‘Mrs. Davis’ review: Betty Gilpin brilliantly battles artificial intelligence
In the marvelous “Mrs. Davis” (Peacock, premiering Thursday), Betty Gilpin plays Sister Simone, formerly called Lizzie, a member of an order of nuns based in a repurposed motel outside of Reno, Nev.
She has a sideline in busting “wayward magicians” who use their knowledge to run scams, and we will learn, after a while, that she is herself the daughter of magicians: Monty (David Arquette), who performed, and Celeste (Elizabeth Marvel), who created his illusions. One might think for a minute we’re about to see another secret-identity comic-book heroine at work, but what follows is far less usual. Indeed, what follows is — among many other things — a kind of critique of predictability.
Before we meet Simone, as she comes out of the night on horseback, we have already been to medieval Paris for a fight scene whose sanguinary excesses call to mind Monty Python, all the more so as its object is possession of the Holy Grail; and to a desert island, in the present day, where a shaggy castaway named Arthur Schrodinger (Ben Chaplin) — who has a cat — is putting the final touches on a skyrocket he hopes will attract rescue.
This might give you some sense of the range of “Mrs. Davis,” a grand, globe-trotting yet psychologically intimate comic adventure created by Tara Hernandez, who wrote many episodes of “The Big Bang Theory,” and Damon Lindelof, who, most germane to this series, co-created “Lost” and adapted Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.” As will soon be made clear — the exposition is unusually well integrated into the action — the world is dominated by an all-knowing artificial intelligence that calls itself Mrs. Davis and claims to have done away with war and famine and all manner of unease, a proposition some characters find debatable, and if not debatable, nevertheless objectionable. Working through its users, who plug into the matrix with an earpiece and an app and act as her agents and spokespersons, she/it does seem able to do just about anything.
Simone, who believes that the algorithm killed her dad, is no fan, refusing to refer to Mrs. Davis as “her,” pointing out repeatedly that it is just a machine. (Simone is particular about words; she objects when her habit is called a “costume” — “It’s who I am” — or when someone calls her Lizzie.) For seven years, she’s been happy to make strawberry jam with her convent sisters, share a birthday drink with her Mother Superior (Margo Martindale) and run down crooked illusionists. These last assignments are delivered through Jay (Andy McQueen), the cook in a downbeat diner to which she regularly repairs — she does like to eat — a person and a place that will become more uncanny, if no less ordinary, with time.
Misdirection is both a theme and a narrative strategy here, along with the magician’s practice of “forcing” — “when you think you’re choosing but it’s already been chosen for you.” Apparently opposing factions, including Mrs. Davis, conspire to send Simone on a quest to find the grail, which will dovetail with her desire to destroy Mrs. Davis. Almost immediately she finds herself pursued by leather-jacketed, heavily accented, amateur theatrical Germans, from whom she is rescued by Wiley (Jake McDorman), her heroically proportioned, dubiously mustached ex-boyfriend, whom she met as a child in a neighboring hospital bed.
Wiley is involved in an anti-algorithm underground resistance movement, alongside the absurdly jacked, volume-at-11 JQ (Chris Diamantopoulos, wielding an Australian accent like a battle ax). A comical motorcycle chase leads to a fake rock in the desert that opens onto, in what might be a “Lost” joke, a hatch — or, rather, HATCH, for Hidden Access Tactical Camouflage Hideout. (“Those are all the same word,” says Simone.)
The series arrives as the culture is much disturbed by the question of artificial intelligence — of ChatGPT and various art programs and whether their products are imitative or creative. The resistance says no: “Algorithms love cliches,” declares JQ, “and there’s no cliche bigger than the quest for the Holy Grail — most overused MacGuffin ever.” Wiley, who finds himself in a dank, stony cell, assumes the whole scenario has been staged, criticizing it as “very lazy, uninspired,” “super on-the-nose” and overplayed. It’s almost as if the point of “Mrs. Davis,” in its wild swings, is to make something a machine could never write.
In its colorful, cockeyed mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary, “Mrs. Davis” is in the vein of series like “Good Omens,” “American Gods,” “Legion,” “Lodge 49,” “The Sandman,” “Watchmen” and “Doom Patrol” — notable company, in which “Mrs. Davis” most definitely belongs. Characters traverse great distances in the space of a title card, as the action moves from Nevada to Scotland (where contestants in an “Excalibattle” fight to be the last one with a hand on a giant sword) to Italy (the pope makes an appearance) to the sea off Spain for a “Pinocchio” reference.
The series is technically science fiction, in that a machine is at the heart of it, but there are Christian mythological elements as well, made concrete in an original way. I’d imagine that some viewers would find this off-putting, though if one considers the often banal, extra-biblical imagery churches and believers — not to mention Hollywood — have pinned on the Testaments, I’d say “Mrs. Davis” is unusually respectful about religious feeling. It never mocks Simone’s sincere, if sexualized, relation to God, or suggests that she’s going to be better off out of her habit — and back with Wiley — than in it.
As in Lindelof’s “Lost,” faith faces off against science, the individual against the collective. But where the earlier series could be ponderous and self-serious, “Mrs. Davis” is thoroughly a comedy, albeit one that gathers weight as it goes along. Thoughtful and ridiculous by turns, it can also get a little brutal — the safety of most characters remains uncertain throughout. The series has much to say about parents and children — especially daughters and mothers, biological and surrogate — and men and women. The male characters — the resistance is a society of dudes — are up to their necks in testosterone or bedeviled by fear of cowardice. Simone lives among women; the AI is maternal — it’s called Madonna in Italy and Mama in Spain — and speaks to Simone mainly through women; women, meanwhile, guard the grail.
There are impressive performances all around, but Gilpin’s is something beyond that; she’s utterly natural and present in every moment of a role that asks much of her. It’s an encyclopedia of acting, encompassing comedy, drama, broadness, subtlety, joy and grief, whose brilliance is partially masked by the genre setting and the daffiness of the action, but rewards attention. She dignifies the series.
If there’s a problem with “Mrs. Davis,” it’s that with so much going on — and so much misdirection — it can be difficult to remember just what motivated some of these characters in the first place, other than that they’re fulfilling a promise (the word vow does come up a lot). It doesn’t matter much as you watch, since the stakes in any given scene remain clear: This isn’t “Lost,” whose aim and meanings were clearly developed as the show went along; “Mrs. Davis” is complicated, but neatly organized. And the emotional arc is always intelligible, and very, very satisfying. It’s a ride worth taking, leading to as great a final shot as I’ve seen in 10,000 years of reviewing television. Let me know when you get there — and do get there.
When: Anytime, starting Thursday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.