Entertainment

'Westworld' could learn a thing or two from 'Watchmen' as its third season begins

Posted March 15, 2020 12:13 p.m. EDT

— In the small world of sci-fi/fantasy franchises turned into HBO series, "Westworld" -- returning for its third season after a near-two-year absence -- could learn a thing or two from "Watchmen," which (so far, anyway) chose to wrap up its story after one splendid arc.

First, a confession about "Westworld:" After closely following the first year and gradually losing interest in the second, watching the first four episodes of the third left a slightly fuzzy feeling regarding some of the wrinkles and rules.

Simply put, "Westworld" started quite well -- with its reinvention of the show and stellar cast -- before losing its momentum, becoming so convoluted as to practically collapse in on itself. The third season takes some steps to remedy that, without providing enough incentive as yet to become fully reengaged.

"None of it matters, because none of it is real," a character says at one point during the early going, inadvertently summing up how "Westworld's" mix of narratives occasionally play as if there's no genuine weight, or risk, however violent and deadly the scenarios might be.

Without giving too much away, the new season does move the action outside the adult theme park run by Delos -- exhibiting a glittering, futuristic real world that vaguely resembles "Logan's Run" -- after the bloody events of season two. Leading the way, again, are the very special synthetic creations Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton), operating on different but somewhat parallel tracks.

The plot also introduces several new players, among them a military veteran ("Breaking Bad's" Aaron Paul) drawn into the plot and -- in a daunting sign of inflation -- a trillionaire investor (French actor Vincent Cassel) with his own ideas about Delos' future.

Once again, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy gradually begin to bring the larger picture into focus, as threads narrow, if not completely intersect in the episodes previewed. But the show's ability to kill and revive its not-human characters has both made the drama emotionally chilly and lowered the stakes, while the web of connections has become almost absurdly complicated.

The nagging sense watching "Westworld" now is that the first season was, in hindsight, as good as it's going to get, and once it reached the center of the maze, there was no obvious path left to follow. It lives on, more because of a diehard core and HBO's investment in the project than a clear creative rationale.

In that, there seems to be a warning that "Watchmen" was wise to heed. While there's much to be said for dense, serialized storytelling, not every ambitious yarn is made to keep running on an open-ended basis.

In the case of "Watchmen," the producers were able to craft one satisfying arc that came together in the end, then leave it. If someone else steps in with a new offshoot, great, but that particular story, at least, has been told.

Granted, TV has traditionally been built around finding popular concepts and milking them for as long as possible. Still, the new iterations of streaming and premium platforms have made all sorts of approaches possible, including one-and-done limited series (or "miniseries," as we once called them).

Damon Lindelof, who created HBO's "Watchmen," explained his decision not to proceed -- at least for now -- by saying he had told the story he wanted to tell. The producers of "Westworld" might feel that the show had plenty of story left in the tank, but so far, anyway, the third season reinforces the sense that when it comes to such dense dramas, less is indeed sometimes more.

"Westworld" begins its third season March 15 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.

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