Critic's Notebook: How 'Westworld' Saved HBO

Another drama failure would have been disastrous, but the fascinating sci-fi series became a much-needed momentum builder for a flagging HBO.
Courtesy of HBO
Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in 'Westworld.'

Whatever you may think of Westworld — and the view from here is that it just completed a wonderfully entertaining and compelling first season — it's precisely what HBO needed.

Call it the anti-Vinyl.

Exactly when HBO needed something to talk about beyond its core three series – the drama Game of Thrones and the comedy block of Veep and Silicon ValleyWestworld delivered. It captured people's attention – sometimes for good, sometimes for bad — and it kept its title in the zeitgeist, which is the most difficult trick in the world of television today. People watched it. They talked about it. And those who heard people talking about it after they watched it will now want to catch up. That might require a subscription. Subscriptions keep HBO in business.

So, yes, score one for HBO.

HBO just as importantly got people talking with two new comedies, Insecure and Divorce. The latter was the bigger name (thanks in part to Sarah Jessica Parker), but the former will probably end up ranked much higher on the best-of lists of TV critics across the country. Again, that's what HBO needed — some buzz, some reason for being, a reminder that it's a destination channel as it always has been.

Things were looking pretty bleak there for a while. A series of events had led HBO to suffer a fairly substantial drop in buzz and, far more crucially, a big clog in their pipeline, which is both inexcusable and a nonstarter when your business revolves around people paying you premium dollars for a premium subscription service.

April 24 marked a particularly difficult moment in the channel's history. On that one night, HBO had scheduled the season premieres of Game of Thrones, Veep and Silicon Valley — all three of its critical gems. The problem with that? It was just one night, with a total running time of two hours. That was HBO in a nutshell then — a premium service that was gulping and choking on the disastrous failure of Vinyl; the collapse of its True Detective franchise; the impending ends of both Girls and The Leftovers; Larry David giving no specifics at that time about any future for Curb Your Enthusiasm; the popular but awards-ignored Ballers; an animated series called Animals that pretty much no one knew or apparently cared about; and a scripted comedy series called Doll & Em that even HBO loyalists probably forgot existed.

Strictly in the realm of scripted fare, it was a bad, bad time for HBO. High-profile projects either started filming and were shut down and put back into development hell or shelved entirely — including two separate projects from David Fincher. Westworld itself was shut down and there was stink all over the channel for the mess it was making. If the channel's brilliant unscripted series Last Week Tonight With John Oliver covered entertainment instead of news, it probably would have had a field day with the whole sad affair.

Less than a month after the premieres of Game of Thrones, Veep and Silicon Valley, the head of programming, Michael Lombardo, was ousted. A run of either very bad luck or bad creative decisions were catching up with the channel and removing some of its sheen. While all of this was happening, headlines everywhere seemed to be about other entities, most notably Netflix.

As in, Netflix, Netflix, Netflix.

It certainly wasn't overnight, but it probably felt that way: Suddenly the premiere destination for scripted series was seen as damaged and faded and not worth the subscription fee when streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu were sucking up all the available oxygen. At the same time — and this is vastly more important — FX was the best-curated channel on the planet. It had stolen HBO's thunder and then proceeded, in September, to cash that in with 18 Emmys, sneaking up on HBO, which had 22 (12 for Thrones alone).

FX's Emmy clout – the ability to campaign and actually win every year — is vastly less than HBO's, so this year's Emmy haul was particularly impressive. In contrast, HBO had won 43 the year before, so the celebration for its 22 this year was slightly less exuberant.

The quick translation for all of that is: Wow, did HBO really need Westworld to work.

Getting another successful and talked-about drama franchise off the ground was essential. Having Insecure and Divorce plant a flag on the comedy end helps, too. But if Westworld — after shutting down production, after premiering following the cinder pile of Vinyl — had imploded, who knows what kind of panic would be enveloping the channel.

But it didn't, and HBO, while not all the way back or out of trouble (with more streaming services and premium channels like Showtime and Starz asking for money, consistency is key), can at least breathe a little easier heading into future projects.

From a critical standpoint, Westworld managed to be ambitious and intriguing and pay off on (most of) that in the first season, while at the same time having its detractors talk about it incessantly on Twitter. Perhaps the best thing about the season finale is that creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy adeptly broke the series free from having to be the same thing next season; they hinted at and illustrated in that last episode how they could broadly expand the story in a way that could sustain it for a long, multiseason run (something that was a nagging concern as the early episodes unfolded). Season one of Westworld was an impressive feat; setting the hook for the second one and beyond perhaps more so.

That faint sound you hear is HBO exhaling.

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