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What if ChatGPT, but too much? Too popular, too omniscient, and far too nefarious than today’s cutting-edge chatbots?
That’s the premise of Mrs. Davis, an ultra-ambitious series from Big Bang Theory veteran Tara Hernandez and Watchmen creator Damon Lindelof. Mrs. Davis, premiering at SXSW before its April 20 streaming debut on Peacock, tells the story of a heroic, street-savvy nun (three-time GLOW Emmy nominee Betty Gilpin) battling an omnipresent AI and its legion of obsessed fans who will do anything to please their tech deity (called Mrs. Davis), which is supposedly striving to make the world a better place. Oh, and there’s also a quest for the Holy Grail, possible Nazis with butterfly nets, nefarious magicians and a teary make-out session with Jesus — and that’s just in the first two episodes. As Gilpin’s character, Simone, says at one point: “It’s a lot.”
“The most exciting thing about Mrs. Davis is that there’s nothing like Mrs. Davis,” says Hernandez.
The series (teaser trailer below) was immaculately conceived during the early months of the pandemic, when Hernandez and Lindelof wished there were a benevolent algorithm that could cut through the blizzard of conflicting COVID-19 information and definitively explain, for instance, whether disinfecting groceries was useful or not. “We were like, ‘God, I just wish there was an app that said whether this is a huge waste of time,'” Lindelof says.
Straight off, their choice to have a cool-nun heroine was a bold one given the heavily tarnished reputation of the Catholic Church (the nuns who sadistically torture a Native American character in Paramount+’s 1923 are more aligned with the cultural vibe).
“It definitely felt subversive and terrifying to us because they’re not somebody that people here on the West Coast typically prop up as heroes of a story,” Lindelof says. “But at this point, we’re not pulling punches, so we’re just going to go for it and see if we can get people on board with her journey.”
Instead of the usual evil AI tropes, the team was instead interested in exploring the idea of a system clearly programmed to be benevolent — and how even that could still go wrong. “Instead of the AI wiping out humanity, what would that look like?” Lindelof says. “To us, that felt like the more potentially comedic and interesting way of looking at the God question, which is: What do people turn to God for? How does God make people feel? The thing about AI is it takes away the best part of God’s branding, which is mystery.”
As the team put the finishing touches on the show, they watched OpenAI’s ChatGPT bot become part of a massive cultural conversation about the technology and its potential misuse. “The writers’ chat thread is, like, blowing up,” Hernandez says. “I actually think it’s a good thing that it’s happening now because we wouldn’t have gotten anything done” if it had launched earlier, because they’d have been swept into the discussion.
“Whether Mrs. Davis succeeds or fails, we’re super excited that like everybody is talking about artificial intelligence and whether or not it is intelligent, or whether it’s just telling us what we want to hear, and what we’re supposed to use it for,” Lindelof says. “This is a conversation that’s been going on for a long time, but it’s it’s happening a lot right now – that, and shooting down weather balloons.”
Lindelof admits that, to some extent, the idea of potential viewers who had gained a clearer sense of AI and its limitations worried the team. “We’ve wondered if it’s challenging our thesis now that you’re starting to see the first articles being written about how stupid it really is,” he says. “If you ask [chatbots] to do anything outside the realm of what they’ve been programmed to do, they instantly reveal themselves to be idiots.” Yet the writers still created their own rudimentary AI algorithm (which promptly named itself Larry Bel-Air) to write the show’s episode titles. For the show’s first episode, the bot provided the title “Mother of Mercy: The Call of the Horse.”
Quips Lindelof: “Don’t tell the WGA.”
Mrs. Davis will have its world premiere at SXSW on March 14 at Stateside Theatre at 5 p.m.
More TV Premieres at SXSW
Love and Death (HBO MAX)
From 11-time Emmy winner David E. Kelley comes this true-crime limited series about rural Texas housewife Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen), who was accused of ax murdering her friend in 1980.
March 11, Paramount Theatre
Rabbit Hole (Paramount+)
Kiefer Sutherland returns to TV in a role that’s right in his action-thriller wheelhouse. The 24 star plays a master of corporate espionage framed for murder by a shadowy organization.
March 12, Stateside Theatre
Swarm (Prime Video)
The horror series from Donald Glover and fellow Atlanta vet Janine Nabers follows a young woman (Dominique Fishback) who’s obsessed with a Beyoncé-like pop star.
March 10, Paramount Theatre
This story first appeared in the March 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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