Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?
I ask not only because it’s the first question you hear in the new series Westworld, premiering this Sunday on HBO, but because right now nothing needs a reality check more than reality itself:
• Donald Trump refused to explain his birther flip-flop in Monday night’s debate; he’s now among the fairly slim 28 percent of registered Republicans who actually think President Obama was born in the United States. Much of the pre-debate discussion focused on whether moderator Lester Holt would “fact check,” i.e., assert reality in the face of misrepresentation, during the event.
• The Bachelor and Keeping Up With the Kardashians have become strange concoctions of reality, staged reality and fourth-wall busting real-life and social-media interactions that may or may not be part of the show. Producers on the Real Housewives now sometimes appear as characters, and it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish producer manipulation from characters acting out on their own.
• Virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift and Gear VR are getting better, and mainstream outlets like the New York Times, National Geographic and Hulu are actively developing for the platform with high hopes that it’s the next big thing.
In the theme park at the center of Westworld, you have every reason to question the nature of your reality upon first arriving, because you can’t quite believe your eyes. The stagecoaches, the six-shooters and the horses are all real—or real enough to fool you—and there are no nausea-inducing goggles or other constant reminders that it’s all a constructed reality that you’re paying $40,000 a day to experience.
And that $40,000 covers a lot. Within the show, a team of writers and producers have preloaded hundreds of lifelike android “hosts” with backstories and personalities. You can get into a bar fight with a local cowboy. You can consort with a prostitute in the brothel above the saloon. You can indulge your most hateful fantasies, and the hosts will scream and beg for their lives just like the real McCoy.
The hosts aren’t real. If you kill one of them, or 20 of them, the lab techs will clean them up, reset their memories and put them right back in their bed before morning. For the hosts as for the guests, tomorrow is a new day. This is a world with a long history and the ups and downs you would expect from a company that has spent years improving on this technological make-believe. Sometimes an update goes as planned, and other times it doesn’t.
In the earliest moments of the series, Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) tells one of her programmers that she has never questioned the nature of her reality, and I’m inclined to believe her. Even in safe mode, with her farmgirl accent turned off, Delores has a sweet, earnest disposition. She’s programmed to. “The newcomers are looking for the same place we are,” she says, “a place to be free to stake out our dreams, a place with unlimited possibilities.”
The hosts think they are as real as the guests—the better to convey an authentic experience—and that’s where things start to get complicated. Some of the hosts are beginning to remember glimpses of their previous stories. They’re not sure what to make of it, and it may be contagious.
The handlers’ spoken examinations of the android hosts will remind you of your pals Siri and Alexa.
This isn’t new territory. Films like Pinocchio, A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Blade Runner have been playing with the idea of lifelike creations that think they’re real. (One of the best films of 2015 was Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, which features android with a mind of her own and an instinct to survive.) It’s also an assimilation of the ideas behind co-creator and writer Jonathan Nolan’s greatest hits—from Memento’s fragmented memory to The Dark Knight’s surveillance state to Interstellar’s folding worlds—and it’s put together with endless raw material for the think-piece economy.
What’s fresh and alive about Westworld is watching the android hosts navigate first the possibility and then the reality that they are different from what they thought. This plays out slowly over the course of the first four episodes, and it will almost certainly continue to progress over the course of the 10-episode season and—HBO surely hopes—many seasons to come.
With True Detective, The Leftovers and Vinyl all failing to ignite over the last two years and Game of Thrones shifting from spring to summer next year, HBO’s hopes for a Very Important Program in the near term hang almost entirely on Westworld. The series mirrors Game of Thrones as a big, ambitious drama of ideas, as an ensemble set in a fully realized and highly stylized world, and as a flagship show in a hit-driven market of premium cable and streaming networks. But where GoT plays out Shakespearean drama on a medieval canvas, Westworld aspires to postmodern themes in a fictionalized near future.
The android hosts follow overlapping storylines like a Marvel-style cinematic universe. The park’s showrunner—which is exactly the right word for it—forces corrections onto those stories in the early episodes like a reality TV producer. The handlers’ spoken examinations of the android hosts are like psychotherapy and will remind you of your pals Siri and Alexa.
There are standout performances all over the first episode—Simon Quarterman as the showrunner, Evan Rachel Wood as a host who wouldn’t hurt a fly and, in a crackerjack scene near the end of the episode, Louis Herthum as her malfunctioning father. Anthony Hopkins plays the park’s creator and overseer with cold detachment toward the hosts he created.
HBO and the producers have all the pieces in place for Westworld to become a living, breathing hit.