Without Game of Thrones, HBO Will Rely on The Young Pope and Murderous Moms

Jude Law, Robert De Niro, Reese Witherspoon star in upcoming shows

Every spring since 2011, HBO has been able to rely on the new season of Game of Thrones and the audience surge that show provides. Last year, Season 6 helped the series become the network's most-watched series ever, with an average of 25 million viewers on all platforms.

But the streak ends this spring, as the production rigors of Season 7 have required HBO to delay the show's return until summer.

Instead, HBO is hoping to fill the dragon-sized gap in its spring schedule with programming from a slew of A-listers, including Reese Witherspoon, Robert De Niro, Jude Law and music industry icons Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. Actors and producers from those shows met with reporters today at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif.

Up first is the limited series The Young Pope, starring Law as the first American Pope—and yes, the youngest one—in history. The show, which premieres Jan. 15 is "more than a meme on Twitter," said HBO miniseries and Cinemax programming president Kary Antholis, referring to social media's recent obsession with the title.

Law said that until he began doing press for The Young Pope a week ago, he was "completely unaware of what a meme was." Now that he has seen a sampling of the Young Pope memes, "I love them. They're very funny, very imaginative." The actor isn't worried that the humor will detract from the program and its message. "I hope not. I hope this will provoke and prompt interest and intrigue."

The actor said that like much of the internet, he also can't believe he's playing the pope. "If you'd asked me two years ago, I would have laughed at the idea," he said, but was keen to work with the project's director, Paolo Sorrentino.

A month later, on Feb. 19, HBO will air Big Little Lies, a limited drama series starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley based on Liane Moriarty's bestseller about three well-to-do first grade moms and a mysterious murder. Witherspoon and Kidman are also executive producers on the show, one of 2017's best new programs.

"What was great about reading the novel, I saw myself at different stages of motherhood all through my life," said Witherspoon, who had kids at 22, 27 and 37.  "It was such a unique opportunity to have women of every age, every color, talking about motherhood. Parenthood is the great equalizer."

Added Kidman, "It's very, very rare to find five roles [for women] that we'd all jump at the chance to play."

In May, the network will air The Wizard of Lies, a movie based on Diana B. Henriques' 2011 bestseller about Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme. De Niro plays Madoff, with Michelle Pfeiffer costarring as his wife, Ruth.

"What he did is beyond my comprehension. There's a disconnect somehow in him. … I still don't understand," said De Niro, noting that Madoff engaged in a "classic con situation" by making people feel that it was an honor for them to give Madoff their money.

Executive producer Jane Rosenthal said that no movie studio was interested in making this film, other than independent ones. "Ultimately you'd have a much smaller audience, seeing it as a theatrical," than the one HBO will provide, she said.

New comedy Crashing, premiering Feb. 19, stars Pete Holmes as a struggle stand-up comedian trying to make it.

In April, the network will air The Defiant Ones, a four-part documentary from Allen Hughes about Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre and how they transformed the music business.

"The day I met Dre and saw and heard what he does, he couldn't shake me with a stick," said Iovine, who talked about how much the industry has changed since he started out four decades ago. Now, the music companies are focused on hit singles, not albums: "People just want hits and quick. And what comes after 'quick' and 'hit' is 'disposable.'"

Iovine is now at Apple Music, where "we're trying to create an entire cultural experience," which includes audio and video.

In addition to these new shows, HBO will bring back Real Time with Bill Maher on Jan. 20, the night of the presidential inauguration, while Last Week Tonight with John Oliver returns on Feb. 12, the same night that Girls kicks off its final season.

With this lineup, HBO hopes to move beyond pricey misfires like Vinyl, last year's most disappointing show, which debuted a year ago and helped lead to the departure of programming president Michael Lombardo last May. (He was replaced by Casey Bloys.)

Looking ahead to 2018, HBO announced today that it has ordered a new comedy series, Barry, starting Bill Hader. He plays a hitman who decides to switch careers and become an actor.