Casey Bloys has overseen some of HBO's biggest hits over the past two decades, but according to a new report from Rolling Stone, he's also worked behind the scenes to combat negative reviews from TV critics.
Rolling Stone reports that text messages from Bloys and various HBO employees detail Bloys' effort to employ a "secret army" to fire back at critics who expressed negative opinions about various HBO titles, from Mare of Easttown to The Nevers. The campaign reportedly began in June 2020, when Vulture's Kathryn VanArendonk subtweeted Perry Mason's decision to "communicate male trauma" via a "flashback to the hero's memories of trench warfare." Shortly after, Bloys texted Kathleen McCaffrey, senior vice president of drama programming, about VanArendonk's "blithe response to what soldiers legitimately go through on [the] battlefield," adding, "Do you have a secret handle? Couldn't we say especially given that it's D-Day to dismiss a soldier's experience like that seems pretty disrespectful … this must be answered!"
In subsequent texts, Bloys advocated for finding a "mole" with enough distance from HBO leadership so as not to arouse suspicion. "We just need a random to make the point and make her feel bad," he said at the time.
A spokesperson told Primetimer that HBO would not "comment on select exchanges between programmers and errant tweets."
Though Bloys and McCaffrey ultimately chose not to reply to VanArendonk, the strategy was later employed against the New York Times' James Poniewozik, who panned Joss Whedon's The Nevers, and Rolling Stone's Alan Sepinwall, who wrote negatively of both The Nevers and Mare of Easttown. In these instances, a Twitter user named Kelly Shepherd replied to Poniewozik's and Sepinwall's tweets containing their reviews with language almost identical to the sentiment expressed by Bloys and McCaffrey via text.
Regarding Poniewozik's review, Bloys texted, "Maybe our friend needs to say what a shock it is that two middle aged white men (he and [Times TV critic Mike] Hale) are sh*tting on a show about women." The Kelly Shepherd account promptly tweeted, "How shocking that two middle aged white men (you & Hale) are sh*tting on a show about women." A text about Sepinwall's Mare of Easttown review stated that "Alan missed on Succession and totally misses here because he is busy virtue signaling"; hours later, Kelly Shepherd replied with that same sentence.
The text messages about the alleged trolling campaign emerged as part of a recent wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by former HBO employee Sully Temori against HBO; McCaffrey; Francesca Orsi, head of drama; and Abel "the Weeknd" Tesfaye and two producers on The Idol. Temori, who worked for HBO from 2015 to October 2021, including a three-month stint on The Idol, claims he was sexually harassed and faced discrimination and retaliation over a mental health diagnosis. He also alleges that he felt pressured to perform tasks unrelated to his role, including creating fake accounts to hit back at critics.
In a statement provided to Primetimer, a spokesperson said, "HBO intends to vigorously defend against Mr. Temori's allegations ... We look forward to a full and fair resolution of this dispute. In the meantime, we wish Mr. Temori, a former HBO employee, well in his future endeavors."
According to Temori, in June 2020, McCaffrey approached him about creating the fake accounts, explaining that Bloys was "obsessed with Twitter" and eager to "pick a fight" online. "He always texts me asking me to find friends to reply … is there a way to create a dummy account that can't be traced to us to do his bidding," McCaffrey asked Temori. In the months that followed, McCaffrey often acted as a go-between, relaying messages with Bloys' thoughts on how best to respond to Sepinwall and Poniewozik, as well as anonymous commenters on trade sites like Deadline.
Temori's attorney Michael Martinez states that the text messages point to the "very petty" culture within HBO. The lawsuit includes several serious claims that shouldn't get lost in the shock of the alleged trolling campaign, including an allegation that an HBO employee slapped Temori's butt, blew kisses, and commented on "personal and sexual matters." It also alleges that Temori was offered a job as a script coordinator on The Idol after pushing back on the discrimination and harassment at HBO and was made to believe the move was an exciting career opportunity, but shortly after experiencing similar treatment on set, he was laid off.
"First and foremost, I think [this lawsuit] is about HBO's culture and how it fosters a dynamic of ongoing harassment and discrimination in the workplace," Martinez told Rolling Stone. "They joke about people outside of HBO, they joke about people within HBO.… You suffer through some bullying until you can't suffer anymore."
UPDATED THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 2 10:45 AM ET: During a presentation of HBO's 2024 content slate on Thursday morning, Casey Bloys acknowledged his role in the trolling campaign and admitted creating fake accounts to respond to critics was a "very dumb idea."
"For those of you who know me, you know that I am a programming executive, very, very passionate about the shows that we decided to do, and the people who do them and the people who work on them, I want the shows to be great," Bloys told members of the press attending the event, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "So when you think of that mindset, and then think of 2020 and 2021. I'm home working from home, spending an unhealthy amount of time scrolling through Twitter. And I came up with a very, very dumb idea to vent my frustration."
Bloys went on to "apologize to the people who were mentioned in the leaked email, texts." He added, "As many of you know, I have progressed over the past couple of years and using DM so now when I take issue with something in review, or take issue with something I see, I DM many of you and many of you are gracious enough to engage with me back and forth."
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.