Premium Television and the Problem of Viewer Engagement

It all started with Lost—as I’m fond of saying about nearly any network television show featuring any kind of sci-fi, fantasy, or mystery elements. Lost premiered at a time when science fiction on television was brusquely relegated to the Syfy channel or nostalgic reruns of those campy yet halcyon series of space travel;  a time when network television desperately needed something to come along and dislodge the apathetic viewership of long-slogs like CSI and American Idol; when middle class families like mine would typically gather to watch whatever sitcom was on between the rotely formulaic case-solving and bloated reality television; and maybe most importantly: when network television was all we had, unless we were paying for premium channels.

From what I can tell—based on a cursory click-through of wikipedia—Lost debuted to fairly strong ratings for a show of its kind (a category in which I’ll casually lob X-Files and Twin Peaks), suggesting that not only was there a market for the sci-fi/mystery/fantasy show, but also that viewers were immediately ready to dive into a heavily mythology-based world.

Of course the JJ Abrams-directed two-part blockbuster premiere helped immensely to initially hook all 18 million viewers for the whole first season. The second season debuted at an even stronger 23 million and held an average of 18 before things started to slump with the third season. (Compare briefly with X-Files’ premiere which debuted with 12, peaked with 27 in season 5 and held an overall average of 19 in its peak seasons; and Twin Peaks’ premiere which debuted to a whopping 34.6 and steadily slid down to 7 by its uneven end after only two seasons). I distinctly remember my family growing tired of Lost mid-second season—and I am to this day, one of the only people I know who stuck with the series for the whole run, watching it week to week for six years to the widely disparaged and debated finale. So what happened?

The largest complaint lodged against Lost in its second and third seasons was what it was initially praised for: mystery. That the sci-fi elements were mostly just hinted at in the first season played to its primary strength of otherwise being essentially a character drama in the mode of a Lord of the Flies survival setting.

It seemed like the perfect model of progression for a show that was, in its early days, projected to run at least 3 seasons of 20+ episodes a piece: strongly develop a large cast of characters and hint at much larger auspices at play around them. Unfortunately, for many people, three years was too damn long to wait to find out what the hell the smoke monster was—not to mention the myriad other questions raised in between and then forgotten for seasons at a time, where not even the most patient viewers were always rewarded.

There came a time for every fan of the show to begrudgingly accept that many if not most of the mysteries would not be satisfactorily explained; elitists began to naively herald the messy structure in optimism of some grand resolution, or lord it over the plebeians who couldn’t recognize the greatness of a show that refused to pander to audiences with trivial ‘answers’. Regardless, the show sent ripples across the space-time fabric of network television and has since shaped the landscape and expectations of viewership.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Lost already, which I’m wont to do for even the slightest reason, but what I’m really here to talk about is Westworld. If one of the big questions for Lost was, ‘Who is willing to painstakingly wade through red herrings and dense mythology consisting of mostly unanswered questions?’ then the question for Westworld, more succinctly, would be ‘Who, exactly, is this show for?’ One of the greatest joys of Lost was discussing the episodes with the few friends you had who were nerd enough to theorize about seemingly trivial hints and scenes and discuss the larger implications of the DHARMA initiation videos or who the Others were (and then the other Others, and so on). It still remains a great joy to this day to peruse the Lost wiki and revisit the vast thematic sprawl, interconnections, and unsolved mysteries.

It being the teenage years of the internet, the creators even doubled down on the world-building and implemented an alternate reality game (ARG) for the upper-echelon of fandom who wanted to know more about the corporate conspiracies and endworld mathematical equations glossed over in the show’s dialogue via a breadcrumb treasure hunt which consisted mostly of finding hidden access points on flashy websites. The creators of Lost straddled a line between delivering a character drama with mass appeal and slipping in enough hints and mystery to satisfy the closer scrutiny of those who dug on all the hedging—and all to moderate success and legacy.

Flash-foward (no regrets) to 2016, when the internet is a twenty-something, and advertising for many shows includes some sort of ‘ARG-element’ for hyperfans, or those just bored enough to visit a show’s website in hope for more content; where youtube has you covered for any kind of in-depth analysis of any show with serial mystery; where discussion forums exist for anything and everything, and somebody has already asked and answered the question you opened your browser with. That is all to say that every show now comes pre-loaded with the expectations set by the already-plumbed scrutiny of the online community; Does the casual viewer even have a chance? Not with a show like Westworld (which, yes, I’m getting to now).

