Tag Archives: Television

CHANNEL 366: “RUSSIAN DOLL,” SEASON 2

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Natasha Lyonne, , , ,

PLOT: Having escaped the time loop that imprisoned her in Season 1, Nadia now finds that she can visit her own past via the New York City subway system, and uses this power to try to salvage her family legacy of stolen Krugerrands—with troublesome and paradoxical results.

Still from Russian Doll, Season 2

COMMENTS: Just a few years after resolving the time loop that saw her killed nightly, Nadia steps onto the 6 train and finds herself transported back in time to 1982. Her smartphone is gone; in its place is a matchbook cover with a note scrawled telling her to meet one “Chaz” at the Black Gumball at 8. The Gumball turns out to be a go-go bar with a topless dancer gyrating on the counter, and when Nadia orders a bourbon, the bartender asks her if she’s sure. Launching into one of her typical raspy monologues, she responds, “It’s arguably the only thing I’m sure of. Basic concepts like time and space are suddenly eluding me. Last night this place was mayhem because the wi-fi went out, but in the new here and now, apparently gratuitous nudity is back in play. My past, your future. Begs the question: am I haunting you, or are you haunting me?”

Circumstances have changed, but Lyonne’s unflappable (or at least, very rarely flapped) Nadia—streaming’s quirky, acerbic breakout character of 2019—is a constant. She’s the kind of middle-aged arrested adolescent who grabs a cocktail first thing in the morning (after lighting a cigarette, of course), chooses both when offered a choice of uppers and downers, and impulsively sleeps with creeps from other eras she barely knows and likes even less. She acts drunk even when sober, but she’s grown into her identity: she’s permanently tipsy and supremely confident, with a mouth like Dorothy Parker if she been raised by a company of Jewish longshoremen. She’s a treasure, and the sole justification for reviving a series that successfully closed its loop back in 2019.

Lyonne puts her mark on the series, directing three of seven episodes this season (as opposed to only the finale of Season 1). She also becomes the only person credited with writing on every episode in the series: while the team of Lyonne and co-creators Leslye Headland and SNL-alum Amy Poehler wrote all of Season 1 together, Season 2 features a wider variety of scripters, with Lyonne the only constant. We suspect that her main contribution is Nadia’s dialogue, which remains as sharp as ever (“every time you compliment me, a cockroach gets its wings.”) Perhaps as a result of the larger writing staff, Season 2 is looser, almost reckless compared to the relatively tight focus of the debut season. The setting is no longer confined to modern day New York City, but ranges through time and space, from the crime-ridden city of 1982 (patrolled by red-bereted Guardian Angels) to Nazi-era Hungary and Cold War Berlin to an allegorical subway labyrinth of memory and regret.

Despite being as acerbic as ever, Nadia has become even more blasé about her dislocated realities, barely batting an eye (and definitely not dropping her cigarette) when she finds herself thrown backwards in time. This matter-of-factness reflects a thematic decision to never even hint why Nadia, and the similarly-situated but far more neurotic Alan, are the subjects of such wrenching temporal anomalies. This approach allows the story to focus purely on its symbolic meaning, which, in Nadia’s case, is coming to terms with her family’s dysfunctional past: she believes that if she can rescue the family Krugerrands, she can redeem her family’s legacy. Of course, things are never that simple, and in the series’ final two episodes the weirdness blooms as Nadia has created a series of paradoxes that throw her carefully laid plans into complete chaos.

It’s inevitable that Netflix’s “Russian Doll” will be compared to Amazon Prime’s “Undone“: two slightly trippy time-travel stories starring strong and sarcastic female leads, centered around the investigation of family histories. The main difference is cosmetic, if significant:”Undone”‘s uncanny valley rotoscoping versus “Doll”‘s traditional live action setting. “Doll” has more comedy (Nadia’s comebacks are a lot spikier than Alma’s); “Undone” takes its science fictional conceit more seriously, delving into time travel mechanics and hinting at some possible causes for the family’s gifts. I’ve tried, and I can’t pick a favorite between them. Stream them both, if you can.

