We’re around midway through the second season of HBO’s cowboy robot show Westworld, and it’s already been confirmed for a third. But when the second wraps up, we’re going to need something to tide us over in the meantime. There’s not many shows which can hold a candle to Westworld’s brand of intrigue, of questions about what it is to be alive, and of killer robots – but here’s five that can.
1. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Tragically cancelled after a mere two seasons (two seasons of pure gold, mind you), Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency takes place in a world not that much unlike our own – but which features technology and plot developments which can be politely described as ‘contrived’ and not-so-politely described as ‘flat-facedly ridiculous’. Sounding familiar yet?
The difference is, while Westworld takes itself deadly seriously, Dirk and the gang’s adventures have this irrepressible vein of silly fun running through them like a stick of Brighton rock. That’s not to say there aren’t stakes – there are, and they’re big ones. Indeed, some of the most serious moments come dressed in the trappings of silliness – the first season starts with the aftermath of a shark attack in a penthouse suite, and builds from there.
As with Westworld, there’s an incredibly strong cast of relative unknowns (the biggest name present being Mr. Frodo, uncharacteristically not playing a woodland sprite) – and, though it galls me to say it, the weakest link is probably Dirk himself. This doesn’t make him a particularly weak link in the grand scheme of things, but he’s uncomfortably reminiscent of Matt Smith’s Doctor Who in a way that seems to be pandering to a certain sort of Anglophile, when honestly, the show didn’t need it – being a Douglas Adams adaptation was more than enough.
If you finish both seasons and find yourself craving more, there is a bit of a tonic – back in the early 2010s the BBC did its own adaptation with the respectably Doctor Whoish Stephen Mangan, which, again, managed to be faithful in spirit by not slavishly following the original plotlines.
2. Black Mirror
Charlie Brooker’s techno-fear anthology series could make it onto this list for the aesthetic alone – tending towards either location shoots, or brushed-chrome, sterile, painfully artificial environments. However, as you may have guessed from that clumsy phrase ‘techno-fear’, the parallels go well beyond that. Since the Christmas special (guest starring Jon Hamm!), Black Mirror’s often returned to the idea of artificial intelligences which are as human as you or me, which is what Westworld’s been doing since day one.
While the hosts of Westworld are constructed from whole cloth and cowboy cliches, Black Mirror tends to have its AIs be people’s psyches, copied in their entirely. This is something which Westworld touches upon in a recent episode, where James Delos, who bankrolled the park, attempts to cheat death by uploading himself into a host. Sadly, the process is imperfect – and the end result would slot seamlessly into an episode of Black Mirror.
In his 1953 article ‘Social science fiction’, sci-fi quantumweight Isaac Asimov divided the genre into three distinct categories: gadget, adventure, and social. The last of these (and per Asimov, the best) essentially explores how whatever sci-fi invention the work’s about changes people’s everyday lives. This is one way in which Westworld falls down – at least, until the hosts finally break out of the park and go ape – but Black Mirror has it in spades. Indeed, the first episode, ‘The National Anthem’, featured no technology that doesn’t exist in the real world, but remained profoundly disturbing.
3. Game of Thrones
Yeah, statistically you’ve already more than familiar with this one and you’re spitting blood they decided to put off the eighth season for a year – but Game of Thrones is what kicked off TV’s current wave of massive-budget productions that are contractually obliged to bust out a shock reveal every forty minutes or so. Like Westworld, it’s heavy on all the trappings of an established and respected genre, and is at its best when it’s subverting that genre’s expectations (compare Sean Bean’s Ned Stark not being saved at the last second, with the reveal of who Ed Harris’s Man in Black really is).
As with Westworld, there’s plenty of blood-and-thunder violence, and a similarly generous helping of casual nudity – both shows make use of prostitutes as characters, although Westworld’s Maeve is a good deal more of an actual character than Thrones’s Ros, who was mainly there to provide exposition with her breasts out. The most salient comparison, though, is the ability of both shows to dangle a carrot just off-screen – as South Park had George RR Martin put it, ‘oh, they’re coming! The dragons are on their way!’, as is the robot uprising, the ice zombies, and whatever bonus level it is that Anthony Hopkins hid inside the park.
