‘Twisted Metal,’ an unlikely video-game adaptation success on Peacock
With the critical success of The Last of Us, it’s clear that Sony Entertainment has gone all-in on TV series adaptations of its game properties. But these things take time to crank out, and unless you’ve been living in a desolated apocalypse town like Nick Offerman’s Bill, you’ve probably heard that there’s also a writer’s strike happening right now. So while we all wait with bated breath for the adaptations of Sony’s big tentpole ranchise staples like God of War and Horizon: Zero Dawn (both currently in development), the Playstation gods have mercifully tossed us an unexpected, mostly funny and very bloody bone from up on high: Twisted Metal, now streaming on NBC’s Peacock app.
The decision to adapt a bonkers, post-apocalyptic vehicular combat game from the 90s was not one that I, a video game enthusiast, ever saw coming, but one I was quick to embrace, even though I’ve only dipped my toes in the game series a few times. It was enough to know that Twisted Metal is fast-paced, gory, adolescent fun, the kind of thing you and your 14-year-old besties might have binged on a Friday night in the late 90s with some Domino’s, Surge, and a couple of Playstation controllers. And, to both its success and detriment, the new streaming adaptation isn’t that far off the original mark. It is a violent, goofy ride with a surprisingly squishy heart that even those with apocalypse-narrative fatigue might find amusing. Of course, that all depends on how gory and juvenile you like your humor.
Twisted Metal introduces us to John Doe (Anthony Mackie), a “milkman” whose job in the post-apocalypse is to ferry goods through the wasteland between walled cities in a tricked out, weaponized Subaru named Evelyn. The actual cause of civilization’s downfall is both dumb and unimportant here, something Y2K-ish. Which makes sense, because it appears as if the modern world transitioned to Mad Max territory at some point in the early aughts, judging by the music, fashion choices, the existence of compact discs as a viable entertainment source, and the make of John’s car (a 2002 WRX). Mackie’s character suffers from lazy writing…I’m sorry, I mean “amnesia,” and longs to find out more about his past and family. In the meantime, he busies himself with his deliveries and highway combat.
When he’s not pining for the past, John is a snarky motormouth, a character trait clearly modeled after Deadpool’s Ryan Reynolds, though noticeably more effective there than it is here. Mackie shines when it comes to playing an earnest person of deep conviction, as evidenced in his long-running turn as The Falcon in the MCU. But we’ll forgive his mugging for the camera here, as he’s mostly great in his role as the Milkman on a mission, despite more than a few wocka-wocka whiffs when it comes to broad comedy.
Speaking of missions, here’s the plot: Doe accepts a deal from Raven (Neve Campbell), the mayor of New San Francisco, a disconcertingly cheerful utopia securely defended from the grody outside world. In exchange for picking up her special McGuffin from New Chicago and bringing it back, John will get to live happily ever after in safety and comfort inside NSF’s fortified walls. Despite the journey being a few thousand miles round-trip through a wasteland filled with every nasty post-apocalyptic villain cliche– scavengers, cannibals, religious zealots, power-hungry lawmen, and your run of the mill gas mask and leather-clad murdercyclists–the deal is just too good to turn down. So off he sets on his merry way, engines and guns a’blazing. Shenanigans ensue.
Foremost, Doe finds himself quickly saddled with a roadmate in the form of Quiet, played with joyful misanthropy here by Brooklyn 99’s Stephanie Beatriz, who has her own mission, namely getting revenge on the tyrannical police officer (Thomas Hayden Church, great as always) who’s responsible for her brother’s death. As the two make their way across the country, we find the narrative to follow the standard road-trip-plus-fetch-quest formula that seems to work so well for other series like the aforementioned The Last of Us or even The Mandalorian. Each episode introduces us to a new subgroup of survivors or bad guys, including fun turns by the always amusing Jason Mantzoukas as a cult preacher, Chloe Fineman as John’s stereotypically crazy and violent ex, and a convoy of truckers who roam the roads in as close to normalcy as life can get after the violent downfall of civilization.
Naturally, our two protagonists start as frenemies and end up as lovers, literally climaxing in the ball pit of a children’s arcade joint. To their admirable credit, Mackie and Beatriz manage to sculpt the material the script gives them into a surprisingly tender romance. It’s adorably sincere, punctuated by f-bombs, literal bombs, and raining body parts.
Then there’s the B-plot, which involves the series breakout character, Sweet Tooth, a flame-skulled homicidal circus clown who longs only to perform his one-man shows for cheering audiences while also decapitating anyone who looks at him askew. Sweet Tooth is immediately recognizable as the franchise’s mascot. He comes to life in corporeal form by pro wrestler Samoa Joe, and in voice by Will Arnett. Getting the character right is one thing this series does with unqualified success.
Two actors playing one role can be insanely tricky to pull off well, but it’s mostly seamless here, thanks to the physical and voice acting coalescing into a mirthy, girthy murder machine with a gravelly baritone and a penchant for both R&B and terrible puns. The scene in which John keeps Sweet Tooth from smearing his cranium into a slot machine by sharing an affection for Sisqó’s “Thong Song” had me in stitches. If the show could deliver on that level consistently, it would be so much funnier and more endearing, but even if the humor tends to be uneven, it certainly has its bright notes.
The first season culminates in what game fans clearly wanted out of this in the first place: a high octane demolition derby filled with blood and explosions. In fact, it’s fairly shocking that a series called “Twisted Metal” has so little actual road combat throughout its first ten episodes. And when John Doe’s mission comes to an end, we learn all about the nature of The Macguffin, and that – surprise! – the entire season has been little more than a prelude to Season Two, which promises a more faithful interpretation of the vehicular death tournament that’s the game’s hallmark, inevitably pitting all of the miscreants and misfits featured so far against one another.
I have to admit, the big reveal here seems like nothing more than a long, cheap con played on the fanbase to keep us tuned in for the next season, and leaves something a bit of a bitter taste on the tongue. If the show were any less joyful or frivolous, I’d probably be a little angry. But for all its weird warts and flat jokes, I can’t help but enjoy Twisted Metal’s delightfully raunchy ride. It’s not as good or as funny as other dark comedy series like, say, The Boys, but also doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own sincerity, which is refreshing for yet another entry into the post-apocalyptic streaming oeuvre.
Ultimately, Twisted Metal might not be the best or the most original spin on the Mad Max genre to ever exist, but it’s certainly the funniest, and definitely the most fun right now. A homicidal circus clown might not be the hero we thought we needed in 2023, but maybe, just maybe, Sweet Tooth is the hero we all deserve.