The series’ nesting title is more apt this season (you’ll see why soon enough). Both seasons of “Russian Doll” stream exclusively on Netflix for the foreseeable future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages to pack in big laughs, real emotional moments, and an effective time-traveling plot that fits right in with what happened during the show’s trippy first season.”–Joel Keller, Decider (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: “UNDONE, SEASON 2” (2022)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Carlos Santos, Holley Fain

PLOT: Picking up where Season 1 left off, Alma continues to investigate the past, uncovering more family secrets as she travels through time.

Still from UNDONE, Season 2

COMMENTS: When we last saw Alma, she was sitting in front of an Aztec ruin in Mexico, waiting to see if her dead father was going to walk out of a cave. If he doesn’t emerge at dawn, it likely means she’s schizophrenic.

We can’t tell you if Jacob walks out of that cave, but we can say that in Season 2 Alma will go on more adventures through time, exploring other family secrets, and that this season forefronts a couple of characters—sister Becca and mother Camila—who played supporting roles in the previous series. We’ll also meet other members of the extended clan, both ancestors and newcomers, as Alma and Becca travel back further into the family’s past to uncover generational scandals and traumas.

Season 1 relied, to a large extent, on the ambiguity of whether Alma was going insane, hallucinating from a coma, or whether her dead father really was teaching her to harness the mystical powers hiding in her ancient Aztec blood in order to travel through time and create a new timeline where he survived his car crash. With that arc completed and that ambiguity no longer sustainable, it’s inevitable that some tension drains out of the series. Furthermore, Alma shares the spotlight this go-around, and the confused bursts of anger and sarcasm that made her character so endearing are greatly missed. (Here, she is too often relegated to playing the role of motivational speaker, trying to convince others to go along with her bold schemes.) Season 2 largely replaces that reality-or-insanity dynamic with a traditional mystery structure—with the twist that the investigation requires slippery, loosely defined time travel powers and confrontations with metaphors (an “unopenable” door is a key symbol). The demands of the narrative make a refocus necessary, but although Season 2 is less mysterious than the original, returning writers/creators Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg keep us invested as the saga takes a slight shift into melodrama and ancestral mystery. Returning animator/director Hisko Hulsing assures that the visuals keep up the high and distinctive standard set by Season 1, with the rotoscoped actors remaining oh-so-slightly uncanny even when washing dishes or plinking out a tune on the piano. And he conjures up more than a few trippy landscapes, with lots of fog-shrouded temporal voids and one impressive M.C. Escher inspired psychescape.

“Undone, Season 2” successfully solves its central problem of revisiting a scenario that, frankly, seemed perfectly whole in its original eight episode run. This story could easily have been refashioned into an independent project, but it is richer for continuing with the characters we’ve grown attached to (even if the most popular ones sometimes get shuffled to the background here). It’s not the revelation Season 1 was, but it does have more than enough magic, old and new, to make it worth a visit. It helps that the efficient eight episodes, barely exceeding 20 minutes each, make for a highly bingeable package. And fans need not fear: the second season’s ending leaves no doubt as to the creators’ intent to continue the story. The final episode is one long setup for a new plotline, one that has the bonus of returning star Rosa Salazar front and center.

“Undone,” Seasons 1 and 2, screen exclusively on Amazon Prime (Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With some new help, this time around, the show’s metaphysical trips examine the festering wounds in Alma’s family tree as well as within Alma herself, doubling down on its surreal premise on a new non-linear journey that creates puzzle pieces of their personal histories.”–Kambole Campbell, IGN (contemporaneous)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I MARRIED A STRANGE PERSON! (1997)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Tom Larson, Charis Michelsen, Richard Spore

PLOT: Mid-orgasm, two birds crash into Grant’s satellite receiver, whose redirected beam gives him super powers.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: When the line, “Have you ever tried to tell a 50-ton tank to stop having sex?” makes perfect sense in context, it stands to reason the surrounding film is peculiar. Plympton’s surrealist animated comedy is fit to burst with caterpillar daydreams, organ juggling, and boobs big enough to fill the house.

