Wildly Pointless

by Arthur B

Wild Palms was sabotaged from the start by its desperation to mimic David Lynch.
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The DVD relese of Wild Palms is a sparse thing. There are no extras, no deleted scenes, no commentary track, no language options, not even any subtitles. It’s like for the DVD release they digitised the episodes, slapped them on two discs, designed some cheap packaging and tossed it out there. They even made a mess of the packaging - the copyright notice on the back and on the two discs reads “copyright 1969 ABC Films” rather than “copyright 1993”, which is when the show actually aired. You can’t even select any scenes within the individual episodes - even though they are actually split into chapters, there’s no scene-selection menu, just an option on the menu screen to pick an individual episode or just play them all.

This is, in short, the most-bare bones DVD release I’ve ever seen - it's from 2008, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a sparse offering, even on DVDs released whilst the World Trade Center was still standing and whilst Clinton was still President. It’s almost as though nobody involved in the release could be bothered to make an effort - or nobody involved in the show cares to revisit it.

I have to wonder how much of this was due to disappointment with the way the show turned out. After Twin Peaks degenerated into directionless meandering in its late second season, prompting a disgruntled David Lynch to burn everything down and salt the earth in the season finale, ABC was left looking at a Peaks-shaped gap in its schedule and wondered what to do with it. Thus, in 1993, it unveiled Wild Palms, a miniseries described as a “televisual event”. Consisting of a 90-minute opening episode and four 45-minute episodes subsequent to this, the series was produced by Oliver Stone, directed by a group of four directors more used to Hollywood than television (Kathryn Bigelow probably being the most recognisable name amongst them), and written by Bruce Wagner, adapted from a comic series he wrote for Details magazine.

It opens in the futuristic year of 2007 and stars James Belushi as Harry Wyckoff, who we first encounter as a mild-mannered patent agent whose world is turned upside down when Paige Katz (Kim Cattrall), an old flame of his, walks into his office and begs him to help her find her lost son. Soon Harry finds himself landing a new job on the board of the Wild Palms Group, who have perfected a new “Deep Reality” technology: the next stage of virtual reality, capable of producing holographic projections virtually indistinguishable from the real thing - especially when experienced under the influence of mimezine, a drug which complements the technology and makes the holograms seem real to the touch. Heading the Wild Palms Group is Senator Anton Kreutzer (Robert Loggia), who in addition to being a governmental and business kingpin is the founder of Synthiotics, a Scientology-style cult.

In parallel, Harry’s wife Grace (Dana Delany) is becoming increasingly suspicious of their son, Coty (Ben Savage), who seems to open up more to her mother Josie Ito (Angie Dickinson) than to her. A traumatic discussion with her father Eli Levitt (David Warner), who is incarcerated in a Synthiotics-fuelled mental hospital, sets her on the road to confronting the terrible truth - that Coty is not her real son. Kreutzer, Josie, Eli and Paige are all connected to a sinister netherworld dominated by the struggle between two secret societies - the Fathers, conservative and patriarchial control freaks with a fondness for kidnapping and brainwashing the offspring of their enemies, and the Friends, libertarian sorts who constantly battle to curb the Fathers’ excesses. But with the Fathers on the verge of a major breakthrough with the unveiling of Deep Reality technology, the Friends are almost completely defeated.

Of course, the Fathers made a big mistake when they chose to cross a patent agent. If that’s not a profession that screams “bad motherfucker”, I don’t know what is.

From the very first moments of the very first episode, the show is burdened with a metric ton of Trying Too Hard - trying too hard to be weird for the sake of being weird, trying too hard to be clever (but in the end just being oblique), and above all else trying too hard to be a bit like David Lynch. Sloppily-imitated Lynchisms litter the place, right from the title sequence, which consists of a series of shots of swaying palm trees, reminiscent of TP’s opening shots of gorgeous Washington landscapes - except the LA landscape is nowhere near as pretty as Washington State, so maybe they did a smart thing in focusing on the trees. There’s also, in the first episode (Everything Must Go) a repeat of Twin Peaks’ tendency to talk a lot about coffee and food - though these fripperies dry up after the first episode or two as the series focuses exclusively on its plot. They’re replaced, from episode 2 (The Floating World) onwards, with fraught emotional scenes with weepy dialogue set to sparse piano music - another lift from Twin Peaks.

