Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bruce Wagner's "Wild Palms" (1993)

In 1993, ABC aired a little-remembered miniseries with elements of cyberpunk called Wild Palms. Conceived by Bruce Wagner, the show was obviously influenced by the idea of David Lynch's Twin Peaks- a serial television production that built on themes of conspiracy, surrealism, and post-modern wierdness. Produced by Oliver Stone, approximately five and a half episodes of the show were completed before the network decided to pull the plug. It's fairly clear that its creators cobbled together the main threads of an extanded and complex plot to bring resolution in about 280 total minutes. Wild Palms suffers from a forced ending to a compelling setup, but there is still enjoyment to be had in watching it.

The pilot episode introduces us to a normal-seeming family living a posh lifestyle in a near-future Los Angeles. Slowly things begin to unravel around the businessman-father (Harry Wyckoff, as played a bit too obviously by an overwhelmed James Belushi), and he falls into a web of intrigue involving corporate politics, virtual reality technology, a Scientology-like cult, and designer drugs. And then things get weird. Character after character is added to the mix, and the viewer is left to sort out the shifting allegiances, as the existence of two powerful secret societies is revealed. As Wyckoff bumbles around trying to understand what is going on, we learn that his reality is not at all what he has come to think of as his life. As we progress through the episodes, we receive an escalating series of surprising revelations that lead us to a plot of consequence for the entire world.

Each episode was directed by a someone different... mainly people with television experience, as is natural for such a project. But between them they have also created some films- such as Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow), Point Break (K.B.), The Chocolate War (Keith Gordon), Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (Peter Hewitt), State of Grace (Phil Joanou) and Three O'Clock High (P.J.). From the pedigrees of these creators, one might expect a mixed bag. And largely that is what we receive. Some sequences are particularly stunning, while others are laugh-out-loud funny. No doubt the reduced budget of a network television series partly contributes to the inconsistencies of this series. There is some continuity in the set design, which convincingly elicits an amped-out and rapidly stratifying "City of Angels". It's all bright walls, sleek surfaces, and modernist decor.

The dialogue is only rarely intelligent, but not blatantly distracting. Wagner has some literary pretensions, as he can't help but stuff his characters with quotes from Yeats and Whitman. He's also tried to incorporate a vaguely neo-noirish patter, without much success. It doesn't help that the cast is jam-packed with hammy and ham-fisted actors. Even when their performances are effective, it is mostly because of their aptitude for melodrama. But surprisingly this works quite often; this is Los Angeles after all. And seeing the campy stylings of scene-chewers Angie Dickinson and Robert Loggia is a lot of fun. Dramatic moments are accentuated with classic rock and early electronica tracks that provide an extra edge, a la Scorcese's Goodfellas or Anderson's Boogie Nights.

Much has been said about the social commentary of Wild Palms. One could make the case that Wagner was prescient in his formulation of a politician using the media to manipulate public opinion and behavior. Similarly, its not a stretch to believe that some extra-governmental cabal could be working behind the scenes to seize the reins of power. New technologies are employed to effectuate mind control of a public enchanted with new electronic sensations. Yes... we're familiar with that. Also, the idea that a media company can become so monolithic that it dominates an entire industry is not a novel idea today (nor was it when this miniseries was aired). But I think that the strength of Wild Palms lies in its twisted flow chart of relations and alliances. It's a lot more fun to try to figure out what everyone is up to... rather than to try to glean some substantial meaning based upon Wagner's predictions for the future. If you sit back to enjoy this with minimal expectations, you have a better chance of being entertained for a few hours.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been looking for information about WILD PALMS for years.Do you know where I can buy a print or disc from. CATHY

8:30 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Well... Amazon currently lists the whole series on DVD for a mere $14.99.

10:27 PM  

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