“Algorithms love cliches,” Jake McDorman’s character Wiley says a few episodes into “Mrs. Davis,” the buzzy new Peacock drama premiering April 20 about a world dominated by an omniscient algorithm (think: ChatGPT on steroids) and a nun seeking to destroy it. “And there’s no cliche bigger than the quest for the Holy Grail.”
Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez’s latest project assigns its frustrated characters that very quest while riffing on the many, many stories that have done the same. “Most overused MacGuffin ever,” Wiley grouses.
It’s an unlikely pairing. Lindelof (the creator of “Lost”) has spent the past few years making twisty, bleak and vaguely supernatural dramas such as “The Leftovers” and “Watchmen,” whereas Hernandez is best known for “Young Sheldon” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Their combined powers are considerable: “Mrs. Davis” is a rollicking, absurd, moving extravaganza about the power of cliches and the pleasure of smashing them. It’s about magicians and God and computers, the fun of predicting how a story will go, the joy we feel when those predictions go haywire and the compulsive appeal of structuring living through “quests.”
If “Mrs. Davis” wonders how big a problem it is (or isn’t, or might be) if an omniscient AI learned to exploit our needs for all these things, the show also has bigger and smaller fish to fry. A LOT of smaller fish. There’s a female baker’s vendetta against the pope. There’s an illusionist’s mission to restore magic to its former glory by creating a “Lazarus machine” that could appear to resurrect him from the dead. The show is a thriller, a romance, and an epic and sobering allegory about mothers. It traffics in tropes while being unrelentingly, almost excessively, inventive. Its well-chosen symbols are hilariously, self-consciously, deliciously lame. It stars a world-weary nun, Simone, played by the inimitable Betty Gilpin, takes a supernatural interest in livers and features the most surprising take on Jesus I think I’ve seen.
It is a mazy delight, a “Faerie Queene” for the modern age.
The sci-fi premise of the show, set mostly in the present-day United States, is that a powerful algorithm known as “Mrs. Davis” — characterized by avid users as beneficial and even benevolent — has fixed the world. “There is no famine or war,” one character dreamily says. “All who want a job have one. She has healed and united us and given purpose to the purposeless.” “I’m nurturing, warm and empathic,” the algorithm itself says, through human “proxies” it takes over (apparently consensually) to communicate with people to whom it wishes to assign quests. (For instance, in the pilot, it assigns much of the world the quest of getting Simone to talk to it.) “I provide gentle guidance, structure and unconditional care.”
It doesn’t seem quite right to call “Mrs. Davis” sci-fi, because the show doesn’t actually spend much time working this setup through to its logical and sinister conclusions. This is arguably a flaw, but if you’re anything like me, it comes as a relief. Some sci-fi scenarios take on a paint-by-numbers quality once the premise is revealed, and I was gearing up for the inevitable bleak and dutiful anthropology of how ordinary users live like placid zombies. “Mrs. Davis” blows up that expectation, along with many others. While the series explores questions of free will and how it gets co-opted, the algorithm is not the only entity assigning humans quests, and the humans we follow are not reflexively obedient.
It’s all a little more complicated than that.
That doesn’t mean every episode is a home run. Some — particularly one riffing on the Arthurian legend of Excalibur — drag. The pilot is hard to follow, because it has to get a hundred plates spinning and establish the rules of a Davis universe. The show opens with a set piece in Paris, helpfully captioned 1307, in which some soldiers interrogate a group of women over the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. A melee ensues in which the women — who turn out to be Templars guarding it — fight to the death. The next scene (helpfully captioned “Present-Day. Not Paris. Obviously.”) shows us the rescue of a shipwrecked man from the island he was marooned on for 10 years. His rescuer explains to him that the world has been fixed, referring to a “she” with whom she seems to be communicating via an earpiece. The subsequent scene features a man and a woman getting into a gory car accident on a highway in Reno, Nev.; while the man panics, a nun arrives on a white horse to sunnily administer CPR to his companion’s headless, spurting corpse.
This (the nun, not the corpse) is our hero.
If this sounds like a fever dream, it should. I haven’t even gotten to the fake Germans, the underground lair, the creepy twin girls in sashes, the kindergarten teacher or the exploding jam. Not since “Arrested Development” have so many ancillary plot points and set pieces been introduced, only to (mostly) come together pretty gloriously at the end. (Critics received all eight episodes.)
Gilpin was already a revelation. (You might remember her from “Glow,” the Netflix show about female wrestlers.) But she levels up here as Simone (nee Lizzie), a Reno native and recent convert who resides at a run-down convent presided over by Margo Martindale, where she spends her days exposing frauds, growing strawberries and rejecting the algorithm. She plays a cranky, vulnerable and willful Bradamante whose travails will echo those of all kinds of other figures, including the biblical Simon Peter and Jonah.
Her sporadic partnership with Wiley — a childhood friend now leading a “resistance” to the algorithm — is strained but warm. It’s also the vehicle through which many tropes the show activates get openly analyzed, broken down and fulfilled.
“Mrs. Davis” is undisciplined, rather beautiful, seedy, surprisingly profound and, above all, fun. I can’t recommend it enough.
Mrs. Davis (eight episodes) premieres April 20 with four episodes. Subsequent episodes will drop weekly.