Another brand-defining, Best Drama Emmy-winning HBO series is coming to an end this Sunday when Succession airs its finale. Just like when each of its esteemed predecessors, The Sopranos and Game Of Thrones, ended, there is the inevitable succession question about what comes next.
This time, HBO’s bench is stacked with strong reinforcements in freshmen The Last Of Us and House of the Dragon and sophomore The White Lotus for what could be HBO’s strongest Emmy showing ever in the drama categories with four major Outstanding Drama Series contenders.
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They are all overseen by HBO’s head of drama Francesca Orsi, a 20-year network veteran and one of HBO & Max Content Chairman and CEO Casey Bloys’ top lieutenants. She dismisses the notion that HBO may be adrift with Succession coming to an end.
“We are really proud of the exciting return of The Last of Us, House of the Dragon, White Lotus, Euphoria and not to mention The Sympathizer, The Regime, True Detective, and The Idol,” she said.
In a wide-ranging, “State of the HBO Drama” interview, Orsi, who last year extended her contract to continue as EVP, HBO Programming, Head of HBO Drama Series and Films through 2026, provided newsy updates about all of these series as well as Perry Mason, Winning Time, Gilded Age, The Hedge Knight, and other Game of Throne offshoots, talked about the network’s renewal criteria and development strategy, praised her “incredible team” and her boss Bloys and shared the serendipitous story of how she landed at HBO in 2003.
The WGA Strike & Its Impact On HBO’s Drama Pipeline, Including When We Can Expect The Last of Us, The White Lotus and Euphoria Returns
House of the Dragon Season 2, which is eying summer 2024 premiere, continues to shoot in the UK but at the start of the strike on May 2, George R.R. Martin announced that newly picked up Game Of Thrones prequel A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight has shut down its writers room. Writing for the new seasons of The Last of Us and White Lotus also has stopped.
“While everything at this moment is pencils down, I’m hopeful that we can come to terms sooner than later. Otherwise we will have to assess what is the end of the 24 schedule, what are the shows that are going to be delivered for 2025,” Orsi said. “At this point, those shows that I’m looking to air wouldn’t necessarily be ready if this strike last six to nine months. So yes, that’s a big question for us, but I think we’ll cross that road once we come to it.”
It’s “too early to tell” how the scheduling plans for specific shows will being impacted by the writers work stoppage, Orsi said. “We were looking at The Last Of Us for some time in 2025. And The White Lotus was ideally looking to go in 2024 but there’s some question about timing of the strike.”
There was a two-and-a-half-year pandemic-related gap between Season 1 and Season 2 of HBO’s hit Euphoria, created by Sam Levinson and starring Zendaya. Fans will have to wait even longer for Season 3 between Levinson’s commitment to The Idol, Zendaya’s packed schedule, and now, the writers strike. Season 2 of the show debuted in January 2022.
“Euphoria is one of those that we had begun writing in tandem with post-production on Idol but at this point, we don’t have countless scripts,” Orsi said. “We can’t start shooting, so the delivery of that show — ideally in 2025 — will be determined on when we can pick back up with Sam, who at this point is all pencils down and just finishing posts on Idol.”
For decades, HBO has been known for its close, longstanding relationships with creators. Now overall and first-look deals everywhere are being suspended, including for HBO mainstays like David Simon who has worked at the network for 25 years. Orsi spoke about what she is doing during the WGA work stoppage and what she would tell striking writers who have been in business with HBO.
“All I can say is that, outside of being a mother, my purpose is being nourished by the artistic process, and it’s my relationship with writers that fuels and feeds me,” she said. “So, are we in a sad time? Are we feeling the stress and the the lack of collaboration at the moment? Absolutely. That being said, we received hundreds and hundreds of script before the strike on May 1, so it hasn’t quite been a quiet time. The last couple of weeks have been mired in so much material that I’m working on and getting through. While I’m not engaging with writers, I’m still very much working as though this too shall pass, and I’m going to get back to work with them soon. I’m going to have responses to all this material they put in front of me.”
The End of Succession and What’s Next for Creator Jesse Armstrong
On the eve of the Succession finale, Orsi spoke fondly about the series’ protagonists, the Roys, “this family that we’ve come to fall in love with. Whether you love them or dislike them, they are an eccentric, totally intoxicating bunch, and I am going to miss them,” she said.
And no, there is no possibility for a fifth season of the Emmy-winning series.
“No, not at this point now,” Orsi said. “I know there was some talk about spinoffs, but no, not at all.”
As for that spinoff talk, it’s just that, talk.