COMMENTS: The word “strange” is right in the title, along with an appropriate exclamation mark. The film opens with a bit of duck sex, replete with tongue-chomping, teeth-shattering lust (literally, figuratively speaking). And as a flight-of-fantasy indictment of network television’s pervasive malignancy, it’s somewhat ironic that the hero—Grant, the “strange person” of the title—received his phenomenal powers from that very danger. But perhaps it’s not ironic so much as appropriate. If this movie is at all suggestive of Bill Plympton’s views, he finds the human mind far more nonsensical than any invention yet made manifest.

On the topic of manifesting, that is just the power our hero develops. After the amorous anatidaean opener, we meet Grant, an accountant (or something) with the squarest jaw and doublest chin this side of Hollywood’s heroic age. With a pulsating boil on the back of his neck, his day-dreamy outlook changes his reality: the insects his mother-in-law fears appear from her clothes and swarm into her mouth; his chirpy, lawn-mowing neighbor ends up pursued by a giant, psychotic blade of grass with a vendetta; and mid-coitus his wife’s boobs grow to ginormous size, crashing through rooms and smashing through windows. All this does not go unnoticed, neither by the witnesses of his visions-made-real, nor by SmileCorp studio’s Machiavellian overlord, Larson P. Giles.

But back to the sex. It is with a modicum of surprise that I found this film to be R-rated. Granted, it’s animation: a medium in which one can get away with a lot more than any live action equivalent. Bodily explosions, a man hog-tied with another’s intestines, and so on: these are kinds of things that could not get a live action theatrical release, R-rated or otherwise. And there are plenty of “these kinds of things” in Strange Person. In one long-form example, Grant’s friend Solly, a comedian on the cusp of failure, saves his act through sheer force of showmanship by self-dismantling in front of a live studio audience.

But back to the sex. I have seen few non-pornographic films with more sex than I found in I Married a Strange Person! That is not to say any of it was erotic. Plympton’s style doesn’t bend that way; instead, it bends as far away as possible from mundane concerns—like sex. It’s there, but presented on the very edges of acceptable taste (much less “good taste”, a concept decried in an opening quotation from Picasso), smashing like a pastel hammer into the viewer’s consciousness. What truly tips the scale, with weirdo-violent aplomb, is the film’s sweetness. The musical interludes (“Would You Love Me If…?” and “How’d You Get So Cute?” among them) and the overarching theme of love and forgiveness add a saccharine spike of whimsy to the absurd and violent reverie. Rest assured, I Married a Strange Person! ends on a happy note… of sex.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Plympton] is head and shoulders above Spumco, Spike and Mike, and yes, even hometown boy Mike Judge when it comes to creating the weirdest, wildest, most sublimely outré cartoons in the world… Absurdist comedy of this sort is rarely seen these days…”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: I THINK YOU SHOULD LEAVE WITH TIM ROBINSON (2019-2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Alice Mathias, Akiva Schaffer, Zach Kanin, Mike Diva, Zachary Johnson, Jeffrey Max

FEATURING: Tim Robinson

PLOT: A series of characters confront a world that does not welcome their honesty, bluntness, or failure to comprehend simple-yet-unspoken rules of social interaction.

Still from "I Think You SHould Leave with Tim Robinson" (2021)

COMMENTS: It’s hard to imagine a sketch show opening with a more fully realized statement of purpose than the one that kicks off Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s smorgasbord of cringe comedy. Having completed what looks to be a successful job interview in a coffee shop, a man makes his exit. However, he mistakenly pulls on a door which clearly swings out. Desperate to save face, he continues to pull, in the face of gentle correction from his interviewer and the increasing stress and strain from the effort. Ultimately, the fear of humiliation gives him the strength to break the door’s hinges, forcing it to swing inward. It’s a huge relief. Anything, anything to not be wrong.

