A futuristic show about robots demystifies our fascination with the Wild West

In a world of instantly streamed international entertainment, we all hold the same remote control. Here’s what to point it at

‘Westworld’ is an American science fiction thriller television series
‘Westworld’ is an American science fiction thriller television series

What you deserve to watch:

Some shows take a while to get under your skin. Some grow on you, some need a few episodes — even a season — to properly hit their stride. Occasionally, however, come those that hit you right between the eyes as soon as you start watching. Westworld, HBO’s retelling of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film, is a finely aimed, six-barrel shotgun of a show with a jawdropping pilot episode that literally promises the world — and appears to deliver.

Created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show — now streaming on Hotstar, with new episodes out every Monday — is about a virtually real Wild West theme park where, as a visitor, you can fall in love, raise cattle, cavort with sassy wenches in bars or, as one regular tells a first-timer, you could go “straight evil” and have the time of your life. The robots you maim and plunder are cleaned up and put right back at work the next morning, all set to indulge the next set of whims.

It is a fascinating concept to start with, exploring the very notion of gratuitous violence and sexual escapade, but, with Westworld clearly sympathising with the (mostly) helpless robots who unwittingly die a thousand deaths, it serves also as critique of our baser instincts. This makes it automatically more introspective and more compelling. With this it evokes the loop of Groundhog Day and the threat of Crichton’s own Jurassic Park — “They all rebel eventually,” a character says echoing the dinosaur movie’s “Nature finds a way” thought — and when we meet the players, the seams are already showing.

It all looks gorgeous. The perfectly coded vistas and canyons are beautiful, the player-piano honkytonks on its own, and the robots are attractively cast. The worries in Westworld arise from a software update that allows the robots some time to muse for themselves — a feature called Reveries. It is poetic to see these synthesised actors staring wistfully into space or remembering specific details, but it potentially gives them more sentience than they can hold.

 Ed Harris in a still from ‘Westworld’
Ed Harris in a still from ‘Westworld’

The cast is remarkable. Sir Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright and Angela Sarafyan all feature, with the most frightening role played by Ed Harris in a black Stetson. This, plus a blazing shootout set to a funereal version of Paint It Black. I’m sold.

The old movie was about a cyborg cowboy gone amok — the ever-memorable Yul Brynner starred — but HBO’s Westworld is a different creature, one more concerned with our relentless quest for self-satisfying quickfix content, with the barely-concealed savagery within and, yes, with the fact that we keep tinkering with things till software updates ruin everything. To me, the biggest lesson of all — exemplified by visitors refusing, or choosing, to take up the challenges thrown up by the virtual West — might be that when embracing a genre, self-awareness often gets in the way of a good time. Giddy up.

Worth keeping an eye on

India hasn’t yet made a worthy webseries, but things look on the right track with It’s Not That Simple, written by Charudutt Acharya and directed by Danish Aslam. A relatively nuanced take on infidelity from a woman’s perspective, the show stars Swara Bhaskar in a demanding lead role. A highly versatile actress, Bhaskar sharply and frequently turns to camera to talk directly to the audience about her wants and needs, and — while the lines may not be as clever or insightful as, say, in Fleabag — Bhaskar knows how to engage with her audience and keep things relatable.

She plays a married woman who, following a school reunion, finds herself caught between two long-ago crushes (Vivaan Bhatena and Akshay Oberoi) who are as varied as chalk and cheese. Both thrill her differently and she tries to muster up the strength to be unapologetic, to put her frustrating marriage on hold to become — as the girl at the salon waxing her says — an “affair-karne-wali type.”

Three episodes of the six-episode series are streaming on Voot right now, with the rest scheduled on a weekly basis.

What everyone’s watching

The Marvel superhero freight-train continues its domination of pop culture with Luke Cage, the latest Netflix sensation and one I’ll evaluate at length once the plot shows up — right now I’m three episodes in, and this show isn’t about anything; and no, it’s no Seinfeld either. Mike Colter — who plays Cage, the imposing hero with unbreakable skin — is perfectly cast, and this show has an absurdly delicious soundtrack, but that’s all I’ve found so far.

Stream of stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.

More From Livemint