I have been hooked on the HBO series Westworld. And in one important way, I hope it represents the future of the media.

Westworld tells the story of a futuristic theme park, populated with robots who look exactly like humans. The park is a throwback to the old West, like Frontierland at Walt Disney World, except that you can go on story quests like finding gold or robbing a train.

Along the way, you can get in “real” gunfights and hook up with “real” characters, but with none of the real-world consequences, because they’re robots. The park, then, caters to the most primal human desires – and since it’s HBO, there’s plenty of sex and violence to cater to ours.

The other half of Westworld takes place behind the scenes, exploring the inner politics of Delos, the company that runs the park. Founded by an enigmatic genius, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, we learn that the robots are gradually gaining consciousness – that is, becoming aware of themselves as robots.

On several levels, the show is a mind-bender. Written by Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote such trippy movies as Interstellar and Memento, it literally causes you to question your reality. As you watch the series, it is impossible not to ask metaphysical questions like:

  • Why do I think my reality is real?
  • Is there a programmer who created me?
  • Do I have a free will, or does it only seem that way?
  • Do I need to “wake up”?
  • How would I behave in a simulated environment with no consequences?

Of all the many story threads in this complicated tapestry, my favorite is about Maeve, the robot that achieves something like full consciousness of her situation. She learns how to “break out” of the Western-style theme park, into the R&D labs of Delos, and there she hacks her own programming.

Westworld has a magnificent, upward-sweeping story arc. While some characters undoubtedly fall into greater and greater moral ruin, the story of robots achieving human consciousness is one of the biggest issues of our day. With true artificial intelligence only a few years away, this is a question we need to urgently consider: what happens when the machines become smarter than humans? How will we respond?

Westworld is one of the only media outlets anywhere considering the implications of AI, alerting us to wake up and think about what’s coming. In that respect, it’s not only a show about the future of entertainment, it is the future of entertainment.

Westworld vs. Breaking Bad

Compare Westworld with another recent critically-acclaimed series, Breaking Bad.

If you haven’t seen it (I haven’t), Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer. Worried that he will leave his family alone and unsupported, he and one of his students convert an old RV into a meth lab and begin manufacturing drugs. Even when the cancer appears to go into remission, he continues his downward slide into becoming a drug lord.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, wanted to create a show where the main character is not gradually redeemed to good, but is gradually corrupted to evil. Gilligan’s one-sentence pitch to Hollywood execs: “This is a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.”

I never watched Breaking Bad, even with all its Emmys, even with my friends recommending it, because there are 62 episodes, and I didn’t want to spend 62 hours of my life in a slow downward spiral. Sixty-two hours draining me of energy, when I could invest it in things that charge me up.

There are many who disagree with me. Christianity Today made a surprising argument for watching the show, claiming that it highlights the importance of moral choices. “The story is a five season … argument whose conclusion is that you, viewer, also have a choice, in what to watch, or say, in how to treat people, in who to be.”

Studies show, however, that what we watch on TV colors how we see the world. If we watch crime shows, we perceive the world as more criminal. If we watch a lot of news, we perceive the world as more dangerous. I’ll let Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, explain to Rolling Stone how it affected him:

It started to affect my outlook on life. You start to see the world as Walter White sees the world, and Walt’s world is a dark place of suspicion and paranoia. You’re driving in a parking garage and thinking, “Jeez, there’s someone waiting to kill me.” There were times when I thought, “Boy, wouldn’t it be a blessing to have a character in my head who was good and true and honest?”

Whenever I get a recommendation on a new series from a friend, I ask, “If I invest a huge chunk of my free time into this show, am I going to feel energized and inspired? Or am I going to feel worn down and tired?” They like this question, because it rhymes.

In other words, I want positive story arcs. Surely Vince Gilligan can make a great show called Breaking Good.

The Future of Entertainment

I’ve been blogging about a new role for the media, where the goal is to move humanity forward. The entertainment industry is such a large part of the media that we need a new vision for the future of entertainment.

  • It will inspire. Imagine a future that shows the best of humanity, even in difficult times (think shows like Parks and Recreation and Community, movies like Rocky or The Shawshank Redemption.)
  • It will challenge. Imagine a future in which violent sports are considered taboo, and strategy games are humanity’s obsession, where we favor brains over brutality. (The Super Bowl becomes the Strategy Bowl.)
  • It will educate. Imagine a future where we have more entertainment that “sticks with you,” that causes you to view the world in a different way. (Think The Matrix or Pay It Forward.)

If this sounds really boring, then you’re not using your imagination. “Entertainment” is the opposite of “boring.” The entertainment industry has some of the most creative and brilliant people on the planet, and they can find a way to make anything awesome. (Remember that we have entire cable channels dedicated to history and cooking.)

If you blog, post or tweet anything entertaining, you’re part of the entertainment industry, too. Even if you’re just sharing a funny photo or video, or posting something humorous to your corporate blog, people are consuming the content you put out there, like food. Is it junk food, or something nutritious?

Together, let’s make content that entertains us while it trains us. Which people will like, because it rhymes.


John Hargrave is CEO of Media Shower, the leading content marketing company. Click here to try us for free.