What doesn’t disappear is a recurring rhino motif established in the opening scenes, which gets really annoying and starts to seem like a motif that’s just there for the sake of having a motif - a lot, in fact, like Windom Earle’s tired chess imagery from the rotten half of season 2 Twin Peaks. And, of course, the plot centres around drugs, holograms, and virtual reality, so there’s heaps of dream sequences and hallucinations all the way through. The problem is that these - and the soap scenes, and the rhino, and the coffee, and the bloody palm trees - tend to fall flat and look too much like Wagner and the various directors trying to produce something that looks Lynchian. They don’t show any understanding of the actual qualities shown by Lynch’s work, no mastery of his techniques - they aren’t able to achieve what he does at his peak, his way of creating scenes and situations and stories that operate on a dream logic and have a properly dreamlike air to them.

There’s also a tendency to try to milk Lynchian mystery and allure out of profound-sounding lines - but the lines aren’t quite profound enough to pull that off, nor are they really that mysterious. They either make complete sense, or they too obviously cross the line into weirdness for the sake of weirdness - what mysteries there are in the series are very slightly too visible, and there’s not enough sense that what’s visible in the show is only the tip of a very large iceberg - we can see too much below the waterline and we know there really isn’t that much down there.

The silliest thing about this is that Twin Peaks did not consist entirely of profound scene after profound scene after profound scene - there were always a few more light-hearted touches and fun little subplots going on, which were vital to pacing but also made it the rich tapestry that it was. The worst aspect of this is the complete disappearance, after the first episode, of all the lighthearted banter between Harry and Grace which made their relationship seem meaningful and important - in fact, it’s the only relationship in the entire series which really seems to have any value. I suspect their cheerful back-and-forth was cut due to feeling un-Lynchian - except Twin Peaks was full of banter between characters.

The best Lynchian touches in the series, in fact, are the lightest ones - like the mixture of slightly archaic-looking Edwardian-styled clothes and more futuristic fashions, like the odd little scenes by the side of the road Harry sees as he drives around town in the first episode, like the tiny palm tree tattoos on certain characters’ hands. The naval costumes adopted by the Synthotics goons in the later episodes are suitably strange and unnerving, and also represent a courageously accurate stab at L. Ron Hubbard's naval pretensions and the Sea Org - Scientology's psychotic intelligence and enforcement arm whose members sign billion-year contracts to serve the Church. And I suspect that Lynch himself probably watched the show and didn’t completely hate it, because he would later cast Robert Loggia in the role of Mr Eddy in Lost Highway, and had him use the same mixture of creepy overfriendliness and psychotic rage that he displayed in his role as the Senator.

Although Lynch is the primary stylistic influence, in terms of the actual plot Wild Palms sits pretty squarely in the cyberpunk niche. As well as the cyberspace, the drugs, the resistance movements fighting for the outcasts and the dispossessed, the sinister corporations, and all the other hoary old cyberpunk tropes, the basic plot - involving an L. Ron Hubbard-like figure plotting to stamp his mark on the global subconscious - is ridiculously reminiscent of Snow Crash. There’s even a limp little cameo from William Gibson, who’s basically shoved in front of the camera and asked to confirm that he is, in fact, William Gibson, which seems to be there purely so that Wild Palms can claim to have some connection to Neuromancer and the very foundations of cyberpunk fiction. There’s also lots of empty swimming pools, which is a motif from some of JG Ballard’s more cyberpunk stories, and fridges stuffed with consumer goods all shove in identical all-white packaging, which seems to be a little lift from Repo Man. It’s almost as though Bruce Wagner really wanted to write an edgy cyberpunk adventure, but the network wanted something in the vein of Lynch, so he took his original Wild Palms comic and stripped out half the pages and turned that into a script, for the various directors corralled by Oliver Stone to adapt into the end result.