The show’s eighth and final season is scheduled to air in 2019. The hype machine is already in overdrive, particularly as it will literally have no choice but to finally deliver on all the crazy promises it has been teasing the viewers with since day one. Since season six, the show has been making much hay of having overtaken the book series it’s based on, so in 2019 it will presumably be able to rub the ‘it was all a dream’ ending in George RR Martin’s face.
4. Person of Interest
Another Jonathan Nolan production dating back to that somewhat ‘thick’ period when the idea that big tech companies weren’t being 100% responsible with our personal data was still disputed, Person of Interest is a more realistic, police procedural-type spin on the central conceit of Minority Report – a machine spits out a ‘person of interest’ (roll credits) and our heroes have to either prevent them from committing a horrible crime, or prevent a horrible crime from happening to them.
As you can probably already tell, it’s an imperfect process. By hoovering up huge amounts of data, the machine can spit out the identities of people of interest, but can’t say exactly how or why they’re of interest. Unlike Westworld, the machine doesn’t get really chippy about being used as a tool, but there’s a similar theme of fundamental disconnection between man and machine in play.
The other side of this, of course, is exploring the post 9/11 state security apparatus and how this rubbed up against people’s right to privacy – although when I say ‘rubbed up against’ I of course mean ‘drove a steamroller over’. This is thrown into sharp relief with the interplay between the central group of elite, semi-rogue federal agents, and the police forces who at least have to pretend they know what the constitution says. As the series goes on, the machine also finds itself reckoning with the existence of other, rival AIs, and the conflicting ways they operate – so despite the disconnect between man and machine, maybe they’re not so different after all.
Chiefly known at the time for its incredibly foul mouth – which, as Charlie Brooker explained, was simply so they wouldn’t all sound unbearably cute by using terms like ‘tarnation’ – Deadwood was the kind of old-timey frontier narrative that Westworld’s Lee Sizemore really should have been pitching, instead of shlocky grindhouse stuff. Following the growth of Deadwood from a gold-miners’ camp to an incorporated town, the show draws heavily on real frontier history – Deadwood is, to this day, a recognised city in the state of South Dakota.
Being set in a frontier town, the cast was a mixed bag of outlaws and misfits, including some of the legendary Western figures like Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Wyatt Earp – which isn’t the writers playing fast and loose with old West mythos, all three of them were indeed in Deadwood at approximately the right time (and Hickok died there). Presiding over all, however, is Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen, owner of the local saloon and as such practically the mayor.
As time goes by and Deadwood becomes an established settlement, its denizens must reckon with the expanding American nation and the prospect of the town being annexed by what was then the Dakota territory – which is, of course, a foregone conclusion. You could see this as an illustration of modernity and progress as unstoppable forces, like in the more recent Damnation, but series creator David Milch had always conceived of it as a story of order coming from chaos – so, sort of like Westworld in reverse.
This is another chapter of television which is universally reckoned to have ended too soon, after only three seasons. There were talks of concluding the series with two film tie-ins, and plans for this have been bandied about ever since – although ‘ever since’ is getting on for fully twelve years now.
Honorable mention: Juice Rap News
Right-on without being right up themselves, the Juice Rap boys were essentially Epic Rap Battles of History for a slightly older audience (and weren’t averse to poking a bitof fun at their far more popular spiritual siblings). Back in 2015, they threw in their two cents on the AI debate – which ended up being pretty optimistic, except when it came to the flesh-and-blood people involved.
As Hugo’s rendition of Alex Jones notes, big tech companies are awfully fond of hoovering up our personal data, a claim which has since been 100% vindicated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal – and season 2 of Westworld has revealed that’s something the park’s always been very interested in, with the hosts even collecting the guests’ genetic material (though to be fair, if the guests will splash it about willy-nilly they have nobody but themselves to blame). Indeed, big data and big money’s disregard for our privacy was often squarely in Juice Rap News’ gunsights, particularly when Giordano dressed up as Mark Zuckerberg.
Cultured Vultures is a site by writers, for writers. We like words.