Whenever an HBO drama premieres, there’s always buzz around it. The network has established itself as one of the places to watch good TV through its dramas of the late ’90s and early ’00s. But, no show in the past few years has been more needed by the network than “Westworld.” Given that the rest of their drama lineup will be ending in the next two years, the network is desperately looking for an alternative to “Game of Thrones” that can be their flagship for several years to come.
Based on the first two episodes, it’s unclear whether the show will be capable of doing that. It clearly has a handle on its technical elements and it has a ridiculously talented cast, but it spends the first two episodes doing quite a bit of world-building, and while that's fascinating, the show’s long-term storytelling goals are uncertain. Until we know where the show is going, it’s going to be tough to know if it can gain strength like “Thrones.”
“Westworld” is set in an extensive theme park of sorts. In the park, robot “hosts” populate the world, giving paying customers the ability to act as if they’re in the Wild West. The guests can adventure with the hosts (each one has a story of their own), as well as freely kill them in a gunfight or even have sex with them. The world and the hosts are maintained by a group of programmers and storytellers who give the hosts their qualities and aim to make them appear to be as authentic as possible.
“Westworld” earns all the style points, as the show’s visuals show how well the drama spent its $100 million budget. The splendor of the world is clear from the first scene, as the camera showcases sprawling desert vistas, shot in California and Utah. The main town where the show is set has a traditional, Western feel. The designers clearly cared about the details in the backgrounds. Though the futuristic world outside Westworld can seem generic at times, the way the drama darkens the background of all the behind the scenes locations contributes to the ominous feel of what the people who run Westworld do.
There’s also no denying how good the cast of “Westworld” is. The drama features everyone from seasoned TV actors to Academy Award winners. The robot crowd features composed performances from James Marsden (“Enchanted”) and Evan Rachel Wood (“Across the Universe”), both in their first series regular roles in over a decade. Wood especially nails the range of emotions as Delores, as she’s asked to play both robot and human. Behind the scenes at the park, the ensemble gets even deeper. Not only is there a surprisingly restrained performance from Shannon Woodward (“Raising Hope”), there’s also fascinating work from Jeffrey Wright (“The Hunger Games”) as one of the robot programmers. Anthony Hopkins (“Silence of the Lambs”) also appears in his first regular television role in decades. He appears sparingly, but when he does, his gravitas takes over the screen.
The first two episodes have to do so much work in building this world and introducing its sprawling cast of characters that it doesn’t necessarily have time to introduce the ongoing arc of the series. It introduces the idea of a software update giving the hosts the ability to have “memories,” and it hints at the impact that code is having on them. There’s also a mysterious character played by Ed Harris (“Game Change”) who runs around killing hosts to reach a hidden maze. The work they do here is intriguing, but it’s much too soon to tell whether there’s an arc that can support an entire series here.
Based on the early ratings for “Westworld,” it looks like it’ll get the time to unravel its arc and show us what it has in store. It premiered to just under two million viewers, or a little below what “Game of Thrones” earned in its first episode. Its fascinating world and brilliant cast will be enough to give it time to unfold its story, but to attain longevity, “Westworld” will need to have the story to back up its initial ideas.