Friday, 6 January 2017


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We have just finished watching the final episode of Westworld. I have lost count of the number of times we discussed throwing in the towel only to agree that we would watch just one more episode until finally . . . it was finished. I gave up watching almost anything on television from the US many years ago with the honourable exceptions of The Americans and Justified [both shunted on to late-night minority channels]. At some point [True Detective?], I became sick of American morals and values being broadcast into my living room: Walking Dead; Game of Thrones; The Night Of; True Detective. Violence. Sex & Violence. Just unvarnished Pornography. Gratuitousness and brutal imagery always the default.

In the unlikely event that you don’t know what Westworld is about, it is loosely based upon a nineteen-seventies film starring the late Yul Brynner as a robotic outlaw whom guests at a leisure resort called Westworld can beat to the draw and kill. The genesis of that film is in fact another classic film, The Magnificent Seven in which Brynner plays a black-clad outlaw who can beat anyone to the draw. The Westworld TV series we are watching now owes little to either film except that there are robotic outlaws, sheriffs and bar-girls in a wild-west setting. And there is an iconic Man in Black except . . . he isn’t a robot. So, it premises a resort for well-off customers who wish to indulge their ultimate role-playing fantasies and bring those fantasies to life: raping a beautiful young girl: shooting dead another human being [or beings plural] or simply having abundant sex with beautiful girls [and boys] as much and for as long as they wish. This is enabled with the use of incredibly lifelike and sometimes even psychologically complex, realistic robots. 

I knew it was like this, so I went into it with my eyes open. 

A screaming woman is dragged off to be violated within the first episode’s first 15 minutes. There are multiple mass murders [one scene features actual buckets of blood], and the Man in Black a dark-drama cliché, played by Ed Harris with zero backstory is a guest who operates like a serial killer within the resort park.

It is beautifully filmed in what looks like the desert around Muley Point in Utah and the acting is generally nuanced and excellent; the producers have spent real money on the production design. What I hoped, what I was led to believe was that it wouldn’t be predictable. But it is condescending and hollow and to my eye at least, is deeply confused about what it wants to be and what it wants to say. In fact, the story lines reinforce and perpetuate the very problems the show purports to identify and explore: the nature of memory; the nature of free-will and just what would happen if one were permitted to indulge in rape or cruelty without any sanction whatsoever. But this is the contradiction: every terrible act is justified in the script by, ‘they’re only machines’ not human at all. And so the issues I was hoping/expecting the series to explore are simply avoided or dismissed and it just becomes another gratuitous Amerikan rape&murder show in which characters are terrorized, assaulted or murdered that I wouldn’t in a million years pay any attention to.

As another critic has observed, ‘The intersections of commerce, myth, projection, and self-deception could have been fertile arenas for the show to play in’. That’s what I thought it was promising. That’s what I thought I was buying in to; that’s why I was putting up with all the exploitative and desensitizing sex and violence. But it never gets there: never even opens the debate.

There are no American TV shows on the BBC: of any kind, across all the channels. I have just done a Google search and I can’t find any on ITV either. Both appear to have abandoned the field and allow C5, E4 and Sky in its various guises [Sky Atlantic; Fox; SyFy] to get on with it. All with right-wing owners who see no harm in peddling this stuff to impressionable young men. Even now in 2017, when the expanding television industry offers greater opportunities to modify or reconsider clichéd modes of storytelling, drama writers and their right-wing media mogul owners continually resort to the rape, assault, and murder of women to provide inciting incidents, or to make a show seem edgy and to raise the stakes.

Will we watch the next series? Dunno but I expect we will give the first episode a go to see how it works out when the robots rebel.  But it is popular in its present, violent format so I am not optimistic that as its bloody and repetitive scenarios play out, the sex and violence will be modified in any way. Like the resort at its heart, Westworld doesn’t want to alienate any potential customers, so it consumes well-worn ideas and borrowed tropes, several from Eastwood’s Spanish Westerns, without making its overall point of view clear. Did Eastwood make his POV clear? Yes, I think he did [good wins over evil] but then again, he wasn’t trying to make an important statement in a major international TV series. 

The truth I think is the more hazy the concept, the fewer people can take issue with it, which is an approach that might work well for a light comedy, say or even something like the latest manifestation of Sherlock but poses a serious problem for an ambitious television drama.

It’s likely I would guess that a subset of viewers who just want to see naked prostitutes and watch senseless shoot-outs will be satisfied by what they find on the screen. Like most visitors to the resort, some will gladly partake in what’s being offered without thinking much about the cost.

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