After a run of disappointing series like Vinyl and the second season of True Detective, HBO needed to step up and take a big swing to restore its credibility as a player in the hour-long drama game. This summer’s prestige drama The Night Of was a good warm-up, but its ambitions weren’t quite as grand as some of HBO’s signature shows, from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones. Enter Westworld, which has ideas and goals as expansive as the Western sky that lords above the robot-populated theme park where flesh-and-blood humans come to play out grand adventures and enact their darkest fantasies.
Freely adapted from Michael Crichton’s popular 1973 film — training ground for his blockbuster 1990 novel, Jurassic Park — HBO’s Westworld, overseen by Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, aims to be the 2001: A Space Odyssey interpretation of a story that originally played much more like The Omega Man. It’s relentlessly focused on prodding viewers to ponder life’s big questions: you know, things like, “Do robots have souls?” “If I kill an artificial human, does that still make me a murderer?” And, of course, “Man, how much of a badass is Ed Harris anyway?”
To be honest, Westworld is so grandly conceived, and so earnestly inquisitive, that it sometimes floats around like a lead balloon in desperate need of puncturing. It’s entirely possible to admire its high-minded ideas while chuckling at them at the same time. In fact, the show’s mixture of the sublime and the unintentionally absurd is precisely what makes it so entertaining. Like the best seasons of Lost, Westworld works so well on a macro level, the fact that the micro details don’t always add up isn’t enough to spoil the fun.
Related: Ken Tucker Reviews HBO’s ‘Westworld’
In case you were wondering, here’s how the 75-minute Westworld premiere answers the questions posed above: 1) Probably; 2) Yes; and 3) A major badass. As conceived by Joy and Nolan, Harris’s nameless gunslinger takes a character made iconic by Yul Brynner in Crichton’s film and gives him a Dark Tower makeover so that he becomes this world’s Man in Black. Where Brynner’s sharpshooter was a robot, Harris appears to be human, although his actions certainly wouldn’t qualify as humane. Early on in the premiere, this Gunslinger merrily spoils the evening of Westworld’s premiere robot couple, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy (James Marsden), by killing him and raping her. Neither is aware that this is a routine that has happened before and will almost certainly happen again; every morning, they wake up with their electronic brains scrubbed of the pain and suffering they’ve endured before. That’s the Westworld guarantee: Park visitors will make memories that last a lifetime, but their synthetic victims will never have to bear the psychic cost.
Or maybe they will? The premiere is filled with subtle and not-so-subtle hints that these artificial beings might be waking up to the fact that something’s rotten in the state of Westworld. As we learn, there’s already a malfunction that’s working its way through various models that spoils the illusion for parkgoers. And Dolores experiences a robotic awakening firsthand, when her “father” Peter (Louis Herthum) short-circuits after coming into a possession of a photograph that depicts a world impossibly different from his own. Even as Westworld mastermind Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) seeks to erase that memory, Peter’s cybermind won’t let it vanish, earning him a one-way trip to the cold storage locker where retired models stand idle, like some silent army waiting to be activated.
Dr. Ford and his colleagues — including Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) — are the only humans of consequence in this first episode. Otherwise, it’s strictly a robot affair, with the citizens that make up Westworld going through their preordained motions unaware that they’re following a script. There’s a Groundhog Day-esque appeal to seeing Teddy awaken over and over again on a train bound for the tiny frontier town, while his doomed lover Dolores opens her eyes in her farmhouse bedroom. And every day they get to meet each other anew, even though the specific circumstances often change. There’s never been a theme park story where the theme park in questioned hasn’t malfunctioned in some awful way, so that’s undoubtedly looming on the horizon. For now, though, let’s admire the sinister beauty of Westworld’s giant canvas — a realm of infinite possibilities and a show of bracing ambition.
What Works: This is a case where the old mantra, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” is really applicable. Few other cable networks (or streaming services, for that matter) have the deep pockets to be able to realize an amusement park on the scale of Westworld, and Joy and Nolan take full advantage of a budget that probably could have funded 10 additional seasons of Girls. Meanwhile, the terrific cast — so far Wright and Wood are the standouts — ensures that their characters don’t get lost amid the spectacle. Even Game of Thrones didn’t begin with this much swagger out of the gate.
What Needs Work: On the other hand, Game of Thrones has always had a pulp flair that Westworld likes to imagine itself above. The series has the air of science-fiction made by and for people who normally turn their noses up at the genre. And that directly results in some of the leadenness I referenced earlier; the writers have already decided that Westworld, as a place, isn’t supposed to be fun, so the audience isn’t allowed to have any fun either.
Our Burning Questions: The Gunslinger has the privileges that come with being a human in Westworld — robots can’t fire a bullet at him, for example — but is it just us or does he seem a little too familiar with the way things operate around these parts? Remember that Brynner’s version of the character escaped his Old West confines and traveled to other fake worlds within the movie’s theme park. Is it possible that Harris’s Gunslinger is a robot who has glimpsed other realms, and has now returned a little bit wiser and a whole lot deadlier?
Now we want to hear from you. Are you interested in visiting Westworld again? Take our poll!
Westworld premieres Sunday night at 9 p.m. on HBO.