With more content at our fingertips than ever before, it can be difficult to figure out what’s worth watching. It’s easy to spend a feature film length of time trying to pick out a feature film.
Oddly enough, a hugely satisfying respite for many viewers is the serialized drama. First off, you don’t spend any time looking around because you know exactly what episode to watch next. For some reason, the 60 minute versus 90 minute running time makes a huge difference. Perhaps the largest factor that makes it less taxing is the fact that you’ve already been conditioned to the show’s world and characterizations, whereas in film you have to complete that mental process quickly and in a short period of time. Whatever the case, we always like to have a quality serialized drama to watch. The periods in between even start to feel wrong.
Lucky for you, HBO’s new series Westworld can fill that void. It’s about a futuristic theme park populated by hyper-realistic androids that give high paying customers an incredible wild west experience. Already being compared by many publications to Game of Thrones, people are saying that it’s potentially poised to bring sci-fi to television on a larger scale than ever before— namely, on an HBO budget. We think you should watch it too, and not just because it’s HBO. Watch it, tell your friends, and then be able to say, “I told you so” when it blows up. It’s got a TON of really cool things going on; here are fifteen.
15. The Premise
This show is about a futuristic theme park populated with robot cowboys. People pay to live out any sort of wild west fantasies they want, as these androids are programmed only to serve. We hate you, Michael Crichton, because that is quite simply one of the most interesting premises we’ve ever heard. All joking aside, the strength of the show really does stand on its premise, which is great because the other elements only serve to flesh it out and make it better. There are plenty of shows where we need to be convinced that a premise will work. Not here. You can even watch the first episode free on HBO’s website. You’re welcome.
14. It’s Unpredictable
In a show where humans and machines look identical, there are endless ways to subvert our expectations and play with our emotions. It’s just like the replicants in Blade Runner. You go into the show with a basic understanding of the premise, and with some characters it’s fairly obvious whether they are human or machine. But as the scenes cut back and forth to different locations and different pieces of information are revealed at different times, things get confusing.
Game of Thrones works so well because it’s the serialized drama set in a fantasy world, so it doesn’t have to follow conventional rules and anyone can die at any time in basically any way. In this way, Westworld also benefits because it creates an incredibly grey moral area where the viewer cares about people who are “bad” and also about people who aren’t really people and can’t die. While the show has only released a couple of episodes, there’s no way of knowing where it will go.
13. Michael Crichton
If you don’t immediately know who this man is, his name probably sounds familiar. That’s because he created a modestly successful TV show called ER. Oh yeah, and he’s also the mind behind Jurassic Park, one of the best things of all time. Almost immediately after Crichton published Jurassic Park, an intense bidding war for the rights began between every major studio. Universal won out, Crichton came on board to write the screenplay, and the rest is movie history.
While most people know Crichton for his writing, he also made many forays into filmmaking. His feature film debut was Westworld (1973), which he both wrote and directed. It was also the first film to feature early CGI, a technology pushed forward by Jurassic Park and now used almost exclusively to film blockbuster sequences of superhero battles and things blowing up. All this is to say that Michael Crichton is essentially the conceptual master of technological thrillers, so there’s no one better to provide the groundwork for a series like this.
12. The Humans Are The Villains
In the 1973 movie, the androids get out of control and start killing humans. In this series, they actually adapted this (thankfully) so that they could explore other ideas. While the notion of artificial intelligence becoming dangerous is already incredibly interesting, exploring the idea of what makes us human and the ethical question of creating something with consciousness is even more so. It’s called exploring the human condition, and it’s something that all great art does well in one way or another.
The writers and creators have said that they want to focus on the idea of the human characters engaging in morally questionable acts and challenge the idea that the non-human component of any story like this must always be the villain. This is definitely a great platform to explore those ideas.
