I’m told that HBO is in trouble. Game of Thrones will be ending soon. Nobody liked Vinyl. What’s the network’s Next Big Thing? Does HBO even have a Next Big Thing, or are they just going to cede more of that sweet TV prestige to those jerks at AMC?
The answer, dear readers, is a resounding NO. Rather than go gentle into that good night, HBO is turning things up to 11 with Westworld, which is as HBO a show as you can get. It’s big. It’s expensive. It’s full of A-list talent. It’s executive produced by J.J. Abrams. And as you guys know, Abrams doesn’t slap his name onto just anything. But what I like most about Westworld is how simple it is. The Sopranos took a monster and made people care about him. Deadwood was a show about the Old West, but also about how communities are formed. Game of Thrones showed us there was no limit to the amount of slit throats and naked breasts you could see in a single episode of television.
Westworld, on the other hand, is Jurassic Park with robots. Anthony Hopkins is Dr. Hammond, who’s created a park — the titular Westworld — for rich people who want to play cowboys for a few days. Well, it’s ostensibly for rich people to play cowboys for a few days. We should stipulate right now that the only reason anyone would ever visit a park like is so that they could kill and have sex (not necessarily in that order) without any consequences. Anyway, the park’s attractions are all robots, and of course they’re eventually going to realize they’re living in some suped-up Pirates of Caribbean, and boy howdy you better watch out when they do.
In addition to the robots who are just tottering on the knife’s edge of sentience and the requisite murderous rampage, Westworld is staffed by an HR rep’s nightmare of people who all hate each other, each with their own loyalties and ambitions. Because none of this is enough, we’re also introduced to Ed Harris’ mysterious Man in Black, who’s making his way through the park in search of some higher level of consciousness he believes only the robots hold the key to. Or something. It’s not quite clear yet.
Does it work? Yeah, it does. There may be too many moments where you’re not quite sure if the robots being asked questions by their human masters are lying because oh no have they gone crazy already? And you roll your eyes a bit whenever one of the humans visiting the park says something like, “This is going to be fun!” because you already know how well that’s going to work out. But when thirty minutes go by, and you realize you’ve been gripping the arm of your couch the entire time, the show is doing something right.
The ratings for Westworld have come in, and the show was watched by the most viewers for any HBO series premiere since True Detective. You might call that a hit. It’ll definitely make HBO happy. Maybe even happy enough to put the show about the creation of Johns Hopkins, or Amelia Earhart on the shelf for a while. Maybe we’ll just watch monsters kill people for a few years. Hey, it worked for those jerks at AMC.