HBO seems to be getting it.
Although they have not been immune to the run-of-the-mill frustrations diverse geeks often have from Hollywood, they are really making an effort.
On September 29, I participated in a panel discussion, representing Geeks OUT, with two other geeky women, Joelle Monique and Lisa Bolekaja. The panel was moderated by SuChin Pak, yet another woman. I’d like to just take a moment to acknowledge this - a panel about a genre media piece made up ENTIRELY of women. Miles away from an all-male panel. We were not selected just because we are women; these folks have some very serious bona fides.
This kind of thing happens when you have a Multicultural Marketing Department like HBO does. HBO Vice President Jackie Gagne came in person to welcome an audience of LGBTQ, POC, and other geeks (and entertainment types) to view a pilot episode of a hotly anticipated new show in advance of the October 2 broadcast. Her presence meant something. These are the little things that mean something to us - we formerly/still marginalized geeks, who have been clawing out a place for ourselves in mainstream genre fandom. It felt affirming to feel noticed. Dare I even say, courted?
So what brought us all together, in the Ray Kurtzman Theater at the iconic CAA building in Century City?
This new show is the kind of sprawling, ambitious world-building for which HBO has worked hard to cement its reputation.
The cast is impeccable - not least of which because Sir Anthony Hopkins serves in a central role. Thandie Newton? Evan Rachel Wood? James Marsden? JEFFREY WRIGHT??? A fantastic cast does not guarantee success, but actors like these make it very difficult to do so. The diversity of the cast, including notable bisexual Mx. Wood, does not seem tokenized or forced - unless you mean that each of these actors is a force of nature. Then yes, that’s the kind of force we’re talking about.
If you haven’t yet heard about the show, it’s a future-Western (no, Firefly friends, not like that). In Westworld’s age, the obscenely rich get to live out their fantasies in a completely immersive environment populated by organic robots - ever more intelligent and “lifelike” A.I. There are no consequences for the “Guests” visiting “Westworld” - the “Hosts” (the “robots”) are programmed for the complete gratification of the Guests.
Just from that synopsis, you know where this is going. And the conversation went there on the panel. We’ll be giving you the full audio of the conversation later, but here’s a brief overview.
As SuChin noted, it’s hard to start talking about A.I. and technology without delving immediately into some really thorny ethical and philosophical issues. The three of us on the panel mused about who would visit such a place. Joelle was an enthusiastic potential visitor. There is no denying the attraction of being able to live out fantasies in real life. Lisa remarked that every person has an impulse to “go there” - to the darker side of our psyches. Westworld is a vehicle for Guests to drive (or gallop) right in. I was a lot more hesitant - not because I’m not the biggest potential early adopter (if I had the money), but because being in that world meant witnessing the atrocities other Guests were eager to mete out. A world like this spells horror to me, and not in a good way.
Lisa mentioned the attraction of getting to indulge in all kinds of taboo behavior in Westworld. I wondered why people needed to go to another place to do that, when taboo breakers live among us every day. I couldn’t help but recollect the bravery of early queer lovers, as well as those who dared to claim their own gender identity (not necessarily the one to which they were born). They didn’t have a Westworld - and even if they did, living out their lives in fantasy wasn’t going to change the real world. It was that audacity - doing and embracing the “obscene” and the “unnatural” in public - that created social change. These acts of courage are performed every day outside of a fantasy realm.
All of which is to say that Westworld is a show that generates a LOT of conversation. It broaches the loftiest of ruminations. What does it mean to be alive? What is humanity? The best shows on television (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, The Expanse) (in my completely biased opinion) explore these difficult and uncomfortable questions. Which means plenty of breathless “water cooler” talk the next day - and plenty of fodder for first date conversations. You can tell a lot about a person using the cipher of pop culture.
You may have noticed, if you’ve seen the trailer, that any commentary on the lady-lady kiss is conspicuously absent from this preview. I have several things to say about that, which will be included in the review of the first episode, “The Original.”
I was wary, when asked to participate, that I would be directed to, basically, write a puff piece. The glowing nature of my giddy preview here has nothing to do with the swag bag I got. Westworld is an exciting journey waiting to be taken. How we see ourselves in it - that’s another story altogether.