Seriously. I don’t give a hoot. By comparison, six episodes into The Sopranos, I was in love with everything about the show. I wanted to move to North Jersey and feast on pasta fazool. Six episodes into Game of Thrones, I was full-on addicted and ready to don some stinky, lived-in leathers and start slicing up members of rival royal houses.
But with Westworld, despite the gifted actors and lavish sets, I remain distinctly uncompelled.
Here’s why –- nothing matters. It’s a basic rule of dramatic writing that conflict requires stakes. If the hero doesn’t storm the tower and defeat the beast, the princess dies. And we don’t want that. No, not that sweet princess. We need her to live. If Captain Miller and his squad don’t find Private Ryan before the Germans do, his mother back in Kansas will suffer a grief too onerous to bear. Not just for her, but for us. We don’t want to see that sweet woman cry.
But when Ed Harris draws his gun to shoot it out with a bunch of badasses in a town called Pariah, we ask ourselves ... Who gives a hoot? After all, they’re just robots. They don’t have moms or sweethearts or kids. And the one living, breathing human in the fight – Harris -- can’t be killed. Guns don’t work on him. So the stakes are low and the shootout doesn’t matter. There is action, yes, but we’re not watching to see what happens next. We know what happens next – Harris shoots them all down without breaking a sweat. We’re just watching him go through the motions.
To be fair, I do actually care about Thandie Newton’s character -- the hooker with a pre-programmed heart. As she has acquired memories, sought her origin, and started to see herself as oppressed, I’ve actually begun to give a hoot about her. I want her to survive and escape her oppression, which means I’m somewhat invested. But Thandie’s curious saloon gal can’t save this slow-moving show all by herself, nor can she justify the fact that I’ve spent almost the equivalent of a full work day watching Westworld while waiting for stuff to matter.
It just goes to show that good acting won’t keep you glued to the screen without dramatic situations that grab you by the lapels. I mean -– do I really care if Jeffrey Wright finds out who’s secretly communicating with a bunch of automatons? He’s lost his son and his romantic relationship with his taciturn boss. What more can happen to him? Not much. And if there isn’t more to lose, there aren’t stakes. And without stakes, as I said, there’s no drama.
Anthony Hopkins walking around saying cryptic things? So what? Evan Rachel Wood staring off into the western sky while struggling to understand why people talk to her like she’s a piece of furniture? They do it because she’s an object, of course; she just doesn’t know yet. Which brings up another problem Westworld has in spades –- we’re ahead of the characters. We know lots more than they do. And that breaks another crucial dramatic writing rule -- characters should always be ahead of us. That makes us want to tag along.
I suspect that recorded episodes of Westworld will likely pile up in my DVR cue until after Christmas, when I may find the time to go back and peek at how they finished the season. But even if it drastically improves, I’ve paid too great a price in time for it to all be worthwhile. Like Ed Harris’ character – and Ed Harris himself -- I’m lost in a drama-less maze and I can’t find my way out.
* BTW, can I just mention -- I'm appearing at THE WRITERS STORE in Burbank on November 19 @ 2PM to talk about Bring the Funny. I'll also teach a short, FREE comedy screenwriting class. Love to seeya there. You can register here!