This Week in TV: Artificial intelligence in the Old West, and yet another procedural about the legal system. While both shows present concepts and questions already explored by countless other stories, only one of them is truly breathing life into these familiar themes.
* These are merely my thoughts and feelings on all the new television we’ve been blessed with, and my opinion on whether or not they are worth a watch. These are not scene-by-scene recaps, so it’s a relatively spoiler free zone – but NOT completely. Continue at your own risk!
Westworld (HBO) 9.5/10 – I’ll be checking in on a weekly basis
A futuristic theme park populated by beings with artificial intelligence, and the exploration of what happens when these beings start to adopt sentience.
(This article only discusses the premiere, “The Original.”)
How far is too far when it comes to technological advancements? What can we learn about humanity, morals, and ethics when we create beings so similar to us? And what does it say about humans that we could be so uncaring towards these beings? Pop culture certainly has no shortage of stories that ask us these questions. So while Westworld may not be the first to present them, it sure is doing so in a highly enjoyable, visually stunning, and intriguingly complex manner. From the moment the opening credits roll, we already get a sense for what the show is going to offer; a tone is quickly set. Westworld is going to be as intricate as the production of a lifelike human, as sinister as the music playing from an unmanned piano, and, hopefully, as captivating as the entire title sequence itself.
It’s impressive to witness what was accomplished in just one episode. The possibilities of where this show could take us feel endless, yet not overwhelming. Though most of the characters still feel like sketches of what they will become, they’ve been developed just enough to know they aren’t stereotypical or hollow. There are still a ton of questions about the operational logistics of the theme park itself, and the different meanings it holds for the hosts, guests, operators, and the corporation that owns it. But the world building we got was incredibly satisfying; the park feels like a character unto itself. Where a great many pilots would fail by throwing this amount of information at a viewer in one sitting, Westworld succeeds thanks to its excellent plot pacing. It’s perplexing in all the right ways; its cryptic nature leaves you wanting more, without the common side effect of feeling strung along.
Even if there wasn’t any value to the story it was telling – and there’s an abundance of it – “The Original” was one of the most visually striking pilots I’ve ever witnessed. From the cinematography, to the art direction, to the acting – every single aspect was a feast for the eyes. The contrast in scenery and color between the inside and outside of the park was a beautiful detail. The majestic and seemingly endless countryside, cliffs, and desert, and the saloons fit for any gunslinger, were filmed with a brighter palette with just a hint of sepia tone to give it an authentic Old West vibe. While the headquarters, with its rows of glass walled rooms and various machines, was infused with blue-grey tints, giving it an almost futuristic, and sterile ambiance.
All the actors involved in this star-studded project brought their A-game, but one in particular truly stole the premiere. Evan Rachel Wood was superb at transitioning from the extremely life-like and hopeful Delores, to the emotionless and mechanized robot that’s being debriefed by her makers. It’s so hard to tell whether she truly doesn’t question the nature of her existence or if she’s just excellent at fooling the park operators. Notice how she dipped back into her southern accent after being given an order not to? So far, I’m the most interested in her character, who claims she would never hurt a living thing, and then kills a fly with a smile on her face. Also noteworthy, the jittery yet animated motions and gestures from Michael Wincott’s Old Bill, was absolutely flawless. If you had told me they actually made a crude version of a robot to play the part, I would have believed it 100%. I hope it’s not the least we’ve seen of him. Maybe he’ll play a role in the inevitable AI-led revolution? It’s likely he knows all about the park’s critical failure from 30 years ago.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the music, – from the songs that replay as the park’s loop resets, to the instrumental versions of “Black Hole Sun” (Soundgarden) and “Paint it Black” (The Rolling Stones) – all of it was perfectly paired with both scene and overall tone.
With all that said, I do have a couple of gripes with the show thus far. The first is one that could easily vanish with a few quick explanations, or become a bigger problem if left unaddressed. It strikes me as very strange that Harris’ Man in Black is able to run wild without catching the attention of the park operators. With all that surveillance and attention to detail, it seems like a very large oversight. Could it be that Harris is acting on behalf of someone running the show, allowing him to “play the game” undetected? It seems impossible that the Man in Black could be a host, as we’ve seen him get shot without consequence, but I’m open to this being a possibility if it’s explained well. Either way, some acknowledgement of his existence and search for a “deeper level” must be addressed.
The second objection is far more disappointing, but could easily stop being a problem depending on what course the show takes. It’s possible the violence depicted against Delores is going to have some greater meaning or payoff later on – though, unfortunately, I doubt anything nuanced will come of the hosts who wanted to rape Delores’ dead mother – but I’m beyond bored with television using this technique to illustrate how malicious a character is. Furthermore, if sex-workers are going to be involved in this narrative, why not add some males to the line up? As accurate as brothels may be to the days of the Old West, this is TV, where almost anything is possible. I mean, this is a show about robots for fuck sakes; why can these writer’s imaginations extend so far in that regard, yet remain so restricted in others? One thing’s for sure, Westworld theme park is (chiefly) concerned with catering to male fantasies. If nothing else, this line of dialogue is proof of that, “A hooker with hidden depths. Every man’s dream.” (I mean, c’mon.) Let’s hope Westworld the show doesn’t strive to fulfill only that same goal.
Conviction (ABC) 6.5/10 – I’ll be back for two more episodes, then, we’ll see.
An attorney is blackmailed into running NYC’s Conviction Integrity Unit, where she and her team investigate cases that may have handed out wrongful convictions.
I’ll be honest, this could have been scored lower but I’m a sucker for Hayley Atwell. Even when she’s given the worst material, she does everything and more with it. Agent Carter had a fantastic first season, which was almost entirely overshadowed by the failures of its follow-up, but Atwell remained the shining light throughout its run. When I learned AC was cancelled, I held out hope for Conviction, which Atwell had already signed on for. After seeing the pilot, I’m left disheartened to see the folks at ABC give her yet another project where her talents are being so terribly squandered.
The biggest problem, in regards to Atwell’s character, Hayes, is that she’s expected to be so many contradictory things at once: ethical yet shady, self-hating yet self-confident, political pawn yet Queen of the game. Atwell does her best to pull it off, which she kind of does, but there’s a limit to what even the most skilled actresses could accomplish amid such chaos. At the very least, I’m grateful her overall character is different from Peggy Carter; seeing how the rest of the show is so lazily constructed, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Atwell essentially reprising that role.
Unfortunately, Atwell’s chops aren’t the only thing wasted in the premiere. The premise for Conviction is intriguing and has the potential to prompt conversations about a variety of topics, both challenging and worthwhile. Too bad this potential is largely sidelined by the surplus of secondary plots. There’s Hayes’ strained relationship with her mother, Hayes’ sexual-but-not-sexual-tension with her boss, the somewhat secretive motives of everyone involved in the CIU, and the second-in-command who’s still salty over losing his position to Hayes. Oh, and let’s not forget that each case must be solved in five days, for seemingly no other reason than to amp up the dramatic stakes. Yeah, I need to catch my breath, too.
What we’re left with is a show that’s trying to be too many things at once. I was getting vibes of both How to Get Away with Murder minus the engaging cast and lively story pacing, and Serial (the podcast) sans the necessary time for a thorough, and therefore credible, investigation. I’m hopeful Conviction is merely suffering from a rough start. If it only ever manages to cross the threshold into B-list TV, I’ll take it as a win. At least then I can watch Atwell without having to excessively torture myself in the process.