HBO’s newest entry into their fine lineup of prestige dramas, Westworld, aired its first episode last night. Long has the show been the topic of conversation, for everything from its remarkable cast and impressive storytelling ideas to its overly long production and ever-changing development status. If early critical reactions are any indication, it will have been worth the wait.
There are plenty of reasons to get pumped about Westworld: the cast (Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, just to name a few), HBO sparing no expense to develop it into their next mega-hit in the fashion of a Game Of Thrones, and of course the material itself. Based off of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name, Westworld revolves around a theme park in the future that sets you in different time periods (particularly the old-west of the 1800’s here) and is inhabited by artificially intelligent beings.
Anyone can see that premise is rife with endless creative opportunities to expand upon. Yet one of the the biggest reasons why you should be brimming with enthusiasm for this show is one that doesn’t seem to get mentioned as much: Jonathan Nolan. The brother of celebrated director Christopher Nolan is, along with his wife Lisa Joy, showrunning Westworld. If that doesn’t immediately have you nodding your head in approval, let me tell you why it should.
Jonathan Nolan has long been a writer whose influence has spread through Hollywood. He has gotten some recognition from being associated with his brother’s films, but his importance in the development of them often feels overlooked. Christopher’s breakthrough hit, 2000’s Momento, was based on a short story written by Jonathan which was later published in a March 2001 edition of Esquire magazine. They both got an Oscar nomination for writing it. He then went on to co-write the screenplay to 2006’s The Prestige, which I will argue is one of the best films to come out this millennium. By the way, if you haven’t seen that, do yourself a favor.
He followed that by again writing a couple of screenplays with his brother, this time for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Pretty well-received films, those two. Then they co-wrote Interstellar. You see the pattern here. Jonathan Nolan has been instrumental in the creation of some of the best films of the past 15 years. Not to mention he created CBS’ Person Of Interest, a recently-concluded action/crime-drama series that starred Jim Caviezal and earned pretty much unanimous praise by television critics throughout its run. And now, he’s onto running Westworld for HBO. Working with his wife sounds like a dream and for a show that is already garnering controversy over its violence, specifically sexual violence, it is appropriate that a woman is a central creative figurehead.
Yet having a great showrunner doesn’t always necessarily equate to a good end product: one need only look at HBO’s latest supposed sure-fire hit drama, Vinyl, to realize that. Executive produced by headlining heavy-hitters like Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, Vinyl tapped HBO’s own prodigal son Terrence Winter to captain the ship. If you are not familiar with Winter, he made his name as one of the lead writers for The Sopranos. His influence on the show increased as time went on, with HBO adding him eventually as an executive producer. He is widely recognized as one of the show’s largest creative contributors. After that, he went on to create and act as showrunner on the excellent, if underappreciated, Boardwalk Empire. And, if that isn’t good enough for you and you want more credentials, he wrote Scorcese’s 2013 film The Wolf Of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Basically, when it comes to making a TV show, Winter is thought to be a sure thing.
Not only did Vinyl have Winter on board, it seemingly had a fool-proof story to build around. A TV show about the drug-fueled music industry (particularly the rock music industry) of the 1970’s? On HBO? It sure seems like that would be kind of hard to get wrong, inviting elements that have made work like that of Scorsese’s and his peers so relevant and entertaining to be utilized. Company man Bobby Cannavale was tapped for the lead role too, fresh off of his Emmy winning portrayal of an Italian mobster figure in the aforementioned Boardwalk Empire and a steadily rising film career. The rest of the cast wasn’t too shabby either. But we all know what happened to Vinyl. Not everybody hated it, but it was far from a critical or financial success by any means. An underwhelming first season and some creative disputes saw Terrence Winter quit the show, and despite initial efforts to continue without him, HBO knew they weren’t going to be able to replace him and ended up just cutting their losses. Vinyl was cancelled.
‘Why does this guy keep talking about Vinyl?’ you might be asking. Two reasons 1) After Vinyl crashed and burned, HBO really really need Westworld to be a hit and 2) hiring a good showrunner is probably the biggest factor in whether that will happen (think of it as the equivalent of how important a director is in determining the quality of a film). Nothing is completely sure to be good, especially not in the madhouse of TV and movie-making that is Hollywood. That said, if your show is going to be of any quality, you need to have the right guy running it. With Westworld, it seems to me that Jonathan Nolan is about as close as you can get to a guaranteed ‘right guy.’
By looking through his professional catalogue, it’s clear Nolan has a penchant for the kind of imposing, mind-bending storytelling required to make a show like Westworld successful. Not only is he a terrific and cerebral writer, but he has experience in crafting both sci-fi and more human-level drama effectively. Watching to see how these two styles are intertwined and conveyed onscreen in the development of this series should be truly captivating for us to watch. So, yes, be excited about the cast. Be excited about the story. Be excited about HBO’s commitment to making this show great. But also be excited that the show is in fantastic hands with Jonathan Nolan showrunning.