I mostly have no idea what is going on in "Westworld," HBO's new series about a world where artificial consciousness has become a reality. What I can tell you is that Westworld is a theme park that literally recreates towns, terrains and people of the old west. Very wealthy people pay to enter the park and interact with android hosts who are indistinguishable from their human guests. The guests can live out any fantasy and act upon any desire, which in many cases, leaves the hosts riddled with bullet holes or violated in any number of other ways. At the end of each violent act, the hosts' bodies are repaired and their minds wiped clean, ready for the next set of guests.
The other storylines involve the quest of the Man in Black (Ed Harris) to discover the central mystery of the park and another featuring Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the oldest host who may have some malicious code implanted by a Westworld cofounder who committed suicide over 30 years ago. There's also the remaining park founder, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) who is building a new storyline he will not reveal to anyone as well as other hosts who are remembering things they should not. Are these the seeds for a host revolt? Was there one in the past? Are we actually in the past? Are hosts and guests what or who they appear to be?
The online theories posted about these storylines can keep you entertained for hours but the larger challenge is trying to figure out which character's journey to care about as this twisty, philosophical puzzle very slowly reveals itself.
Should I empathize with William (Jimmi Simpson), a guest who is slowly losing his moral code in a place where anything goes? Or should I feel something for Dolores whose "loop" or park storyline means that she has to repeatedly watch the brutal murder of her parents that she is somehow remembering? The show's various mysteries make it difficult to choose. Am I solving a complex narrative puzzle? Or am I identifying with a character as they either slowly unravel, or in Dolores' case, are becoming reborn to a new consciousness?
It's a tricky set of questions and one that keeps the series from being as strong as it could be. Yet, the themes it explores, including what it means to cross social, moral and ethical boundaries with no consequences, make "Westworld" compelling and one of the most interesting series on TV right now. Also entertaining is its mix of genre from the futuristic, science fiction "behind the scenes" of park operations to the western of the construction itself. The cast is great and Wood does a fantastic job of playing a role within a role. She is Dolores, who is capable of expressing fear and sadness and hope and she is a machine who coldly analyzes her programming.
At its heart, "Westworld" asks what it means to be human and despite its maze of headache inducing narratives, that is a question worth sticking around to ponder.
"Westworld" is on Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO.
-- Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.'" She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.