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19 October 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 12:09pm

Westworld looks sleek – shame its script is so dreadfully portentous

Whenever Anthony Hopkins appears, you’re only five ­seconds away from another lame aphorism. Plus: Divorce.

By Rachel Cooke

Three episodes in, and I have problems with Westworld (Tuesdays, 9pm), HBO’s sprawling beast of a new drama, not least that it’s hard to care about a load of robots, not one of whom has a tenth of the personality of C-3PO, or even K9. But in the end it all comes down to one thing: disbelief. I cannot suspend mine for more than two minutes, mostly because barely a line of it makes any sense. Do its writers imagine that by throwing in the occasional allusion to Shakespeare, their baffled audience will be intimidated into thinking they know exactly what they are doing? I suppose they must. How else to explain its strutting ­self-regard, its unflinching conviction that no human being would ever be tempted to question its cleverness?

Westworld began in the UK last month to record ratings (for Sky Atlantic) and some swooning from the critics. Like Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name, it is set in the future at a theme park where rich people – men, mostly – pay $40,000 a day to play at being cowboys. Off a white bullet train they hop, and straight into costume, where an overalled lovely helps them pick out boots, a hat and a gun. The rest is up to them. How badly behaved do they want to be? The park is populated by “hosts”, lifelike robots who are there to cater to their every fantasy; various narratives (“loops”) are endlessly in play, in which the visitors (“newcomers”) may take part, or not, as they please. They can, for instance, ride out into the desert for a little light bounty hunting. Or they can stay in town, drinking at a brothel whose madam is a cyborg played by Thandie Newton. Either way, what they’ll mainly be doing is shooting people, or having sex with them. For the business executive with a bad case of ennui, it’s miles better than paintballing.

But . . . oh dear. Isn’t there always trouble with robots? And isn’t the trouble usually that they threaten to take over, having developed desires of their own? So it is at this theme park, which has been in business for 30 years. Down the decades, the robots’ emotional acuity has been modified to the point of incipient consciousness, and a few are now going rogue – though visitors can also go AWOL. One newcomer, who looks like he was dressed by the designer Tom Ford in his Black Tractor Period and is played by Ed Harris, has decided he has had enough of the park’s storylines. He’s in search of the maze at its heart, a map of which he has found – ta dah! – under the scalp of one of the hosts. It’s a mantra of mine that ­anything with a maze in it should be treated with deep scepticism by grown adults.

Westworld looks expensive: its 3-D printers are as sleek as Ferraris, its frontier towns swarm with extras. This only makes its highly contingent plot – backstories and pseudo-scientific facts appear from nowhere whenever the writers find themselves in a cul-de-sac – seem weirder. And if some of its impulses are vaguely satirical – the park’s boss (Sidse Babett Knudsen of Borgen) is such a corporate bitch that she, too, might be a cyborg – it also has a dreadfully portentous side. Whenever Anthony Hopkins appears, playing Dr Robert Ford, the creator of the robots, you’re only five ­seconds away from another lame aphorism.

What to say about another hyped HBO series, Divorce (Tuesdays, 10.10pm)? The first episode, filthy and funny, could only have been by Sharon “Catastrophe” Horgan. But the second (co-written by Horgan and Paul Simms) had a more uneven tone, much of the filth and fun having skedaddled faster than the sex life of Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church) once other writers joined the party. Still, I’m sticking with it: not for SJP, but for THC, the real star of this piece about a separating couple.

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He plays Robert, a builder in a swank suburb of New York, as a shouty plank. “Is that a euphemism for butt play?” he yells, on hearing of his wife’s lover’s fondness for home-made granola. Yet there’s a vulnerability there, too. Beyond his wooden exterior is a lonely, humiliated man who learned most of what he knows about women from the late albums of Yes. 

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This article appears in the 19 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood