While I am a gigantic fan of the Terminator franchise (read: 1 & 2), I am not so much a fan of its most recent incarnation (the one with Khaleesi and 80s Arnold). It sucked.
The most insightful review I read, to paraphrase, went something like this: the film gets too mired in its own mythology to truly go anywhere or tell a story. That line, “mired in its own mythology,” rung very true for me, especially in the case of this particular film.
Then I noticed a pattern.
Plenty of television series commit the same crime. While Terminator 14.6666 never really started out great, many television series actually do. I’m thinking of the old-school X-Files series, House, and even classics like Dexter and Sopranos. They start with a great thing, a nugget of truth, a kernel of wisdom or some amazing topic to be explored.
Inevitably, they wind up so mired in their storyline, their own personal mythos, their world, that they lose sight of this and focus on what television writers think most of us want: drama (or melodrama), big explosions, and mindless T n’ A. What follows are an examination of a few examples.
Episode VS Storyline
To me, the former is the beauty and the truth, while the latter is something akin to the writer’s obsession.
When stories, and I’m thinking X-Files and House specifically, are written in an episodic fashion, minor things carry from episode to episode, such as main and secondary characters, themes, even catch-phrases or inside jokes. However, writers treat each episode as a separate movie or plot line. In X-Files, these gems included the Fiji Mermaid, the Garbage Monster in HOA-ville, and when Brad Douriff (Wormtongue?) portrayed that nutty nut-nut.
Each episode was intensely exciting, even if they were formulaic, because there was evidence of an initial mystery, the quest to uncover it, and, finally, confronting the demon (or alien, or monster, or Brad Dourif) itself.
Sadly, X-Files got so mired in its conspiracy theories about government cover-ups of alien encounters (I think that was the title of the 85th episode) that it absolutely lost my attention. Rather than focus on unique mysteries and crazy new creatures, each episode continued a storyline of Mulder going glowly insane, Scully appearing vaguely confused-yet-supportive, and seeing more of the cigarette smoking man… well, not really seeing him.
Compare this to House (you know, the whacky, pharmaceutical-addicted, lame-left-leg, motorcycle-ridin’ doctor) and its initial seasons. IT’S THE GODDAMN SAME!
Each episode was, more or less, independent of each other (minus the same side characters, who dropped about as quickly as red shirts on a new planet; and the inside sex jokes). Each episode featured a mysterious ailment that seems to outrun diagnosis, followed by the quest to uncover it, and, finally, confronting / defeating it. Each ailment was a unique and unbelievable as the individual creatures in X-Files.
Over time, the writers got so lost in exploring House’s personality (I like it when he was more wacky, less addicted), his interpersonal relationships (romantic and otherwise), and office drama, that I absolutely quit caring and never finished the series.
An Urge to Express, Create, Make REAL
Alright, for two examples and a non-example, I give you Dexter, Sopranos, and Breaking Bad.
Dexter was great. Really. The first season, not unlike X-Files and House, had that nugget of truth. The atmosphere was perfect and the ice cream truck killer sideplot (which transitioned into main plot WITHOUT wrecking everything) was about as perfect as it gets. From there, things were pretty hit or miss. Some seasons and cameos rocked (ahem… John Lithgow as Trinity), while others did not (everything to do with Edward James Olmos and Tom Hanks’ son, who isn’t worthy of a first name).
Then, and I don’t know why (feckin’ writahs), Dexter changed. I presume this was due to some kind of desire to show Dexter as a dynamic character (I’m sorry: psychos tend to stay psychos, in my experience), so he started coming out of his shell. The relationship he had in season one, intended to cover up his dark nature, morphed into a Dexter that was cool with bangin’ a random chick in a convenience store and cheating on his own wife.
Talk about overcoming your social anxiety.
Lost were the days of it’s nugget, it’s core, it’s truth, the one thing that compelled this viewer: psychopath who pulls off everyday guy.
Sopranos was similar, but I think their issue sprung from high success, but wanting to carry the season out and not end it prematurely (in hindsight, I sure wish they’d just told their story and ended it, instead of milking it).
Sopranos writers, however, sure seemed to think pretty highly of their abilities to write narratives, meta-narratives, sub-narratives, etc. and to explore stuff in some pretty wacky and abstract ways (e.g. Tony’s dreams).
Breaking Bad, on the other hand, managed to be (and remain) probably one of the best, coolest, whatever-est shows in television history. It stayed sexy and dangerous and all that stuff WITHOUT getting (too) lost in its own characters and continuing storylines. Let’s be honest: we LOVED all of the cartel stuff, explosions, neo-Nazi survivalist fringe groups, and blue meth with Chili P WAY WAY WAY more than we did Darla (or whatever her name was).
Sadly, Westworld is slowly going the way of X-Files, House, Sopranos, and Dexter (who, by the by, is now a Peruvian lumber jack).
X-Files had its creatures.
House had it’s mystery ailments.
Dexter had his dark passenger long before they ruined it by giving it a name, and the ability to blend in with all of the normal people around him.
Tony Soprano was interesting for a similar reason; he had to blend in with everyday society while maintaining an almost mythological stature within the Italian cosa nostra.
Over time, these all get lost (“…like tears in rain.”)
Sadly, Westworld is headed in this direction.
Why Does this Happen?
I don’t know. Writer’s attachment? Appealing to the masses a la Hollywood films. Appealing to the masses, which, whether true or not, probably means appealing to the lowest common denominator (a la Michael Bay… you know, tits, explosions, black people as comic relief [but certainly not in a racist way], etc.).
I mean, I don’t know who else you’d blame for the bad shit that happens to your favorite T.V. show (yeah, I’m still coming for you Benioff and Weiss!), but we can assume that writers (I’ll loosely include myself), not unlike the sad, pathetic, twisted, OBSESSED writer in Westworld, become so invested in their characters and in the playing God (see first image again), that they can’t let go, they lose sight of the goal, they forget the beauty and the truth that they began with… and they continue their storyline for better or worse.
Back to Westworld
At first, the idea was heart-stoppingly awesome and equal parts TERRIFYING (a la the film A.I., if you’ve never had the pleasure). At what point is savagely beating, raping, murdering, debasing robots the same thing as doing those things to another human being. When the hosts (the euphemism used for android) are meant to be as real to the touch, and to the emotional reaction, as any other human being, how is their terror any different than our own? They feel it. They live it. They react as we would.
That will have to be a topic for another blog post.
In the meantime, do like I do: steal HBO from a family member of yours (shhhhh!), binge watch Westworld, and please share your goddamn opinions. Or at least hit the “like” button to shut me up.
Thanks for reading, intrepid internet enthusiast! Sound off like you got a (synthetic) pair!!
(and, for your viewing pleasure, the two humorous pictures from Westworld that I wasn’t able to sneak into this review).