2016 has been an interesting year for television. Rarely has there been such variety and quality serialised drama available in a variety of different formats. Netflix scored a massive crossover hit with Stranger Things, their 1980’s Stephen King science-fiction tribute about the disappearance of a young boy. Covers of the theme music, an official soundtrack and cosplay outfits were all commissioned just weeks after the shows’ initial release, such was the popularity of the Duffer brothers’ creation.
In TV’s golden age, the bar has been raised for what is expected, with broadcasters allotting more time and resources into original content. Naturally, HBO are attempting to up the stakes. On October 2nd, the factory behind The Sopranos and The Wire premiered Westworld, the network’s next bright hope for a new money drawing super franchise.
Westworld, based on the movie of the same name by Michael Crichton, is the story of a western inspired theme park where guests can live out their wildest fantasies. Sex, debauchery, violence - it’s all available in this wild, gun-slinging abode. They are seduced and serenaded by ‘hosts’, synthetic beings programmed to carry out specific roles in storylines. ‘Hosts’ are objects of the guest’s desires, for sexual or sadistic pleasures. Guests can shoot or stab ‘hosts’ without getting harmed themselves, engage in man hunt’s for bounties and splurge their money on prostitutes.
The ‘hosts’ are configured to carry out plots curated by Westworld’s programming team, led by Bernard Lowe (played by Jeffrey Wright of James Bond and Boardwalk Empire fame) and obnoxious narrative director Lee Sizemore. The whole operation is overseen by mysterious creative director Dr. Robert Ford, magnetically portrayed by the great Anthony Hopkins.
Of course, there is a twist though. Dolores, the oldest ‘host’ (played by Evan Rachel Wood), discovers that her life is an elaborate lie. She hears a voice in the back of her head which plants the seeds of doubt, doubt which is only increased when her storyline father deviates from the script and shows her a picture of a girl in a city (most likely New York).
As is the norm in modern television, Westworld contains a stellar cast. As well as Wood, Lowe and Hopkins, it features Luke Hemsworth (as Westworld’s stout head of security), Crash star Thandie Newton and Ed Harris, as a menacing black clad guest who is seeking another level in the park.
The newest incarnation of Crichton’s original is the brain child of husband and wife duo Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. (Ironically, Nolan’s more prominent brother Christopher collaborates on films with his wife Emma Thomas as well). Nolan served his apprenticeship alongside his elder sibling, co-writing the screenplays for The Prestige, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, before taking the reigns on 2014’s sci-fi epic Interstellar. His role in Westworld is interesting because it is only the second occasion in which he’s worked on a project without the involvement of Christopher (the other being CBS show Person of Interest).
Nolan outlined the influence his brother has on his work in an interview a couple of years. "I've always suspected that it has something to do with the fact that he's left-handed and I'm right-handed, because he is somehow able to look at my ideas and flip them around in a way that's just a bit more twisted and interesting. It's great to be able to work with him that way.”
Executive producers include J.J Abrahams and his sidekick Bryan Burk, the men behind both the Star Trek and Star Wars reboots. The grandiose scale of the aesthetic is very much in keeping with their previous work. Mashing up the differing genres of sci-fi and westerns provides the canvas for some truly spectacular visuals and sounds.
The size of the production is matched by the ambition of HBO, who have allocated a budget of $10 million per episode. Game of Thrones is entering its final furlong, so HBO’s top brass are looking to fill the void. Early signs are encouraging; Westworld’s first episode was the highest rated show premiere on the network since True Detective’s debut back in 2014, and was also the most watched opening episode of any show on Sky Atlantic.
The comparisons with Thrones are obvious, but the success of that show was built on the expansion of the world, the fleshing out of characters and a pre-existing universe of almost infinite magnitude. Westworld itself is off to a strong start, introducing various relationship dynamics alongside potential plot lines, but how they develop and refine that over four or five seasons will be the big test of the shows’ durability. Either way, it is sure to garner attention.