October 3, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Westworld”


WESTWORLD:  Sunday 9PM on HBO – Potential DVR Alert

HBO’s mega-series WESTWORLD began its run enigmatically and laden with multiple layers of meta-narrative, so much so that it’s not entirely clear from the 70-minute premiere where it intends to take us.

The premise is clear enough, preserved by series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy from Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie (he retains a share of the pilot’s story credit for having the original idea).  Westworld is a theme park of the future, where spectacularly detailed robots enact Wild West storylines for the benefit of the high-paying guests, fully able to interact to the extent of being taken sexually (willingly, or if the customer prefers, brutally) and being bloodily killed, only to be resurrected overnight and put back into service the next day.  The paramount rule of the park is that no “host” can hurt a human, or indeed any other living thing, but as anyone who’s seen a story about sentient robots will expect, something–as the tagline for the original movie put it–is about to go “worng.”

Crichton told the story straightforwardly in 88 brisk minutes, from the viewpoint of the guests, as a tale of technology run amok–basically the same approach he took to much broader success with Jurassic Park a few years later.  Nolan and Joy, though, have 10 hours to fill this season alone, and their ambitions are much grander and more complicated.  The central mechanized figure of Crichton’s movie was the implacable “man in black” played by Yul Brynner, a pre-Terminator T1000 who could only fulfill his mission to kill.  The TV version revolves around the much more ambiguous Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood, excellent), who is struggling with the beginnings of what is essentially consciousness, and who we can assume will not care for her life once she understands what she’s living.  (The pilot, with what was hopefully intended as ironic ham-handedness, ends with her violating her core strictures by literally hurting a fly.)

The guests at Westworld are, with one exception, the least important objects of Nolan and Joy’s interest.  They zero in on Dolores, who’s currently playing a dewy maiden with an optimistic view of her world, but who we discover has been in service for decades–she was the original “host”–and thanks to an (intentional?) update to her programming from the park’s creator Dr Ford (Anthony Hopkins), she may have access to those memories and emotions, with the potential for independent thought.  Ford’s aims are unclear, and so are those of the Westworld technicians and other employees around him.  Those include head of programming Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), the snippy head of narrative Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), and head of operations Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudson), who represents “the Corporation” (always menacing words in a sci-fi tale) that owns Westworld.  We already know that the Corporation has bigger plans for the park’s technology than its current use, but not what that means.

Paralleling all this is the story’s initially most mysterious strand.  Its “man in black” (Ed Harris) is apparently a customer who’s been coming to Westworld for 30 years, and who partakes of its darker vices, but who’s also obsessed with the workings of the park.  He scalps one of the robots to find a map weirdly inscribed on the inside of the scalp, although what the map is charting and why it’s there in the first place is as yet unknown.

All of this is a lot for Nolan and Joy to juggle, especially since they want to delve not only into dense plot mechanics and philosophical inquiries about “humanity,” but also examine the bloody appeal of entertainment in a world where people can pay to physically rape and murder what appear to be other people.  Nolan was the creator of Person of Interest, which also toyed with the possibilities and limitations of artificial intelligence, and he had a tendency to get lost in the weeds of his own mythology, a flaw that could be much more serious in this less pulpy context.  Also, at least in its opening hour-plus, Westworld lacks the flecks of humor that Person of Interest had, and its structure will make it difficult for characters to form much of an ensemble.

So Westworld still has a lot to prove, but certainly it’s off to an intriguing start  Nolan (who also directed the pilot) and Joy have been given the A-ticket resources that only HBO and Netflix allow, and the show’s western visuals are as epic as any feature–in fact, they look a lot more expensive and inviting than the recent $90M Magnificent 7 remake.  The show is also trying something interesting with the contrasts between visuals and acting styles among robots and technicians:  while the town is expansive and lush, the underground examination rooms are gray and utilitarian, as are the performances in that locale thus far.

Then, of course, there is what might be called the show’s meta-meta narrative, which is its crucial importance to HBO.  That network practically invented our current notion of “television,” but the clock is running down on Game of Thrones, and this year’s Vinyl was the network’s latest expensive and embarrassing misstep.  Westworld itself underwent some highly-publicized bumps on its way to the screen, including a shutdown in production to allow Nolan and Joy to retool the scripts.  Westworld remains HBO’s best chance to recapture pop culture momentum, and there’s certainly plenty in it to draw viewers, but the nature of its story seems to be colder and more confined than Game.  The show’s own programming will have to play out before we can know whether it’s glitch-free.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."