Let Em Die
Television has always been filled with one hour dramas featuring the full range of modern heroes: doctors, nurses, police, firefighters, soldiers. Most of them don’t reach too high. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched a show like Criminal Minds or Castle, only to realize partway through that I’d seen it before. Or the number of times I thought I’ve seen it before only to figure out that it was actually new, but the plotline was so tired and overdone that I’d might as well have seen it. Frankly, the lack of imagination bores the hell out of me.
Historical dramas are somewhat better. The best ones find ways to pump new life and new insights into old stories. And stories set in the French court, Victorian England, colonial Africa or the dawn of humankind - depict cultures I’m not overly familiar with. I get a bit irked when someone gets into bed in a medieval castle and their bed linens look like 300 threadcount sheets from WalMart - . Part of making a good historical drama is creating enough verisimilitude to make the viewer feel like they’re there. Either that or throwing it all out the window and doing a Baz Luhrmann-style modern take, putting swordfights and rock n roll on the same palette and using it to paint something flashy out of something that might otherwise just seem tried and true.
My love of the new, the creative, and the exotic starting when I was a kid. And science fiction has always been the best source of that. The ideas are exciting , the milieus are unfamiliar and the story possibilities are endless. But for most of my life, the budget required to do satisfactory worldbuilding for the small screen just hasn’t been there. Early science fiction movies had to either have huge budgets or settle for looking cheesy. Lots of shows settled for aliens that looked very human and spaceships that looked like plastic models on strings. Lots of plotlines cheated by imagining societies that looked like Nazi Germany with different insignias on the uniforms, or the old west with rayguns, or medieval Europe with computers. The stories were often as pedestrian as the sets. I was delighted when CGI came along and allowed producers to create truly science fictional sets, spaceships and aliens.
Phillip K Dick stories were made into often riveting shows. Realistic looking superhero movies became a possibility and pushed almost everything else out of the theatres. And science fiction series found new ways to cheat. Heroes could be killed off with impunity, because with “time travel,” there’s a “reset” button whenever they need one. Nested realities were cool the first ten times, until writers and showrunners started using it as just another tool to make everything that had come before more or less irrelevant. And all those billions of new stories could be reduced to a few basic storylines, for fear of driving off mainstream viewers.
This is all my very long-winded way of saying how profoundly disappointed I am with the end of season 2 of Westworld. With everything I loved about the show, they just descended into bafflegab – hoping it would come across with Inception/ Matrix-like cool and profundity - with nested realities that could be used to undo anything they did.
I think that drama only exists because events and actions have stakes. When you hammer a nail through your hand, it hurts and it breaks little bones and tendons and may well prevent that hand from ever working properly again. At the very least, it should leave a scar and hurt like a motherfucker every time it rains. That sort of detail creates a sense of plausibility. When a show – like the first season of Heroes, for instance, captures your imagination and takes you down a road and makes you care about the characters – the last thing they should do, in my opinion is hit the reset button, so those characters that died are no longer dead and the entire story line you’ve invested six or 10 or 40 hours of your life in – becomes moot.
For me, the need to keep watching hits the same sort of reset switch. I very often find that I lose interest in something the moment that the stakes are taken away. There is no drama when every character you kill off can come back to life, when every battle turns out to be avoidable. Unlike with Heroes, I think Westworld is salvageable. The questions of morality they’re asking are important and relevant. The acting and production values are great. Some of the writing is really good. But it won't be "must watch TV anymore - knowing that anyone who is killed off probably just has a doppleganger in the wings somewhere. Everyone who loves the characters won’t have to suffer the pain and grief of loss.
At least in the hospital dramas and police procedurals, when a character dies, they stay that way. Modern science fiction needs to remember that true poignancy most often comes from dark places.
And death is the darkest place of all.