In Westworld we are presented with two layers of reality: that of the ‘game-world’ in which visitors from the real world go to visit to indulge in the wild west fantasy of their dreams with no repercussions. In the ‘park’, visitors are able to shoot, kill, and fuck whatever non-player characters (NPCs in videogame argot) they want, and the subsequent damage to the robotic ‘hosts’ is then repaired in the sterile glass rooms on the bureaucratic side of the show’s universe.

One of the first ambiguities set up in said dichotomy is that players are unable to distinguish who the hosts are as compared to other players (except by killing them; whereas players can’t be killed—although the limitations to how much they can be hurt are unclear with some players being cut and even knocked unconscious in the more rugged ends of the park), and thus neither can we as viewers distinguish the difference—and this is only the first initiation into the show’s many metacognitions of how we view and digest entertainment.

That there is no clean delineation between the real world’s and the park’s human and robotic entities should tip off the modern, if not suspicious viewer that this conceit will likely be used against them. So too, nearly all of the very deliberate hints and foreshadowing glossed over in dialogue or hidden in the background—and even heavy-handedly in the foreground: the waxen army of hosts ‘retired’ for aberrant behavior standing shoulder to shoulder in the sub-basement—all this contributes to the equally deliberate pacing of the show (i.e. the snail’s pace at which the plot of the first season actually unfolds, where each of the disparate plots take about half a step forward each episode, faintly suggesting some opaque endgame). Because of the show’s tightly interwoven plot and world where superficially not much new actually happens in an episode, the show inadvertently directs the careful viewer to these lesser moments, away from the lacking plot and towards more specific cues.

One of the main differences between Lost and Westworld is that the latter leans more heavily on mythology-building than it does character development; the creators are banking on the viewers’ willingness to forego the traditional route of televisual entertainment being dependent mainly on plot and character drama and accept the more heady philosophical and technical ends of science fiction. This is surely a gamble.

What’s more is that Westworld willingly employs subterfuge in the few genuinely emotional attempts to establish character for concept-heavy ends. One of the show’s intents with the robotic characters who have programmed memories and suffering (to make them more lifelike) is to elicit a sort of cognitive dissonance in the viewer: that we are rooting for the hosts implies an uncomfortable empathy subsumed in the knowledge that they are programmed beings without free will which is supposed to reflect back on our own willingness to empathize so greatly with fictional characters that exist in the same kind of simulacrum.  But the effect is rarely profound enough to offset the fact that the show’s very philosophical ends consistently undermine any kind of genuine empathy for any of the characters. And while there are a lot of interesting ideas floating around, they are so often delivered at the cost of any dramatic weight as to feel essentially sterilized.

One of the coolest ideas the show develops is how the creators of the park went about trying to generate bona fide consciousness in their robots by having them actually hear their own programming as a voice in their head—in the beginning many of them actually were a bit psychotic trying to reconcile their cognition. Furthermore, when the programmers loosen up the loop that the robots live in (reliving the same day with the previous day’s memories wiped) by giving them the ability to remember—’reveries’ being the marketable term—they experience them so viscerally that they can’t distinguish when they actually are, which makes for one of the rare successful occasions of the meta-dissonance I mentioned before.

Human memory occurs as a mostly fragmentary and nonlinear process, an impressionistic basis by which we essentially define ourselves; but for the characters we cherish and empathize with in entertainment and art—whether it be books or movies—memory essentially does not exist in such a sublime way, and yet we are still affected and even changed by these fictions that so ruefully try to emulate the human experience. But, as with many of the successful moments of the show’s philosophy, there isn’t really any capitalization on this cool element other than it just exists as a neat observation—at least, so far.

Instead of probing the concept of self that inevitably arises in realizing your memories are in fact, programmed, the show sets up the visceral all-consuming ‘reveries’ experienced by the hosts as a conceit for a later plot-twist—using a potentially ripe philosophical inquiry against the viewer for the sake of surprise. (To be fair, the end of the first season has been said to be simply a ‘prologue’ to the rest of the series so there’s a decent chance that going forward there will be further development of how almost-conscious robots attempt to rationalize their concepts of self where so far there’s just been a lot of implicit brooding stares into the distance.) The actual dissonance then, that is created by the show’s rigorous deconstruction of how fictional characters inoculate us with real emotional response, ends up undermining the intended dissonance; the possibility for dramatic depth that comes with false and errantly experienced memories doesn’t get any attention in favor a long-con meant to surprise the viewer—a fairly weak plot substitute at best.

