Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Stranger Things of Westworld and Criticism

Westworld’s first season ended Sunday night. The 90-minute finale sparked numerous essays from professional critics, bloggers, and folks on the message board. I read long essays in support of the show and long essays that criticized the show. Every essay I read, except for one, extensively wrote about the prominent Westworld themes: consciousness, freewill, the self, the soul, meta-narratives, genetics, etc. Whereas some critics thought of the finale as brilliant, others did not and wondered why Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy would tell a 10 hour prologue to the story they want to tell in season two (expected to premiere sometime in 2018).

I watched season one with bland indifference. The show became interesting to me once I read the various theories that surfaced around episode three, but those theories became a lightning rod in TV critical circles. Alan Sepinwall damned the show for telegraphing the solutions to its mysteries too clearly. Other outlets blamed Reddit for ruining Westworld. Another reviewer on Doux Reviews criticized her own reviews for her perceived failure to draw the links between timelines and other theory stuff I won’t spoil in case anyone reading wants to watch the series. Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter was happy for the people who felt happy about Westworld. Now, it’s Wednesday, and everyone has moved past the premiere.

I didn’t like the finale, and I won’t watch the second season; however, the abundant perceptive theories that all came true didn’t ruin my experience; the show’s themes about the self and the soul, consciousness, freewill, change, freedom, meta-narratives, etc. didn’t sour me—in fact, I like those themes. The structure of the show’s narrative is rather admirable, actually. They weaved some intricate patterns that the adept viewer noticed. Vladimir Nabokov would commend those attentive viewers. Nabokov would fail me. He would fail me so hard. Nolan and Joy undid it all, unfortunately, by explaining each and every ‘twist’ in a series of monologues and flashbacks. Nabokov uses one word—‘waterproof’—for Humbert’s clue to the reader about the identity of Lolita’s abductor. The reader, then, has to return, or re-read, the book to see what she or he has missed the first time, and then repeat as more things reveal themselves in the novel. Of course, Nabokov was a better writer than nearly every working TV writer today, and a better critic than every critic alive today. If you like themes of consciousness, the self, and the soul in your art, read Ada or Ardor a few times and them complement it with Brian Boyd’s book about the book, Nabokov’s Ada: The Place of Consciousness. Brian Boyd is the best living critic in the world. Follow that with Speak, Memory

Nolan and Joy also made the crucial mistake of prioritizing mystery over character, which was Sepinwall's essential gripe with the show. Westworld drew comparisons to LOST, as any genre show will forever and ever. Abrams is an Executive Producer. Bad Robot produces the show. Westworld still bungled the formula. 

Damon Lindelof said, during the Writers' Panel's 300th episode, that, "the real cheat of the show (LOST) from the word 'Go', which was frustrating to the audience, was that the characters couldn't give a shit about the mysteries...You had to have the character dynamics [be] involving enough."

Damon Lindelof told David S. Goyer, co-creator of FlashForward: 
"One of the problems you're going to have is the lead of this show is the FBI agent responsible for solving the flashforward, so the show is going to have to have an engine of mystery solving versus just have it be all about these other characters who are affected by the flashforwards but are not tasked with solving it. This was the Twin Peaks problem...Dale Cooper's job was to find who killed Laura Palmer and, so, the idea that the show isn't about the characters and the conditions of living in Twin Peaks, it was about the resolution of this mystery. And, so, one of the things that was really hard for us to do on LOST and why we kept expanding the cast was trying to find stories that were engaging enough to believably understand why the characters were not asking the same questions that the audience was." 

FlashForward made mystery its driving force instead of character, and it failed. LOST made central its characters, and writers have, a decade later, still failed to recreate LOST, including Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy. Sepinwall wondered how much the mystery matters if the characters don't resonate at all, if they only exist for the sake of the mystery, and it's a good question. Many viewers of LOST will reverse the question because a majority of fans felt disappointed and ripped off by the end of LOST. Damon and Carlton didn't answer many of its mysteries. Sepinwall offered a succinct explanation for why LOST succeeded even when its answers underwhelmed, disappointed, or enraged the viewer: "LOST always had more to offer besides questions."

Westworld revealed the shortcomings of contemporary critical TV/film circles. There’s too much to watch and to review every month to devote any serious mindful viewing and re-watching of a series to engage in a substantive critical discourse. Every site or blog you read, including my own, is full of hastily written shallow, surface level reviews and essays. Consciousness in Westworld is the easiest to grab onto and run with for today’s swamped critics and editors desperate for clicks. I used ‘Identity’ as a crutch for my undergrad papers when I was crushed by other work. Certain shows produce a critical rat race in these three-month cycles and then one rarely ever reads about an individual episode again. Of course it falls to devoted message boards to explore the guts of a show and to deeply engage with it. Mainstream critics don’t have the time for it. They only have the responsibility to tell you whether or not to watch a show in their pre-reviews, but if they commit to weekly reviews, or post-finale reviews, then they need to work harder so as not to waste the readers’ time, or make a choice. If 7,000 other websites all run the same basic Game of Thrones & Westworld reviews and yours won't stand out in any way, don't write it unless you find something no one else has found or you argue something no one else is.

A NOTE ON STRANGER THINGS

I watched Stranger Things. I have no relationship with 80s pop culture, so the show was flat for me. For example, the penultimate episode had an extended E.T. homage. I didn’t know it was a homage to E.T. until I read it was online. I liked parts of it. One’s relationship to 80s pop culture will determine your love, or indifference, for the show. It was a two-hour movie blown up to eight hours—another problem of contemporary TV. I will not watch season two.

CHEKHOV MURDERS MONTE CRISTO

Anton Chekhov abridged Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo for the Russian newspaper, New Times, run by his friend Aleskey Suvorin. His brother, Mikhail Chekhov, remembers his brother making a ‘bloody mess of it.’ Chekhov wrote in a letter to Suvorin: “What shall I do with Monte Cristo? I’ve abridged him so much he looks like someone who’s just gotten over typhus; he started out fat and ended up emaciated. The first part, while the count is still poor, is very interesting and well done, but the second part with very few exceptions is unbearable because everything Monte Cristo says and does in it is pompous and asinine. But in general the novel is striking.”

Monte Cristo’s one of the many bloated 19th century books. The public loved reading serialized novels in the same way we in the 21st century love consuming TV shows in long binges. TV seasons have significantly shortened over the last five years, only networks continue to produce 22-25 episodes per season, but the number of series has increased by an incredible rate. TV shows have resembled movies more and more in structure and execution since the emergence of streaming platforms. I’m sure some complained about the length of The Avengers’ sequel or Captain America: Civil War, but Netflix made a 13 hour Jessica Jones movie and a 13 hour Luke Cage movie. Critics wrote that Jessica Jones could’ve had four or five episodes cut and lose nothing and that the lack of stand-alone hours affect’s one interest in revisiting certain episodes. The unique individuality of episodes should continue being the thing movies can’t replicate. Instead, TV executives and creators have chosen to replicate the structure of a movie.

Of course, TV is vast, the options are many, and one can find whatever one wants to, but as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other streaming platforms continue to develop original content to replace expensive licensed shows, they’ll likely continue developing bloated long movies.


IN CLOSING 

That’s essentially what’s been on my mind about TV lately. The Vampire Diaries is having a terrible final season. They could’ve benefitted from a less stringent serialized format. I will post a ‘Best Things I Watched This Year’ sometime within the next two weeks.

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About The Foot

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.