Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Duncan Greive: 'Bloated, pompous' Westworld marks end of TV's golden age

The Golden Age of Television is over.

Monday night's debut of the much-heralded Westworld - a bloated, pompous sci-fi Western - proved that definitively.

It's fitting that HBO, which birthed the movement in 1999 with The Sopranos, was also generous enough to spend tens of millions of dollars burying it in 2016.

In truth it probably died with the end of Mad Men, though we may not have noticed at the time, or been willing to admit it.

And just because it's dead doesn't mean either the style or network are incapable of brilliance: The Night Of is one of the year's best shows, and doesn't remotely lack for ambition.

Westworld makes the case against scale and sweep so perfectly that it feels like a funeral procession.
Westworld makes the case against scale and sweep so perfectly that it feels like a funeral procession.

But Westworld makes the case against scale and sweep so perfectly that it feels like a funeral procession.

The opening episode played like a parody of event television: the turgid 70-minute run time; the artsy credits sequence; the use of ersatz covers of over-familiar rock songs; the gratuitous use of sexual violence as a signifier; the over-articulated Big Questions.

It feels like the kind of grand folly we're used to seeing in film.

The show is set in some distant future wherein humanity has created hyper-realistic humanoids and has them living in a vision of the Wild West playing out a series of a dozen storylines.

Regular honest folk can get in there and murder and rape with impunity - the show even hints at necrophilia in its opening minutes, which feels very peak-HBO.

The action takes place across two worlds: a vast sculpted lab where the androids are endlessly refined and farmed, and the portal to this virtual West is contained; and the West itself.

At the lab everything is very orderly and detached, though with hints at future chaos around the edges - a coolant leak on level 83, a scene involving an ancient god-like Anthony Hopkins and one of his creations, wistful for a simpler version of our robotic future.

A scene from HBO's TV series, Westworld.
A scene from HBO's TV series, Westworld.

The West is a much more chaotic place. The same scenario plays out each time: handsome stranger arrives, chats with a pair of sex workers, glimpses the woman of his dreams, follows her out of town, brutal violence ensues.

It's the same basic setup as Groundhog Day and Oblivion, only we view the action from the perspective of the actors repeating the scenario rather than the humans inserted within.

The latter are uniformly demented, there to kill and worse, which is a bit tiresome. The hook for the show is that the androids, rather than simply being passive victims of our awful impulses, begin to develop sentience.

The premise is actually a good one - we are living through an era where large parts of what was once science fiction is now either part of life or looming.

Scenarios like this feel like they are somewhat plausible within our lifetimes, and the ethical conundrums they present are likely to move from screenwriter to legislator within that timeframe.

Actress Evan Rachel Wood stars in the TV show Westworld.
Actress Evan Rachel Wood stars in the TV show Westworld.

The contrast with a show like last year's fantastic robot-drama Humans is harsh though.

The same conundrums were there approached within a family unit, every character a shade of grey. It too posed important questions, but in a far less grandiose style - the everyday domesticity gave the scenario its resonance.

It's symbolic of the kind of shows which have superseded the Golden Age's tentpole productions - Danish dramas, English crime stories, black American comedy. They're smaller, yet more sophisticated and controlled.

What really weighs Westworld down is that its vision for humanity is so unrelentingly bleak.

Its commentary on science and capitalism feels as nuanced as Penny Bright's mayoral campaign, and in trying to make an immense and shattering statement it ends up saying nothing at all.

- NZ Herald

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