What Is "Westworld"?
I first heard of Westworld when Pavement's Stephen Malkmus sang about the 1973 sci-fi film in "Jo Jo's Jacket," a song off his debut solo record. "My name is Yul Brynner," Malkmus crooned, taking on the persona of the mid-century movie star who headlined the film. "And I am a famous movie star / Perhaps you saw me in Westworld / I acted like a robotic cowboy / It was my best role."
The People Behind It
I then realized the film was written and directed by Michael Crichton, the novelist behind a number of books that thrilled me as a child, and which found their way onto the silver screen: Sphere, Congo, and, of course, Jurassic Park. Now, HBO has brought Westworld back into my life, premiering a new show inspired by the film this Sunday night.
HBO has been keeping things cryptic with the trailers for "Westworld." This behind-the-scenes look that the network just released finally offers up some details about what the show is all about.
And it looks to be no small affair. Jonathan Nolan (writer of The Dark Knight and brother of its director, Christopher Nolan) and J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Lost) are serving as executive producers, and HBO is said to be dedicating quite a serious portion of its treasure chest to the show.
What's It About?
According to Lisa Joy, the show's creator and executive producer, "Westworld" asks, "What are the responsibilities when you create a new technology?"
Westworld takes place in a near-future where lifelike artificial intelligence has been designed to meet our every need. The name itself refers to an amusement park where people go to live out a Wild West fantasy in a setting populated by androids who don't even know that they exist merely for the entertainment of the park's attendees. (Sounds like a real-life Grand Theft Auto, essentially.) From what little the network has released about the show, it seems that the central conflict of the show is going to be: What happens when the A.I. stops playing along?
The Shows That Came Before It
With a budget rivaling a Hollywood summer blockbuster, Westworld is a risk for HBO, and it joins a long history of networks taking a chance on expensive sci-fi shows...to very mixed results.
And now, a look back at some of TV's many high-risk (and, occasionally, high-reward) efforts in science fiction.
Premise: A plane crashes on a desert island, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves. And the island has more than its fair share of mysteries.
Brains behind it: J.J. Abrams
Cost per episode: $4 million
The result: Lost was a massive hit, and positioned show creator Abrams to make his leap into even bigger Hollywood material, going on to direct both the Star Wars and Star Trek reboots.
Premise: With its temporal rifts, time streams, and pilgrimages across parallel universes, this show seems to have been guilty of getting ahead of itself from the very start.
Brains behind it: From creator Kelly Marcel and executive producer Steven Spielberg
Cost per episode: $4 million
The result: One of the most infamous bombs in television history. (The pilot episode cost $10 million to produce.) The show was cancelled after just one season.
Premise: Mind-wiping technology has created human-for-rent facilities, and laid the groundwork for the end of the world.
Brains behind it: Joss Whedon
The result: As any Joss Whedon fan would readily tell you, everything Joss made is crucial, especially when considered in the context of his oeuvre. This one only lasted two seasons, but continues to find viewers in the rabid fans of the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers.
Premise: World War II, alien life, and a presidential assassination plot all converge—and it's all mainly told through flashbacks. Some viewers were confused.
Brains behind it: Creator Nick Wauters and executive producer Evan Katz (of 24 fame)
Cost per episode: Production numbers are elusive, but rumor has it they spent at least $15 million on marketing alone
The result: The show started strong, but ratings dwindled until it was cancelled after the first season.
Premise: A misfit scientist and his son join forces with the FBI to investigate weird crimes, with the assumption that they might all be connected. Sounds like we're trusting no one, in the X-Files spirit!
Brains behind it: J.J. Abrams, once again
Cost per episode: $4 million
The result: Fringe stayed on the air for five seasons, despite its high production costs, scoring its share of award nominations in the process.
Premise: Almost everyone on the planet loses consciousness simultaneously for about two minutes, during which time they have visions of the near-future. The show follows a few people connected by this mysterious occurrence.
Brains behind it: Brannon Braga (executive producer of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey) and David S. Goyer (the screenwriter behind Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy)
Cost per episode: Enough to pay for a whole bunch of lasers and explosions, and to convince Joseph Fiennes to star in it, aka Too Much.
The result: The ratings were a steady decline, and the show never saw a second season.
Premise: A remake of the '70s show of the same name, Bionic Woman follows a woman who emerges from a near-fatal car accident as an enhanced being, and uses her newfound powers for good.
Brains behind it: Creator David Eick (executive producer of the Battlestar Galactica spinoff Caprica)
Cost per episode: $6 million
The result: The pilot alone is rumored to have cost close to $7.5 million, and with a writers' strike after only a few episodes, this show never got back up and running.
Westworld premieres at 9 p.m. EST this Sunday night, October 2, on HBO. For more, see hbo.com.