As last month’s Emmy Awards proved, HBO is dominating television this year.
“Game of Thrones” is one of the biggest shows in the history of television, “The Night Of” wowed fans and critics alike, “Veep” is a smash hit and critical favorite “The Leftovers” will soon begin its third and final season.
That said, the end is in sight for each of these shows, and HBO is counting on “Westworld,” its new expansive sci-fi drama, to pick up the slack. And based on Sunday’s intense, enthralling and occasionally disturbing premiere, that faith is well-founded.
Based loosely on the 1973 film of the same name, “Westworld” introduces a futuristic theme park where guests pay absurd amounts of money to interact in a Western setting with synthetic life forms.
It’s nearly impossible to tell early on who is a human and who is a machine, which “Westworld” uses to its advantage. Guests make their way through the park in a sort of real-life “choose your own adventure,” often choosing to murder, rape and act out their most horrific fantasies.
One victim of these fantasies is the robot Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, who repeats the same looped storyline every day unless interrupted by a guest.
Even without the involvement of the often abusive “players,” Dolores’s loop is horrifying. She wakes up with a smile, goes about her daily errands, meets a dashing cowboy, played by James Marsden, and then returns home to see her family being brutally murdered by outlaws.
This ugliness is inherent in almost every aspect of the park, thanks to Westworld employees and their chosen storylines.
While some employees are more sympathetic to the “hosts” than others — one employee, played by Anthony Hopkins, seems to encourage humanity in his creations — many of Westworld’s creators seem even more unfeeling than the robots they construct.
During the premiere, a glitch in some of the hosts’ programming causes a few of them to act out. This leads to recalls and investigations into many of the robots.
Thanks to fantastic performances from much of the main cast and some subtle CGI manipulation, the “hosts” come across as simultaneously lifelike and not-quite-right. Wood, in particular, walks a perfect line between naively harmless and straight-up scary.
The supporting cast is equally solid so far, despite being made up of an odd array of actors including Rodrigo Santoro (what has he been doing since “Love Actually”?) Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright and Luke Hemsworth (the elusive third Hemsworth brother).
HBO also makes use of “Game of Thrones” composer Ramin Djawadi, whose music — think “Game of Thrones” theme meets “Downton Abbey” — accompanies a gorgeous, haunting credit sequence.
Despite the many things that “Westworld” does right, it has one glitch of its own that is impossible to overlook.
HBO has been under fire for years now concerning its unnecessarily violent treatment of women, and “Westworld” is possibly the worst perpetrator to date.
The show uses the murder and rape of the hosts to illustrate larger points about the casual exploitation of fictional lives, but their treatment is distressing nonetheless.
It may serve a larger purpose — which is hard to predict after seeing only the first episode — but for now, the assault and abuse of innocent creatures (even those who aren’t technically sentient) is genuinely hard to watch.
Despite this, it’s the larger stakes at play that make “Westworld” so compelling.
Beyond the basic layers of the story is the exploration of broader themes within the narrative. As guests brutalize their way through the park, it’s impossible to miss the reflection on today’s popular entertainment.
We like our video games bloody, our movies sexy and our television shocking. But at what point do those choices begin to affect us as people? What happens when other people’s trauma becomes our entertainment?
Some viewers will ironically enjoy “Westworld” because of the sex, violence and shock value.
Others will look a bit deeper and love it for the symbolism and allegory. Shakespeare fans will enjoy one particular scene in the premiere.
Many others will enjoy the show on some levels, while finding the casual violence and sexual mistreatment unsettling.
Whichever category you fit into, one thing is for sure — “Westworld” may have a glitch in its programming, but its well worth saddling up for the ride.