Although Oliver Stone was overseeing the whole project and Bruce Wagner wrote all the episodes, there seems to be serious problems with the pacing of the series. It’s almost as though each director was working more or less independently of the others and weren’t kept up to speed on what the other directors were doing, and were only allowed to see the scripts for the episodes they direct - but it’s not just that, because there’s pacing problems within the individual episodes as well. There are a few too many scenes which just last too long - there isn’t quite enough material to fill the length, so the point the scene was trying to make and has already made perfectly adequately becomes belaboured. A prime example of this is in the first episode, when grandma Josie blinds one of the characters - we see her sticking her thumbs in his sockets, and then we see him staggering about, and then we see blood seeping from between his fingers, and then he wails “I’m bliiiiiind!” WE GET IT.

Even more strangely, some scenes suffer from the opposite problem - over-brevity, and often there’ll be a whole swathe of over-brief scenes one after the other. It creates the impression that we’re just watching the edited highlights of a much longer (and better) series. The ends of episodes in particular seem oddly abrupt (even the end of the series itself seems to be really, really sudden). I think Bruce Wagner was going for cliffhanger endings to the episodes, but they don’t mean enough to the viewer to have the impact a cliffhanger needs. If we don’t know what’s at stake - or don’t care enough about what we do realise is at stake - how can a cliffhanger possibly work?

It’s nice that the creative team aren’t wasting our time, but some of the revelations they rush to expose in these over-brief scenes could have done with stewing a little more before being served up. Many of the revelations, in fact, seem arbitrary and uninteresting. It becomes clear early on that pretty much every character of any significance is going to turn out to have some sort of connection to the world of the Friends and Fathers, and it’s kind of arbitrary who gets shoved in which box, so when an established character SHOCKINGLY revealed to have been a Friend or a Father all along it isn’t even slightly surprising.

Actually, this does give rise to a little plothole: if the Friends and Fathers are really so pervasive in 2007, how come Harry didn’t know about them until their civil war blew up in his office? In Everything Must Go, Harry has to have the background mythology explained to him by one of his friends, suggesting that their existence isn’t common knowledge. In The Floating World, there’s an allusion to them being mentioned in the newspapers, and in the final episode (Hello, I Must Be Going) they are mentioned directly and by name in a faked-up propaganda hologram produced by the Fathers, which is phrased in such a way that strongly implies that the general public would understand the reference. For Harry not to have known about them all along when literally everyone he ever meets and has ever met spend most of their time on Friends or Fathers business is simply incredible.

This isn’t the only plot hole that Wagner works into the story. Episode 3 (Rising Sons) has a particularly nasty one - why, in heaven’s name, would an interrogator working for a conspiracy which is specifically based around the power of virtual reality ever willingly enter a virtual reality simulation hand-programmed for him by his captive? Especially when that captive is being played by Brad Dourif? The man doesn’t exactly have a face you can trust.

It’s not that Wagner is necessarily a bad writer - there’s some great ideas in the series, and I like the way that the Wild Palms hologram technology and drugs go from being an exclusive Hit New Thing to the sort of thing you can get bootleg supplies of from drug dealers and counterfieters almost overnight. That’s actually pretty smart trend-spotting - bootleg DVDs and videos appeared on the market almost as soon as the genuine articles did, after all - and provides a suitably cyberpunk plot feature. And the idea of the Friends getting around using a secret network of tunnels under the nation’s backyard swimming pools is a lot of fun. It’s just that he sacrifices a lot of plausibility for the sake of presenting us with a really cool image, and rushes so quickly to present the image to us he doesn’t give us time to get emotionally engaged enough to find the image really striking.

That said, for a series so bound up in its presentation, Wild Palms can make some serious aesthetic missteps from time to time. Considering that so much time is given to the idea of cyberspace in the series, the one piece of really blatant CGI it uses is truly appalling, even by the standards of 1993. The music choices are sometimes dodgy too - the lounge singers (another little borrowing from Uncle David!) that pop up from time to time are of varying quality, and episode 4 (Hungry Ghosts) has an odd Rolling Stones obsession - the overuse of tracks from Let It Bleed is faintly ridiculous. I mean, I love Gimme Shelter as much as anyone, it’s my favourite Stones song. But it’s also a really cheap shot - you could set a video of happy bunnies frolicing in the sun to Gimme Shelter and it would exude menace and dread by the bucketload. And using it twice in one episode? Wagner, I am disappoint.