That combination of aggressive awkwardness and interpersonal incompetence struck a nerve. Season 1 of “I Think You Should Leave,” in particular, proved to be a goldmine for viral jokes, especially in an age when our leaders seemed similarly inclined to do whatever damage was necessary in order to not be thought a fool. Meme-able highlights include a woman who fails to comprehend the subtleties of Instagram snark, a dabbing old man who derails a car focus group with absurd complaints, and a man in a hot dog costume who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for the wreck of his encased-meat mobile. Combined with the binge-friendly 15-minute running time of each episode, Season 2 was almost certainly inevitable.

That season has arrived, and fans of the first set of episodes will be pleased to know that Robinson’s taste for the ridiculous and the bizarre has not abated. If anything, he’s doubled-down on the bad behaviors and convention-flouting characters that made an initial splash. To be sure, some formulas are repeated: a spot urging cable viewers to demand they carry a channel devoted primarily to a funeral blooper show evokes an earlier commercial for a personal injury law firm with a very specific area of expertise. A shirt with a built-in tugging rope pairs nicely with a new garment that sells for upwards of $2,000 based entirely on its garish and increasingly complex patterns. Robinson’s fellow Detroiter Sam Richardson even returns in a new twist on his “Baby of the Year” appearance, this time hosting a misguided corporate entertainment that invites executives at a management retreat to pick the champion “Little Buff Boy” from a selection of preening pre-teen boys in muscle suits.

But new twists abound, frequently revolving around men who have reached the limits of their ability to cope with a world they don’t understand. A video explaining ear-piercing to young girls is mashed-up with a gruff old man’s lifelong regrets. A diner customer seizes on a white lie as a chance to fictionalize a life where he collects multiple versions of the same car. A devoted husband is wrecked by the betrayal of joining in his friends’ sexist jokes about their wives. Robinson himself is overcome with ennui immediately upon donning ill-fitting old makeup for a prank show. If most of the show’s characters are scorned for their refusal to follow social convention, the ones who play by the rules don’t seem any happier.

The essential elements of “I Think You Should Leave” are all in place: People behave awfully, and then blame others. They flout the rules of convention, and then forcefully reject society’s disapproval by championing themselves as bastions of freedom and justice. How dare you ask Santa Claus about his holiday gig when he’s here to promote his new action-revenge thriller? Where do you get off firing a man just because he tries to eat a hot dog hidden away in his sleeve, denies doing so, and then chokes on the link and throws up on a co-worker’s luggage? Doesn’t the recipient of a multi-million dollar personal injury award deserve a place as one of the rough-and-tumble investors on a “Shark Tank”-style show as much as some by-their bootstraps entrepreneur? Even a child’s doll lies to deflect shame. “I Think You Should Leave”’s characters are consistently awful at the job of being decent human beings, and they absolutely blame you.

Nothing may typify Robinson’s comedy more than a sketch about a haunted house tour in which the guide unwittingly trumpets the adults-only hour and encourages the guests to “say whatever you want.” Robinson’s tourist, taking the instruction literally, seizes the opportunity to bellow off-color (and seemingly unrelated) references to horse anatomy. But while the joke may end there, the sketch continues as Robinson tries with increasing despair to get it right. Ultimately, and not surprisingly, he is booted from the tour, and he leaves to the tune of a sad piano, utterly perplexed at his fate. The show’s title may reflect to message we convey to those who don’t fit in, but Robinson offers pity to all those rejects, no matter how much carnage they leave in their wake.

