’Westworld‘ off to a promising start
Jimmy Kemper | Tuesday, October 4, 2016
In the wake of the announcement about the inevitable completion of “Game of Thrones,” HBO has been desperate to find a new prestige adventure show for its lineup. The television landscape is much more competitive than it was back when “Game of Thrones” first aired in 2011 as one of, if not the only show with a feature film-style budget. Now, every cable network from FX to USA and even streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are placing big bets on prestige shows to drive subscriptions and beat out competitors. With “Game of Thrones” slated to end in 2018, HBO needs to find something quickly if it wants to maintain its position as a leading content producer.
Enter “Westworld.” If not HBO’s first attempt to replace its best show, it is certainly its most ambitious and expensive. The premise is one of the more unique ones we’ve had in this era of peak TV. Based upon the classic 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (of “Jurassic Park” fame), “Westworld” takes place at some uncertain point in the future in which humanity has created artificially intelligent androids that, for all intents and purposes, seem interchangeable with humans. They can hold intelligible conversations, express real emotions, die violent deaths and even have intimate sex (what would a premium cable show be without gratuitous amounts of nudity?). So naturally, we’ve decided the best way to use these androids is as hosts in an Old West theme park where affluent guests can fulfill their deepest cowboy fantasies.
Of course, an intriguing premise can only get a television series so far, which is why it’s great that “Westworld” has started to piece together a solid plot. A recent update to the hosts’ software has given them the ability to remember gestures and expressions. Normally, the theme park resets and repairs the androids every time a new set of guests arrives at Westworld, so they forget the violent and sexual fantasies they were forced to take part in and can repeat the same narrative scenarios for the new customers. This new update presents a serious problem, however, as it accidentally allows the hosts to subconsciously remember previous scenarios, creating new threats and pushing the androids deeper into the uncanny valley.
The actors who play the hosts are all outstanding, acting just robotic enough to blur the lines between human and machine. Frankly, this is the most impressive cast HBO has ever put together. It features Anthony Hopkins as the creator of the androids, Ed Harris as a sinister guest known as The Man in Black and Evan Rachel Wood as a host who may or may not be self-aware, among many others. As far as the pilot goes, “Westworld” has done a good job establishing realistic motivations for each of its characters. Unfortunately, the dialogue throughout the first episode was a bit expository, but now that the show has laid out its foundations, hopefully “Westworld” can begin to trust its audience with less filler.
Speaking of foundations, “Westworld” departs from of “Game of Thrones.” Whereas “Game of Thrones” established itself from its pilot as an expansive world where anything can happen, “Westworld” feels grounded in a more formal and streamlined conflict between creator and creation. It’s also had to establish more rules to its universe more quickly than “Game of Thrones,” as the sci-fi premise is more convoluted than that of a high fantasy show. This makes the show feel a bit more restrictive in terms of what it can do over the long term, as the plot is entirely contained within this absurdly artificial amusement park.
Showrunner Jonathan Nolan (of “The Dark Knight” trilogy fame) has mentioned, however, that this show is more about the rise of a new species than the management of the amusement park’s narratives, which, if done smartly, could definitely fill the five to six seasons of material that HBO is hoping for. One of the big drivers that sets this show apart from the rest is its beautiful cinematography of its old west environment. It stands out as interesting, bright and fresh in a television era of gritty, modern concrete landscapes. As the show progresses, the cowboy aesthetics could get a bit bland, so I’m hoping that this series takes cues from its source material and expands to other theme parks such as one inspired by the Roman Empire.
It’s still tough to tell what to expect out of “Westworld” for this season and beyond, but if the pilot is any indication, audiences should be cautiously optimistic that this is television’s next big hit.