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DIRECTED BY: Peter Hewitt (Ep. 1), Keith Gordon (Ep. 2 & 4), Kathryn Bigelow (Ep. 3), Phil Joanou (Ep. 5)
FEATURING: James Belushi, Dana Delany, Robert Loggia, Kim Cattrall, Angie Dickinson, Brad Dourif, David Warner, Ernie Hudson, Ben Savage, Nick Mancuso
PLOT: L.A. in the year 2007: Harry Wyckoff (Belushi) is a patent attorney with a wife, Grace (Delany), son Coty (Savage), and a mute daughter, Deirdre. He ends up in the employ of Senator Kreutzer (Loggia) who owns the Wild Palms media group, heads the Church of Synthiotics, and is about to unveil a new VR process for TV. A former lover, Page Katz (Cattrall) asks Harry for help in locating her lost son, which leads Harry into a convoluted world of two warring political factions, the Fathers and the Friends, wrestling for control of the country. Wyckoff discovers he is an integral part of both factions’ plans for success.
COMMENTS: The debut of “Twin Peaks” on network television in 1990 was a watershed moment. It furthered the possibilities of challenging material getting into the mainstream and finding a dedicated audience, and proved that television didn’t have to stick to a lesser aesthetic just because it was on a smaller screen. TV didn’t have to be considered a step down, a place where feature directors were put out to pasture before their careers died. The “Peaks” influence can still be felt some 30 years afterwards. Of course, once something has proven successful, others jump in hoping to get a piece of the pie. So it was inevitable that ABC, the network that took a chance on “Peaks,” would attempt to replicate that success—with stipulations, of course.
Which is how, more or less, how “Wild Palms” came into being. Created by Bruce Wagner (based on the comic he wrote that ran in Details Magazine) and executive produced by Oliver Stone, ABC saw it as a safer bet than “Peaks.” Having learned from their experience with David Lynch to set certain terms at the start—like the property having a definite beginning, middle and end—“Palms” was billed as an “event series,” running about five hours spread over five nights. Like “Peaks,” it had a healthy budget, a distinctive look, and an incredible cast and crew. But “Palms” did not duplicate the cultural tsunami of “Peaks,” despite some pretty good marketing.
There are distinct similarities between the two shows. Both were inspired by and are, to an extent, parodies of the prime-time soap opera format. “Palms” embraces melodrama more in performances and in Wagner’s florid writing. The dialogue is packed with literary and cultural references and wordplay. Both shows exhibit elements of surrealism and perversity: in the latter case, “Palms” tiptoes the line of prime time acceptability with less subtlety than “Peaks,” especially with the demise of a particular character.
“Palms” distinguishes itself from “Peaks” by being more overtly political and straightforwardly science fictional. It’s sci-fi in the vein of Philip K. Dick, involving virtual reality (VR) and a drug used to enhance the experience (Dick’s “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” is very much a touchstone). It’s also very “L.A.,” with many, if not most, of the characters having direct ties to the Industry and to the religion “Synthiotics” (this depiction surprisingly not raising the ire of a certain other L.A.-based religion notorious for being extremely litigious).
Some 25 years later, it’s clear “Palms” is not as timeless as “Peaks.” Some choices (the fashion and phone technology) now look quaint, anchoring it firmly in the early 90’s. Other aspects feel prescient, like a direct commentary on our current landscape: especially the political war between the “Fathers” (right wing) and the “Friends” (left wing). Looking past its contemporary setting and lack of dragons, the way the conflict plays out between two families intertwined by circumstances, with side characters becoming disposable pawns, has a quasi-medieval tone that “Game of Thrones” fans might appreciate. Although the acting all around is good—Delany, Cattral, Loggia and Dickinson are notable, and Belushi reminds you that he’s a good dramatic actor when given the opportunity—very few of the characters are likeable; they don’t captivate audiences the was Lynch’s characters did.
Kino-Lorber released the series on Blu-ray and DVD in the fall of 2020, remastered and including commentaries: Bruce Wagner with James Belushi on the pilot, Wagner paired with Dana Delany on Kathyrn Bigelow’s episode, director Keith Gordon on his two episodes, and Phil Joanou on the last episode. They’re all informative, although Joanou’s is the weakest of the bunch.
A Grantland article on the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut features an interview with creator Bruce Wagner.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…another provocative exercise in television-for-people-who-don’t-like-television — a six-hour ‘event series’ that makes ‘Twin Peaks’ look like ‘Mayberry R.F.D.’… a jaw-dropping combination of disturbing imagery, dark humor and startling moments spread over a narrative that’s virtually impossible to follow.”–Brian Lowry, Variety (contemporaneous)