11. Evan Rachel Wood
Evan Rachel Wood plays the most discernible protagonist in the show, Dolores. Her character is a simple farm girl, and also the oldest host still in operation in the park. One of the major initial plot points is that a technological update designed to give access to memories (in order to produce increased realism) is causing some of the hosts to malfunction. As the oldest host in the park, access to past memories (and thus past uses) is especially jarring for Dolores.
As an actor, this means juggling many different “modes” realistically, including genuine belief in a false reality, confusion, fear, heartbreak and even an occasional complete lack of affect determined by commands given by the creators of the hosts. Since Dolores is the primary host through which these ideas are explored, Evan Rachel Wood has a lot on her plate. So far, she’s done a masterful job. She’s consistently engaging and multi-faceted, and one of the best reasons to watch the show.
10. Influenced By Video Games
It just doesn’t get much better than this. Series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have said that the series was highly influenced by video games, name-dropping games like Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, and BioShock. This makes complete sense, and also relates to what makes the show’s concept so interesting. In Westworld, the “guests” who pay to come to the park are essentially living out a video game. Much like the aforementioned Rockstar games, they choose what to do the androids, meaning some will kill and create havoc, while others will take the high road.
As the show relates to BioShock, Nolan said that he was fascinated by the concept of NPCs (non-player characters) having conversations with each other and creating a realistic world that the player could potentially miss out on completely. This comprises much of the show, as all of the androids could be considered NPCs and they carry out their lives with a consciousness independent of the guests.
9. Anthony Hopkins
He’s considered by many to be one of the best actors of all time, and he fits nicely in a show with a cast that’s second to none. Don’t get us wrong, there have been plenty of shows that cast largely unknown actors and feature incredible performances, Westworld just didn’t take that approach.
Hopkins is brilliant here, lending to the show a masterfully disciplined, mysterious, and restrained performance. At 78, he’s got a more dignified presence now than ever, something we didn’t even think was possible. He plays the technological genius founder of Westworld, a man the rest of the staff of the park respect immensely. Like many aspects of the show, his character remains enigmatic, but with a wariness and depth below the surface that already leaves us hungry for more.
8. Philosophical Scope
Sometimes you just want to relax and not think about anything. Other times, you want to relax with something that makes you think deeply. Westworld falls into the latter category. Its philosophical scope is tremendous based on its premise alone. Just a couple of episodes in, you already feel immense empathy for the androids, and the ethical questions are nearly endless. Is it right to create something so intelligent that it feels love and terror merely for the enjoyment of humans? Is it better to live in a false reality designed for you and have no free will, or is that a fate worse than death? How much is our world like that now?
The great thing about Westworld is that it’s super engaging even if you don’t want to consider these questions. But if you do, they’re front and center. As far as creating the mythos of a show and having it become a potential cultural landmark, that’s not a bad place to start.
7. Ed Harris
Ed Harris plays “the man in black,” the most obvious protagonist of the series so far. The character was the primary antagonist of the original film, an android whose programming went wrong, causing him to begin killing people. The new series flips that on its head, though, and Harris plays a human who has been in Westworld for an undisclosed amount of time and has taken on the persona of a Western villain, constantly killing androids and causing them misery.
While that character is fascinating in and of itself, Ed Harris brings it to life in the best way. He’s so menacing, so intelligent, and so self-centered that you’ll quickly find yourself taking the androids’ side. He brings a level of intensity to the screen unmatched by any of the other performers. We really want to know what his end goal is (it’s hinted that there is one, beyond the pleasure of fulfilling his evil desires). You may also remember his role in The Truman Show, another narrative about a false reality.
6. Infinite Plot Possibilities
It’s already a show that’s leaving us with a ton of questions. It sets up the function of the park as such: every day, the hosts begin again, and are affected by the choices of the guests and the effects that those choices have on their environment. This means that following any given host could yield an infinite number of results. So, any number of things could happen in an episode that then thematically enriches or connects to the overall story and tone.