“I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” streams on Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the enduring appeal of I Think You Should Leave doesn’t rest in the question of which sketches work and which don’t. It’s more about the way viewers get drawn into its bizarro universe. It’s a world plagued by comic magicians, imbalanced nacho-sharing, and an aggressive baby named Bart Harley Jarvis. In this vision of comedy, the most mundane social missteps are the principal causes of human anguish. In season 2, Robinson and Kanin stay that course, and the best bits are the ones that exploit a simple, weird concept in ways that play on the successes of the first season, but still find surprising elements.”–Brianna Zigler, Polygon (contemporaneous)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

Môsô dairinin 

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mamiko Noto, Shouzou Iizuka, Toshihiko Seki, Haruko Momoi (Japanese); Michelle Ruff, Michael McConnohie, Liam O’ Brien, Carrie Savage (English dub)

PLOT: Toy designer Tsukiko Sagi, under tremendous pressure after creating an enormously successful character “Maromi,” is attacked by a bat-wielding boy on skates—dubbed “Li’l Slugger” (or “Shonen Bat”)—or so she claims. The two detectives assigned to the case have their doubts, but more attacks occur, and the victims appear to be connected, and all under some type of mental distress.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: “Paranoia Agent” balances horror and humor adroitly, especially when seen from a perspective 20 years later. Aside from some minor points, the series doesn’t feel dated; it could have been generated within the past seven years. The credit sequence establishes the tone, with the main characters laughing hysterically despite their incongruous settings (underwater, in traffic, and before an atomic explosion, to name a few), while the upbeat theme song just adds to the unsettling nature.

“Paranoia has a stronger image than fantasy. Yes. Delusional, maybe. Right. The word gives an impression that a person is, in a sense… actively making himself delusional. That kind of strength is inherent in the word. Well, in order to go through life… everyone needs to have something apart from reality… such as fantasy, dream, or maybe paranoia. Otherwise, life can be surprisingly hard. Yes. The world as a person perceives… it is a world filtered through his fantasy or paranoia, I think. In that sense, I don’t think that fantasy and paranoia are necessarily unhealthy.”–Satoshi Kon

COMMENTS: For admirers of Satoshi Kon’s work, “Paranoia Agent” can be viewed as a grab bag or sampler of sorts. There are echoes from Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and you can see hints of Paprika (2006). “Paranoia Agent” grew out of concepts that did not develop into larger projects, and a proving ground for things that did show up later.

At the time of its creation and release, this miniseries could be read as social commentary on aspects of Japanese society in the early 2000s. Cellphones, the Internet and the beginnings of social media are present, providing plenty of distractions for people. The show is an effective commentary on fantasy vs. reality; as Modern Life becomes more unbearable, more and more people seek escape via fantasy. But “Paranoia Agent” underlines the necessity to live in reality, as escapist coping mechanisms are shown to be ultimately destructive. Some cultural aspects the show touches on, such as Denpa-kei Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

CHANNEL 366: WANDAVISION (2021)

DIRECTED BY: Matt Shakman

FEATURING: Elizabeth Olsen, , Kathryn Hahn, , Randall Park,

PLOT: Sorceress Wanda Maximoff and her husband, the strong and flight-capable synthezoid Vision, settle down in the idyllic burg of Westview. However, their peace and comfort are regularly disrupted by nosy neighbors who are constantly seconds away from discovering their secret, outside forces threatening their safety, and the fact that their reality is constantly changing to reflect the evolution of the American situation comedy over several decades.

Still from WandaVision,(2021)

 COMMENTS: For their debut on the Disney+ streaming service, the bigwigs at Marvel Studios bypass their usual flights-and-punches formula in favor of parody, satire, and psychological paranoia. “WandaVision” turns the mystery of what is happening to our protagonists on its head by filtering the drama through the pastiche of laugh-tracked comical antics. So it’s not quite what you might expect from the box office wizards at Marvel. On the other hand, it’s still mainstream entertainment, and the patient will soon be rewarded with explanations for all that transpires.