“I’ll never say never but my instinct and based on a number of conversations about the evolution of Succession and these characters, at this stage, there is no intention of spinning any one character off,” Orsi said. “Jesse, should he do a series again, I think it will be entirely original. Whether it’s based on IP or not, I’m not sure, but it will be a new show, a new idea entirely.”
Orsi shared her “admiration, respect and love” for the Succession creator and said that she can’t wait to find out what he has in mind for his follow-up — even if she has to wait a bit.
“There is maybe sadness in that I don’t have the opportunity to build something with him — at least not for now. I’m not sure what he’s going to be doing next, and I’m looking forward to sitting with him after the writers strike and seeing what he’d like to do,” she said. “He’s an original thinker, and I have no doubt that he’s going to impress us and move us once again with something new at some point.”
As for the Succession finale on Sunday, “I will refrain from teasing anything, but I will say that Jesse brings us to a very profound, astute and very honest end,” Orsi said.
House of the Dragon: News About Season 2, Possible Seasons 3, 4 … and Beyond?
Three years after the end of Game Of Thrones, HBO last July launched prequel series House of the Dragon to big ratings. It was quickly renewed for a second season, with executive producer/director/co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik leaving and co-creator/EP Ryan Condal becoming sole showrunner.
“We learned a lot from season one. As as you know, Sapochnik’s no longer joined us for Season 2 but he really set up such a beautiful canvas in Season 1 and the partnership formed between Miguel and Ryan yielded something that was incredibly special and one that the world really responded to,” Orsi said. “We regard House of the Dragon as a piece that’s been incredibly successful and has exceeded all our expectations in delivering a spinoff. The flagship Game of Thrones is iconoclastic and to follow in its footsteps, in what [GoT creators] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] achieved, was no easy task, so we are proud of ourselves in what we were able to accomplish with Season 1.”
Looking forward, “with all eight scripts written by Ryan, despite pencils down, I can say that we’re really confident about what we’re doing and the team that we have in place for Season 2,” Orsi said. “To be honest, we think that the audience will be just as pleased if not more so.”
Production on House of the Dragon, based on Martin’s Fire & Blood novel, started in mid-April in the UK, and Orsi shared her first impressions.
“We haven’t been in production for too long but what I’ve seen is pretty extraordinary,” she said. “We have a beautiful cast that was assembled by Kate Rhodes [James], and we just are proud of seeing how those scripts are coming alive, the emotionality that the cast is bringing to it is something that we feel confident with and know that we’re going to deliver something special.”
Filming has not been impacted by the writers strike.
“Ryan is following all the rules — and of course pencils down — rendering services as the non-writing producer,” Orsi said. “If there is anything that needs to be rewritten or reshot, we’ll handle that after the strike, and we’ll put the resources behind revising what we need to do and reshooting what we need to do if we’ve made any mistakes along the way.”
As Deadline reported in March, the initial Season 2 plan had been to match Season 1’s 10-episode run, which was eventually changed to eight episodes for story reasons. Orsi elaborated on those reasons.
“There was some question about the narrative shape of Season 2. We were developing it with Ryan Condal and [EP] Sara Hess, and we realized that we were sort of treading water narratively in the middle of the season,” Orsi said. “So it just felt much more rigorous, more urgent emotional arc for our characters if we compressed the season. And then that also dictated how we would kick off Season 3.”
Orsi also commented on another part of Deadline’s March report, that, as part of a big-picture view of the series, including how to break up the stories season-to-season, Season 3 has been mapped out and might be greenlighted soon.
“We are mindful of rolling into Season 3 more quickly after Season 2, but that hasn’t been officially sorted out because right now we’re just trying to get Season 2 off the ground,” she said.
With a portion of the plot originally intended for Season 2, including a major battle, moving to Season 3, there has been speculation that the series more likely would go to four seasons. Condal and Martin have reportedly been going back-and-forth on whether three or four seasons would be optimal to tell the full story; Orsi provided a surprising update on that debate.
“It hasn’t been finalized yet, it’s still under discussion,” Orsi said about the length of the series. “George and Ryan are going to meet after the writers strike. They had originally planned to meet before the strike took place and that was to figure out at what point the series itself was going to end. Is it four seasons? I don’t think from where I sit at this point will be any less than four. But could be more. We’ll see.”
The Hedge Night — A Very Different Three-Season Prequel, Status of Jon Snow Spinoff & Other Game of Thrones Offshoots in the Works
HBO on April 12 announced a series order to A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Night, based on George R.R. Martin’s Dunk & Egg fantasy novellas. A couple of weeks later, writing for the series was put on hold due to the writers strike.
