It’s the NBT, the great white hype, at least until next Tuesday. HBO’s latest nude shockfest, ‘Westworld,’ will, they hope, fill that Game of Thrones shaped hole in everybody’s lives. But amid all the carefully crafted excitement, isn’t there just the slightest sense that TV’s oft proclaimed ‘Golden Age’ might have passed its high water mark, that the arrival of ‘Westworld’ means it’s all downhill from here?
Why? Well, the ‘Golden Age’ of TV was signalled by the arrival of new shows which confounded jaded viewers by telling their stories in a frankly novelistic way which, while occasionally frustrating, was never less than compelling. Shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ could occasionally exasperate you with their non-linear storytelling, but the sheer newness of the style made it breathtaking. No one had ever dared tell stories in quite this way on TV before, and not alone was the method surprising, but (and here’s the thing) THE STORIES WERE NEW!
‘Westworld’ conforms to the eco friendly diktats of modern mediocre telly by being made up 100% recycled thoughts. It is a ‘reboot’ of a not very good 1973 sci fi movie by Michael Crichton, in which hedonistic, weirdly dopey tourists visit a resort staffed and people entirely by robots. They get to act out Wild West fantasies (surely a little dated by now, I would have thought), have sex with robot waitresses and kill robot gunfighters (who are of course programmed to lose, until things start getting hairy with the software).
The original movie is chiefly memorable for two things: Yul Brynner’s somewhat ahead of its time performance as a robotic killer, and a weird flash which takes place in the pupils of the robot waitress just after she has, er, entertained the main character. I’m not sure what the flash was supposed to signify. Was it the entry of a new and unexpected datum into the ‘girl’s’ cognitive matrix, or simply the most cunning way they could show in 1973 that actual coitus (or sort of coitus) had occurred?
And that’s pretty much it. A la the dinos in Jurassic Park, the robots eventually go nuts and start killing everybody. It would probably have been a much bigger surprise to the audience if they hadn’t. ‘Westworld’ is the latest in a raft of not very good ideas that have enjoyed an inexplicable second life. Some of them are just lucky like that: take a bow ‘A Team,’ ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’ ‘Starsky and Hutch,’ ‘Ghostbusters,’ ‘Ninja Turtles’ and all the rest.
One thing that perhaps deserves remark is the presence of JJ Abrams, currently the most powerful being in the celluloid universe, as executive producer on ‘Westworld.’ The curious bit is this: here he is again, helping fashion another tale about little artificial beings in an entirely artificial universe, yet another world in a bottle.
Abrams doesn’t just have form in this department, he seems to have a genuine thing for it. He made his name, after all, with ‘Lost,’ which was about a bunch of characters lost inside a contrived reality, shut off from the outside world, which might as well have been ‘Westworld.’ That series enjoyed a surge of popularity until it became evident that it couldn’t escape its own limited logic: in short, they couldn’t figure out a way to end it properly.
Whatever its flaws, ‘Lost’ proved itself a good Hollwyood idea by spawning a galaxy of lesser imitations, such as ‘Under The Dome,’ in which the main tension in every episode seemed to revolve around the question of ‘how the hell do we figure out a way to resolve this dome thing without looking even more ridiculous than we do already?’
Abrams went on to other, more elaborately fake universes. He was responsible for the Star Trek cinema reboot, deciding along the way that the original Star Trek Universe wasn’t artificial enough, so he had to invent an entirely new one. In case you missed it, because of torturously arcane (and actually pretty dodgy) plot points in the first Abrams movie, the new Kirk, Spock and Bones don’t inhabit the same Universe as their aged originals, but live in a parallel one, which may or may not be as or more real than the one they launched back in the 60’s, presumably depending on which version you personally accept as more real – the 1960’s TV series or the reboot (I know which version I’ve chosen).
‘Westworld’ feels like more of the same. When I was a kid, I used to like to imagine enclosed, artificial realities – tiny worlds in bottles I suppose – for my toy soldiers and the like to besport themselves around in, but I – er – kind of gave it up after the age of 10. Does it tell us something about Abrams, or the strange re-infantilisation of culture he and we inhabit, that these tiny worlds in bottles now come with hundred million dollar budgets and global marketing rights?
The global colossus that is Game of Thrones is basically a giant game of soldiers, albeit with loads of nudity and rather more gore than one forced one’s toys to engage in (I’d have ended up on the serial killer watch list). It is new only in the sense that its themes have never been shown in quite this way on TV before. But it remains true to current TV dogma by ‘sampling’ the incredibly rich storylines and characters in George RR Martin’s books.
What does it say about our species that we seem to prefer any artificial reality, even ones as bleak as Game of Thrones or as limited in horizon as ‘Under The Dome’ or ‘Westworld,’ to the one which is called real? Maybe we’ve had enough of this adulthood lark and decided to literally f*** it for a game of soldiers.
But whatever about all that, there’s money to be made. Anthony Hopkins clearly expects to live to be at least 250, and thus needs a pension plan that is correspondingly enormous (hence, presumably, his presence in Westworld), so it’s high time I got cracking. Here are some of my own proposed ‘reboots,’ or ‘re-heats’ of older TV stuff that wasn’t all that great to begin with. I’m reliably assured that this is the way to make it, and believe me, it took a long time to find stuff that hadn’t been ‘rebooted’ already.
1: Revenge On Walton Mountain
The entire Earth has been devastated by an apocalyptic plague. Johnboy, now the leader of a coven of polysexual nudists, returns to try and recapture the family mountain from an army of flesh eating zombies, led by a horrifyingly reanimated Grandpa.
2: How I Ate Your Mother
Gentle reality show where cannibals and former zombies share tales of past experiences in picturesque seaside hotels.
3. The Pukes of Hazzard
A laidback, carefree pair of rednecks drive their red car throughout America, drinking loads of Doctor Pepper and vomiting all over their victims.
4. The Flesh Prince of Bel Air
Will Smith, or whatever clone of him happens to be doing the rounds at the time, leads a hip bunch of teen zombies feasting on the bodies of the rich and famous.
5. Murder She Did
Elderly crime novelist Jessica Fletcher commits a new murder every week, then sets about cunningly pinning the deed on some washed up 80’s TV actor.
With all this artillery, I fully expect to be a billionaire by the end of next month, though 5 might be a bit on the cerebral side. Time to sit and wait for that phone to ring.