Hold on, cowpokes: HBO’s ‘Westworld’ is a big, fat homework assignment

James Marsden as Teddy Flood and Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores Abernathy. John P. Johnson, HBO

While watching the first four episodes of HBO’s extravagant but disappointing science fiction head-scratcher “Westworld,” it struck me that this new drama is, in just about every way that counts, the opposite of what most viewers want or need right now. We’re more than ready for an escape from current events, so it’s a bummer to line up for a roller-coaster ride and instead be handed a yoga mat to facilitate the watching of 10 episodes that will require disciplined concentration and soulful contemplation.

“Westworld” is deep and brooding, but it’s the wrong kind of deep and it’s a style of brooding that’s already been brooded a thousand times, especially in the sci-fi genre. The literary notion of robot rebellion has been around for about a century, when Czech playwright Karel Capek’s “R.U.R.” was performed in 1921, in which the issues of identity and hostility were evident even then.

Visually, “Westworld” is a gorgeous and occasionally captivating treat, yet it’s wrapped up in a story that is astringent and sterile. Its creators, Jonathan Newton and Lisa Joy, have touted “Westworld’s” philosophical bent as a selling point – exploring, per Joy’s description of the show, “what it means to be human, from the outside in. … It’s a meditation on consciousness – the blessing and the burden of it.”

In other words, class, “Westworld” is a big, fat homework assignment. The only fun here, if you can call it that, might be watching HBO burn some serious moola.

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Based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie that starred Yul Brynner as a gunslinging robot-on-the-fritz who begins murdering the elite customers at a futuristic Wild West theme park, “Westworld” arrives Sunday night after a long gestation period of delays and reshoots. The result is the opposite of effortless (indeed, “Westworld” is effort-full) and its perfectionist tendencies are very much in evidence. “Westworld” is nothing if not precise and calculated.

This attention to detail conveniently matches the overall premise: Set in some distant future, “Westworld” is about a vacation resort in the American boonies, where guests arrive by bullet train and pay (according to one customer) $40,000 a day to ride a locomotive into the desert West of the 1880s.

In the ersatz frontier town of Sweetwater, a citizenry of lifelike cyborgs – known to their makers as “hosts” – provide a Sensurround John Wayne experience, following a nearly limitless array of preprogrammed story lines and dialogue. A client can immediately set about living his or her Wild West fantasy, whether it’s robbing banks, joining a sheriff’s posse (atop synthetic horses) or heading straight to the saloon, where, in a nicely anachronistic twist, the player piano plinks out old-timey covers of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” Some guests go straight upstairs for a romp with one or more saloon girls (or boys). The guests can become heroes or villains or toggle between the two, since the ethics of the place are always reset. The further a customer wanders out into the chaparral, the wilder the story choices become.

“Westworld” isn’t particularly eager to explain everything at once (what decent premium cable drama ever is?), and Newton and Joy make an unorthodox decision to begin their story by backing into it, focusing first on the machines instead of the humans. (Some of what follows may count as spoilers; keep your eyes peeled for rattlers.)

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Evan Rachel Wood (“True Blood”) plays Dolores Abernathy, the pretty daughter of a cattle rancher. Dolores’ narrative loop starts each day with a cheerful mornin’ horseback ride into town, where she may or may not fall in love with a heroic newcomer, in some cases played by James Marsden (I’ll leave it to viewers to guess whether he’s a host or a guest). Sadly, Dolores often ends her day with a violent attack on the ranch by a gang of marauders, in which she may or may not be dragged to the barn and raped.

Dolores has no say in the matter; none of the hosts in Westworld are in control of their fates, nor can they harm a guest. If a guest shoots them, they bleed and die; if they shoot a guest, the bullets bounce harmlessly away. But Dolores, by design, does not store these horrors in her hard drive. Once the day’s carnage at Westworld is judged to be over, a human night crew comes along and scoops up the dead (or deactivates the wounded), brings them back to the shop, fixes them up and reboots them (get it?) for another day of adventure as new guests arrive.

What happens backstage in the nerve center of Westworld is undeniably fascinating – and where this new version leaps far ahead of Crichton’s original story.

Crichton, after all, was coming from the ambivalent “high tech/high touch” era of wariness and future shock, when computer technology was not to be trusted, even if it was programmed to be harmless. This “Westworld,” firmly rooted in the age of Siri and driverless Uber, cultivates and even celebrates the idea that machines can and will achieve higher consciousness and self-awareness. It’s not entirely clear why Newton and Joy didn’t go ahead and envision their Westworld as a virtual-reality experience rather than as a cumbersome physical space populated with robots – other than it’s never going to be exciting to watch a TV show about people wearing VR goggles.

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It’s also not explained how the tourism market of the future decided on a cowboy theme above all other choices, when everything we know about interactive gaming thus far involves military combat, auto theft, zombies or dragons (and sex). Crichton’s movie, after all, offered Westworld as one of three options; guests could also play in the Roman empire or a medieval castle. Who among us still fantasizes about the culturally incorrect version of cowboys and Indians anymore? Who will want to re-create it a hundred years from now?

Sorry for the tangent – although it’s an encouraging sign that “Westworld” does get into the viewer’s head, prompting questions and letting us mull over our own answers, which has always been the underlying value in sci-fi: sparking of further thoughts.

In the park’s nerve center, Jeffrey Wright (“Boardwalk Empire”) plays Bernard Lowe, head of Westworld’s programming division, who, after a couple of bizarre incidents, begins to wonder whether a recent upgrade to some of the robots has sparked a wave of independence, an innovation the park’s enigmatic founder, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins, in his usual foreboding guise), deplores.

Dolores, the oldest working robot on the premises, begins to show signs of recognition that her perception of reality doesn’t add up after the robot who plays her father schizzes out when he discovers an object that doesn’t belong in the 1880s. Even after a reset, Dolores is undoubtedly changed. Bernard, fascinated by her identity crisis, begins to secretly interview her about her observations and feelings.

The notion that things are not what they seem also occurs to the saloon’s madam, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), who begins having terrifying flashbacks to the nerve center’s chop shop. It’s Newton’s portrayal of these electronic panic attacks that finally gives “Westworld” some urgency – and that’s four episodes in. Our sympathies are reversed, rooting for the robots, much as we did in Steven Spielberg’s thoughtful (but sappy) 2001 film “A.I.”

But perhaps these sympathies are misdirected or premature. “Westworld’s” most interesting character, by far, comes in the form of The Man in Black, played perfectly by Ed Harris, an actor whose face has taken on the craggy handsomeness of canyons.

“That gentleman gets whatever he wants,” someone in the control room says and, boy, does he. At first it seems The Man in Black might be a permanent, sadistic occupant who is intent on abusing and murdering the hosts in the role of arch-villain; or perhaps he is on a quest to understand the most essential, hidden secret of Westworld. His free rein and impunity suggest that he’s human; his actions suggest something worse. All I really know is that whenever Harris clanks his spurs, “Westworld” becomes noticeably more engaging.

I’m therefore hesitant to write “Westworld” off as a dreary trot from start to finish; parts of it are as imaginative and intriguing as anything that’s been on TV recently, particularly in the sci-fi realm. It’s definitely not the cyborg “Deadwood” that some HBO fans were actively wishing for, nor does it roll out the welcome mat as a riveting, accessible adventure. You’ll have to fight your way in and, like The Man in Black, you’ll need to stick to your guns and discover the answers you seek. If there are any.

“Westworld” (75 minutes) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.