Oct 3, 2016

Channel Surfing: Westworld - "The Original"

Scene from Westworld
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
Westworld was beginning to form a reputation along the lines of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." The TV series adapted from the Michael Crichton movie of the same name was delayed from an early 2016 release, signalling that maybe not all was well. Still, with titillating marketing materials the series had an allure that this would be HBO's next big show. Considering that Game of Thrones has announced a speculative end game, the network is going to need something to replace it, and Westworld looks like the high concept, big budget, action-packed series that can do just that.
Like the AMC series Humans, the show centers around the concept of artificial intelligence as it relates to modern culture. There are human-like robots who exist in a manufactured western town setting that provide users with an authentic western experience. While this story could just be as interesting from a newcomer's perspective, the show decides to focus on the staff as they put all of the wires together. There's scrutiny paid to how each of the robots behave, including the peculiar behavior that one seems to be forming. By the end of the first episode, the show has introduced two worlds and several fascinating conundrums. The only question is if the show's sci-fi/western hybrid can sustain any long term impact.
At the center of the first episode is Jonathan Nolan, who is best known for co-writing the scripts for his brother Christopher Nolan's movies that include Memento, The Dark Knight, and most recently Interstellar. It makes sense then that alongside the technical jargon, there is a brooding philosophical core that drives the characters. Jonathan Nolan is labeled as creator of the series and directed the pilot, which plays into the familiar tics. Considering that his TV experience is limited to this and Person of Interest, it would be difficult to have any hopeful assessment of what he can do. With that said, his cinematic career more than suggests his capabilities. His direction even goes further to suggest that he's just as competent as his brother.
Beyond the twisting plot is one of the most visually appetizing series that HBO has produced since, well, Game of Thrones. The most striking images come when the two worlds blend together, forming a mix of genres that create something wholly satisfying. As Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) lies on the ground and stares at a horrific event, her iris depicts the sight in a perfectly framed shot. Later, the beautiful western landscape (of which the shot exploits to its full potential) is given context as it pulls out to reveal the architects behind Westworld: a group of scientists in a room, playing with a realistic simulation akin to The Hunger Games. It drives home the feel of artificiality and sets up a layered environment where man and robots coexist, but don't necessarily get equal treatment.
In a great move reminiscent of The Leftovers, Westworld takes the fusion elements to another level in their soundtrack. A player piano plays an inconspicuous cover of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." Later, a shoot-out is set to a triumphant Elmer Bernstein-like rendition of The Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black." While the novelty may be distracting for those familiar with the songs, the fact that Nolan is capable of making it fit within the constructs of the series is itself awe-inspiring. It again reflects the hybrid of cultures and interests that make the Westworld simulation so appetizing. By the end, the story has limitless potential and even if the story gets too convoluted, it has an ambitious production design that should whet appetites for those needing a little style in TV's fairly conventional format.
Like HBO has done a dozen or so times before, Westworld pushes the boundaries of what TV series can be. It does so to the extent that the first episode feels cinematic. Moments consistently pop, creating a candid freedom that local network censorship would likely ruin. It's a series that couldn't exist anywhere else, or at least as interestingly. Westworld may be one of the more promising Freshman series of Fall 2016, if just because of how much more challenging it seems to be. It may not be the best new series of this weekend (Luke Cage), but it's definitely looking to be one of the year's best. 

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