TV Features

HBO Says "Westworld" Is Too Complex for Casual Fans, But It Might Just Be Bad

What makes a show "not for casual viewers," anyway?


HBO wants to be clear: Westworld Season 3 won't be your daddy's Westworld.

It won't be the Westworld you know, either. HBO's official trailer for the show's newest season, subtitled "The New World," promises a vastly different show than the one viewers originally tuned into during 2016.

Gone are the days of exploring the show's titular Wild West-themed amusement park with young and old William (Jimmi Simpson/Ed Harris), and watching android hosts Dolores, Maeve, and Bernard learn the truth of their existence. Season 3 will finally bring those characters outside the futuristic amusement park company Delos' control after the violent host uprising that dominated the show's first 20 episodes. At last, we'll enter the show's futuristic "real" world, but unless executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have changed their tune, viewers are in for another confusing season of a series that HBO has branded as "not for casual viewers."

Westworld HBO

That identifier stems from criticism of Westworld's majorly complicated timeline, which unofficially spans nearly 40 years and is told far out of chronological order throughout its first two seasons. In April 2018, Variety wrote that the production "seems to have too much faith viewers will be willing to absorb storylines that can border on the incomprehensible," and doubted whether the show could ever reach Game of Thrones-levels of popularity. When company president Casey Bloys was pressed on this issue in July of that year, he disagreed that criticism of the show was "widespread" and declared that the series "requires your attention."

It's one thing to create a niche piece of media; it's another entirely for HBO to deflect criticism of a show that reportedly cost $100 million to produce and mark it as something a "casual viewer" may not want to engage with.

What makes a show or film "not for casual viewers," anyway? Is it non-linear storytelling? A large ensemble cast? Or is it defined by the culture that its fans create? These days, we have a whole genre of YouTube videos that "explain" entire seasons of shows just so audiences can remember what they already watched in the first place before diving back in. Spotify lists over a dozen Westworld-dedicated podcasts on its streaming platform. The show's fan community on Reddit boasts 675k subscribers ahead of the new season.

Westworld is not the first prestige television show to delve into multiple timelines or utilize a large ensemble cast, though. It's not even unique among recent HBO programming. Fans didn't balk at Thrones' initially deep barrier to entry. They indulged in Westeros' detailed fictional history, allowing HBO to create a cultural and ratings juggernaut out of George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series. The network didn't simply wave off a show with over 50 main characters as too hard for "casual viewers" to understand—and those "casual viewers" attended watch parties and trivia nights across the country to celebrate the show's final season last spring.

Years before Thrones, ABC's Lost mired itself in multiple timelines and held perplexing mysteries over viewers' heads during its six-season run on basic cable to massive critical and popular success. It juggled more than two dozen characters and garnered an insatiable audience that precluded both Westworld and Thrones—all without any pre-existing source material. Lost raked in 16 million viewers on average in its first season and reached 14 million for its series finale six years later. For all the divisive opinions on its conclusion, nobody could claim the show was only for a "hardcore" television audience.

Perhaps better examples of media made "not for casual viewers" lies in film, wherein certain movies have made a strong case for adding extra homework on top of a simple viewing.

Poe Dameron Disney

2006's Southland Tales, written and directed by Richard Kelly (of Donnie Darko fame), was preceded by a three-part series of graphic novels that told the first half of the film's story. Yes, viewers needed to read three graphic novels just to begin the movie on even footing. It sounds like a crazy marketing strategy at first, but then just over a decade later, Disney and Lucasfilm started employing similar tactics concerning Star Wars. Novels, comic books, and television shows now create backstories for Disney-era characters like Poe Dameron and fill in major gaps between the sequel trilogy films.

Still, this kind of franchise expansion doesn't always necessitate that you consume all Star Wars-related media. You don't need to plow through Rebels just to understand the original trilogy, but doing so provides plot details that might be helpful to know before watching The Rise of Skywalker. Nobody at Lucasfilm would claim Star Wars "isn't for casual viewers," though, and Episode IX's 86 percent audience score on RottenTomatoes seems to indicate casual fans found no problem with it even without the extra information available in ancillary spin-offs.

It's easy to understand why HBO might say a show like Westworld demands the viewer's full attention and interest. However, it's not the only franchise out there with a lengthy cast list, endless moving parts, and shocking twists and turns—and if Game of Thrones and Star Wars don't identify as too difficult for a "casual" audience to understand, what makes Westworld special? Is there really room for media dedicated specifically to audiences willing to pay that much attention, or is it okay to admit that a show or film might just not make enough sense to work as intended? Maybe it just depends on how many podcasts and episode breakdowns viewers are willing to wade through. Or perhaps Westworld just didn't make sense in the first place.

Roll Out the Red Carpet!

