Why 'Westworld' Makes for Disturbingly Great Television

SPOILER ALERT: The premiere episode is discussed in length.

When I watched Westworld yesterday, I didn't know much about it other than it's getting a lot of buzz since it's premiere this past Saturday as "must watch" TV.

I had also never watched the original 1973 film by the same name, written and directed by Jurassic Park author, Michael Crichton, that served as inspiration for this new HBO series so I went into this story unencumbered by expectations.

It didn't take long for me to conclude that Crichton must have a penchant for theme park backdrops because like Jurassic Park, Westworld is also an amusement park.

But this time, instead of ferocious dinosaurs on display, Westworld is a place where the rich and often deranged get to play out their 'wild west' fantasies on the most advanced and lifelike human robots (called hosts) ever made.

Taking place in the far off future when mankind has successfully eradicated disease, Westworld creator, Dr. Robert Ford, played incredibly by Anthony Hopkins, has taken life without consequences to the next level by allowing his wealthy attendees to do whatever they want during their visit to the park including rape, robbery and murder to their heart's content.

After all, these are only unfeeling robots that are getting the brunt of the abuse and their daily experience of life's most horrible atrocities will be wiped from their memory and their broken bodies will be repaired each evening.

Except their memories aren't really wiped clean.

Westworld's head programmer, Bernard Lowe, played with quiet intensity by Hunger Games' actor, Jeffrey Wright, explains to a lab colleague early on in the episode that Dr. Ford had included a surprise addition to the latest tech update coined Reveries. He describes them as even more lifelike gestures tied to specific memories the robot has stored deep within them until overwritten. He likens these remnant memories to the human subconscious.

So even though the robots won't have any recollection of the prior day's events when their memories are wiped clean each night, they still have those experiences stored within them.

When these memories will actually be overwritten wasn't fully explained although we can deduce it can take decades since one of the first malfunctioning robots was able to suddenly remember his days playing a Shakespeare quoting cannibal called the Professor, which occurred prior to his ten years as the town's sheriff and the last decade acting the role as rancher and protective father to our main character, the pretty and purpose-driven young robot, Dolores Abernathy, played seamlessly by Evan Rachel Woods.

But what we are told by the episode's end is that these Reveries are the cause of the malfunction and the effect are robots deviating from the carefully worded scripts programmed within them each night.

It's explained that each robot is programmed to follow the story scripts with only minor improvisations allowed. The robots are also specifically programmed to not be able to harm anything alive, which will clearly be put to the test in forthcoming episodes illustrated by Dolores' ability to kill a fly in this episode's last scene.

Although this is an unique story setting for television with the combination of futuristic sci-fi robots and the historic wild west, it's the deeper questions this story asks of us that makes it great television - the primary one being, have you ever questioned your reality?

It's hard not to notice the similarities between this faux world and our own. Robots are programmed with beliefs about themselves and the world we live in much like we are by our own families and society as a whole.

After all, science has confirmed that anything repeated to us by an authority figure during our early developmental years always become the adopted beliefs we have and the perimeters we use to view the world around us. Because of this, the majority of us haven't ever thought to question our own reality, unless something occurs within our life to give us a new perspective - similar to the addition of the Reveries to Westworld's robots.

Other intriguing questions posed within the narrative include the possible negative consequences of playing creator and God and the exploration of the often-misguided belief in our ability to control anything in life, amongst many, many others.

The script was beautifully written (albeit with the usually amount of belief suspension needed indicative of the Sci-Fi genre), beautifully acted and was filmed with equally beautiful landscape views; however, it was these deeper questions posed that kept me intrigued and watching the show.

Although I consider Westworld's premiere to be an example of great television, the disturbing treatment of the robots with the relentless violence was hard to bear at times. So the faint of heart, beware.

I also was left unable to truly connect with any of the characters between the sterile futuristic lab, the cold scientists and corporate management, and the chilly vacancy that was logically within each of the robots. There truly was little warmth and soul - even with Dolores - to be found in the story line. Since character is so important to the longevity of a television show, I'm wondering whether this story may be better suited for film or even a mini-series in the long run.

But in the end, the creativity and artistry shown in the story telling and the depth of the questions asked throughout it make at least showing up for episode two a no-brainer for me. I'm hoping the hurdles I mention above are overcome because it's rare to find a television show that has the audacity and ability to take on such complex questions. For this reason, I'm definitely rooting for it.