HBO swings big. That has been its brand since the days of “It’s not television, it’s HBO.” Television eventually caught up, which meant HBO had to swing bigger; it is not built for, or on, a slate of solid but not spectacular shows. It is a premium cable channel, which means it needs to bring the premium.
So when an HBO series fails — “Vinyl,” “Luck,” “John From Cincinnati” — it fails hard. But when it connects, well, hits like “Game of Thrones” and “Veep,” “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and “Olive Kitteridge” don’t just sweep up Emmys, they change the nature of television. Push the art form up and out in a way no other network or platform has been able to do.
“Westworld” is television’s next big game-changer, a great, multilayered tapestry of action and unexpected analysis made hypnotic by creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood.
It isn’t just great television, it’s vivid, thought-provoking television that entertains even as it examines the darker side of entertainment.
Like the 1973 Michael Crichton film on which it is based, “Westworld” imagines a future in which artificial intelligence technology has reached such near-perfection that an alternative-world theme park populated by androids is possible. Wealthy visitors to Westworld pay handsomely to fully immerse themselves in an Old West experience. Shootouts, treasure hunts, bar fights and of course plenty of brothel action — I did mention HBO, right? — are all made available through an exquisitely orchestrated series of narratives acted out day after day by androids so real it can seem unsettling.
Very, very unsettling.
Something is going to go wrong, of course; something always goes wrong when the artificial becomes too intelligent. Indeed, the 75-minute premiere opens with the assumption of trouble. In a dark and futuristic space, a naked, blank-faced android named Dolores (Wood) is put back “online” so she can be asked if she has ever questioned her reality. When she says no, she is asked what she thinks of that reality and, slipping into character, she tells us.
We enter the park, and the narrative, accompanied by the porcelain perfection of Dolores, an artistic, optimistic rancher’s daughter who sees the good in all people, including “the newcomers.”
That would be the paying guests who are there, as often as not, to engage in violent, predatory acts including torture, murder and rape, over which they need feel no guilt because their victims are not real.
“Or are they?” is the obvious next question, the premise that drives virtually every artificial intelligence narrative, “Westworld” among them. Dolores and her fellow hosts are rebooted at the end of every narrative, their memories wiped clean; when they malfunction or are no longer needed, they are put into cold storage.
But the park’s master designer, Dr. Robert Ford (Hopkins), clearly has complicated feelings about his creations and their increasing perfection. Humanity, he tells his acolyte Bernard (Wright) evolved out of mistakes; like the Zen masters who introduce a flaw into a perfect painting to create beauty, Ford believes perfection is not just meaningless but the end of meaning itself.
It is the first of many disturbingly lovely and powerful scenes between Hopkins and Wright — watching these two, separately but especially together, is reason enough for excitement. Indeed, for all its sci-fi accouterment and “Hunger Games” vibe, “Westworld” is a showcase of splendid performances. Wood, and in subsequent episodes Newton, are especially mesmerizing as they slide from machine to human and back again.
Not content with simply adding dimension to the familiar question of “What makes us human?” Nolan and Joy turn the conceit upside down and sideways. The immediate story line may tease an exploration of what would happen if the robots gained consciousness, but the real concern is how the humans lost theirs.
Westworld is a park that, like another park we know, is limited only by “your imagination;” but the imaginations that arrive seem overwhelmingly brutal and bloodthirsty. As in the film, a black-clad gunslinger plays a key role, but where Yul Brynner played a robot run amok, in the series, Ed Harris’ near identical figure is very much human, murdering and raping as he goes.
Fortunately, the Man in Black has more on his mind than depravity and so does “Westworld.” As he digs deeper into the park, the series digs deeper too, into what the park stands for.
The violence of early scenes, including an implied rape that provoked criticism at this past summer’s Television Critics Assn. press tour, is far from gratuitous; indeed, it is the opposite of gratuitous. As “Westworld” unfolds, it questions its own existence — why do we enjoy expressing and experiencing such terrible things? Is it a way of exploring/relieving our darker impulses or are we simply feeding and celebrating them? Are we the stories we tell, the images we seek out, the games we love to play?
All this within a story that twists and turns with plot and intrigues with character development. And that’s why HBO, for all its missteps and flameouts, with all the increased competition, remains unique.
Having taken the lion’s share of criticism for television’s increased willingness to create worlds in which murder and torture and rape occur with alarming regularity, the network offers us a series that acknowledges the danger of such things and is prepared to explore what it all means.