Westworld

3 out of 5

Created by: Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy

covers season 1

I hope this doesn’t turn into a rant.

I was looking forward to Westworld.  It was announced back at a time when I had less TV to watch, and rumor-fueled when HBO was riding high off of some good Game of Thrones seasons and True Detective.  That it was taking a while to get to screen seemed fine; all the better for tuning what would ideally be some high concept work from Jonathan Nolan.

But though that wasn’t so long ago, things did change between now and then.  The streaming TV model took off, opening us up to a lot of content with big names and big budgets attached.  HBO lost a little of its destination stop appeal as a channel; Game of Thrones seasons became repetitive; True Detective season 2 very much divided viewers.  The intense discussion culture that shot up around shows like Walking Dead started to peter out, or at least lost its sense that you were joining in on any kind of unique debate not rehashed on countless day-of online reviews.  Mr. Robot happened, ruining non-savvy tech shows for a lot of us.  Steam became the dominant source for gaming, and specific games (gaming an admitted influence on Westworld) like Talos Principle keyed on a theme of Man Or Machine which suddenly felt very relevant, and was getting  screentime on shows like Person of Interest (also a Nolan production…).

In short, the way in which we consume media changed quite a bit in a few years, and for a while we were all shocked and awed and trying to start a conversation about What Next? but then, as we’re ought to do, we sort of got the fuck over it.  And then Westworld came out.

By then, it had proceeded past the point of having expectations for the show (not that I felt I had them initially, I was just looking forward to the show) and into a dull acceptance that it was airing.  It looks fantastic, has an absorbing theme from Ramin Djiwadi accompanying a cool title sequence, and content aside, the acting is well-nuanced.  But the mystery-baiting – and people can argue that the show’s just being slow burn or that the mysteries are besides the point of the psychological underpinnings or our hunt for said mysteries is a purposeful meta-commentary on entertainment, but nonetheless the mystery-baiting structure exists – felt long in the tooth as soon as the first episode aired.  The show felt like it had missed its window, and was appearing at the party in full regalia as it’s winding down, still hoping the tired attendees will clap and whistle.  Some do, of course, but I think for a lot of us, it was just another show.

But why is that?  The What Makes Me Me question at Westworld’s core is an eternal one, and though the quibble over AI versus “Real” I has gotten closer and closer to something that might soon impact our day-to-day lives, its been a reliable source of science fiction media for as long as that’s been a thing.  So what if Westworld is a tad lofty in its musings, as long as those musings are sound?

Ah, but there’s the hitch: It’s all a front.  The show sacrifices world-building opportunities to dangle purposefully conflicting ‘who’s running the show?’ questions, then slows down for ‘poignant’ conversations on the meaning of everything and, just in case we didn’t get it, makes sure to harp on the Nth variation on this one conversation via repeated mantras or some on-the-nose visuals.  So to the arguments that it’s not about mystery, fine, but then I wish they’d spent more time making the rest of the content – settings, characters – more than just supportive distractions.  As we turned the corner on the season, I realized that I wasn’t particularly invested in how anybody’s tale turned out, nor did I care much about how the machinations of the setting worked.  And that’s a shame.  Because there’s a lot of valuable material there (out of which more organic thought pieces could spring), and some amazing production, and reliable, patient direction and acting.  The script isn’t bad, it just wants to go for a lot of styles all at once and doesn’t end up earning any of them.

This prompts another question: Why there stars?  Well, it’s a show that tries and fails, but the ‘try’ half of that is notable.  The flourish is HBO, yes, but Jonathan Nolan and team didn’t turn in lazy work, by any means.  While the endless reroutes throughout the season do not justify ten episodes – large swaths of story can be cut out with no effect – I can’t say I was particularly bored by any given episode, just not engaged.  And there are worse crimes.  (…One such worse crime, committed, is the reliance on Radiohead as emotional fluffing; you can old-timey modern tunes all you want, Westworld: That aspect of the show will never be clever.)  Plus, they did steer things in a compelling direction, and one that could potentially lead to a much sharper second season in all regards.  I am inclined to find out if that’s the case.

Westworld concerns a live action Western park stocked with machines who look and act like humans but are actually running set narratives designed by park employees.  You can run rampant in this park, with all the dark human urges this suggests, or you can go on an adventure, perhaps find yourself.  Perhaps get lost in the world, safe in the knowledge that the robots can’t harm you.  But what if they could?  And what does it mean to escape real life for a proxy one?

The show doesn’t come close to answering these questions, or even asking them all that effectively.  And there are about a thousand more things to consider that we never get to.  But HBO’s newest big budget event looks the part and delivers a convincing speech, making it an easy – if overall underwhelming – viewing experience.