Another problem with the execution of Wild Palms is the acting. There’s a lot of talent here, and everyone does their level best, but nobody quite seems to believe what they’re saying - possibly because with the exception of Harry and Grace the characterisation is so light that it’s impossible to get a handle on what the various characters are meant to be like. The Senator is a standout, of course, as is Coty, Harry and Grace’s utterly evil changeling boy they think is their son. But Coty - and Peter (Aaron Michael Metchik), the street kid who might be Harry and Grace’s real son - present their own problem. Namely, they’re expected to be too adult.

This problem is most apparent in their big confrontation in episode 4, in which they are required to talk like adults - but they’re kids, and they really can’t pull it off. Dialogue which should have been unnerving and unnatural in a cool, disorientating way coming out of the mouth of a child just sounds like bad writing, of the sort that Jamie pointed out when we were crucifying The Dreaming Void in Text Factor episode 4. The issue crops up later in the same episode when Coty has to give a chillingly evil little speech to Josie; it really highlights why in The Omen Richard Donner had Harvey Stephens (who played Damien Thorne) keep his mouth shut most of the time - kids are scariest when they’re quiet. Peter does, at least, gets to act like a scared kid in a later scene, but this makes only makes the earlier scene where he talks like an adult seem even stranger.

Wild Palms actually aired over 4 days originally, ABC having recognised that it is best to watch all the episodes in rapid succession in order to get the most out of the series. This is the case for two reasons, one intentional, one not, neither of them good. The first (and intentional) reason is this: whilst the story isn’t actually very complex at all, it’s presented in an intentionally obfuscatory way in order to make it look complex, so people capable of following it could feel clever (in the same way that Dan Brown books make people feel clever). ABC even put out a Wild Palms Reader of essays and timelines and biographies from the universe of the show, before the series aired, so people could read it and follow along - and so the televisual event would seem even more intellectual, because books are intellectual, right?

The second reason for why you should really watch Wild Palms in a short space of time - the unintentional one - is that too many of the scenes are just plain unmemorable. Whereas the best scenes in Twin Peaks burn themselves into your brain and never let you go, Wild Palms just sort of washes over you and drifts away again. If you waited a full week between watching each episode, you’d forget too much - you need the episodes still in your short-term memory to get the most out of it.

Although there are great ideas buried deep within the series’ pointlessly oblique heart, there’s too much self-conscious Lynchery and not enough character development to really make them seem worth pursuing. What’s most frustrating about Wild Palms, in fact, is that it could have been an absolutely brilliant show - it had a decent producer, competent directors, a great cast and a head writer who could come up with fantastic concepts and occasionally great imagery, as well as a compelling central mystery and a fun mythology. All the jigsaw pieces were there, it’s just that they weren’t put together quite right.

If ABC had let the creators drop the Lynchisms, and perhaps asked William Gibson nicely if he wouldn’t mind foregoing his cameo and contributing to the writing instead, they could have had one of the best cyberpunk television series of all time on their hands. As it is, it’s just kind of botched, and winds down all sorts of creative cul-de-sacs before falling to pieces in an ending which is intensely unfulfilling; it’s incredibly abrupt, and seems a bit too convenient and too easy. It’s almost as though everyone involved just got a bit tired of the whole thing and charged head-first towards the finish line. And then bumped into a palm tree because they weren’t looking where it was going.
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Comments (go to latest)
Great review, I gave up after the first episode. The only thing I would quibble about is whether empty swimming pools were a motif of Ballard's more cyberpunk stories. As I see it, Ballard didn't write anything approaching cyberpunk but regardless of that the swimming pools was deeply embedded in all of his work (including his biographical work).

