A Review of Season 1 of HBO’s Westworld
Is Westworld a sign of the end of Peak TV? It looks and feels like a great TV show. It has lots of people making cryptic pronouncements on the show’s carefully telegraphed weighty themes, pretty sets which look like they cost a lot of money, and a tortuous mythology which gives Lost‘s time-hopping shenanigans a run for their money. And yet, it’s lacking something. It’s like opening a big party-sized bag of chips and discovering that it mostly contains air.
Westworld is about a futuristic theme-park where the super rich can go and goof off for a few days, having sex, going on adventures with, and shooting at humanoid robots made to look like characters from old cowboy movies. It’s based partly on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name, and the 1973 sci-fi action film which originally adapted it. The producers and writers of this show, who include comic book writer Ed Brubaker, and Director Christopher Nolan, Jonathan, have attempted to do to Westworld what Ronald Moore did to Battlestar Galactica take a famously cheesy 70s science fiction property and convert it into a prestige drama that comments on how we live today. Galactica famously used only the faintest shell of the original series to build on. Westworld, on the other hand, is just a little too nostalgic for its source material, and instead of completely replacing the structure and ideas of the original, keeps just enough to reveal their inability to hold much dramatic weight for a long period of time.
The flimsiness of the source material lets the writers cheat with the rules of the world, in order to carry off cheap narrative contrivances. For example, in the first episode, there is the interesting conceit that the theme-park resets at the end of every day, like Groundhog Day, so the robots have to endure the same unfathomable torment over and over. This is a cool idea, but is completely contradicted by later scenes, specifically those where characters spend time with robots. At so many moments, the show wants to have its cake and eat it too. Westworld wants to be a show about the plight of sentient beings in bondage to corporate overlords, but it won’t let go of the cheap thrills of a show about killer robots.
There are a few positives, but they are always balanced out by sizable negatives. The cast is overloaded with big name actors who all give great performances, but often strain to carry the hacky dialogue, which often bears an unnatural quality due to its need to hammer in the man-vs-machine philosophical dilemmas the show relies on. It has only a few halfhearted attempts at levity most of which are delivered through Ed Harris’ character, the most interesting and fully-realized in the dramatis personae, but even he gets pulled under by the massive grinding gears of the plot, and by the end of the season loses all the personality which made him so compelling in the first few episodes. The phony dialogue keeps the viewer from really sinking into these characters and their world, unlike other, superior HBO series like The Sopranos, The Wire, or Game of Thrones, which in their best seasons put character development above everything else.
The actor whose performance really sums up the issues with the series is the venerable Anthony Hopkins. He’s in a surprisingly large amount of scenes in this season, but seems to be there only for a paycheck, to give the series that veneer of class it so desperately needs. He delivers the stupidly obvious Shakespeare quotations and turgid monologues on cognitive science that make up the majority his lines with a tired sigh and a non-committal smirk, making it clear that no matter how much Westworld aspired to be the next buzzy TV drama, it has cut too many corners along the way.