There was a point, before I saw HBO’s newest show, when I described it as “Jurassic Park” with robots. It’s hard not to make the connection-the show takes place in a technologically advanced theme park where the entertainment (in this case robots dressed as cowboys, farmers and all kinds of bandits) begins to break the system and, if the Michael Crichton source film is any indication, kill a few guests. It’s not a totally unfounded comparison either. The slow, unspoken dread of the impending disaster that the troupe of scientists and executives in episode one don’t see coming, the moral complexity and discomfort of people playing God for entertainment and the casual brutality in most scenes are reminiscent, at least in broad strokes, of the cinematic franchise, and I suspect it will appeal to a similar fanbase.
But to call it a “Jurassic Park” wannabe, or one more reboot, or another violent HBO show full of naked women is to do an incredible disservice to what is, without a doubt, the most inventive and ambitious show I have seen since “Game of Thrones”.
“Westworld” is meant to be a big deal. Everyone in it’s famous; everything in it’s beautiful. And it succeeds at that, undoubtable. The pilot itself stands alone as an interesting and well-drawn piece of television, but it’s the overwhelming sense that something incredible and unusual has just begun that really makes it enticing. The premise that it sets up is so fascinating that I think it could carry the pilot on its own, even without factoring in good character development, dialogue or storytelling.
Luckily, it doesn’t have to, as there’s plenty of the latter three in the series’ first outing.
The episode is set exclusively in and behind the scenes of Westworld, an immersive entertainment experience for wealthy guests that often feels like the futuristic version of a video game.
It’s filled with robots programmed to think they’re living in the old west, from Deloris (Evan Rachel Wood), the typical wide-eyed farm girl, to Teddy (James Marsden), her vanilla and charming love interest, to Deloris’ father, who’s story gives us a first look at the kind of nuance we can likely expect from these cybernetic characters. Deloris in particular seems to have a great deal more going on in her. It’s only a matter of episodes before she snaps.
On the human side, Jeffrey Wright’s soft-spoken head programmer Bernard Lowe stands out, as does Sidse Babett Knudsen’s high-ranking employee Theresa Cullen. It goes without saying the Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins do as well, but their characters are both so mysterious in the pilot that it’s hard to say much on either.
It’s really no wonder the pilot is good; the Hollywood Reporter placed the episode’s budget around $25 million. You don’t have to be a psychic or an HBO executive to know that they’re looking for another “Game of Thrones” here, in a way they arguably haven’t in the six years since “Thrones” premiered. And I think they may have it.
It’s not a perfect pilot. There’s a lot that they throw at the viewer in one episode in terms of world-building and characters, and at times it’s a little confusing. The first act is the weakest, using a narration/flash-forward crutch it doesn’t need and coming off in general as a bit unbalanced, but the show finds its footing after the first big showdown and really starts to move from there, getting better right up to its perfect final shot.
Besides, any structural flaws or growing pains are so overshadowed by how rich and captivating the “Westworld” universe is that I don’t think many viewers will be disappointed, and even fewer won’t come back from a second week.