The return of Sarah Jessica Parker to HBO has, I’m sure, made more than a few suits at the network smile with the thought of another hit as successful as “Sex and The City.” “Divorce,” however, is not bound to start weekly get togethers of women gathering around the TV drinking cosmopolitans and soaking in the fabulousness of beloved characters in their fairy tale existence. Rather, people will probably end up drinking shots of bottom shelf whiskey and taking drags off of Winstons as they watch a parade of really horrible and sad characters complain about their lives in the comfort of a upper middle-class existence. Oh, did I mention that “Divorce” is supposed to be a comedy?
I don’t think I laughed once during the premiere episode on Sunday. Despite a stellar cast of actors who are genuinely funny, the dialogue and scenarios don’t rise above a boilerplate narrative about midlife crisis. There’s the obligatory scene where characters see their mates as disgusting shells of their former selves, and another where a long term love affair is about finding a sliver of happiness when one’s home life has let them down. When you add it up, there’s very little that’s novel about what they are going through.
At the center of this depressing tale is Parker’s character, Frances. She’s married to Robert (played by Thomas Haden Church), and they have a marriage that’s clearly lost any kind of passion, love, and desire. We see it from the first scenes at a birthday party dinner for their mutual friend, Diane (Molly Shannon) where Frances looks at Robert with disgust as he eats and talks with other friends at the dinner table. She claims that his moustache is to blame for his shortcomings, but really she says that she’s in love with Julian (Jemaine Clement) because, in part, he makes his own granola. How’s that for shallow?
What makes “Divorce” so difficult to watch is that there are no sympathetic characters. Even the kids in the show mirror their parent’s seething anger, so it makes one wonder: where does the story go from here? Hopefully, up since we’re starting at rock bottom. However, given the topic and the title of the show, I don’t hold out much hope that “Divorce” will make many smile.
HBO knows its audience wants their drama with a lot of layers. “Game of Thrones” is probably the best example of a slow-moving drama with plenty of sex and violence thrown in to keep things lively. With “Westworld” the slowness of the plot is supposed to give the audience time to absorb the complexity of the story. The series, based on the 1973 film of the same name (and somewhat on the sequel “Futureworld” and failed TV series, “Beyond Westworld”), has a setup that’s fairly simple: in the future, a western-themed park populated by human robots becomes a destination for the very rich where they can do whatever they want with the robots — including having sex, raping, and even killing them. The robots look and act completely human, and they dutifully act out their roles in video game-like fashion due to their programming. The robots think their lives and Westworld is the real world, but what keeps them from achieving consciousness about their condition is that at the end of their story loop, their memories are wiped, their wounds are patched up, and they are placed back into the Westworld narrative for a new set of guests to interact with. Reset and reuse. Plug and play. Westworld is owned by Delos corporation, and like any corporation, they want profits to continue to climb. So, the guests who come to Westworld crave newer, fresher experiences, and that puts pressure on those who create the scenarios to develop robots (known as Hosts) with more unpredictable behavior and story loops that promise more excitement.
If you’re thinking: “Hey, “Westworld” sounds a lot like “Dollhouse” that Joss Whedon created back in 2009” you’re not the only one. However, while “Dollhouse” was about actual humans used by the very rich for all sorts of things, “Westworld” is holding its cards close to the chest in revealing the overall plan for the place. An elaborate amusement park for mostly adults to roam around in while they rape and pillage to their heart’s desire is a limited thrill — the law of diminishing returns also applies to humanity’s darkest impulses. So what does the Delos corporation have in store for these robots? Time will tell, but the time spent getting to the mysteries is a slow one. I’m only on week two of the series and it feels glacial in terms of revelations. The first episode established (from the Host’s perspective) how a kind of eternal recurrence of the same (with minor variations) is the norm for the robots. However, due to a software upgrade in the Hosts, some of the robots are remembering their violent ends in previous story loops — and they aren’t too happy about it. There’s also a Guest (known as The Man in Black — played by Ed Harris) who wants to know more about the corporate plans of Delos by accessing some kind of maze, and he tortures some of the Hosts/robots to find out how to enter it.
Because JJ Abrams is involved in “Westworld,” there’s more than a dash of mysteries woven into the fabric of the story — a la “LOST.” That could either be a good thing, or, perhaps, really frustrate people the same way “LOST” did. HBO clearly wants another big show to replace “Game of Thrones,” but I’m not sure if “Westworld” has the narrative legs to do that. First off, “Game of Thrones” has the advantage of being based on a series of popular books, while “Westworld” is a kind of reboot/remix of the films and TV show. So, the writers have some elements from past productions to use, but they are fragments that can be inserted here and there to allude to “Westworld” the film — which was pretty self-contained. But fragments from a couple of films and a short-lived TV series don’t leave writers much in terms of source material. That means they have to have a grand narrative arc to carry this series for several years. And while the cast is very strong (Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, and Shannon Woodward all turn in solid performances), the story needs to advance at a quicker pace to keep the audience interested. Too much “set up” — which is what seemed to happen in episode 1 and 2 — can lead to an experience that’s kind of plodding. I’m hoping that’s not the case for future episodes of “Westworld” because the series has the potential to really explore both the nefarious and wonderful things of the god/ man duality of artificial intelligence and humans.