Review by C.J. Bunce
In the comedy Stripes, after Sean Young discovers two soldiers outside the barracks after hours wrestling, she remarks, “I’m gonna treat it like a UFO sighting. I saw something, but I’m not quite sure what it was.” The eight episode Peacock series Mrs. Davis may leave you feeling exactly like that. In the spirit of TV series that lean on their strange characters and circumstances like Lost, Mr. Robot, Lodge 49, and The Resort, Lost producer Damon Lindelof and co-creator Tara Hernandez go for audacious. Mrs. Davis exercises the extreme reach of television fantasy, taking serious current issues like figuring out what society should do with out-of-control computer technologies like artificial intelligence, testing the faith of adherents to religious belief systems like Catholicism, and putting them through a quirky, kooky, fantasy world sieve, leaving the viewer to ask after each episode, “what the heck is going on here?” Can a strange TV series leave you puzzled and also deliver some of the best performances by actors on TV this year?
If you’re going to tangle with sacred cows, sacrosanct subjects like the worthiness of faith and belief… and religion at all, you either show it respect or you mock it. For the mocking variety, see the series Good Omens. Mrs. Davis is very different, but the extent of sacrilege you see is in the eye of the viewer. Like the old ads said, “your mileage may vary.” Mrs. Davis stars Betty Gilpin (GLOW, The Grudge, The Tomorrow War) as Sister Simone, a nun who, like all nuns, is married to Jesus. That’s part of the contract of being a nun. For Simone, that’s a literal thing. When she “sees God” she finds herself in a kind of Sherlock Holmesian mind palace where Jesus (she calls him “J” and he’s played by Andy McQueen) works at a cafe and she goes there to eat good falafel, enjoy discussions, and even have sex (off-screen) with what is–according to the real-world nun rules–her husband. Regardless of how respectful this is presented, some will find it sacrilege, others something of beauty.
In the series Lost, viewers were left intrigued, guessing for six seasons what the show was even about. Those who bailed after the first season or two were lucky; those who rode it out wasted a lot of time for a lame payoff at the end. The risk of beginning shows like Lost, Mr. Robot, Lodge 49, or The Resort, is not knowing whether you will reach a satisfying conclusion that will make the time devoted watching the series worth it. For its part, Mrs. Davis wraps up all its threads in eight episodes. Is it satisfying? That is a good question. It doesn’t need another season, and if it gets one it will need to follow an entirely different plot. So at least it wasn’t cancelled leaving a cliffhanger ending. And it’s certainly ambitious.
So who is Mrs. Davis? Mrs. Davis is the name given to humanize an AI that has taken over everyone, everywhere on Earth. Humans look to Mrs. Davis, in the form of an app on their phones, when they awaken, when they work, before they sleep, before they do anything. It’s a representation of The Terminator’s Skynet, or Twitter, or Facebook, and all the above. The timing is great for the series’ release, as it arrives as the world is being overrun with AI threatening to replace artists, writers, and your job, coming soon. Mrs. Davis has a piece of old technology to help–she speaks through people who listen to or commune with her via their earbuds. Sister Simone is not a believer–in Mrs. Davis. She believes Mrs. Davis must be stopped, and she makes a bargain to end her… it… once and for all. Mrs. Davis is a very good villain, a very evil and somehow appropriate force for a nun to face off against.
Whatever you think of the story, Gilpin is fantastic. She is engaging, emotional, and wildly drawn into so many bizarre situations you can imagine this is exactly the kind of role actors hope for, the kind that merit the next best acting Emmy. She is surrounded by interesting supporting characters who accompany her on a strange journey, each played by the kind of actors that populated Lost, to move on to later star in the box office’s biggest movies. That’s the man on horseback and bull-rider Wiley, played by Jake McDorman (Limitless, The Right Stuff, Murphy Brown), who has the same amiable style as Lodge 49’s Wyatt Russell and would make a good young Sam Elliott. That’s her estranged mother Celeste, played by Elizabeth Marvel (News of the World, True Grit, Law & Order), who was part of a magic act with Simone’s father, played by probably the most recognizable actor in the series, Scream’s David Arquette. And that’s an over-the-top rebellious Aussie leader trying to lead the “Resistance” effort to take down Mrs. Davis, played by Greek-Canadian actor Chris Diamantopoulos (Daisy Jones & The Six, Community, Red Notice). Diamantopoulos is so zany he deserves his own spin-off series. Margo Martindale (The Riches, Orphan, Medium, Homicide) rounds out the key cast as Simone’s mother superior.
Mrs. Davis, the app/cult leader, twists reality. She/it can make things happen, like a group of people to start singing in a sort of Village of the Damned flash mob way. Fans of Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code world, Knights Templar, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade might appreciate the Holy Grail as the show’s MacGuffin–the series’ climactic scene may conjure one or more scenes from the Indiana Jones movies. That includes the gore, including a head exploding at one point. Gore, cult horrors, themes, and language put the series in a hard R rating category.
Sister Simone, especially in her own supersuit of sorts (her habit), brings all the superheroine vibes. Simone also is, oddly enough, a modern extension of Julie Andrews’ rebellious and forthright Sister Maria character in The Sound of Music. The fantasy includes a visit inside a whale a la Pinocchio, a death-defying rollercoaster, a Buffalo Wild Wings ad campaign, a Lazarus shroud, a rodeo cowboy, a magic family, a magic debunker, a Renaissance festival contest, a dark order of nuns, an order of nuns who sell strawberry jam, faked deaths, a heist and a trash compactor vault, double-crosses, an encounter with the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, an innovative Monty Python-esque sneakers commercial, a decapitation, a nun on a motorcycle, a shipwrecked castaway, a kindergarten teacher, and a well-meaning coder/programmer.
Keep an eye out for Mathilde Ollivier as Clara. The French actress was in Overlord with Wyatt Russell and also 1899, and should be in more series and movies.
One thing you can say about the series is we’ll look back in a few years and wax nostalgic after some of these actors have continued their trajectories to stardom. Great acting and a strange story that will keep you guessing and thinking long after the last episode, Mrs. Davis is now streaming on Peacock.