‘Westworld’: HBO’s Big New Show Is a Big Risk

Ken Tucker

Before Westworld fans immediately overtake the Internet with deep dives into its mythology, its sexual politics, and its violence, let me say right up top that much of the success or failure of this new HBO series will depend upon a much simpler proposition: How much do viewers like westerns?

Because despite its brand-spanking-new sci-fi overlay of technology used to manipulate humans and humanoid artificial intelligence, Westworld really does stick to the premise of Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie of the same name: In a near-future where citizens are tired of family friendly places like Disneyworld, they can pay thousands of dollars a day to take a different kind of vacation, one in which they’re immersed in a narrative of the Old West. Guests can don cowboy hats and boots and six-shooters and place themselves in various scenarios. Some might be as harmless as moseying into a saloon and askin’ the ol’ barkeep for a shot o’ rye whiskey. Others might be as grim as riddling an outlaw with bullets or violently mistreating a prostitute.

Related: HBO, ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Westworld,’ and the Problem of Sexual Violence

It’s been widely reported that the perennially imaginative J.J. Abrams had been thinking about the original Westworld — which starred Yul Brynner as the man-in-black cowboy played in the HBO version by Ed Harris — for decades. As a producer, Abrams then began working with Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Pushing Daisies, Burn Notice) on a Westworld that would invert its emphasis. Instead of focusing primarily on the experience of the tourists in this amusement park, the show would explore the inner workings (lives?) of the robots, or “hosts,” as they’re called. About half of HBO’s Westworld is given over to the labors of the team behind the theme park, its founder, Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Robert Ford, and Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe, head of the “Westworld Programming Division.” (That latter sounds like a lab that might cook up some HBO side projects: Game of ThroneBots, maybe, or Star Trek: Veep Space Nine.) We see Hopkins, Wright, and their characters’ colleagues presiding, godlike, over the refinement of the robots’ emotional and intellectual reactions to an array of narrative directions any guest might choose to go. They must cope with human tendencies to (in a space of uninhibited impulse-play) act foolishly, irresponsibly, unpredictably and, worse, sadistically and immorally as well. Then, on top of that, things start going wrong…

It’s a bit tricky to review Westworld without starting to give away some of its plot revelations. So I’ll avoid spoilers and confine myself to the cast and the one biggish reservation I have about the show. Hopkins and Wright are excellent, as is Ed Harris as a guest who’s grown so comfortable in his role-playing of the Gunslinger that he says he rarely leaves Westworld. Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton — playing an innocent farm girl and a jaded brothel madam, respectively — do very well in the context of Westworld’s inherently problematic sexual element. If you put men in a mostly uncontrolled environment, many — perhaps even most — of them are going to do awful things to women, one way or another. In depicting that virulent strain of sexism, Westworld risks being accused of exploiting sexual violence and, indeed, at this summer’s Television Critics Association gathering, the nation’s TV critics grilled the producers mercilessly about the pilot’s potential exploitation of female flesh.

I think it’s made very clear by Nolan and Joy, who write or co-write many of the first season’s scripts, that viewers are going to be pushed hard to sympathize with the robot underclass, and that their suffering will be vivid enough to forestall accusations of mere titillation.

No, my problem with Westworld is a more simple-minded one that lies in its Old West setup: Having watched the four episodes HBO has made available, I found it difficult to become involved in the action of the various gunfights and sex scenes. I mean, if the guests can never die, where’s the suspense? If the hosts are programmed to be attracted to anyone who’s attracted to them, where’s the possibility of romantic allure? I know, things do and will go “wrong” as Westworld proceeds, but much of the necessary scene-setting — of happy guests arriving and discovering the joys of shooting and screwing to their hearts’ content — becomes repetitive quickly. And I say this as someone who loves westerns. How many HBO viewers can say the same, however? I suspect the show’s success may come down to the split in its title: The West in Westworld is less intriguing than its world-building.

Westworld premieres Sunday night at 9 p.m. on HBO.