We know you may be thinking, can’t anything happen on any TV show? Technically yes, but that doesn’t mean that we would accept it, and we would probably stop watching. If Tony Soprano decided that he wanted to go back to school and become a chef, we’d probably see that as meandering. But since these aren’t real people and they change to fit the needs of customers (who have their own backstories), we can’t really be upset by all of the different things the host characters might do. Oh, and then there’s all the characters outside of Westworld‘s boundaries. Yeah, a lot could happen.
5. Jonathan Nolan & J. J. Abrams
Look at every great TV show or movie, and there’s sure to be creative, capable people working behind the camera. Westworld is no exception. The show is created by Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher Nolan. While he might not be as well known, he’s certainly got some credentials. Remember Memento? The great nonlinear mind-cuss directed by Christopher? If not, watch it. It’s based on a short story by Jonathan. So, by the way, is Interstellar. He also co-wrote the screenplays of both Interstellar and The Dark Knight. And in case you’re still skeptical, he also created the series Person of Interest, so he’s even got hi-tech thriller television already on his resume.
The show also has J. J. Abrams as an executive producer. He’s responsible for breathing life back into sci-fi giants like Star Wars and Star Trek. No matter what you think of these reboots, the man’s got an eye for the genre. With a team like this you can rest assured that Westworld is not just about the money, it’s also a passion project on many levels.
4. The Music
The score is composed by Ramin Djawadi, who also creates the music for Game of Thrones. Among his other notable works are 2008’s Iron Man and another series by creator Jonathan Nolan, Person of Interest.
And the music’s great. It’s truly subtle and not distracting while adding that much needed atmospheric element. But there’s really only one reason music is on the list. If you listen closely, you’ll notice that certain scenes are scored by Western style piano arrangements of modern songs. Not cool enough yet? The first episode features “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden. We’re not kidding. That episode also features “Paint It Black.” And the second episode? “No Surprises” by Radiohead. Case closed. How are you not watching yet?
3. It Looks Great
HBO’s whole angle is to make movie quality TV. As with many of their other shows, Westworld has a budget of around $10 million per episode. As a result, they’re able to make the show look really good. Of course, the show also sets itself up to look good, with stunning western landscapes being some of the most iconic and beautiful locations put on camera.
But the headquarters/control center of Westworld is equally impressive. A huge complex with a vast number of spaces, which include an incredibly creepy warehouse full of retired hosts, there’s a stark beauty to it as well. Full of detail as well as large expanses of isolation, the locations of the show are a visual treat. With a budget like this, art and scenic design and cinematography are rendered in their full capacity, and they truly spared no expense.
2. Its Meta Nature
One of the reasons Jurassic World worked as a film is that it was in many ways a commentary on the increased, excessive consumerism that drives our culture. Jurassic Park is a cultural product we all love, we watch Jurassic World out of loyalty, and the premise of the movie itself is that the park filled with deadly creatures has become more commercially profitable than ever before.
In a similar way, a show about a theme park where people can live out fantasies mirrors the way that we live out fantasies in the real world: through things like TV, movies, and video games. HBO has created many series that have had a huge impact on popular culture, and those things become folded into our experience in a way we cannot separate. HBO as an engine of escape is sort of like the creators of Westworld, allowing us to engage with extreme violence and fantasy that we could not possibly imagine in real life.
1. Blend Of Genres
From a more obvious standpoint, the show just gives us a lot to chew on, and not just because of its thematically and intellectually dense premise. While most TV shows stay confined to a single genre, Westworld gives us a brilliant mix of both sci-fi and western. And while that’s been done before, it just feels so logical here. The mixed genres are the result of the premise, and make complete sense in the world. As much as we love things that blend genres just for the sake of blending them, it’s nice to see another approach.
What’s more, most serialized dramas are confined to the real world. Many deal with crime and interpersonal drama, and are set in existing locations. In this way, Westworld is akin to Game of Thrones because it is not bound by those confines, freeing it up to be a much different show than we’ve seen before.