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What can I tell you about Mrs. Davis? I can tell you it’s about a nun, Simone (Betty Gilpin), and her rodeo cowboy ex, Wiley (Jake McDorman). I can tell you that the series pits them against a seemingly all-powerful algorithm that might vaguely be described as Siri meets ChatGPT, on steroids. I can tell you this battle somehow involves an angry whale, the Holy Grail and a literal Schrödinger’s cat.
Beyond that, I can’t tell you much, in part because the powers that be at Peacock have sworn critics to secrecy, but also because I fear that explaining the plot might make me sound unhinged. It’s that strange. And while I’m still not totally sure its biggest swings add up in the end, it is, if nothing else, a true original in a TV landscape littered with endlessly rebooted IP — and all the more entertaining for it.
Cast: Betty Gilpin, Jake McDorman, Andy McQueen, Ben Chaplin, Margo Martindale, David Arquette, Elizabeth Marvel, Katja Herbers, Chris Diamantopoulos, Ashley Romans, Tom Wlaschiha, Mathilde Ollivier
Creators: Tara Hernandez, Damon Lindelof
Fine, I will say a little more. The sci-fi-action-adventure-thriller-comedy-drama, created by Tara Hernandez (Young Sheldon, The Big Bang Theory) and Damon Lindelof takes place in a version of 2023 that feels both disturbingly familiar and not at all. On one hand, its titular AI has taken control of nearly every facet of human society, such that even prime ministers are taking orders from her — it — via omnipresent earpieces. On the other, the world doesn’t look that much different from our current reality, where smartphones have so many of us cocooned in little bubbles of digital assistants and social media likes.
Whether this latest development represents a utopia or a dystopia depends on who you ask. Most of the population seem to believe it’s the former, gushing that Mrs. Davis has eradicated famine, war, even loneliness. Most of our main characters are sure it’s the latter. Simone blames the algorithm for the death of her father (David Arquette), for reasons gradually revealed over the season’s eight hourlong episodes. Meanwhile, Wiley has channeled his own fury into an underground resistance movement that mainly functions as an excuse for its disaffected ranks to live out the macho fantasies imprinted upon them by Braveheart or Fight Club. When Simone is selected by Mrs. Davis for a mission, she agrees on the condition that Mrs. Davis shut herself down afterward — and with Wiley’s help, sets out to make it happen come hell or high water.
If that all sounds a bit trite, that’s by design. “Algorithms love clichés, and there’s no cliché better than the quest for the Holy Grail,” sniffs Wiley’s right-hand man, JQ (Chris Diamantopoulos) — himself such a cliché of a rugged Australian warrior that he throws back spoonfuls of Vegemite before launching himself out of planes. Simone and Wiley tend to believe nearly every hurdle thrown their way is Mrs. Davis making shit up based on the centuries of stories that have been fed into its programming, and they’re often not wrong. To enjoy Mrs. Davis is to accept that the rug is going to be pulled out from under you, only to reveal another rug that will also be pulled out from under you, and then another and another until you’re staring at a whole pile of discarded rugs.
Mrs. Davis isn’t the only one pulling the strings, though. Parents, stage magicians, God himself — all manipulate people from behind the scenes in Mrs. Davis while presenting the illusion of free choice. Childhood traumas scramble characters’ programming and scar their bodies. Pop culture provides them with scripts for their interactions with each other. (For that matter, are you watching this show because you actually wanted to, or because its strategic placement on Peacock’s homepage made you think you wanted to?) From that view, life can start to seem like it’s just one big story we’re being fed. Little wonder that when a frazzled storyteller (Ben Chaplin) relays an episode’s worth of backstory to Simone and Wiley midway through the season, they can’t help yelling out predictions and howling at the twists, like a pair of viewers exchanging fan theories on Reddit.
But if so much of Mrs. Davis‘ tropes and ideas are familiar, what it’s managed to do with them feels thrillingly unpredictable. Simone is an impassioned woman of God, but she’s also a badass blessed with Gilpin’s wry wit and effortless charisma. McDorman looks every inch the hero, but Wiley is less a Captain America type than a guy plagued with fear that he’ll never be a Captain America type. The pair share a crackling chemistry that speaks to years of affection, desire and disappointment, and it comes as little surprise when they fall into a love triangle with Simone’s current squeeze, a falafel slinger named Jay (Andy McQueen). It’s the specifics of the complications that come as a delirious shock.
Maybe even too much of a delirious shock. Mrs. Davis’ tendency to prioritize excitement over narrative or thematic coherence can be a double-edged sword. Viewers who live to solve mystery-box shows will likely be frustrated by the show’s ramshackle approach to storytelling. So might those looking for a clear statement on the many big topics raised by the series, up to and including “Would it really be such a bad thing if the world were run by an omniscient AI?” Several major storylines, including one about Simone’s fraught relationship with her mother (Elizabeth Marvel), emerge too late to receive the attention they require. While it’s impressive that Mrs. Davis stays as consistently surprising as it does, it’s hard to know precisely what to make of it by the season’s end — or if even the creators know what they meant to say with it.
On the other hand, those willing to embrace the ride for what it is are in for a singular experience. Ostensibly, our TV and movie entertainment is still being crafted by humans. Yet so much of it already has the vibe of something generated by AI — made not because its creators had anything fresh to offer but because some graph somewhere calculated that the best way to attract viewers would be to pacify them with more of the same. Mrs. Davis could never be mistaken for something engineered by computers, or even by committee. No, this feels like the work of people determined to show what they can do that algorithms still can’t: take all those storytelling tropes we’ve heard a hundred times before, and find a way to refashion them into something daring, ambitious and entirely new.
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