By the way, I re-watched Repo Man at the weekend and it wees all over Wild Palms from a great height.
Arthur B at 08:21 on 2010-06-02
I was thinking specifically about some of the stuff in Myths of the Near Future - I seem to remember a story about some disaster having overcome Cape Canaveral, and this one rogue astronaut living on in the ruins trying to keep the space programme going. It's got the sort of bottom-up approach to technology that cyberpunk tends to have.

Also, in most of Ballard's SF technology isn't a clean, sharp tool in the hands of mankind, as it is in most hard SF - he pioneered the idea of technology changing its users through their interaction with it - which is a big deal in Wild Palms, as well as the smarter end of cyberpunk.
Sister Magpie at 17:06 on 2010-06-02
Wow--blast from the past! I remember watching this when it was on and having a lot of these complaints. There's nothing worse than fake-David Lynch. That's why his eps of Twin Peaks were always leagues better than anyone else's. His movies might seem weird for the sake of weirdness, but they actually aren't and that makes a difference.

Love the mention of the kid issue. I remember in the remake of The Omen one reviewer said the director made the huge mistake of having the kid try to "act evil" which just makes him look petulant and silly. In the original the kid never even officially declares for either side (father or evil nanny). Although they cast him because he was tough for his age, his most chilling moment, when he smiles at the end, is half tricked out of him.
Jamie Johnston at 19:20 on 2010-06-02
... too many of the scenes are just plain unmemorable.

Too right. I was all 'Oh it's another thing I haven't seen: I'll just skim the review and read any bits that seem to have wider application', and then it slowly dawned on me that I have actually watched this series - at least up to and including episode 3 because I remember the title. But I remember literally nothing about any of it except the shot of the palm trees, an image of something being holographically projected in someone's sitting room, the fact that there was some virtual reality going on, the name 'the Fathers', the episode-title 'Rising sons', and a vague sense of strangeness. Nothing else at all. Not even the eye-gouging scene, which you'd think might have made some impression on me given that I was, what, 12?

Also,

Of course, the Fathers made a big mistake when they chose to cross a patent agent. If that’s not a profession that screams “bad motherfucker”, I don’t know what is.

Tee hee. Remind me to tell you about the interesting IP-related criminal case that's going on in my court at the moment.
Arthur B at 19:46 on 2010-06-02
I suppose in a way they did manage to capture at least one dreamlike quality, then - the way you forget most of your dreams on waking up. ;)
Dan H at 23:02 on 2010-06-03
Maybe you just didn't think it was worth mentioning, but as further evidence of how forgettable this series is, I'm pretty sure you and I watched this series together while we were at university...
Arthur B at 23:29 on 2010-06-03
We did. That said, I honestly can't remember whether we watched the whole thing or not, so this might be the first time I've seen the thing all the way through, or it might not.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 22:01 on 2010-09-19
I was thinking specifically about some of the stuff in Myths of the Near Future - I seem to remember a story about some disaster having overcome Cape Canaveral, and this one rogue astronaut living on in the ruins trying to keep the space programme going. It's got the sort of bottom-up approach to technology that cyberpunk tends to have.

That would be "The Cage of Sand," right? I read that a few days ago, and I was under the impression that even the protagonist wasn't entirely sure why he was there, beyond a mad nostalgia for a universe that could be shaped by human hands (which, in Ballard's work, is pretty much the hidden theme of the space program).

I'd agree with you on Ballard's take on technology, though his assumptions about where it would take us are far more grimly mundane that those of cyberpunk.
Arthur B at 22:28 on 2010-09-19
Ah, but "grimly mundane" is a place where a particular strand of literary cyberpunk takes us, though - just look at Effinger's When Gravity Fails and its sequels - and Wild Palms shows more influence from literary cyberpunk than cinematic cyberpunk. (Heck, they even waved William Gibson in front of the camera for the sake of establishing that he's William Gibson.)

That said, Wild Palms isn't especially grimly mundane, but neither is all of Ballard's work. Have you read the Vermilion Sands stories? They come extremely close to the sort of territory Wild Palms was exploring.
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