The network doesn’t have a scheduling plan yet for how The Hedge Knight would run alongside House Of the Dragon but the two are on different production tracks, Orsi said.
“The plan is more of a creative one in that much of the reasoning behind it is that it has a smaller canvas, that there’s an intimacy to the visual canvas that allows us to generate the show faster than say House of the Dragon might turn around because there’s so much VFX,” she said. “You may know based on the novellas that dragons don’t exist so by virtue of that it will be a faster piece to turn around given that we don’t have all these visual effect assets needing to deliver.”
As to how long The Hedge Knight is envisioned to run, “ideally year-to-year and arcing out a three-season series, which maps out the three novellas that George wrote,” Orsi said. “Of course, we’d like more beyond that, and George is continuing to think about the remaining novellas that he still wants to write but at this point, we have our eye on three seasons that would map out each book, each novella.”
HBO continues to develop other GoT prequels (One about Aegon’s Conquest has been rumored), “but they’re so nascent at this point that it’s more of a moot point until we realize them as real contenders for production greenlight,” Orsi said, adding “But yes, we’re exploring a few worlds in George’s canon and body of work.”
There are GoT spinoffs in the works too, “but it’s so new and nascent, we don’t even have many scripts on them so still too early to talk about them,” Orsi said.
The one known spinoff centers on Jon Snow, with Kit Harington attached to star and executive produce. It also is in very early stages, Orsi said.
“We’re just working deeply with the writers to get it in shape for potential greenlight, but at this point, no, no determination on whether it can go all the way,” she said.
The White Lotus: The Italian Connection & New Thailand Destination
Mike White’s Emmy-winning White Lotus started off as pandemic programming — a limited series that can safely be shot during Covid with a relatively small cast in a confined space, a Hawaiian resort. What happened after, surprised even his HBO executives.
“We never predicted it would be the phenomenon it has been and a lightning in a bottle though he’s delivered it exponentially from a success standpoint in Season 2 as well, and we have high hopes for Season 3,” Orsi said. “We were excited about Season 1. Then Mike’s pitch for Season 2 had us all gleeful, and I’ll say that for Season 3, sitting down with him for lunch, we left feeling even more ecstatic than we have been up to this point. We’ve been very, very fortunate to be in business with Mike White; he is a truly a genius.”
Orsi shared an amusing story about how she found out that White Lotus would go beyond the initial installment.
“After I saw the finale of Season 1, I happened to be camping with my kids and my family. And we all were supposed to stay off technology that weekend. But the finale came in so I was hiding behind a shrub watching it,” she said. “And then I remember calling Mike, hiding from everyone who was off screens, and just saying, so what’s next, thinking that he was going to want to do a different story, a different world, a different conversation, something else besides White Lotus. He’s like, the only thing I want to do and keep doing is White Lotus, just set it in a different country. At that point, he didn’t know it was going to be Italy. It wasn’t until some location scouts around Europe that he settled on Italy.”
That choice of location hit close to home for Orsi, whose family is from Italy (from the Naples area, not Sicily where White Lotus S2 is set.)
“It’s interesting because, even though I’m Italian and I have an affection for Italy and Italians and the culture, I tried to stay as unbiased as possible, but he fulfilled all my expectations,” Orsi said.
By now, White would’ve started writing Season 3, but the process is being delayed by the writers strike.
Set in Thailand, the upcoming third season will follow those that are vacationing at a Wellness Spa there. Natasha Rothwell is the only cast member confirmed so far for the third installment; she is set to reprise her role as Belinda from Season 1.
“It’s an exploration about spirituality versus the ego. And it’s set against the Eastern religion. But beyond that, I can’t really speak to some of the character ideas that Mike has,” Orsi said.
‘The Last of Us Taking “Big Swing” in Season 2
HBO’s latest drama hit is The Last of Us, a faithful adaptation of the video game of the same name from Emmy-winning Chernobyl writer-producer Craig Mazin and the game’s Neil Druckmann.
I asked Orsi about her original reaction when she realized that she was getting pitched a zombie show.
“Craig didn’t lead with that. While there’s a big entertainment factor that’s tied to the zombie nature of the show and its story, he really focused on the sort of love story, the relationship between Pedro Pascal’s character and Bella Ramsay’s character, Joel and Ellie, and exploring family and the ways in which the surrogate daughter that Ellie becomes to Joel in light of the tragic death of his biological daughter, is what I think grabbed us most,” she said. “And it was the profound, deeper exploration of love and family that he was after that had us all leaning in.”
