Westworld: The Good, the Bad and the Robots
So here it is, another new TV show flying off the conveyer-belt. You’ve barely hungrily devoured “House” (4.9 hours of my life I’m reliably told), and now the familiar *beep* as another morsel of television somehow makes its way into your shopping bag.
Okay, maybe I stretched the metaphor too far. Maybe you haven’t even taken it off the shelf yet. So, let’s do that. Let’s read the list of ingredients, maybe scout for a sampler, and see if it has what it takes to be our next binge-watch TV show.
What’s on the box?
“Westworld” is HBO’s latest TV show looking to make it stratospheric, in the same vein as “Game of Thrones” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Many comparisons have already been made, and while this reviewer has enjoyed the opening two episodes so far, it would be premature to call this the next breakout hit. The biggest shows have characters you become invested in, for fear of life and death. Since Westworld is a playground set in the Wild West, populated by life-like robots that are dispensable and replaceable, it is difficult to become too attached (to those at least – we’ve already seen Captain Kirk killed more times than Christopher Walken playing Russian Roulette!)
But it’s not all about the robots. Behind the storylines woven through the park are the creators, and all the people needed to make a park like this run. And then, of course, there are the paying public. They are free to roam the park, engaging in the myriad storylines on offer; free to shoot, loot and fornicate. The motivations of the guests are the most intriguing, at least early on, along with the technical mechanics of making a park like this work. I’m still not entirely sure how safe it is; guests can’t be shot, but what’s stopping a guest from stabbing another guest they think is a robot?
But I’m sure all will be revealed. If there’s anything to be said about the show so far, it’s that I have confidence in what it’s doing, and the world it is building.
*Scrolls down the cast of ingredients with fingertip* Hannibal Lector and Captain Kirk in one bowl? I was sold. (Anthony Hopkins, and not Mads – as interesting as that would have been given Mads’ performance in “The Salvation.” And James Marsden, not William Shatner in yet-another holodeck malfunctioning episode).
Joking aside, the cast is impressive, with my eye naturally veering towards Jeffrey Wright of “Boardwalk Empire” fame (among other things) and Ed Harris, of Ed Harris fame. Throw Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Luke Hemsworth, and Sidse Babett Knudsen into the mix, with a dash of familiar faces that will have you checking their iMDb page, and you have a recipe for something delicious.
Which it is. Two episodes in and I can’t wait for episode three. Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and Anthony Hopkins stand out so far: Evan and Anthony are playing it understated and cool, while Ed is obviously having fun with his Man in Black. Thandie Newton was prominent in episode two, playing a prostitute with conflicted programming.
Maybe it’s just me and my innate Englishness, but the English accent in American TV shows can so often be cringe-worthy, or jarring. David Tennant in “Jessica Jones” was one example (though to be fair, I wasn’t sold on the idea of a love-sick baddie). Simon Quarterman’s Lee Sizemore is Westworld’s writer, and he’s English, and he’s the only thing I’ve found annoying so far. Something of personal taste, probably. But hey, I’m a big boy and I can swallow my greens for the sake of the overall picture.
Inside the box
“Westworld” is beautiful to look at, with two episodes directed by Jonathan Nolan, seamlessly segueing between the world of the Wild West and the future it is set in. I’m sure as the season progresses we will see more than just the small glimpses of this future-world we have seen so far.
The photography, particularly of the playground, is often stunning and vast, with the vistas spanning to sunset-laden horizons. The costumes are authentically Cowboys and Indians; greasy, dirty and whiskey-lined. Contrast that with close-ups of sci-fi technology, such as what I can only describe as an organic 3D-printing process to create the robots, and you have a formula that will hopefully not become old or tired any time soon. In fact, it’s enticing, and I’m intrigued to know more!
This contrast continues throughout. We are shown the soulless robots controlled and manipulated by their human, soulful, counterparts. We are shown guests having sex with prostitutes, their naked forms writhing with sexuality on luxurious sheets in ambient sunlight: cut to dark, glass-lined rooms with nude robots sitting motionless on chairs, being interrogated and programmed, completely devoid of any sexuality. Cut further to the underground cellar of defunct, rotting, robots just standing there…
“Westworld” has the potential to say a lot about its world, and perhaps our own by extension, and I can’t wait to see how these two contrasting worlds will collide.
Opening the box
The box opens, and the music tinkles from a pre-programmed piano, the keys played by ghostly fingers. Sprinkled lightly throughout the episodes are discordant tones that serve to emphasize the mood of the moment. But also, and pleasingly, “Bioshock Infinite”-like piano remixes of popular tunes, such as Radiohead’s “No Surprises” and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.”
Ramin Djawadi created the series music, which is lyrical in the now highly creative opening credits. (I still remember “Six Feet Under” starting this trend – or at least it was the first that really struck a chord with me). You know a TV series is serious when the opening credits go to this much trouble.
The show is still finding its feet, but the foundations are solid. Time will tell how much we come to empathise with the robots – hopefully they will become less dispensable/less easy to repair. The AI becoming self-aware (and this isn’t a spoiler) is somewhat of a worn-out trope, so you could have cause for misgivings, but since this is happening so early on in the series, the writers may not have this in mind for the overarching end-goal – meaning it could simply be an element rather than the overall compound.
In the end, it is quality from top to bottom. The odd sour British note forgiven, there’s enough here to make a very tasty first season pie.