When last seen on the big screen, Wanda Maximoff (AKA Scarlet Witch) was doing battle with purple mega-Malthusian Thanos, while Vision was dead at selfsame villain’s hands. For those who have diligently followed the Marvel Cinematic Universe through 24-or-so big screen adventures, the sight of the pair crossing the threshold as (1) married, (2) very much alive, and (3) stepping onto the set of an ersatz “Dick van Dyke Show” must surely provoke a cocked eyebrow.

But if you’ve been paying any attention at all, you’ve noticed that part of Marvel’s success has derived from its willingness to borrow beats and tropes from other genres to keep the overall superhero vibe fresh. You’re as likely to get touches of 70s paranoid thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as you are an 80s macho-buddy flick (Thor: Ragnarok). Sometimes the films even shift tone within their own running time (see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s lurch from heist comedy to haunted requiem). So the left-turn into sitcom territory is not totally off-brand.

Considering that they’ve been reduced to mere cameos amidst the cinematic cavalcade of superheroes, Olsen and Bettany seem to relish finally getting the spotlight to themselves for a little bit. Their chemistry, teased out in stolen moments in the big-screen omnibus, is genuine, and if their transformation into broad comedians still feels awkward, it’s not for lack of trying. The same Vision who triumphantly hoisted Thor’s hammer in the cinema is here reduced to belting out “Yakety Yak” as a wild distraction—but the spirit says to just go with it.

That’s surely why “WandaVision” is on our radar. It feels wrong. These characters shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, these comedic styles should not be on our TV screens in the 21st century, and for three episodes, the show resolutely refuses to explain just what the heck is going on. Of course, this puzzle box is part of what draws viewers here in the first place. Something strange is going on is Heroville, and we’re gonna try and figure out what.

And sure enough, episode 4 begins to unpack the mystery, as agents from the “real world” try to understand the mysterious goings-on. It’s hardly a coincidence that FBI agent Jimmy Woo is scribbling down the very questions that are in our own heads: “Why hexagonal shape? Why sitcoms? Same time & space? Is Vision alive?” For any viewers shaking their heads and despairing at the many unanswered questions, the plot cops are here to sort things out.

“WandaVision” represents an interesting attempt to incorporate some different flavors into the Marvel mix. Director Shakman and creator Jac Schaeffer fully commit to their odd premise, with credit sequences, theme songs, and commercial breaks to match each new setting. (In particular, episode 5 ends in a wild twist that manages to riff on sitcom tropes and inside-baseball Hollywood at the same time.) In other words, it’s weird and it knows it. But the show also wants to reassure you that everything’s going to make sense in the end; it’s weird for a reason. When you’re a multibillion dollar content factory, you probably don’t want to leave that kind of thing to chance.

Roger Ebert famously summarized the shortcomings of 2010, the belated sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, by quoting the verse of e. e. cummings: “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance”. Similarly, “WandaVision” soars when gleefully vivisecting expectations for a comic book adventure series, but the needs of the franchise, and the demands of mainstream entertainment, keep it firmly tethered to the ground.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The best parts of the first three episodes are when WandaVision unapologetically leans into its weirdness… the more unexplained moments the show throws at us, and the more it pushes up against what feels like horror, the more it allows the sitcom device to really hammer home its uncanny artificiality. The result is that the sitcom beats feel even stranger, maybe even more menacing — in a way that goes beyond “these characters sure are acting unnaturally.” It makes you realize the intense desperation for these characters to be “normal,” and the tragedy that “normal” is the one thing they’ll never be able to be. When the characters sink back into their comedic shtick, then, it feels even more unnerving.” – Alex Abad-Santos, Vox

 

CAPSULE: “WILD PALMS” (1993)

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DIRECTED BY: Peter Hewitt (Ep. 1), Keith Gordon (Ep. 2 & 4), Kathryn Bigelow (Ep. 3), Phil Joanou (Ep. 5)

FEATURING: , Dana Delany, , Kim Cattrall, , , , 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.

Still from "Wild Palms" 1993

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 , ABC saw it as a safer bet than “Peaks.” Having learned from their experience with 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 , 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)