The Last of Us has been a breakout hit, setting new ratings highs each week and driving the pop culture conversation, especially with the now-famous Episode 3. Like with the new season of White Lotus, work on The Last Of Us‘ upcoming installment is being delayed by the writers strike. But the producers already have teased more, bigger and more elaborate zombies next season.
Additionally, “there will be a couple of new pieces of casting, which I can’t get into. And of course, there isn’t much that we can go into on The Last of Us, given that Craig can’t really initiate in any meaningful way from a writing or casting standpoint. But he and Neil have a good sense of what it is that he’s going to be taking on. We’ll be moving the show from Calgary to Vancouver,” Orsi said. “All I can say is he’s taking a big swing from both an entertainment standpoint, related to the clickers, but also just the more nuanced, complex character dynamic between our characters, Joel, Ellie and beyond.”
Given the series’ mythology and heavily serialized nature, was The Last Of Us pitched with a plan for number of seasons?
“I think Craig and Neil are still figuring out where they’re going to come to an end,” Orsi said. “We have loosely heard that there will be a Season 3 idea for the series, but at this point, we’re taking it one season at a time. There’s no guarantee at this point that we’ll have a Season 3 but I know that they both have a vision for Season 3. Whether that lends itself to doing more [seasons], I don’t know yet.”
Speaking of third seasons…
Factors That Would Help Determine the Fate of Sophomores Perry Mason, Winning Time and The Gilded Age
It’s been a month since Perry Mason ended its second-season run on HBO. A potential renewal is now being discussed, along with the Season 3 prospects of two other series that are preparing to launch their second seasons.
“At this point, we are having conversations regarding viewership relative to budget, but it’s not just a Perry Mason conversation. We’re just assessing various shows, what more we need to be making, what more we can make, what more we have, the return in life of a series,” Orsi said. “Each show has a job to do, given the price tag that we give to it, and there’s a viewership. component, and there’s a critical response element to it and, of course, the buzz nature of a show. It’s those elements that we are always keeping in mind and discussing relative to whether or not a show will continue.”
“That factors in for Perry Mason, for Winning Time, for instance, for Gilded Age, so we have to play everything out and see how well they do,” Orsi continued. “But we’re really proud of Perry Mason and loved working with Team Downey and [showrunner] Michael Begler this season on the show. I’m really proud of what we delivered for Season 2.”
Coming Up: The Idol with Its Low-Fi Business Model, The Sympathyzer with Multiple Robert Downey Jr.s, New True Detective Installment(s)
Orsi was in Cannes earlier this week for the world premiere of Euphoria creator Sam Levinson’s new series The Idol, starring Lily-Rose Depp and co-creator/EP Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye.
“We couldn’t be more happy about the launch. it’s a really exciting show, an incredibly beautiful, sexy show,” Orsi said. “And “Lily-Rose Depp and Abel Tesfaye are really remarkable at the center of the show. I’m really proud of Sam Levinson, who delivers what I think is going to be a great sort of cultural phenomenon, not unlike Euphoria has done.”
The Idol had a rocky shoot that included a director and cast changes mid-production and reshoots, sparking reports of a behind-the-scenes drama.
“In terms of the rumors and chatter I don’t have much to say other than I can’t wait for people to see the show and to judge the show for itself based on your feeling of it and experience of it,” Orsi said. “I’m excited that Sam and Abel and [EP] Ashley Levinson were able to deliver a show that was so contained. We did it in a low-fi model and it was much more shoot from the hip looser, faster. It’s invigorating to work in that sort of model. So for that I’m excited to see how the world responds to it.”
Orsi also highlighted upcoming series The Sympathizer, starring Downey Jr. in four (!) different roles and Hoa Xuande, which she says is “ideally set to air sometime in 2024,” to be followed by the new Kate Winslet series The Regime.
HBO’s upcoming series slate also includes the return of the network’s True Detective franchise with a new installment from writer Issa Lopez starring Jodie Foster and Kali Reis. HBO brass, including Orsi, just saw first edited footage from the new season.
“Such a profound piece set up in Alaska that looks at the indigenous community, the Inuits, and some of the struggles they face opposite the world of mining and some of the more social conflicts that they continue to also face in the world of violence and domestic abuse,” Orsi said.
HBO had not set out to necessarily make another season of True Detective but Lopez’s idea fit well into the detective anthology franchise.
“So we embraced it as a season 4 of True Detective but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll continue it with Season 5 and 6 with Issa or anyone else,” Orsi noted. “Issa Lopez is unlike anybody I’ve ever worked with in that she’s a powerhouse. She directed all six episodes back to back in Iceland in the freezing cold; most of the production required night shoots. Between her, Jodie Foster and another co-lead in Kali Reis, they’ve really turned around something pretty powerful.”
