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‘Mrs. Davis’ Is Unlike Anything Else on Television

The zany Peacock series from Damon Lindelof (‘Lost,’ ‘Watchmen,’ ‘The Leftovers’) is a welcome departure—pun intended—from the showrunner’s usual sensibilities

Getty Images/NBC/Ringer illustration

Damon Lindelof isn’t immune to criticism; in fact, he often reacts to it. The cocreator of Lost infamously quit Twitter amid ongoing critiques of the polarizing series finale, which didn’t satisfy some viewers’ urge to unpack every corner of the show’s mystery-box storytelling. (In hindsight, it’s impossible to imagine Lost reaching a conclusion met with near-universal approval after years of rampant fan speculation.) Lindelof’s next show, The Leftovers, opens with 2 percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishing in a Rapture-like event, while those who remain struggle to return to a sense of normalcy in their lives. Though initial reviews for the series were mostly positive, the biggest knock against the first season was that it was a little too depressing—anecdotally, I know several people who tapped out around the time a character was stoned to death.

To Lindelof’s credit, he listened to our prayers: In its second and third seasons, The Leftovers was still a profound exploration of grief, but the series also found time for absurd moments of levity, including a gag in which Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey must use a penis scanner to confirm his identity. (The sound effect when Kevin places his [clears throat] asset on the device hilariously implies that the man is well endowed, itself a joke made at Theroux’s expense.) Balancing existential themes with a lighter touch transformed The Leftovers into one of the best shows of its era, and that approach seemed to inform Lindelof’s Watchmen series, which explored contemporary anxieties around white supremacy and police violence while seamlessly incorporating the slippery icon known as Lube Man.

If Lindelof’s previous projects found success by injecting a bit of humor into the proceedings, then his newest series pulls something of a 180: It’s a zany comedy sprinkling in poignant musings about the nature of faith in our modern world. A unique and somewhat indescribable sci-fi series, Peacock’s Mrs. Davis finds Lindelof and cocreator Tara Hernandez (The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon) putting their own spin on the well-worn debate over religion versus technology and whether the two can coexist. The eight-episode season has many twists and turns—most of which are on Peacock’s lengthy do-not-reveal list for critics—but here’s the gist of the story: In an alternate version of our present day, an advanced artificial intelligence algorithm known as Mrs. Davis has radically changed humanity, theoretically for the better. Mrs. Davis has eradicated atrocities like war and famine; in return, users follow her orders with the understanding that she—or rather, it—has only noble intentions for them. (Mrs. Davis communicates with followers through an app and accompanying earbuds, and enough good deeds will allow a user to earn “wings,” which would be like Twitter giving out verified check marks to upstanding citizens.) Over time, Mrs. Davis has become so omnipresent that prime ministers and even the pope seek out its counsel, effectively granting it the same authority as an actual deity.

Of course, not every character in Mrs. Davis is drinking the AI Kool-Aid. Our protagonist, a nun named Simone (played by Betty Gilpin), refuses to use the app, blaming Mrs. Davis for the death of her magician father (David Arquette) for reasons gradually revealed over the course of the season. (Suffice to say, professional magicians lose their novelty when an AI can explain how all the tricks work over glorified AirPods.) Despite Simone’s animosity toward it, Mrs. Davis spends the majority of the premiere trying to recruit the nun for a most sacrilegious mission: to find and destroy the mythical Holy Grail. If Simone succeeds, Mrs. Davis will shut itself down for good. It’s a deal too tempting to pass up.

There’s a delicious bit of self-awareness baked into a show with an all-knowing AI focusing on the Holy Grail—as the Mrs. Davis resistance fighter JQ (Chris Diamantopoulos) says, “Algorithms love clichés, and there’s no cliché better than the quest for the Holy Grail.” (Speaking of algorithms, the Mrs. Davis writers room developed its own to come up with the episode titles, which is how you get something as gloriously stupid as “Great Gatsby: 2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Great Place to Drink to Gain Control of Your Drink.”) But the secret sauce of Mrs. Davis is how it takes familiar storytelling tropes and puts them through a blender, embracing a wacky sensibility that Gilpin aptly described as “No Country for Old Looney Tunes.”

In that spirit, one episode is predicated on Simone and her ex-boyfriend Wiley (Jake McDorman) executing a heist that requires bleeding onto a white couch and using a device known as the Constipator, a process that won’t exactly be mistaken for the intricate work of the Ocean’s crew. Meanwhile, a more Arthurian-like installment takes place during “Excalibattle,” an endurance contest in which participants must keep their hands on a giant sword for countless hours while everyone involved slowly loses their minds. Lindelof might still be preoccupied with how people search for meaning and cling to their faith, but such themes have never been filtered through a series so endearingly and knowingly silly. (Working with a cocreator who cut their teeth on comedies probably doesn’t hurt, either.)

Without ruffling Peacock’s feathers over spoilers, perhaps the most surprising aspect of Mrs. Davis is how some of the biggest mysteries on the show—including the origin of the AI itself—are more about delivering a killer punch line than the dramatic weight of the reveal. Even after some of the genuinely laugh-out-loud moments that came out of The Leftovers and Watchmen, the unapologetic goofiness of Mrs. Davis can be jarring, especially when the show (and its hour-long run times) has all the usual hallmarks of prestige television—Lindelof’s attachment included. (This is certainly the first prestige series in which an Australian man eats a spoonful of Vegemite before jumping out of a plane.)

How audiences will react to Mrs. Davis and its wild swings in tone—I haven’t even mentioned the surreal interludes in a celestial falafel restaurant or a cat-owning scientist whose last name is Schrödinger—may come down to what people expect out of a Peacock original series. The NBCUniversal streamer didn’t get off to a blistering start compared to some of its competitors in the Streaming Wars, and it has at times relied too much on IP revivals (Punky Brewster, Bel-Air) to gain a foothold. But Peacock is starting to carve out a niche with offbeat dramedies like The Resort and Poker Face, the latter of which is arguably its greatest word-of-mouth hit to date.

My gut feeling is that Mrs. Davis will be a little too bonkers to have the broad appeal of Poker Face, but that doesn’t mean Peacock has a dud on its hands. Instead, the streamer continues to position itself as an attractive destination for in-demand auteurs who won’t have to rein in their creative impulses. (A friendly reminder that Bryan Fuller is working on an A24-produced Friday the 13th prequel series for Peacock that will hopefully be as macabre and boundary pushing as his take on Hannibal Lecter.) Mrs. Davis won’t be for everyone, but given the many WTF moments that make the show unlike anything else on television, it also won’t be mistaken for something cooked up by an algorithm. Mrs. Davis could never create something like Mrs. Davis, which is precisely why the series is another feather in both Lindelof’s cap and Peacock’s colorful display of original programming.