The Emmys are Monday Night

Clear your schedule for the Emmy Awards tomorrow night.

It's the big 7-0! That's right, Emmy looks good for it's age, no? That's Hollywood for ya. And this year, television's biggest night is as exciting as ever, with a star-studded show set for Monday night, on NBC at 8 PM EST from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

The Primetime Emmy Awards will be hosted by SNL's Colin Jost and Michael Che, bringing the funny to the forefront, keeping the night moving and viewers from tuning out after the show starts getting long.

The hosts with the most...Che and Jost

From comedy to casting, drama to documentary, lead actor to limited series, and much more, the night will have fans and famous folks at the edge of their seats, glued to their sets and the stage, waiting to cheer for winners and watch for looks of disappointment on the faces of those who weren't chosen this year. Oh, but "it's an honor to have been among this exceptional group of talent," right?

But we've got to give a shout out to a few of this year's hottest shows. As per Variety, "HBO's Game of Thrones led the pack with 22 nods, the most for any series. NBC's Saturday Night Live and HBO's Westworld trailed close behind with 21 each." With so many noms, these shows are sure to take home at least something shiny.

22 noms...not too shabby

So, before you tune in Monday night, get familiar with which stars are in the running for the major categories - that's what everyone is tuning in for, let's get real. Below are this year's best and brightest, all hoping to be recognized for their respective craft and earn even more credibility in their career.

Keep Reading Show less

SATURDAY FILM SCHOOL | Westworld's' New Game Isn't in Our Favor

Looks like the robots and humans aren't getting along in Westworld season two.

HBO's 'Westworld'

Are you the white or black hat?

There aren't many shows that try to enact what consumerism looks like when it's filtered through a salable narrative. According to Westworld, a sci-fi offering on HBO created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, people are always willing to sell their freedom if they're sold the right dream. And Westworld knows a few things about dreams: they compel you even though they aren't real.

More than any other sci-fi, Westworld is fixated on what's real and what's fake, what it looks like when a product or dream goes bad. Westworld is a show of dichotomies: moments of sheer beauty paired with equally fascinating ugliness; moments of good and moments of unthinkable evil. Throughout, the entire series is a reminder of how grand life is and just how bleak and visceral death is—the latter presenting a permanent exit from something utterly mystifying in its wake. Life, for many us, is defined by various conditions, standards, and years—living, after all, is synonymous with surviving. Westworld is about survival just as much as it is about what it means to be human (good or bad). Presented as a highbrow sci-fi (or body horror with high production values),

Westworld returns for season 2, maintaining its philosophical puzzles: Can man-made objects develop consciousness? Is consciousness or the ability to remember the only thing that makes us human? Should we, as humans, define what type of consciousness counts as a living entity? These conceits in Westworld are sometimes bogged down by clunky writing, veering into incoherent plotlines that cheapen the park's immersive qualities. When you really sink in, however, Westworld is the most evocative show on TV.

But all its attractions, land, robots, and team of research engineers, visual merchandisers, product designers, and code writers look really expensive. Sometimes the logistics of the park don't add up. Are viewers really led to believe that Westworld is bigger than three Puerto Ricos? (Also, you're telling me the park can afford to pay all these employees…they have to be hosts, right? I mean, I don't support robot genocide or anything, but you'd have to pay me a pretty penny to not question it at all.) Season two is certainly writing in particular plot holes, opening new ones, taking its time with Dolores and her descent into total robot insanity, but its first episode establishes that the park no longer belongs to the humans. An amusement park, designed to cater to and exploit humanity's most basic instincts and desires, is now a nightmare museum where human guests run for their lives.

The robots are out for blood, and most of the guests thought they were signing up for a glorified escort resort. Evan Rachel Wood as the virginal damsel, Dolores, turned schizophrenic revolutionary/mass murderer has a way of switching her face from the loving rancher's daughter to the callous Wyatt. The women in Westworld mirror current social dialogues positioned by the #MeToo Movement, #TimesUp and, naturally, any feminist ever. Like Game of Thrones, Westworld is a little indulgent when they do show just how disposable the robots' bodies, particularly of the women, are in a world that devalues them. When Dolores does abandon the damsel dress—she's ruthless. She's unforgiving and her punishments, even in their most extreme moments, are fair. Thandie Newton as Maeve is still emotionally charged, but her romance with Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) is a Titanic-level love story that feels out of place in a world that's mostly coding.

Season 2 is about our genocide and what it means when we're outsmarted as gods. It didn't take long for Westworld to skip the formalities of that exchange and it appears the terms of its service agreement are - spoiler alert - not in the guests' favor. Intellectual property is the park's true mission, extracting and collecting DNA from all guests who enter the park. Yep, it's the Facebook of amusement parks—who's already rooting for the Man in Black (Ed Harris)? All genetic property the park amasses is theirs to keep and theirs to use, however they please. Another show about the game of life, the game of power, and the game of intelligence, Westworld is just as complex and cerebral, but it's starting to get to the nitty-gritty of what it all means in the end, one fallen body at a time.

