Westworld Attracts Plenty of Visitors with True Detective-like Ratings


Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s much-hyped new show, Westworld, premiered to a sizable audience, suggesting that HBO still has life in it.

After all the hand-wringing over HBO’s faded prestige, it looks like the cable network can rest easy, at least for now. Not only did HBO come out on top yet again at the Emmys (despite some fierce competition from FX), but it also has a legitimate hit on its hands. According to Variety, the dystopian drama Westworld, drew 3.3 million viewers in its premiere on Sunday. That’s the best debut of any new HBO series since True Detective in 2014.

For many years, HBO had the market on quality television cornered. Series such as Sex and the City, The Sopranos, and The Wire demonstrated that complex and ambitious art can thrive on the small screen, helping to dispel the widespread perception of TV as a dreary wasteland of crime procedurals and laugh-track sitcoms. Nothing sums up the medium’s former reputation so well as HBO’s slogan, which remains unchanged: “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” (Of course, none of this is to downplay the influence of more mainstream hits like The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Lost, though the first two still employed traditional “case of the week” structures.)

In the past decade, however, other networks have threatened to knock HBO off its pedestal. First, AMC burst onto the scene with its one-two punch of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, not to mention the wildly popular The Walking Dead. FX offered dark, idiosyncratic fare like Damages, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and Louie. Showtime made a bid for relevance with Dexter, Weeds, and Homeland, though none of those managed to sustain their critical acclaim. Then, streaming came along. With Netflix and Amazon toting themselves as havens of creative freedom, unconstrained by budget or ratings concerns, HBO suddenly seems archaic.

Laverne Cox, Lea DeLaria, and Yael Stone in Orange Is the New Black season 3 (2015), promo courtesy of Netflix

Sure, Game of Thrones continues to rack up viewers, awards, and publicity, but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss plan to end it after two more shortened seasons. In its first season, True Detective took the Internet by storm, but season two was a catastrophe. The Leftovers has its share of passionate supporters, but not nearly enough of them; the third season will be its final one. The Night Of wound up being more of a curiosity than the zeitgeist-y phenomenon it appeared to be. Vinyl was a critical dud and got canceled after one season, despite initially being renewed.

Had HBO lost its touch?

There were plenty of reasons to view Westworld with skepticism, even with its star-studded cast and creative team. It’s based on a forgettable 1970s genre flick. The production suffered multiple delays, including one complete shutdown, and the season one budget reportedly soared to $100 million. The premise involving an android-populated theme park where guests live out their most taboo fantasies promised copious violence and sex – elements that were once considered daring but are now mundane, even retrograde.

As it turns out, whatever doubts audiences might have about HBO’s brand were outweighed by their curiosity. Westworld’s premiere still fell far short of the numbers amassed by an episode of Game of Thrones, though it more than doubled those of Vinyl’s premiere. Plus, it’s the kind of cryptic, provocative show that’s bound to stir up conversation, which might tempt newcomers to give it a chance in the future.

Next: Westworld Recap: S1E1 “The Original”

The point is: there’s hope for HBO. Even if Westworld isn’t to your taste, the Issa Rae comedy Insecure is set to premiere Oct. 9.