There’s a karaoke scene in Leftovers; I hope you have seen it. Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey is stuck in a hotel that could be purgatory, and he can’t go home until he endures the mortifying ordeal of singing in public. Mrs Davis takes the spirit of this scene – a quest so ridiculous it runs deep – then dials up the silliness and makes a spectacle out of it. “Because it’s stupid!” Kevin protests against Leftovers when asked to spin the karaoke wheel from beyond. “That’s so stupid!” Mrs Davis‘ Simone (Betty Gilpin) spits on (major reveal redacted), a gag so good it kept me happy for weeks. She’s right! And it’s great!
Mrs Davisan exhilarating and bizarre new Peacock series from Tara Hernandez (The Big Bang Theory) and Damon Lindelof (Leftovers), you dare to doubt it. He dances on the line of acceptable madness; a few times in the early episodes, he almost loses you just so he can win you back. What makes him work is his total commitment, which starts with his leadership. Betty Gilpin, who was electric on SHINE, is back in the kind of role she deserves as Sister Simone, a nun in an offbeat convent who sets out to destroy an artificial intelligence algorithm known as Mrs. Davis. Gilpin, witty and unpredictable, moves through the scenes like a human exclamation mark, both heightening the comedy and grounding the emotion with piercing sincerity. She is asked to do a bit of everything, and she does it out of habit.
- It’s funny!
- Gilpin gives a brilliant performance in the lead
- Surprises Really Land
- The show happily digs into the big questions
Do not like
- Some of his ideas get a little muddled
For Simone, who blames the algorithm for a family tragedy, the fight against Mrs. Davis is personal. It also puts her at odds with almost everyone in the world. The app is so popular that it has made all other social media obsolete. People communicate with Ms. Davis through a single earpiece; the public never hears her voice, so her users’ devotion to her is private. (The show’s creators named the app after Hernandez’s first- and second-grade teacher, shorthand for the kind of nurturer character most users see her.) Simone, who doesn’t is not a user, only speaks to her through other people, and yet the AI seems to have endless ways to get Simone’s attention. As with any authority figure, the extent of Ms. Davis’ power is clearer to those who cross paths with her. And Simone’s best shot at taking her down is to complete a classic quest: find and destroy the Holy Grail.
For what? There are definitely plot reasons, which the show cleverly twists more than once. It’s also just fun. Why not let a nun be Indiana Jones? One of Simone’s few allies in her quest is her childhood best friend and ex-boyfriend, Wiley (Jake McDorman), a former youth rodeo star who has her own reasons for wanting the algorithm gone. . He started an underground resistance dedicated to thwarting Mrs. Davis with her brothers. McDorman makes a funny and endearing sidekick, and he and Gilpin prank each other like they’ve been doing it for years.
Wiley is an overgrown boy who surrounds himself with other lost boys, giving his side of the show a cartoonish but also gentle masculinity. This balance is summed up by his friend JQ (Chris Diamantopoulos), a peacock Australian who wavers on the verge of being obnoxious but totally gets away with it. Such is the power of Mrs Davis‘ discard. Andy McQueen brings soul to a tricky role as Jay, a character I can’t say anything about. Ben Chaplin plays a professor stranded on an island (a nod to Lindelof’s work on Lost), Margo Martindale plays Simone’s Mother Superior, and Evil‘s Katja Herbers has a scene-stealing role as a key character in Simone’s quest.
Ms. Davis, the app, may not be self-aware, but the show absolutely is, and she winks at viewers as she goes. The fantastic fifth episode is a story told mostly in flashback, with Simone and Wiley playing Statler and Waldorf in the audience, weighing in on every twist. (“It’s kind of like a recurring theme,” Wiley observes.) In another episode, Wiley admonishes Simone, “Don’t underestimate how stupid this is getting, sweetie,” and in yet another, he says to a mysterious priest (Tom Wlaschiha), “I would advise you to ground your performances. You are way too tall.” Simone repeatedly reminds Wiley not to explain herself too much, an artistic mission statement that the series also (usually) follows. One of the show’s worries is that technology will undermine the magic of life by offering all the answers; there is joy in not understanding everything, and Mrs Davis gives you this joy.
Daughter of the Magicians of Reno (played by Elizabeth Marvel and David Arquette), Simone is wary of being played for a fool in someone else’s grand scheme. In magician terms, she hates being forced: “It’s when you think you’re choosing something, but it’s already been chosen for you.” But as a nun, she wants her own kind of magic — from a belief system that Mrs. Davis threatens — and sometimes wonders if she’s submitting to another kind of force. Beyond all the playful chaos, Mrs Davis asks serious, if slightly confusing, questions about whether life unfolds according to a plan, whether that plan is intelligent or not, and whether authority can also be love. In the end, all of her ideas seem like metaphors for each other, and they can all be attributed to the strained relationship between mothers and daughters.
There’s no avoiding the opportunity for an AI show right now, when the hottest debate in tech is what work gets obsolete next. Is this a “technology is bad” show? Not exclusively. Mrs Davis is by turns skeptical and terrified of what our phones can do (when Ms. Davis speaks through someone, it might sound like possession in a horror movie), but the series is also ready to acknowledge the good: the possibility of connection, the opportunity to help strangers, even the comfort of distraction. It’s worrying, but it’s not a reprimand. The writers used an algorithm (developed by writer Jonny Sun) to create episode titles, giving them hits like “A Baby with Wings, a Sad Boy with Wings and a Big Helmet”. Maybe artificial intelligence is very good at punching holes in itself.
It’s hard to talk about it Mrs Davis without spoiling the thrill – some of the coolest ideas in the series are surprises, and the gags just keep on coming. Anything that seems serious might get scoffed at later, anything that seems funny might get heartfelt, and the best parts of the show are both. If I wanted to criticize it, I would point out that the third episode is the closest Mrs Davis comes at a slow hour; there is a Hands on a Hardbody– style competition that trails in the middle. The show’s timeline doesn’t necessarily match. And his theology is hard to understand without bending your brain, but then again, meaning isn’t the point. Mrs Davis is dedicated to the sanctity of the inexplicable. It’s a show that invites you to study the details, but it’s also a show that works so well when you just let it overwhelm you, a feeling rather than an algorithm.
Firsts: First four episodes air Thursday, April 20 on Peacock, followed by new episodes every Thursday
Who is in: Betty Gilpin, Jake McDorman, Andy McQueen, Elizabeth Marvel, Ben Chaplin, David Arquette, Chris Diamantopoulos, Katja Herbers, Mathilde Ollivier, Margo Martindale
Who is behind: Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof (co-creators)
For fans of: Leftovers at its weirdest
How many episodes we watched: 8 out of 8