Dec 5, 2016

TV Retrospective: "Westworld" - Season 1

Evan Rachel Wood
After HBO had a phenomenal year with Game of Thrones (including a back-to-back Emmy win for Best Drama), there was one question to ask: What would replace the veteran series? The shoes aren't easy to fill, as the series has grandiose production values, intricate stories, and the capability to make the phrase "It's not TV, it's HBO" mean something. The TV adaptation of the Michael Crichton movie Westworld is looking to fill that void by exploring westerns, sci-fi, and all things philosophical and in between. What the first season has proven is that if it's not the next Game of Thrones, it's at least the biggest new series sensation of the year. With a blend of classicism and new styles, the series is a hybrid of ideals for a changing culture. The results may have been messy, but the series never stopped being a fascinating look into HBO's own future. 
The idea is simple: Westworld is an augmented reality where visitors can reenact their own fantasies regarding classic westerns. There's cowboys, shootings, and gorgeous scenery. It is a land of infinite potential, and the series attempts to explore all sides of the equation. It follows the created programs within this reality as well as the creators who watch and create from a sterilized room. As time progresses, the programs begin to question their existence while the creators attempt to keep control and find funding. In this sense, it's like another Crichton work called "Jurassic Park," but with robotic cowboys and prostitutes discovering a deeper consciousness. Everything in between is a fascinating study on what it means to create life, and what it means to be human.

Under the watchful eye of show runner Jonathan Nolan, the series became a methodical exploration of its themes. There was consistent mystery surrounding key players, whose identities were cryptic to the viewers. Creator Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) for instance had a consistently shifty vernacular, cleverly twisting his words under a cool guise. He had the master plans all along, but was he a program? In reality, it was The Man in Black (Ed Harris), who walked around the park committing murder and trying to keep everything in check. As an owner, he had a menace that made him seem like a rogue program. Much like the later reveal that Ford's sidekick (Jeffrey Wright) was a program, the search for identity was an endlessly fascinating venture that produced great results.
Most of all, the show managed to transcend the trappings of hard sci-fi by being accessible to the laymen crowd. There wasn't a complexity to the story beyond its philosophical core. There was a mystery that could be dissected, but it was never an isolating factor. What there was was simply great TV writing and the ability to make a story that kept audiences guessing together. By the end, it created one of those rewarding experiences that only the best shows can give. It created endless think pieces and made the overall experience more of an investment. By the time that it concluded, there was a mix of satisfaction and bewilderment, all of which are likely to be discussed at length in the months ahead.
Another part of the show's success is that it was a hybrid of times and styles. Along with being a mix of sci-fi (the future) and westerns (the past), it attempted to make something wholly unique. The western sets were beautiful with exterior shots that could've been taken directly out of the best Howard Hawks films. The cavernous landscape is itself a work of art that helps to make the futility of artifice more of a complicated matter. Everything is so wonderful that it would be difficult to not want to be stuck in this world. Add in a soundtrack that mixed ragtime piano with contemporary pop standards, and you get one of the most singular (and likely to be aped) features of the series. Much like how the Westworld logo embodies cars and classic art, so does everything about the series. The music happens to stand out because of how catchy it is, even as a novelty that has yet to wear out its welcome.
With that said, the road ahead may be conflicting for Westworld. For one, the series doesn't come back until 2018. Considering that the series took a long time coming to the screen initially, it may be for the best. Even then, the momentum surrounding the series' current success will be tough to hold onto. The audience is here now, but who knows what HBO has lined up for 2016 beyond Game of Thrones. Maybe there will be another drama to take its place. Then again, Westworld is so singular that it would be difficult for that to be a reality. On the bright side, it makes more sense than True Detective's back-to-back seasons that sucked the good will out of the series. Only time will tell if the wait was worth it.
For now, Westworld has concluded its first season at the top of its game. It is a great series that explores the potential relationship between man and machine while turning in great moments, beautiful cinematography, and better than expected performances. The series is one of those dense enough to reward watchful eyes. Even if it's not the next Game of Thrones, it's the first in a new style of story telling for HBO. Will there be more series that try to borrow its style? More than likely. Only time will tell if the legacy will be more than a great and novel first season. For now, it's among the channel's very best and most anticipated returning shows. That's  not too bad of a place to be.

OVERALL RATING: 4 out of 5

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