In fairness, there’s an obligation to point out that Westworld, HBO’s new programming cornerstone, is 3 episodes into a 10 episode order. That’s not enough to definitively call any show anything other than “an utter catastrophe,” which, Westworld is not.
But that’s also a third of the way through its first season arc, some $50+ million spent in sets and production, and clocking a running time of nearly three and a half hours (or about 5 innings of postseason baseball). So Westworld is no longer a general notion, it’s officially a Television Show™, and one where every passing episode signals another week gone, another swing of the giant pendulum that’s fastidiously knocking over the last standing pegs ‘til Game of Thrones reaches its end. So if “ten million dollars an episode” doesn’t convey what HBO has on Westworld, maybe that will. But their problem is, Westworld is not very good.
Westworld hyperventilates between being a plot-driven narrative where nothing happens, and a character-driven narrative where they refuse to tell you the backstories for those on-screen other than to remind you that they do have them, which is good because there’s a reason to believe they don’t, which is because they are robots. It’s obvious to say that neither of these approaches is a very good one, and therefore doing either of them should self-evidently mean a show is bad. Doing both simultaneously, doubly so. Indecisively? Even worse.
This is already a pattern spilled out over those three and a half hours. Who this narrative is supposed to follow – the guests, the hosts, the Anthony Hopkins-type dudes (managers?) – is completely obscured. There’s no indication as to whether these characters are actually human. Hell, there is zero antagonist - each character is just one of many shades of good. High-quality television shows challenge you to root for bad characters (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) or root against good ones (Dexter, sorta), but in either case, without a foil you are free to not give a shit about anyone. Something good will happen to some character, who is – by default – good. So why invest in any character if the tides of fortune are determined by roulette wheel?
These are major issues that remain unresolved, but the real problem is, Westworld doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to care. Instead the show seems content to masturbate its own sense of self-awareness (ironic, I know) while letting people crack their knuckles and take to the keyboards to produce the hypothetical reasons to watch it. The fan-driven “theorizing” is profoundly bad, because it is not a substitute for plot, which thus far the show sorely lacks. When people talk about “critic bait,” this should be Exhibit A: a strategy that’s both arrogant and condescending, that propagates a message of “they’ll watch it because they think it’s important” by refusing to expand on a mediocre premise, and thereby giving critics something – anything to talk about. Writers don’t need to be right about Westworld as long as they’re writing, and apparently the best way to ensure that is refraining from illustrating what the hell this series is even about so no theory can be wrong. HBO’s is gambling people will talk about that, and so far they’re winning.
Popular-ish website The Ringer put this conundrum so perfectly: “Every once in a while, a television show manages to generate watercooler conversation nearly as interesting as the show itself.” That’s true in every sense, as it depends completely on your definition of “interesting.” So here’s my position: it’s hard to be interested in listening to voices in an echo chamber where no one ever said anything in the first place.
notsomethingstructural (aka @nss_ds) is an amateur listicle purveyor and the author of “The 25 Best Hip Hop Albums of All Time”. He co-authored the record-setting #WorstSongBracket and is terrible at Twitter.