2016 was a strong year for good television. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver had one of its most vital and poignant seasons. Donald Glover made a timely, funny and honest sitcom about race in America with Atlanta. Netflix ushered in one of the most intriguing and, well, strangest new series with Stranger Things.
Despite the great successes these shows found, none were as big of a phenomenon as HBO’s Westworld. Westworld became an overnight sensation, with fans growing rapidly in size each week. In many ways, it stopped being a TV show and became a lifestyle.
It remains, without question, one of the most talked about series of 2016. From a ratings perspective, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead remain at the top of the chart — based on numbers that we get from Nielsen. Game of Thrones averaged more than 23 million viewers across all platforms during its most recent season. But while we have numbers for cable and premium cable networks, streaming services, like Netflix and Amazon Video, don’t have to provide data. We may never know just how big series like Stranger Things and The Grand Tour actually are.
What we do know is that Westworld had the biggest first season of any show in HBO history and scored an average of 12 million users a week. Even with its impressive numbers and fast growth in popularity that occurred over a few short weeks, Westworld is far from the best.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the first season of Westworld.]
Westworld is full of problems, but one of its biggest is that it didn’t figure out what type of show it wanted to be until around its sixth episode — and that’s being generous. We spend the first four episodes introducing various elements of each character, giving so much importance to everyone in the cast it’s hard for any one to stand out.
It starts off with two of the main hosts, Dolores and Teddy, but rapidly becomes about the park’s co-founder Arnold and lead engineer, Bernard. There’s also William and Logan, two visitors who become enamored with what the park offers. What about Maeve, the host who runs a local brothel? Maeve goes from being almost a minor character to one of the most crucial in a matter of a couple of episodes — from someone who has suspicions about what’s really happening within the theme park to the obvious leader of the host revolution against the humans who created them. Westworld got so caught up in trying to make sure everyone has their moment to shine, including characters like Lawrence, that it lost focus more often than not.
Westworld spent far too much time on the group of characters’ fact sheets instead of looking at the overall story until too late in the game. There were questions that went unanswered — like what happened to Elsie and Stubbs, two characters that mysteriously disappeared. Perhaps most concerning, there were too many moments where it felt like it was going to follow Lost into the abyss of never-ending hypotheses without ever finding out what happened.
Luckily, Westworld managed to avoid going down that route for the most part, but it felt far too much like a prequel for the next season. All 10 episodes of the first season felt like a prologue that had to be read before the reader could really get into the meat of the story. During the 90-minute finale, we got some insight into the point of the story that had been missing.
We learned that Dolores and Wyatt, a murderous host prototype, were interconnected, and that their slow rebellion was all a part of Ford’s new narrative he was writing for the park. We learned the elusive Man in Black was William, a time-hopping revelation that inspired an interesting backstory, but much too late to do anything with it. These moments should have happened earlier in the season so a story could have been built around characters’ responses and reactions, instead of just gimmicky revelations to appease an audience.
If the first season was learning the rules — the intricacies — of Westworld, the second season needs to be about why we should care about these characters and their stories.
The lack of feelings most of these characters elicited is another hurdle the show will have to address in its second season. It wasn’t that some were downright unlikable, like the Man in Black, but there just wasn’t enough storytelling happening within the reveals to start caring for the characters. We became so obsessed with trying to figure out what was going to happen next that we forgot the pawns in our game of chess were actual characters. Esquire’s Corey Atad wrote, “But where Westworld very nearly completely fails is that it is ultimately far more interested in being a prestige mystery box drama for a post-Lost, post-Game of Thrones age than actually being good art.”
Essentially, Westworld never says anything of importance. It dazzles us with mystery and gorgeous cinematography, but inevitable leaves us feeling empty due to the lack of storytelling.
Shows like Atlanta, Donald Glover’s dark comedy about trying to make it in the competitive world of hip-hop in Atlanta, had honest conversations about police brutality, poverty and racism in America. BoJack Horseman’s third season addressed issues like depression, alcoholism and drug addiction with an earnest and empathetic tone that most shows, animated or otherwise, fail to capture.
These are shows that started conversations about important topics relevant to issues that were occurring simultaneously in our society and, in that way, accomplished the same thing that classic series like All in the Family managed to do in the ‘70s. Television remained an important tool to have open conversations — just look at the episode on police brutality that Kenya Barris wrote for his series, Black-ish — but Westworld didn’t provoke important conversations; it simply entertained.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and I enjoyed it for what it was, but to call it the best show of 2016 would be disingenuous and wrong. It wasn’t until the final few episodes that Westworld seemed to really find its groove. And that was thanks to the online phenomenon surrounding the show more so than the quality of the storytelling itself.
I was someone who followed Westworld closely for a couple of reasons. It became the one show that almost everyone at Polygon was talking about and, we covered it, and its community, day in and day out. Simply put, it was my job to watch and obsess over Westworld with people. I was also a fan of the culture surrounding Westworld. I liked the weekly conversations about what some obscure reference could mean. As someone who grew up fixated with Lost, Westworld felt like a return to that time period.
There’s no question that what Westworld managed to accomplish this year is worthy of attention and praise, but to hold it to the same standard of other shows, like the refreshingly honest Insecure or the award-winning The People v OJ Simpson, is ridiculous. Westworld was entertaining television, in the same way that The Fast and Furious franchise is entertaining cinema; neither are great, but they’re exciting and beloved.
Westworld is being heralded as the series that could save HBO, with The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman calling it “precisely what HBO needed.” The question now is whether Westworld can sustain itself as something more than a weekly twist or reveal. Gimmicks only work for so long, and it already feels like Westworld has begun to overstay its welcome in that regard. The second season, which is due in 2018, will determine whether Westworld can become a great television series, or if it will suffer from an irreparable case of sophomore slump.
HBO doesn’t need another True Detective on its hands.