Westworld Stages a Consciousness Raising

HBO’s new hit show riffs on one of Second Wave feminism’s signature tactics

At the start of the pilot it was Dolores.  At the start of this weekend’s episode, Maeve.

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Images from Westworld via The Week

These shots of two of Westworld’s central characters waking up help visually underscore the narrative parallels of these two characters. As stereotypes of women they represent the Westworld poles of the madonna/whore dichotomy. Both are attractive to a number of the park’s visitors, though one for her romantic innocence as much as the other for her worldly knowing.

The similar shots of waking also provide us reminders that Westworld is a story in no small part about androids waking up to their circumstances as objects designed for entertainment that are also frequently objects of desire, sex, and violence.

The theme of awakening to the true structure of their reality is also echoed in the script followed by employees performing diagnostic interviews with “hosts” in the corporate laboratory.  In this set-piece, the host in question (often Dolores) answers the question, “Do you know where you are?” with, “Yes, I am in a dream.”

Thus the movement between the real world as dream and the “awake” world of the Westworld theme park takes on irony and existential weight for main characters Dolores and Maeve.

Viewers can expect that as these women awaken to their circumstances, something in the narrative world will change.

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And that expectation feels like a pop cultural legacy of Second Wave feminism to me.   Continue reading Westworld Stages a Consciousness Raising

‘The Good Place’ Imagines an Eternity of Ethics Lessons

The NBC comedy serves up an unusual take on the afterlife with a side of fro-yo, hold the religion.

[written for Christianity Today, you can start the article here and read the rest on their homepage.]

From time to time, popular culture weighs in with advice about the afterlife. “You can’t take it with you,” admonishes the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by the same title. A popular ’50s polka warns that “in heaven there is no beer.” According to NBC’s The Good Place there is, however, a copious amount of frozen yogurt.

The Good Place, now hitting its mid-season stride, is the latest TV comedy from writer/producer Michael Shur—also creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and a writer on The Office. Shur’s wit and his penchant for strongly drawn characters feel familiar. The new series makes a strong break from his run of workplace comedies, however, by setting its storyline in heaven.

Or a version of heaven. Simply called “The Good Place,” it’s an afterlife that exists without a relationship to any of the world’s religions, all of which failed to rightly imagine how to enter the hereafter. Instead a complex logarithm narrows down those granted eternity in The Good Place, admitting only the most elite among do-gooders, activists, and philanthropists. While the series forgoes the concepts of sin and religion per se, it regularly relies on ethical lessons in the hereafter.

This potentially weighty narrative tactic is lightened by the whimsical aesthetic and quirky details of life in The Good Place. The architect behind this particular neighborhood of the afterlife is a supernatural being named Michael (Ted Danson, his impeccable comic timing in force). Obsessively detailed and fascinated by human culture, Michael has worked painstakingly to optimize his corner of the afterlife for his charges’ happiness.

Upon arrival, every one is granted a mansion of their dreams and introduced to their true soul mate. Residents pass their days acquiring skills like learning how to fly or being treated to a perfect re-creation of their favorite earthly meal ever. They also enjoy unlimited frozen yogurt in hundreds of unlikely flavors.

                                   NBC Universal

Nonetheless, something is amiss in this corner of eternal happily ever after. That something is a someone named Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell, more charming as the episodes stack up), who was, among other things, a snake-oil marketer, litterbug, and generally unreliable friend back on Earth.

Admitted to heaven in an unexplained mix-up, Eleanor finds that Michael has her name right, but all the other details of her biography wrong. Now Eleanor must deceive her way through this do-gooders afterlife, trying to keep up a charade of saintliness to avoid being found out and sent to The Bad Place.

Continue reading here

 

The Least Sexy Naked People on Television

It’s not a review of Naked and Afraid… Just my first follow-up on Westworld

In its pilot Westworld provided me early warning to expect smart, unsettling things from by convincing me its numerous naked bodies were not important features in the story. As the gal who still hides behind the locker doors while changing at the gym, no one is more surprised about this than I—which is also why I think this reaction is worth sharing.

When HBO started promoting its new sci-fi meets western project, I was immediately interested in the premise but skeptical I could handle Westworld. An initial teaser includes several actors (mostly shot from the shoulders up) who appear to be both naked and confined to glass holding cells. The voice-over juxtaposes descriptions of the freedom offered visitors of virtual reality Old West vacation with shots of these confined characters, most of which appear dazed and vulnerable.

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One clothing-challenged individual, however, is pictured  horrified as she stumbles, injured, through a corridor lined with glass boxes occupied by other naked bodies. The trailer’s accumulated images triggered memories of Twilight Zone, X-files, and Fringe episodes that dealt with experiments on human test subjects—memories of some of my favorite sci-fi series and of some of their most upsetting tales.

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Their nudity is accompanied by the contrast of darkness with harsh fluorescent lights; their eerie silence interrupted with a few foreboding quotes. (“These violent delights have violent ends.”) HBO primed viewers to feel for these disrobed figures, whether that feeling is curiosity, concern, or dread.  Continue reading The Least Sexy Naked People on Television