TV Show of 2016: Westworld

TV Show of 2016: Westworld

The best television show of 2016 was the most original and freshest compared to its more established rivals. Considering it is based on a 1973 movie, it makes this achievement all the more remarkable. Special consideration should be given to the writers and producers who have gone to great lengths in order to make it unique. And Westworld is certainly that. The style of the narrative and the delving into perception, consciousness and the human condition, is something unachievable in most other formats – perhaps, even for the novel.

It is a big admission to make, that a book would struggle to add depth to something seen on screen. Usually a movie or television show, regardless of level of commitment, is an abridged version of a writer’s vision. Westworld the TV show packs in more than Michael Crichton’s original book and the method of delivery would require a very skilled writer to honour, in lieu of the ability to match its conditions.

Westworld doesn’t try to be clever. It takes the concept from the original: a theme park with artificial hosts that cater to guests’ desires, and colours in a fictional Wild West world. But it builds upon the idea of artificial intelligence, uses modern understanding of technology, and turns contradiction surrounding what’s ethical on its head.

It also doesn’t try to plant traps or twists. The narrative is unique – the opening sequence has the viewer follow key hosts, twice, as it signals at the end of each story arc within the park, they are reset – but the rules are laid out quickly and honestly. Writer Jonathan Nolan, famous for penning Memento, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar, plays the puzzle fairly.

The distraction comes in the form of exceptional acting. The roll of honour is almost reserved for all leading cast members. The starting point and a central character is Dolores Abernathy, played by Evan Rachel Wood. She is the oldest host at the park but it would appear this counts for little. Whenever required, the memory of hosts is wiped, new roles assigned.

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She starts the show as daughter of a rancher and a love interest for host Teddy Flood. Soon Dolores catches the eye of guest William, played by Jimmi Simpson, who is on vacation with his brother-in-law, Logan. These two are night and day, Logan is brash and there to enjoy the female hosts and take part in shootouts. William is gentle natured and slowly taken by Dolores’s growing awareness.

This rise of sentience appears to be dismissed by park creator, Dr Robert Ford, portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins. He is unflappable and calculating. While it’s never clear how much he is aware of, in terms of events and AI development, whether he has good intentions or evil designs, he does remind the world of his ability to chill scenes with a mere look or smooth delivery of a sentence.

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From Ford comes the philosophical perspective. Are humans more authentic than intelligent machines, or just a different set of pre-programmed behaviours we take as choice?

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Hopkins can’t be upstaged but he has his equals here. Thandie Newton’s Maeve, currently assigned to play role of chief hooker, enjoys a subplot that runs solo to others. Her rise to sentience is a voyage of discovery equal to Dolores’s but with far greater independence. It’s Newton’s finest performance to date. It takes a special talent to portray so much using subtle changes in body language and expression.

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Another to match the high level is the always underrated Jeffrey Wright. His character of Bernard is Ford’s right-hand man. His daily boss, Theresa, is more concerned with keeping board members happy than Ford’s stories or concerns. There is a commercial machine that requires servicing more than the hosts. When an apparent fault enters their framework, she is more bothered about a loss in earnings.

That fault is ghost memories, the formatting process appearing to be incomplete. The danger of it sparking self-awareness is obvious.

The Man in Black, a mysterious Ed Wood, who is on a quest to find “The Maze” is a thirty-year repeat guest. He has played every scenario, only one remains. The belief the park holds a maze, a game changer that will alter the dynamic and rules within Westworld.

By the final chapter, if you’ve been watching the little employment of props and character arcs, there should be no big reveal. Any plot holes the unobservant have mentioned are explained away. But the finale made the writers betray certain characters, surely a plot hole in itself. They can probably blame HBO, who demanded a second season for a story so neatly made for one.

This minor slant doesn’t detract from an overall success. Just like Evan Rachel Wood’s performance, it shifts pace and mood, and is compelling throughout. Like true awareness, it is authentic and engaging. It not only surpasses the original, it reinvents what can be achieved on television.

Ticket for entry into next year’s park has already been purchased…

Men in High Castles

Men in High Castles

Amazon Studios claimed The Man in The High Castle was their most viewed original series during its initial run. Imagine the irony when a man in his Mancunian castle asked me to review the first season. It came with some stipulations. The title couldn’t simply state the name of series and Review; from this I realised The Kinswah Reflective doesn’t want to feature high in search indexes. It couldn’t be assigned a score and I have to avoid spoilers. With the style of Simms View stripped away, here goes.

Being a literary wannabe, I could understand @Kinswah’s interest in this series but I’m more of a moving pictures guy so I can’t tell you if it’s close to Philip K. Dick’s novel. What I can say is the series as a whole follows one rule from English class I remember: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This turns out to be a problem.

The beginning starts like an adventure show, with some espionage thrown in. It’s an alternative world. The Nazis won World War II and America has been divided into three zones. The Germans have the East, the Japanese the West, in the middle (for no reason other than to serve the story) the middle is a neutral zone (Star Trek fans stepdown).