POP⚡DUST Score: ⚡⚡⚡⚡⚡

Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.

POPDUST | Read More…

Spoiler Alert: The Handmaid's Tale S2E1

BOX OFFICE BREAKDOWN | Super heroes and super bad jokes

THE REAL REEL | It Doesn't Matter If You Loved This Film Or Not...

Why is America Already Tired of Amy Schumer?


What Blade Runner 2049 teaches us about humanity

What does Blade Runner 2049 teaches us about the nature of humanity?

Warner Bros.

What, exactly, does it mean to be human anymore?

In most cases, these shows and films explore futures where human bodies are invaded and discarded for some type of material gain, and in most cases, the bodies experiencing invasion are those of women.

When Ridley Scott's original Blade Runner was released in 1982 the film received lukewarm box office reviews, and was later praised by film theorists and critics for its sci-fi noir depiction of replicated human slaves in a grungy, far-off future. Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 faced a similar slow-burn in movie sales, with critics not entirely sure if the film was a sequel, a stand alone film, or a cash grab to revive a movie franchise that barely had any mainstream momentum from the start.

So, what gives? Why didn't Ryan Gosling as K, a solemn, heartthrob blade runner not bring in more moviegoers? Do people no longer care about sci-fi films and Ryan Gosling's face, or is the abject horror of being replaced by replicant humans with superhuman strength and intellect no longer a threat to the average American with Trump in office?

The truth of the matter is that Blade Runner 2049 is an excellent movie—with or without soaring box office numbers—that is a patient and evocative study on the human condition and the nature of human connection.

Ryan Gosling as K (Warner Bros.)

Villeneuve and producers went out of their way to protect the secret mystery of his sequel, but it's not as juicy as you'd suspect: replicants are capable of reproducing and are therefore full-fledged beings with agency and power. This places mankind and replicants in a sticky situation since those only "born" have a soul—or at least that's what we humans have been told.

What unfolds is a poetic exploration of the small stories humans tell ourselves to keep moving forward, how we are wired to pull from our pasts to build the fabric of our futures. The original Blade Runner focused on the emotional capacities of humans like the ability to love, the ability to develop a moral compass, and the ability to sacrifice yourself for a greater cause. Blade Runner 2049 posits another theory where humans rely on memory and storytelling to build their personhood—replicants have implanted memories designed to construct their inner narratives.

Along the way there are holographic girlfriends who cater to customers' needs, gigantic holographic ads displaying naked women, and rogue "retires" who are fighting in resistance to bioengineered slaved labor.

Ryan Gosling as K (Warner Bros.)

For movie buffs, you may find yourself thinking about David Cronenberg's—the father of body horror—Existenz (1999), or another Ridley Scott picture, Alien (1979), which was met with higher box office numbers than Blade Runner; but more recent comparisons would land on HBO's Westworld and USA's Mr. Robot (of the alienated and despondent variety). In Existenz, gamers connect to a virtual game world through penetration via bio-port (resembling the texture of an umbilical cord) that enables players to experience a virtual simulation involving the transportation of self and consciousness.

David Cronenberg's 'Existenz' (Miramax Films)

Likewise, in Alien, extraterrestrial beings prey on humans to find vessels or "hosts" for their alien offspring. In Westworld, robot's bodies are invaded, abused, and discarded for human pleasure. In most cases, these shows and films explore futures where human bodies are invaded and discarded for some type of material gain, and in most cases, the bodies experiencing invasion are those of women. Body horror is known for exploring the disposable nature of the human body when used as a utility, and the stark realities of human labor (especially in dystopias), but if you're looking for a critique on the use of women's bodies as hosts and holographic girlfriend products, you'll be hard-pressed to find the politics of this exchange in Blade Runner 2049. The tragedy in 2049 isn't the use of women's bodies as a source of labored reproduction and entertainment, but the immaterial nature of memory.

'Westworld' (HBO)

If the human mind is sustained by an interface of memories, both personal memories and fabricated memories (from media, marketing, art, culture, etc.) that alter our perceptions of reality, what exactly are the material realities of our bodies? We are what we eat, or rather, we are what we remember.

My question: is there any future where a woman's agency isn't subject to labor for male pleasure?

Ana de Armas as Joi (Warner Bros.)

Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.

POP⚡ DUST | Read More…

REVIEW | Justice League: All In

Mindy Kaling, Mightiest Mama on TV

What The Walking Dead? Episode Two | The Darkness of Battle

A Ghostbusters Netflix series? Stranger Things have happened...