Capping off a year full of breakout series like Atlanta, Stranger Things, and American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, HBO’s Westworld was inarguably one of the buzziest new shows to hit the back half of 2016. Created by television vets Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the sci-fi western loosely revived Michael Crichton’s cult 1973 film of the same name, centering around a hedonistic theme park populated by android hosts.
The project garnered critical acclaim and successful ratings throughout its first season run. Its October premiere, “The Original,” raked in a strong 3.3 million viewers, marking HBO’s biggest opening audience since True Detective in January of 2014. It continued to deliver similar numbers as the season wore on, and at the final tally had an average cumulative viewership of 12 million.
According to Deadline, that makes Westworld the most-watched first season of an HBO original series ever. That’s an impressive feat considering its ultra popular counterparts: Everything from classic romcom Sex and The City to drama favorite The Sopranos has had a home on HBO. Westworld even beat out its megahit sister show, Game of Thrones, which averaged a whopping 25 million viewers in its sixth and latest season. If that’s what Game of Thrones is pulling now, there’s no telling what records Westworld could crack should it make it that far.
While the news is certainly remarkable, it’s also not all that surprising. Westworld has all the makings of a TV knockout. Its mammoth $100 million budget offers cinematic production and pristine on-screen tech, while its elaborate, twist-happy storyline fueled rampant fan theories all season. Plus, the show's accomplished team and stellar cast are already getting formal credit: Westworld is in the running for three Golden Globes, two Satellite awards, four Critics Choice awards, and two Writers Guild of America awards.
It’s a much needed win for HBO’s executives. Their costly ‘70s period drama, Vinyl, flopped earlier this year, even with the star power of Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese. The network prematurely greenlit the series for a second season after its premiere, and later had to rescind the announcement due to lukewarm reviews and waning ratings.
Now, as Game of Thrones nears its final chapter, all eyes are on Westworld to be HBO’s new breadwinner. It’s off to a promising start, but HBO president of programming Casey Bloys confirmed earlier this year that Westworld won’t be back until 2018, so it will have to keep momentum in the lengthy gap that separates its second season return.
Westworld returns with season 2 in 2018 on HBO.