Friday, February 24, 2017

"Westworld," Year One

I tend to like science-fiction shows and be cooler towards westerns. However, the genre preference that's the most relevant, when talking about HBO's "Westworld" series, is that I tend to be more critical of mystery shows. These are difficult to do well, and I find that the mechanics of the plotting can often get in the way of character development and the handling of other thematic elements. "Westworld" certainly struggles with this in its first season, despite having an excellent cast, strong writers, and some of the best production values of any television series I've ever seen. It makes for very enjoyable watching, but the show isn't as strong as I think it could have been.

Based on the Michael Crichton science fiction film of the same name, "Westworld" takes place at some time in the indeterminate future, where the Delos company runs an Old West theme park called Westworld, populated by extremely lifelike robotic humans, called "hosts." Guests come to live out their fantasies, often violent or sexual or both at once. Several stories are told in the first season's ten episodes, most revolving around the hosts possibly achieving consciousness and self-determination. In one storyline, a new upgrade to the hosts, introduced by park founder Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), causes potential glitches, which the park's head of programming, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), investigates. In another, a new visitor to the park, William (Jimmi Simpson), becomes smitten with a host named Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). Another host, Maeve (Thandie Newton), starts recalling disturbing memories and exhibits the ability to break from her established programming. Then there's a mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris), intent on learning the secret of a maze he believes is located somewhere in the park.

And as you might expect from creator Jonathan Nolan and executive producer J.J. Abrams, there are a lot of secrets to uncover and twisty bits of plot to untangle over these first ten episodes. Both the premiere and the finale are exciting and satisfying to watch. The eight episodes in the middle, however, are frequently frustrating. Some of the storylines, like Maeve's and Bernard's, are perfectly fine. Others, however, are so hampered by trying to preserve the big secrets until the big reveals, that it's difficult to become invested in them. There are some terrific performances from the cast, with Wood, Newton, Wright, Harris, and Hopkins being the clear standouts, but they're mostly in service of very shallow characters. The Man in Black, for instance, gradually reveals his motivations and backstory as he comes closer and closer to his goal. However, he spends 90% of his time engaged in fairly humdrum Old West adventuring in the park, which I didn't particularly find appealing. Other characters would disappear for multiple weeks, making it difficult to keep track of who was who. I didn't realize the park's two major outlaw characters were different people until very late in the game.

Pacing was also a major problem. There were some stories, like William and Dolores's journey to the edge of the park, that felt endless, while others felt rushed. Due to the nature of the hosts and their roles in the park, certain narratives were also very repetitive. While I found that everything wrapped up satisfactorily over the last few installments, many of the individual episodes of "Westworld" felt like filler designed to stretch out the suspense. Attempts to grapple with headier themes involving artificial intelligence are well-meaning, but distinctly secondary to the less interesting puzzle box storytelling. I suspect that a shorter season would have been a better fit here, and I'm hoping that the show follows the lead of similar serials and just dumps the whole mystery format next season.

I'm being harder on the show than I usually would be, and I want to emphasize again that I did enjoy the first season. However, "Westworld" is being pushed as HBO's next big prestige series, and the creators have so many resources at their disposal, they're the ones who have set the high expectations. There's a lot in the series I like, from the cold glass laboratories to the wonderful use of music to the audacity of some of the twists in the final episode. You can't say that Nolan and company aren't being ambitious here. However, "Westworld" is still working through some growing pains, and I'm hoping next year sees some significant improvements.


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