Brett Lovejoy spends about eight to 10 hours a week watching “Westworld.”
Watching, in this instance, doesn’t simply refer to sitting in front of a television screen. He’ll replay the episode once or twice, but mostly the 27-year-old West Virginia native spends that time reading through and contributing to online forums dedicated to dissecting every sequence of the show for hidden meaning.
This isn’t unusual. A. Ron Hubbard, co-anchor of the podcast “Watching Westworld,” spends about 15 to 20 hours with the show each week. Craig Carter, who was so taken by the drama that he started “Westworld: The Podcast,” dedicates a weekly five to 10 hours.
What drives a person to spend upward of 12 percent of each week on a single hour-long episode of television?
The show’s premise is this: At some point in the future, technology advanced to the point that we can create robots that are indistinguishable from humans. So a company called Delos creates an Old West-themed adventure park filled with robots. Tourists mostly seem to enjoy either having sex with or killing these robots. Eventually, the machines become sentient, realize they don’t enjoy being literal objects of humanity’s sexual and violent fantasies, and they revolt.
When “Westworld” debuted, it had a lot riding on it. HBO needed a show to capture the zeitgeist a la “Game of Thrones,” especially as that unprecedented fantasy began winding down. A twisty, sci-fi-western mash-up from the imagination of Michael Crichton, and in the capable hands of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, seemed to be just the ticket. But this plan hasn’t entirely worked. Season 2, which wrapped up on Sunday, saw lesser ratings than the debut season, “in contrast with shows like ‘Game of Thrones,’ which grows every season,” Hubbard said.
Rather than inspiring a wide breadth of fandom, “Westworld” has inspired a depth of it.
Most of the fans who spoke with The Washington Post pointed to the direction and performances as a draw. After all, it features powerhouse actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton and Tessa Thompson. But what keeps the fans talking about it all week is the mystery-box nature of the show.
Nolan and Joy employ a great deal of narrative sleight of hand to create mystery. It’s often unclear who is a robot and who is a human being. The show is told in several timelines, but rarely does the viewer know which is on-screen at any moment. Certain details are withheld to create narrative tension.
Fans like Lovejoy spend those hours trying to figure out what’s going on. They swap theories and tirelessly scan episodes for hidden references. Kurt Vonnegut books, for example, have recently popped up in the background of a few scenes. All of these Easter eggs extend the show’s life, keeping it at the front and center of Lovejoy’s consciousness all week long.
Sometimes, in fact, the conversation can be more fun than actually watching the show.
“Sometimes, the pleasure is seeing the theories and thinking about it,” Hubbard said. “The better an episode is, the more fun the actual viewing of it is. The more abstract it is, the more fun it is to talk about.”
This has the curious effect of both drawing in some viewers and pushing others away — as evidenced by the drama’s wildly mixed reviews.
“I genuinely think Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have Jedi-mind-tricked themselves into believing that basic narrative clarity and allowing the even casual viewer to understand the basics of where we are, what people want and where this is heading is not a goal for them. Or, even worse, is something they should actually try to avoid,” culture writer Alison Herman recently said on “The Watch” podcast. “I don’t have the wherewithal to commit to the show, because the show is not a one-hour-a-week commitment. It’s a five- or six-hour-a-week commitment.”
“Every season, there’s a moment around Episode 7 when I stop and wonder, ‘What are we doing?’ ” Hubbard told The Post. “You certainly reach this point where it’s kind of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
“My criticism is more around the fact that the problem with the way the storytelling functions on the show is you often don’t know what is actually happening,” said David Chen (approximately five hours per week), Slashfilm editor at large and co-host of the podcast “Decoding Westworld.” “Nothing can be taken at face value.”
Some fans, though, argue the story’s structure is what makes it so compelling. It’s not a bug; it’s the feature.
“That’s what mystery is: purposely withholding information,” Carter said. “I saw someone tweet that they don’t need to do this whole time-moving-around thing. It’s an unnecessary gimmick. But that’s like saying, ‘Why does Shakespeare need this iambic pentameter gimmick?’ It’s fundamental to what the show is. If you don’t like it, maybe it’s not for you.”
The online community it has inspired might be emblematic of a new kind of television fandom. Wright, who portrays the character Bernard, told The Washington Post that social media allows “Westworld” to live an entirely second life online. It creates an active experience for the viewer.
“If a theory-inspiring show is doing its job well, fans can feel like a part of the show,” said Joanna Robinson (10 hours a week), a senior writer for Vanity Fair and a “Decoding Westword” co-host. “There’s also people who feel like they can outsmart the storyteller.”
In some ways, viewers become part of the storytelling process.
“Occasionally I pop over to Reddit and Twitter and check in on people’s theories. In some ways, I consider it another realm of the show, another layer of the storytelling,” Wright said. “People dive in with their imagination and ideas and, in some ways, have created another writer’s room. The fascinating narrative tangents that fans are creating — it’s something I’ve never experienced before in a show I’ve worked on.”
All of this is a natural extension of how we’ve always watched television, and it has an inherent value, Robinson said.
“Water-cooler culture has always been a thing, we just moved a lot of it online. The way people talked about the stories they enjoy has found a new space on Reddit or podcasting,” she said. “As the monoculture becomes more and more fractured, things like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Westworld’ become something we can talk about instead of politics.”
In other words, it creates a connective tissue, a community. That’s one thing Lovejoy so enjoys. As an avid TV fan living in West Virginia, he long had trouble finding people who shared his passion — until Reddit.
“I’ve lived in West Virginia for a rather large portion of my life, and the viewing audience here isn’t necessarily eager to jump on” prestige television shows such as “Westworld,” “Deadwood” and “The Sopranos,” Lovejoy told The Post via email. “I’m kind of left fawning and obsessing over something on my own, so it’s just been nice to have places like Reddit to not only talk about the show in detail but actually discuss it with people that I know are just as eager to see it as I am.”
The approach, though, may have a potential downside. Hubbard, who calls the show “Sudoku for people with art degrees,” worries that future showrunners might see the community around “Westworld” and try to emulate it.
“If this continues, I’m worried we’re going to have bad art and filmmaking just to preserve the mystery box,” he said.