‘Mrs. Davis’ Review: Algorithm and Blues
If you’re worried about artificial intelligence replacing humans, Peacock’s “Mrs. Davis,” despite its comic-dystopian premise, should reassure you. For better or worse, an A.I. could not come up with this. I know because I asked.
Specifically, I asked ChatGPT to whip up a synopsis for an eight-episode, mystery-box series about a nun who becomes an adversary to a powerful A.I. network. What I got was an industry-standard series arc: The nun (whom ChatGPT named “Sister Grace” — a little on-the-nose there, writer-bot!) teams up with hackers and conspiracy theorists, makes a sacrifice to save the world and must come to terms with the consequences.
“Mrs. Davis,” whose first four episodes land Thursday, is more than that — way more, too much more. It’s got swashbuckling nuns; rogue magicians; the pope (and certain higher-ranking religious figures); a “Hands on a Hardbody” contest involving a giant model of Excalibur; a secret society of bankers; a plan that requires getting a whale to swallow a human being; a falafel restaurant in another dimension; and an island castaway named Schrodinger who, of course, has a cat.
Sorry, Bing. To make this kind of zany, ambitious, intermittently coherent jumble still, for now, requires the human brain.
The pilot introduces Simone (Betty Gilpin), a sister in a remote Nevada convent who has a sideline exposing dishonest magicians. As with many details here, her fixation has an explanation that’s both simple (issues with her parents, played by David Arquette and Elizabeth Marvel) and complicated (a crossbow and a vat of acid come into play). Besides leaving her time for her hobby, convent life lets her avoid the reach of an omniscient A.I. that humanity has embraced as a benefactor and constant companion.
The A.I. — called “Mrs. Davis” in America, “Mum” in Britain, “Madonna” in Italy and so on — has not given up on Simone. She (or “it,” as Simone insists) persistently tries to reach the nun, through human “proxies” who hear her voice through earbuds. Simone, Mrs. Davis believes deep in her code, is the one person equipped to carry out a mission: to find and destroy the Holy Grail. Simone agrees, hoping the quest will be a means to Mrs. Davis’s unplugging.
Simone’s tango with the uber-bot reunites her with her ex-boyfriend Wylie (Jake McDorman), a failed rodeo cowboy who now heads a lavishly funded anti-A.I. resistance group. Any remaining spark between them is complicated by her vows — as well as her intense relationship with Jay (Andy McQueen), an intimate confidant whom she visits on another spiritual plane.
“Mrs. Davis” is the creation of Tara Hernandez, a writer and producer on “The Big Bang Theory” and “Young Sheldon,” and Damon Lindelof, known for obsessive TV Rubik’s Cubes like “Lost” and “Watchmen.” It may seem like an odd collaboration, but it makes sense as you watch. The hourlong episodes feel like sitcommy spins on the more loopy elements of Lindelof’s “The Leftovers,” with a dash of paranoid satire and ’60s spy spoof. (Simone is pursued by a crew of German-accented baddies who seem like they should be led by Arte Johnson.)
In all, there are at least three shows fighting for control here: a thriller parody, with McDorman hamming it up in cartoon action-hero mode (with an even hammier Chris Diamantopoulos as his sidekick); an oddball “Black Mirror” dystopia; and a screwy-sincere comedy that explores, sweetly and quasi-blasphemously, the boundaries between religious devotion and carnal love.
“The Leftovers,“ a fantastical drama of spirituality and loss, proved that with enough grounding, the wildest absurdities can heighten the emotion. And Gilpin (“GLOW”) is smartly cast, with wisecracking flair and the nimbleness to handle the show’s hairpin emotional and tonal shifts.
But she’s fighting a plot tornado here. Twisty puzzle shows like “Watchmen” work best when you’re marveling at how one piece after another locks into place. “Mrs. Davis” prefers to dump a 5,000-piece Lego set onto the floor. (This taste for the baroque may be the show’s most A.I.-like aspect. Software image generators have a tendency to produce human hands with too many fingers, and “Mrs. Davis” can feel like it is made entirely of extra digits.)
Another structural problem is the globe-hopping quest for the Grail, which Diamantopoulos’s character calls the “most overused MacGuffin ever,” one of several pre-emptive meta-critiques. The story line takes over the season’s middle, crowding out the more interesting A.I. material.
“Mrs. Davis” gestures at notions of free will, the digital gamification of life (the A.I. gives users quests to earn virtual “wings”) and the trade-offs of outsourcing one’s brain-work to a machine. (Playfully, the creators had an A.I. title each episode, yielding gems like “Great Gatsby: 2001: A Space Odyssey.”) But for all the show’s energy and visual invention, we get only a sketchy sense of how much Mrs. Davis has transformed society.
Still, I confess wanting “Mrs. Davis” to work and being thrilled by the giddy moments when it does, because, like Simone, I’m also rooting for the humans against the machines. Though its hook is topical in the era of Sydney, DALL-E and ChatGPT, the show mainly describes Simone’s software nemesis not as A.I. but as “the algorithm.”
I can’t help but hear in that term a surreptitious critique not just of chatbots but of the algorithms of streaming-media services, which thrive not by challenging audience members with the new but by serving up OK-enough equivalents of what they already like. (Apparently I’m not the only one to make the connection; McDorman said in a panel discussion that a streaming service turned down the show because of this theme.)
As Mrs. Davis confesses, her users aren’t looking for surprises: “They’re much more engaged when I tell them exactly what they want to hear.” The algorithm doesn’t want to hurt you. It wants to satisfy you into submission.
“Mrs. Davis” the series, on the other hand, cartwheels from the sublime to the goofy. I wish it took itself more seriously (which probably also would have made it funnier). But it has moments of astonishment; a late revelation about Mrs. Davis’s origins made me bark with laughter. Having access to all recorded human text can make A.I. a great mimic, but it takes something else to show your audience a thing they haven’t seen before.
If nothing else, “Mrs. Davis” is that. It is as if the series wants to battle the predictable pleasures of the algorithm like John Henry racing the steam drill. It may not have the smooth competence of many streaming binges. But sometimes you gotta choose chaos.