Watching ‘Mrs. Davis’ is An Act of Faith
The AI is in on the joke in this full-speed bonkers show from Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez
At a March South by Southwest panel about Mrs. Davis, a new Peacock TV series, co-creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof spoke about their show like parents sending a problem child to a new school.
Lindelof, known for Lost, Watchmen and The Leftovers, and Hernandez, a showrunner on The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon, laid out in their panel their goal to create a show with characters who behave like real people and have a recognizable reality. But they’re characters in a story the creators have steeped in a goofy-humor kettle that moves at a breakneck pace and takes wild, unexpected turns, what lead actress Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s GLOW) describes as “No Country for Old Looney Tunes.”
Now we’re four episodes into what could be an eight-episode limited-series or an ongoing TV show. Lindelof and Hernandez were, in hindsight, canny for not saying too much or trying to overexplain the deeply weird television product they birthed. The logline Hernandez gave (“A nun named Sister Simone is on a quest to destroy an all-powerful algorithm known as Mrs. Davis”) barely scrapes the surface of what the show does.
Mrs. Davis incorporates the following elements, among many: the Holy Grail, an Alexa-like artificial-intelligence being that has seemingly solved the world’s ills but still suffers redirect errors, scamming Vegas magicians, British Knights sneakers, Jesus Christ Himself, rodeos, fake Nazis, extremely large and self-aware title cards, the little plastic baby they put in King Cake, pumped-up tech bros, and jokes about hatches, like the famous one from Lost.
Explaining how those things fit together would rob the show if its many surprises. At least three or four times per episode, a wild thematic swing, a goofy action set piece, or some stunning reversal/revelation puts into motion a whole new set of plot points. But the basic story, as Hernandez said, is that Gilpin plays a nun named Sister Simone who, for personal reasons, wants to finally bring down Mrs. Davis after 10 years of trying to avoid the rise of this AI entity.
To do this, Simone must find the Holy Grail, a McGuffin (the show proudly hangs a lamp on it as such) that shoots the story into motion. Mrs. Davis may be a quest show, but the quest is an excuse to go down dozens of jokey side streets and to along the way pose questions about technology, faith and religion, love, and human agency.
If Mrs. Davis sounds like a huge mess, the kind of show that can’t possibly tie together all its big ideas and promises, let’s not forget that The Leftovers and Watchmen also both within their runs seemed too sprawling and impossible to land. They concluded as two of the best-resolved shows of the Peak TV era (Lost, not so much; let’s grant that Lindelof learned his lesson about endings).
Big mess that it is, however, Mrs. Davis is also riotously fun and energetic, buzzing to the energy of Gilpin’s extremely enjoyable performance. As a nun who is both highly motivated and extremely exasperated by the silly, globe-trotting lengths she must go to on her quest, Gilpin conveys funny, warm, tough, heartbreaking and eye-rollingly stupid, sometimes within a single scene. A roster of game character actors, including Margo Martindale, Jake McDorman, Chris Diamantopoulos and Andy McQueen, surrounds her. The generous budget allows the ridiculous notions of each silly episode to play out on a giant cinematic canvas.
Mrs. Davis shouldn’t work; it’s silly with tonal whiplash, often weird and all too willing to mess with your perception of what you’ve seen before. But the series arrives so well-executed and energetic, with such winning performances and laugh-out-loud jokes as well as somber moments of reflection, that you can forgive it when a few big swings don’t quite connect.
The series feels like it came from the minds of two writers with dozens of pent up, restless ideas that were all jammed up during Covid lockdown. They wrote down any crazy idea that came into their heads and tickled their fancy. Somehow, all that ended up on the screen. Thank goodness (and Jesus, one supposes) that such a show made it to streaming TV, Peacock even, with its bonkers sensibility intact.
Even watching Mrs. Davis feels like an act of faith.