- Words Isabelle Cassidy
As new zombie-meets-apocalyptic-pandemic series 'Last of Us' gets record viewers and draws international acclaim, we examine what the HBO makers are getting so right.
What do the series Succession, Euphoria, The White Lotus and The Last of Us all have in common? On the surface, not a lot. One a drama about a media-mogul dynasty, the next a gritty depiction of high-school, followed by a murder-ridden hotel chain and the most recent adaptation of a zombie video game, it’s certainly not setting or topic. They are however, four of the most successful series of recent years. If their respective Rotten Tomatoes ratings are anything to go by (Euphoria earning the lowest at an impressive 88%), all four have been sweepingly well-received, the quartet also all breaking viewing records. The answer to my initial question, all four were commissioned by the originals department of American network HBO.
What makes these successes even more impressive, as Variety reports, in 2020 HBO lost over half its linear audience of viewers aged 18 to 24, with viewership declining 38% in 2020 and 36% in 2021. Moving into 2022, Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon averaged 29 million viewers in its first season, The White Lotus season two reaching 15.5 million. This year, The Last of Us is already averaging 21.3 million viewers.
Looking to Euphoria and The White Lotus, despite former drops in viewership, the shows undoubtedly struck a chord with young people. The former creating an almost cult-like following, and a cast of new Hollywood stars, the cultural impact of Euphoria reached far into pop culture, fashion, and music. The casting of Jennifer Coolidge was a notable stroke of genius in the latter, as another cult-following was created by Coolidge being generally iconic.
If you’ve been on Twitter in January, avoiding The Last of Us spoilers has become a sizable task. The latest third episode trended internationally; a tender portrayal of gay love-story set against the chaos of the apocalyptic-pandemic. According to a press release from HBO, the 80-minute episode tallied 6.4 million viewers on Sunday night, up an additional 12% from last week’s historic jump in viewership and up 37% from the series debut night. Personally, as someone who finds Doctor Who almost unbearably suspenseful, I never thought I’d be raving to all my friends about a zombie thriller. As last last episode showed us however, the makers are creating a nuanced drama beyond the video-game-adaptation tropes, hailed on Twitter as ‘one of the greatest episodes of television ever made’.
the last of us writers were like “hey joel needs a car. what if we write the most touching and heartbreaking hour of television in the world”— zach silberberg (@zachsilberberg) January 30, 2023
Unexpected episode focuses and constant narrative surprises are definitely one of the secrets to these series’ success, and there’s something to be said for the maintaining of a weekly episodic format amongst the prevalent binge-streaming landscape. With episodes usually released every Sunday night, HBO have realised that we’re all just looking for some immersive storytelling as the working week draws near. As millions remain hooked on every word, we can’t wait to see what’s next.