The Reality of HBO’s Movie Strategy
In 2020, Orsi also added HBO original movies to her purview. Last week, before flying out to Cannes, she attended the premiere in New York of HBO’s newest film, Reality, starring Euphoria‘s Sydney Sweeney, co-written and directed by Tina Satter. It debuts May 29.
“I believe Sydney turns around a tour-de-force performance, and I’m hopeful that she will be recognized for her work,” Orsi said. “Tina Satter is phenomenal; she stems from the playwriting world of New York and someone I’m going to continue building new things with because she’s an incredible storyteller.”
Orsi is a longtime theater buff. As a young, up-and-coming actress, she found herself drawn to the works of playwrights like Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard and Edward Albee but she was raised in Los Angeles by parents “that were somewhat overprotective as Southern Italians,” so she never made the move to New York to pursue a stage career. Instead, she stayed in Los Angeles and followed the Hollywood path. More on that in a bit.
Over the last few years, HBO has taken a targeted approach to original movies, once a hallmark of the network.
“Casey and I continue to do films, but ideally in a more low-budget model fashion, given the emphasis on series, but we still are trucking away and plugging away on films,” she said.
HBO Development Pipeline: Contemporary Focus on the Next Succession, Mare of Easttown
Aside from the already greenlighted series, “I think it’d be too early to assess what more we were going to pick up,” especially with the strike, Orsi said.
She spoke of the type of shows she, Bloys and the rest of the team are looking to add to HBO’s drama slate.
“I think we always are conscientious about what it is that we’re picking up relative to what we’ve already made, world and subject matter-wise. And, on the heels of Succession coming to an end, there is some conversation about wanting to do a little bit more contemporary shows, versus period which by the nature of period setting, tend to be more expensive,” Orsi said. “So ideally, from a cost perspective, it would be great to find something set in the here and now without a big visual effects component that can deliver ideally year to year as an ongoing series. It’s less about what we won’t be making and what we have to make but more just about what are these types of shows that can deliver, especially in an ongoing format.”
Orsi hinted at a potential followup from the creator of Mare Of Easttown. “We are excited about the possibility of making something more with Brad Ingelsby, for instance,” she said.
There is no update on HBO’s long-gestating Parasite series, based on the Oscar-winning movie.
“At this point it is still being developed and still feels more on the early side of development than something that might get picked up anytime soon, especially with the the strike factored in. I’m hoping once it’s over, we can dig in and see if we can make that real,” Orsi said.
Six Feet Under & Six Degrees of Serendipity
One thing that we likely won’t see on HBO any time soon is a reboot of a signature drama from the network’s library. HBO recently commissioned scripts for potential new iterations of Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under and True Blood, neither of which moved forward.
“That’s not something that’s exciting to us right now,” Orsi said about revisiting another classic HBO title. “We’d rather find something totally original, new and un-derivative in terms of its world.”
While Six Feet Under will not be making a return to HBO — at least for now — it played a key role in Orsi going to the network where she is celebrating her 20th anniversary this year.
She joined HBO in 2003, just as the pay cable outlet had launched its first four original scripted series in decades that kicked off its ascent, Oz, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire.
“Six Feet Under especially was one of the reasons why I decided to get in TV,” she said.
By then, her career path had taken a couple of turns when she gave up acting — “I just wasn’t necessarily fulfilled, nor was I making any consistent living” — to pursue agenting, first on the talent side before switching to literary.
“Early on, I had gotten a job at William Morris working on the feature side but I had a decision to make — go to work on the feature side as an assistant or work on the TV side. And because of my love for some of the stuff that HBO was doing, I chose to work on the TV side. Also, just by nature of how TV works, the process is a little bit faster and more immediate.”
Orsi had just taken the TV lit representation path when fate led her to another career change.
“I remember how fortuitous it was in that, while I was on Ann Blanchard’s desk — she was a TV packaging agent at the time at William Morris — I read an interview by [then HBO chairman] Chris Albrecht, and he spoke so beautifully and eloquently and powerfully about storytelling. Then I read another piece by Carolyn Strauss, who was running HBO programming at the time. I remember saying to myself, If only I could work there, if only there was an opportunity there.”
“And serendipitously, a desk opened up working for the Head of Drama at HBO. I interviewed and started working for Miranda Heller, and within a couple of years, I was promoted to that next level of executive under Chris Albrecht and Carolyn Strauss,” Orsi continued. “It’s interesting, isn’t it, just in terms of the serendipitous nature of it? I always look back and remember having read interviews by those programmers, those visionaries working with the talent that I wanted to work with, and then how it all came to be.”
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