(photo credit: PR)
When you look back at the greatest HBO series — The Sopranos, Sex and the City and The Wire, to name the first three that come to mind — what do these very different shows have in common? I would argue that the common thread is the excellent writing. Each episode is filled with lines that perfectly illuminate the characters who utter them. Some of the dialogue even turned into catchphrases. “He’s just not that into you” was originally from a Sex and the City episode.
Good writing is exactly the element that is missing in two new HBO series, Westworld and Divorce, which are airing on both YES and HOT. The seasons are coming to a close, and both have ended up being disappointments.
Based on the first episodes, I was in the give-them-a-chance mode with both of these. But as the seasons have unfolded, both have turned out to be duds, in spite of great casts, good production values and, in the case of Westworld, dazzling special effects.
Divorce, starring Sarah Jessica Parker as a woman going through a contentious divorce, has a strong cast, with Thomas Haden Church as her husband and Molly Shannon as her friend. But the later episodes didn’t rise to the level of the pilot, and the most compelling part of this lackluster series is trying to figure out how a network as prestigious as HBO green lit this grim, overly familiar tale, which doesn’t even have the energy of soapy, schlocky series like Desperate Housewives or Devious Maids. It seems obvious that without Parker, this series would never have been made; but what is puzzling is how she, an actress who has had such wonderful instincts in the past (even the silly rom coms she has starred in at least were good vehicles for her talents and had some humor), didn’t require a rewrite of these scripts. People are dying for a dramedy about a contemporary woman coping with a divorce, but no one I know is talking about this, except to say how disappointed they are in it.
Westworld, to paraphrase a Joan Didion quote about certain directors, has “a startling visual intelligence but a numbingly banal view of human experience.” We’re supposed to be rooting for the robots in the Westernthemed park, robots that get shot, beaten, raped, etc., by the guests, who didn’t read the part in the brochure that explains that the robots have souls and memories.
The script is complicated without being suspenseful, and the dialogue, much of it uttered by the creator of the robots, Dr. Robert Ford (a very low-energy Anthony Hopkins), is portentous and obvious. “Humans are alone in this world for a reason. We murdered and butchered anything that challenged our primacy,” intones Ford. The moral of this is that we should not be cruel to robots. The robots, or hosts, as they are called, are the most appealing characters, but there are so many scenes where they sit with dumb expressions in the sinister lab being reprogrammed that it is hard to root for them. And the humans who staff the lab have stories that are cliched at best. The big reveal is that some of the so-called humans are actually robots, which was telegraphed from the first moments of the early episodes.
Once again, as with last year’s Vinyl, produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, which started out promisingly and was canceled after a single season, it seems that the producers invested untold millions in the effects and design, and about five cents in the script.
Damien Chazelle ’s latest film, La La Land, is being mentioned as a front runner in all the Oscar categories. You can see his previous film, Whiplash, on HOT Gold on December 2 at 10 p.m.
Whiplash, the story of the fraught relationship between a young jazz drummer and the scarily demanding leader of the orchestra he plays in, won three Oscars in 2015, among them Best Supporting Actor for veteran character actor J.K.