When HBO decided to make a series adaptation of the 1973 Michael Crichton film Westworld, they followed the wise words of another Crichton creation/theme park enthusiast John Hammond: They spared no expense.
It’s no coincidence the the show’s long-awaited premiere (which is earning excellent notices from critics) comes after Game of Thrones finally put in place its exit strategy. Like many groundbreaking television series (The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men etc.), HBO announced its juggernaut fantasy drama would end after two shortened seasons, giving them (what turned out to be very necessary) breathing room to produce this expensive Western/sci-fi mashup.
HBO is in a precarious place. Several projects have run into production or money trouble recently amidst a change in management. Besides Thrones and now Westworld, HBO is coming the $100 million failure of its 1970s music drama Vinyl and only has two other dramas: True Detective and The Leftovers. The former, so insurgent in its first season, died on the vine with its second and, over a year later, a third has still not been announced. The latter, an intense meditation on grief, had two critically acclaimed seasons that were so low-rated the show is ending with its third, to air this fall.
Perhaps the biggest reason Westworld is HBO’s Next Big Thing is because the network needs it to be; nothing gets things done like tunnel vision. To that end, the show matched the material with high-minded and popular writers/producers, a cast of movie stars and beloved actors, an elaborate genre conceit befitting its budget, large and heady themes and televised cinematic storytelling on a scale rarely attempted.
In short, it did everything to flop-proof this show, with Thrones as its guide . Here are 5 ways HBO is following the Thrones model for success (Fun fact: they even share the same composer, Ramin Djawadi!)
5. Adaptation of popular source material by cerebral writers/producers
One way Westworld is like Thrones is branding. Both the 1973 film and A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin’s book series, upon which the projects are respectively based, carried brand recognition and a preconceived template to draw on for stories, themes and characters. In another way, it’s the role J.J. Abrams serves here. I’m not sure how much work he actually did on the series but, regardless, his name carries a lot of weight. Already, when pitching such a project, that’s half the work.
The other half is who is actually giving the pitch. Thrones masterminds David Benioff & D.B.Weiss were accomplished writers prior to reading Martin’s books and seeking to adapt them but neither had ever been showrunners before, let alone ones at the helm of the biggest TV series in history. Not to say experience predicates smooth sailing. Jonathan Nolan created and ran Person of Interest for a number of years on CBS, grinding through upwards of 20 episodes a season and he still wasn’t prepared for the mammoth undertaking that was Westworld, hence the two-month production shutdown earlier this year to finish the final scripts. The four episodes that have screened for critics have earned stellar notices and any course correction from the delay won’t be apparent (if at all) until the back-half of the season. First season production troubles bonds it further to Thrones (ex: the excised Battle of Green Fork)
4. Big ideas and themes
The initial synopsis released over two years ago when initial development began talked about “a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin,” which is such hilariously grand and vague language I applaud its appropriate Nolan-isms. The aim seems clear: to anchor a fantastical tale of robots with an elemental story a la the Garden of Eden.
Jonathan’s more famous brother, Christopher the Director (he’s a little like Thomas the Tank Engine) is a large reason words like “dark,” “gritty” and “realistic” have been attached to several genre projects over the years. Thrones is one such project. Pitched originally as “The Sopranos in Middle-earth,” it, like the books it is based on, takes a standard Medieval fantasy setting and deconstructs it, making it more like our world and thus, more relatable.
Case in point, no one reading this is android (or are you?) and yet, in a noticeable shift from Westworld film-to-show, the protagonists are no longer the tourists – the supposedly normal people just visiting – but the androids, who are used, abused and “killed” on a daily basis. This shift is embodied by the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner in the original, Ed Harris in the series), who is no longer a human-killing robot host but a android-killing human visitor.
It’s telling that, like Thrones, it depicts a shift in popular culture, from identifying with the visitors of Westworld to identifying with the android hosts, who are only now “waking up” to the fact they live in a fantasy. This is a point summarized beautifully by Christopher Orr in The Atlantic, where he writes in a preview of the first few episodes, “Even as we watch the androids become more human, we watch the human beings become less so.”
3. Fantastical world full of deconstructed genre conventions
Just how Game of Thrones isn’t about dragons but the nature of power (among other things), Westworld isn’t about the robots, it’s about the nature of sin. But let’s be real, the dragons and robots are essential.
These projects need more than big ideas – they need big hooks, central conceits so extravagant they demand attention. For Thrones, the conceit there is the world of Westeros, which, while quite like our own Medieval times, just so happens to include dragons, giants, zombies, tree-elves and ice demons. The titular theme park is obviously the conceit here, a virtual reality populated by androids with dawning artificial intelligence.
It’s worth noting that the original film featured multiple time periods for its parks, including ancient Rome. With a 5-7 season plan supposedly in place, could future seasons see shifts to different periods? The danger with such genre elements is they can become unrestrained and overwhelm any suspense or drama in a story. Fortunately, connected to the aforementioned big ideas, this robot becomes more than the sum of its parts. It just needs to be actualized . . .
2. A sprawling cast
. . . And that’s the job of these guys.
For the behemoth it became, Game of Thrones didn’t start out with a huge budget. Its initial casting, while excellent, was economical. It’s almost like Moneyball how they raided the cupboard for underutilized actors, both old (Charles Dance and Julian Glover) middle-aged (Sean Bean, the Lannister siblings, Jason Momoa) and young (Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, the Stark kids), those whom Peter Dinklage’s beloved dwarf Tyrion Lannister referred to affectionately as “cripples, bastards and broken things.”
Those monikers work well here for this diverse cast, with HBO most notably nabbing Anthony Hopkins in his first series regular role. He’s joined by film stars Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton and Ed Harris, with support from Tessa Thompson, Rodrigo Santoro, Jimmi Simpson, Ben Barnes and Clifton Collins, Jr. among others. With such an embarrassment of acting riches, the real challenge will be balancing them all. Can the show and its performers invest us equally in both the human and android characters? A potent dramatic question leading into the premiere.
1. Big-budget, cinematic storytelling
Game of Thrones didn’t just open doors to large-scale cinematic storytelling on television. It burned them to the ground with dragon fire (‘dracarys!’). It took a while to build that particular beast. What makes Westworld different is that it is purposefully engineered to be a blockbuster from the beginning.
Looking at that insane vista in the above photo, I’m struck by how the wide shot conveys the scale of not only the fictional theme park but of the show itself. Like Stranger Things, we’re now on the side of making episodic films. It’s telling that the Duffer brothers, the creators/showrunners of that show, refer to the second season as a sequel and cite Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Aliens and T2 as examples. Excitement among my friends and on social media for both Stranger Things and Thrones rivaled that of any film in theaters last summer. This merger of storytelling is the next wave of the small-screen future, the blockbusters of television.
And while my greedy self enjoys the binge model of Netflix and spends his waking hours perusing the latest film/TV news, I am relieved Westworld will unspool episodically. It adds currency to the conversation to wait a week and build buzz between chapters. Serial stories still have a special place.
Westworld premieres Oct. 2 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Follow me @Samflynn1992 for reviews and coverage of the sci-fi drama.