Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy.

“I think people sometimes forget there is a vast majority of the population that don’t want to pay anything for a streaming service, not only here, but internationally,” Bloys says. “In the same way that Netflix was a brand new thing, let’s throw some shows up there and expose it to a new audience and see how it does. I think you have to kind of dip your toe in and see what’s out there. I have no idea if FAST is going to be a huge business. But I do know that some people don’t want to pay and are OK with getting ads. And that’s a potentially very big audience and a new audience for a show. So that’s something we’re trying.”

As Warner Bros. Discovery charts a new path with a combined HBO Max and Discovery+ streamer, Bloys has developed a strong working relationship with Zaslav. “Even before day one, I don’t know if we were allowed to talk but he would tell me anyway, HBO was a huge priority for him,” Bloys says. “The thing about David is, he’s running this company. It’s not like he’s running a holding company. He’s in it day to day with me with us. If there’s any problem, any issue, he gets right in there with me, and we figure it out. He has made this transition very easy for us at HBO.”

And like Bloys, and Zaslav is also quick to credit the team of Orsi, Gravitt, Rosenstein, Heller and Abraham, and Aubrey, all of who have seen their services secured for several years to come. “It’s really a team of champions,” Zaslav says. “It’s a culture that Casey has really developed.”

Although Bloys could always be poised for more oversight at WBD, he and Zaslav agree that the exec already has plenty on his plate. “This is what Casey was born to do,” Zaslav says.

Bloys famously carries around grids that map out various programs and acquired theatrical movies and where they might be scheduled on both HBO and HBO Max. Those fluid plans are constantly changing, depending on how program development and production is faring.

“I like to think about what we’re putting out as a slate,” Bloys says. “When you look at this year, do we have enough shows that we’re excited about? Are they similar or do we need something different? What kinds of shows are we missing? It makes people prioritize. What do you really love? What do you want to bet on? It’s a way of focusing your thinking.”

Aubrey calls it “the 3-D chess of scheduling. I truly think it is the secret sauce of HBO’s success over the last several years. He always has his eye on. We don’t want to rush something before it’s ready, before it can be great. But at the same time, we have to keep a full schedule and so we need options. He’s working with us to constantly assess where things are and what needs to shift. That keeps up the level of quality in a way that I think is very hard to replicate.”

His HBO grids will be stuffed this year with the new (and potentially final) seasons of “Succession” and “Barry,” while upcoming are new installments of “The White Lotus,” “Euphoria” and “House of the Dragon” (likely in 2024).

As HBO forges its new path in the streaming landscape — after quietly marking its golden anniversary in 2022 — Bloys finds himself in a pretty good position, and it’s clearly not because of luck. As Kenny Powers once observed in “Eastbound & Down”: “There’s no better feeling than winning.”

Grooming: TerraRose Puncerelli/The Wall Group

VIP+ Analysis: PlayStation’s Plan for HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’