So again, who is this show for? It’s not really for casual viewers of entertainment like my parents, who, even after the heavily hinted at and ultimately barely revealed plot twist that there are in fact two timeframes occurring in the show’s drama, didn’t realize what they were seeing until it was very blatantly and underwhelmingly reiterated in a further plot twist in the finale (presumably meant to bridge a character gap with a profound development that ended up just feeling necessary rather than at all important—even the humans in the show lack much depth for the sake of the concepts at play around them).

Is the show for the internet crowd then? Well, yes and no. With a heavier focus on world-building and asking big philosophical questions, the only recourse for an internet fanbase is to pick apart all the subtle clues and hints that point towards each other or to an imminent reveal, and put them together into cohesive theories. The result of a show that is so obsessed with its own universe, that is so tightly knotted into itself, is that each time it decides to reveal one of its mysteries, it’s already been correctly predicted on the forums. (For example: the multiple timeframes being correctly theorized since the beginning of the show but not actually revealed until the latter half; same for a lot of the ‘big’ reveals in the finale.) For a show that spends so much time quibbling over free will and consciousness, there is a thick irony in its plot-twists deflating under its own modus operandi and determinism.

It could be argued too, that the show is meant for both casual and hardcore crowds, where multiple viewings will exonerate the seemingly arcane clues and constantly noncommittal and evasive plot. To which I’d reply that perhaps for some the discovery of the elaborate set-up present throughout the season would make for an exciting rewatch; but just because your attention will be shifted to minutiae, it doesn’t alter the fact that all you’re being made privy to is a sleight of hand behind a set of large-scale parlor tricks, which upon further viewings will grow stale. Compare to other works that have employed similar structures: Fight Club is riddled with clues and hints about its plot twist but carries a hell of a lot of dramatic weight and a thorough investigation of the modern male psyche and aggression on an abrupt and visceral psychological level; or The Prestige which is similarly a joy to rewatch for the grand portrayal of greed and legacy supported by a knotted deception of a plot riddled with foreshadowing; and then consider the lesser Inception where the puzzle of dream layers is mentally titillating at first but feels much less so upon further viewings.    

And so, for all its meta-rumination and big-concept huffing, Westworld has seemingly course-corrected from the days of messy and bumbling mythology associated with Lost by delivering an apparently tightly wound world with a definite direction, only to miss what might be the most important part of any storyline—having heart. If we were to compare to literature we might posit that Lost exists in TV’s era of romanticism—with its aesthetic questions of big faith and experiencing reality through grand emotional stakes—where Westworld falls closer to postmodernism: clinically deconstructing our own scrutiny of entertainment  at arm’s length of a thinly veiling plot. There are of course, valid criticisms of both, but I think there is no doubt that Lost had a wider ability to reward both the casual and hardcore viewer—if not intermittently and to muddled ends—whereas Westworld seems to both reward and crumple under close scrutiny, with no apparent middle ground to its exacting trajectory.  

So perhaps the show really is for ‘premium’ viewers. We’re of course all ‘premium’ viewers now. Where a decade ago premium content was relegated to a few sets of for-pay channels, these days it exists more prolifically thanks to the internet. One has only to ask a friend who is paying for premium content on one of the many many internet providers to access a wider swath of entertainment than ever before. We should be so lucky to have such high budget, thinking-person’s entertainment so readily available and in demand. A show like Westworld probably could not have existed 10 years ago (but it does now, thanks, in part, to Lost), but the fact that it does now only corroborates that this show, really, is for whoever wants it—which is the real beauty of today’s landscape of visual entertainment: even if the content itself hasn’t exactly caught up to the means of its dispersal (that we can talk it to death online before we see it—and perhaps here Netflix is prescient in releasing whole seasons at once), or that just because we want better and newer stories, doesn’t mean we have to entirely forego what has made television work so well in the past.

Conor Teichroeb