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story.lead_photo.caption Regina King is among the stars of HBO's Watchmen. With the channel's ongoing obsession for fantasy, one of their newest series will be Damon Lindelof's take on the cult-hit comic book from the 1980s. HBO/Mark Hill

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — A Game of Thrones prequel series just wrapped filming in Belfast, Northern Ireland. An impressive 137 Emmy nominations last week can't be a bad thing. But alert viewers nevertheless sense HBO is changing before our eyes.

Since AT&T acquired HBO's parent company Time Warner last year for $85 billion, the network has increased its overall hours of original programming by more than a third, expanding into Monday nights with Chernobyl, Gentleman Jack and Years and Years. As WarnerMedia prepares to launch a streaming service (dubbed HBO Max to capitalize on the brand) to compete with Netflix, Disney, et al., some longtime executives have departed — including chief executive Richard Plepler and documentary head Sheila Nevins. Three weeks ago the network's widely admired communications chief, Quentin Schaffer, said he's leaving after 39 years at the network.

HBO's chief of programming, Casey Bloys, told reporters July 24 at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour here that more HBO doesn't mean less quality.

"The big challenge was to make sure that by doing (more) we aren't just filling hours to fill hours," Bloys said. "In the first half of 2019, we have a lot more programming and there's not one show that we have aired that I wouldn't have aired, you know, two years ago or five years ago."

The big question HBO viewers always have is what's next. Game of Thrones is done. Veep is done. There's no such thing as a Chernobyl 2.

Fantasy seems to be the network's ongoing obsession, with two big shows this fall built around complicated multiverse sagas. In October, the network will premiere creator Damon Lindelof's divergent take on Watchmen, the cult-hit comic book from the 1980s (which bombed as a theatrical movie version in 2009).

Critics screened Watchmen's pilot episodeJuly 23, but HBO begged us to reserve judgment for now, at least in print. Suffice to say Lindelof (known for Lost and The Leftovers) has taken Watchmen's concept and aesthetic in a surprising and even topically risky direction that, among other things, involves the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and the rise of vigilante white supremacists in a parallel-reality America of 2019. Oscar and Emmy winner Regina King stars.

Lindelof, who is by now accustomed to viewers taking issue with his creative choices, said he's pleased with his Watchmen, but he expects some will reject it. "You can only self-identify as a fan (of the original Watchmen comics) and write this stuff for yourself, to some degree, and then hope that it connects with other people," he said. "But, you know, if your intention is for everyone to love it, you're not going to be able to do this job."

HBO's other lavish fantasy offering (co-produced with the BBC) is His Dark Materials, based on author Philip Pullman's trilogy of young-adult novels set in a parallel world where animals are manifestations of human souls and a heroic 12-year-old girl named Lyra (Dafne Keen) uncovers a plot involving stolen children, linked to a mysterious substance called Dust.

I probably got half of that wrong — the pilot episode hurls viewers right into the deep end and expects them to swim — but I have some time to bone up before the show premieres in November. It also stars James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who, judging from his enthusiasm at a panel discussion July 24 is clearly a superfan of the books.

Both shows make me wonder if HBO is in danger of nerding out to an extreme — even in today's nerd-dominant culture. Maybe they could throw the rest of us a third season of Big Little Lies?

Don't count on it, Bloys said. "To me, on the face of it, there's no obvious place (for the story) to go," he said. "That said, if they all came to me and said, 'We have the greatest take: Listen to this,' I would certainly be open to it. Who knows? It just doesn't feel like it, but I'm certainly open."

Weekend on 08/08/2019

Print Headline: HBO needs new stuff for nerdy fantasy lovers

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