HBO has a Game of Thrones-sized hole in its lineup every June when the fantasy epic ends its season and the network goes back to airing something like the already forgotten Vinyl or the dreamy The Leftovers, which may get critics drooling but barely puts a dent in the ratings. The network's newest series Westworld (Sunday, 9/8c on HBO), a mashup of the hardcore science fiction and sweeping Western genres but more philosophy lecture than either of those, is the latest attempt to keep HBO a year-round necessity — my mom can't be the only one who cancels her subscription after Game of Thrones is gone.
After watching the premiere, there's a good chance that my mom and many others will continue to be able to save some bucks, but for others with a predilection for robots, technology and sociology (*raises hand enthusiastically and forever*), Westworld will be worth every penny.
Based on the the Michael Crichton-written-and-directed 1973 film, Westworld is flat-out insane. Set at an undetermined time (is it the future, an alternate history or what?), a company has realized an adult theme park set in the Wild West where the extremely wealthy can be entirely immersed in a rugged, dusty world with swinging saloon doors, prostitutes with their busts pushed up into their faces and bandits dressed in black who can rob the local saloon at any time. The trick to its success, however, is all up to the pre-programmed and scripted androids who populate the park and interact with the flesh-and-blood rich who vacation there.
Given that J.J. Abrams is an executive producer and Person of Interest's Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are on board as showrunners, it should come as no surprise that the androids don't tip their Stetsons and say "Howdy" for long. You know, like Itchy & Scratchy Land. These robots go bad... or are they just going where you or I would go? At the heart of Westworld are questions of the advancement of artificial intelligence, our relationship with technology and human nature in a vacuum, as visitors act out their deepest fantasies with little to no consequences and androids develop consciouses beyond their programming and begin to question their roles as adult playthings.
That makes Westworld more similar to the deep-thinking The Leftovers than the hack-and-slash power struggles of Game of Thrones, and leaves most shows looking dumb by comparison. That's also why HBO likely isn't betting too big on Westworld to resonate with audiences on the same level as the blockbuster Thrones despite pouring buckets of cash into Westworld's creation and tolerating production issues that ground the show to a halt. But if prestige is HBO's thing, Westworld has plenty to go around.
You'll almost certainly spend all of your time in Westworld divided between two places; in Westworld, watching the sandbox-style town come to life and the "Outsiders" play to their hearts' contents within it, and in the high-tech but minimally dressed outerworld where Westworld is operated from, which includes areas where the androids are created, updated and examined and a war room where Westworld can be viewed in what appears to be an advanced holographic map.
But story-wise is where Westworld has its best chance at becoming a hit. Westworld treats its Western half with such care in the pilot that it's easy to get lost in the genre and forget you're watching science fiction. That mainstream entry point is a vital thread to the series because despite being about artificial intelligence and robots and whatnot, there are meaty cowboy stories contained solely inside Westworld's Western component that the show could explore and could stand on their own if Westworld chooses to go that path.
And their simpleness turns to complexity when viewed a second time — I appreciated the pilot even more on a repeat viewing — with new information gained from having already watched the entire episode, to create layered statements on philosophy and our role in the development of technology. This intersection of traditional storytelling with mind-blowing futuristic ideas is by far the most intelligent and enjoyable part of the series.
However, it will cause confusion. Westworld doesn't adhere to traditional rules of television, opting instead to focus on the upper-level "What if?" nature of its premise. That means some basic questions — like where things take place, what year it is and how things actually work — will go left unanswered. But that's the point. It's like a sensory deprivation tank where inessential details — details that we unnecessarily preoccupy ourselves with — are left in the dust to accentuate other things. Stripped of those questions, viewers instead should revel in the existential ideas the show is asking. Westworld wants you to engage in debate with your brain, it just doesn't want you to ask the same old boring questions. In other words, Westworld is not the type of show you flip on to relax after a taxing day.
In addition to Abrams and Nolan (who wrote the Dark Knight movies with his brother Christopher and the short story that Memento was based on), big-name actors are on board, including Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Robert Ford, the creator of Westworld who has grandiose ideas about what the place can be (think the old dude from Jurassic Park). There's also Ed Harris as "The Man in Black," a repeat visitor whose dark side takes him places no one else goes; Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, a Westworld local who begins to question her existence; Jeffrey Wright as Bernard Lowe, a programmer who studies humans in order to apply their functions to the androids; James Marsden as Teddy Flood, a visitor with eyes for Dolores; and Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay, the madame at the local saloon.
The performances are all excellent, but things are particularly bright in what I will call the "robot acting," which you'll see plenty of from surprising sources. Just wait 'til you see Louis Herthum do his thing as Dolores' father Peter — he completely sells the idea that he isn't real in one of my favorite performances of the year.
On the technical side, Westworld clearly blew every last cent of its bloated budget. Spanning shots of what I'll guess is Utah are glorious, and when placed up against the futuristic headquarters of the Westworld architects, enhance the fantasy-like quality of the theme park. Nolan does an excellent job helming the pilot, and prestige TV favorites Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones' "Watchers on the Wall") and Michelle MacLaren (Breaking Bad's "To'hajiilee") direct later Season 1 episodes. And it's supported by another excellent score from Game of Thrones' Ramin Djawadi, who outdoes his past work.
When it all comes together, Westworld is one of the most intriguing new series of the year and the best new science-fiction series on television. It won't be HBO's next massive hit, but for people like me — and hopefully you — it won't matter. You'll want to visit Westworld and never leave.
Westworld premieres Sunday, Oct. 2 at 9/8c on HBO.