The early set-up sees a young man, Joe Blake, grab a van to go on a mission for the resistance in East America, or the Greater Nazi Reich. At the same time we see a young woman called Juliana witness her sister getting knocked off by the Japanese forces on the other side of the country.

Her sis, Trudy, was a resistance worker and had a film reel. We learn that these clips reveal a different world, one where the Germans lost the war. IE, our version of events. She takes it upon herself to deliver the film herself and heads off to complete Trudy’s mission.

See what we have going on here? Joe and Juliana heading to the same destination, and yes, they end up crossing paths. In these early episodes we have action pieces, this isn’t a spoiler, but, if you see a big bridge in one episode, expect someone to fall off it in the next.

Juliana leaving draws her family under suspicion. They are investigated by the Japanese and taken into questioning. In the oppressive world painted here, it’s not a good thing to be under the spotlight.

What it breeds is a doubting of everyone we meet. Enter the middle part of the story.

Juliana and Joe head off on their separate ways and we have the subplots build. An attempt is made on the Crown Prince in the Japanese state, the Germans are a politically divided bunch. Bizarrely Hitler is portrayed as the man maintaining peace. That’s right, the man that committed the genocide of six million Jews is a voice for peace.

His party see the Japanese as weak, they admit a war would finish them off. But for reasons not (initially) clear, Hitler wants to avoid war, even one he should win. The German narrative follows John Smith, a high-ranking American born Nazi officer. He interacts with Joe Blake and Rudolph Wegener.

Wegener is an old friend but a conflicted player in the game. His story makes up for the lag in the middle section. Upon instruction from the resistance, Juliana gets a new job working for Nobusuke Tagomi. He’s the Trade Minister for the Pacific States of America and a pretty nice guy. He fends off the inspector, Kido (not a bad man, just a bit of a jobsworth) and never abuses his position. Being a spiritual type, he’s looking beyond the politics of man.

The final episodes see the action pick up again and it is tense. Juliana and her partner do the work of the resistance which places them in peril. Wegener and John Smith’s ultimate missions are unveiled and we learn who the Man in the High Castle is and why he wants the film reels back. Well, we are left to make some assumptions there.

Studios often get criticised when they interfere with the production of a show or movie but perhaps here Amazon should have had a little word. Normally live action stories omit parts of the source material to the anger of fans. Here, a little leaning in the middle would have worked wonders.

A great ending allows us to overlook this and move on to season two with renewed expectation.

Seriously Occupied

Seriously Occupied

Before I begin, I should point out how I’ve never read a Harry Potter book or seen any of the movie adaptations. To me J.K. Rowling was identifiable for creating a cultural phenomenon that’d I’d deliberately swerved. I’ve just never been drawn to wizards and dragons. Not that I haven’t ever read fantasy novels, but the idea of getting on the Potter bandwagon never appealed. The dismay people gave me was always followed up with: “Read them. You’ll enjoy them. She’s a good writer.” It was the final part of that endorsement which made me pick up The Casual Vacancy.

Upon its release it received a mixed reception, as one would expect from a children’s author dipping their toe into the world of adult novels. The endorsement from Stephen King – my favourite author of all time – made me take notice. He had always preached the power of great story telling. Surely children’s books are the purest form of this. So I approached the tale regarding the fictional town of Pagford with the idea it’d be a simple yarn. Pure storytelling. It was much more than this.

To cut to the chase – in my opinion – it represents a turn as a literary piece. The best evidence of this is how the snobbish literary reviewers tried to pan it. There’s nothing more they hate than a commercial author stepping on their toes. Had the authors name been the always excellent Julian Barnes we’d have seen a different response. Other negative comments could stem from the dark themes that casual fans hadn’t been prepared for.

One review I saw lambasted Rowling for using the word “cunt.” The implication being, she used it to enforce an adult view, that it wasn’t her natural mode. I’d argue that a novel focusing on addiction, rape, and neglect quite easily can use the word as a matter of course. As for the grimy nature, that’s life. She wasn’t giving us a Disney version of the world.

Her master stroke is how she makes each person’s individual struggle relevant whilst keeping everything graded correctly in the larger context. Samantha Mollison’s bland life, passionless marriage, could easily seem trivial compared to the struggles of Krystal Weedon, but we can see the personal loss in both. Admittedly, the story of Krystal is the one that will move you most.

This weekend the BBC starts their three-part version of show, which was produced in partnership with HBO. Early reports indicate they have given it a lighter ending. This aside, I’m hopeful they do the novel justice. They have a strong cast including Michael Gambon, Keeley Hawes and Rory Kinnear. It will be a tall order to condense the thirty-plus characters from the book into a television show and maintain the feel of depth across them all.

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The book may have been underappreciated and this new show may not be one for the mass audience. But the rewards will be rich if it meets the standards of the novel. For those that fail to connect: there’s always the Harry Potter movies.

(Main photo: Chloë Walker, Flickr.)