Some of us are hopeful. Others are cynical. Some see grace and hope in nature. Others see our destruction looming in our avarice for things, not people or nature, and feel certain that a soulless future is on the horizon.
Westworld (Sunday, HBO, 9 p.m.) takes us to a place where these views collide. Megabudgeted and beautifully made, it is a fantastic mess of action, ideas and melancholy. As a story, it has flaws and sometimes soars. As a statement, it is achingly pensive. It is not, as some coverage suggests, HBO's next Game of Thrones. It doesn't have the same aesthetic or dramatic torque while it certainly is sweeping and seductive in a perverse way. Buckle up for a mind-blowing ride.
We are transported to a theme park called Westworld (the premise is derived loosely from Michael Crichton's pulpy 1973 film of the same name), an Old West town populated by lifelike robots, called hosts, who exist to satisfy the desires of paying guests (called newcomers) who are charged vast amounts of money for an immersive, authentic Western experience.
Some guests want to dress up, kick back at the saloon, talk to some cowpokes and local beauties, and maybe accompany the sheriff who is hunting down some varmint in the hills.
Others want to kill and rape. There's a narrative for every paying guest's wish. Besides, the robots are not human, obviously, they just look that way. You want to rape and murder? You can be accommodated and the mangled robot will be cleaned up and repaired when you leave, then reprogrammed for the next storyline and the next guest.
Overseeing all of this is a corporation led by the genius creator of these androids, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who's been making the robots increasingly lifelike for so long he that thinks of them as people. Or does he? Certainly he's under pressure to make the park more lucrative and get injured androids back in service more quickly, but seems to want to take his time. The employees are both suspicious and afraid of him.
It's obvious from the get-go that something is going awry. The hosts in the park begin acting strangely, not according to their programmed narratives. And there is a sinister figure, known only as the Man in Black (Ed Harris) who senses the imbalance and seeks to manipulate the situation. An air of lugubrious tension hangs over the first episodes. We see guests behaving outrageously. The characters you want to root for are the robots.
Chief among them and in the the starring role is Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who lives an uncanny, Groundhog Day existence. Every day is the same for her. She awakes and arises in the phony homestead, has the same conversation with her old dad, goes to paint for a while and then goes into town. The only variation is what she is programmed to do for the rest of the day. And yet, we sense she has latent human feelings and that nothing good will come of it.
Thematically, there is so much going on that Westworld (its creators are married TV veterans Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy Nolan) is at first bewildering. First, we can see the emphasis on the innate evil of men who are wealthy enough to afford adventures in the park. Goodness is ephemeral, flimsy. Put people in the circumstance where risk-free behaviour is offered and the worst happens. Second, the series is about making television itself – the creative team behind the theme park have the power to construct narratives that can appall or please the guests. Third, it is made clear that sooner or later we come to love machines, we anthropomorphize. And there is so much more. Unsettling and unapologetically ambitious and adult, Westworld is very much worth your time.
Also airing this weekend – This Life (Sunday, CBC, 9 p.m.) returns for its second season. The adaptation of the popular and acclaimed series Nouvelle adresse, made for Radio-Canada, the CBC's French-language service, had a strong run in its first outing. It's somewhat angsty, obviously, given that the central character Natalie Lawson (Torri Higginson), has cancer and has been given a year to live. As this season opens, she is part of a trial for a new cancer treatment and therefore has some hope. But, around her, the family is stretched, trying to cope. The strength of the first episodes was anchored by the deft comedy of people trying to comfort Natalie, but also live well and expand their horizons in light of Natalie's condition. By far the most compelling character is her sister Maggie (Lauren Lee Smith), who is addicted to being irresponsible.
CBC also launches This is High School (Sunday, 8 p.m.), a new six-part series created from the combined footage of 50 remote-controlled cameras placed in a typical secondary school, in Kamloops. B.C., for several weeks. It promises stories about, "Internet bullying, self-image, fitting in, identity, anxiety attacks, anger management, the pressure to excel, the desire to drop out, autism, nerds, popular girls and 8th grade boys who can't resist testing their boundaries." Phew.