Friday, June 14, 2013

Wild Palms: TV Takes a Surreal Look into the Future

Twenty years ago ABC aired a truly original and challenging mini-series - Wild Palms. With Oliver Stone as executive producer, the five-part series explored areas television had never explored before and rarely since.  If you combine the elements of a Sophocles, the Bible, Jacobin revenge plays, the poetry of Yeats, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Phillip K Dick's science fiction, L.A. film noir, William Gibson's cyperpunk alongside a rocking 60s soundtrack and you get Wild Palms.  By exploring themes of virtual reality, mass media manipulation, drugs, polarized politics, and technology, the series put coherence aside in favor of a disjointed narrative.  As the series progresses each episode delves deeper into surrealism.   Kathryn Bigelow directed an episode ending with a dizzying, Peckinpah inspired shootout set to "House of the Rising Sun."  The costume motifs envision a future where every style's a retro.  Based on comic book series by Bruce Wagner, Wild Palms stand alongside The Prisoner for its willingness to question modern notions of politics, technology, drugs, and reality.

Wild Palms is set in a futuristic Los Angeles, and its not the dying metropolis of Blade Runner, but a sunny utopia.  Two shadowy groups known as "the fathers" and "the friends" are in a covert war over the use of technology.   Although Wild Palms did not anticipate the internet, it did foresee a society under increasing media consolidation. The "fathers" are corporate elitists
using technology as a means of mass mind control, while the Friends are an underground movement of libertarians trying to free humanity from its reliance on technology. While politics are one of the many themes in the series - it's interesting to compare with the present.  By my understanding, libertarians oppose the government, but not corporate power.  Occupy Wall Street's critique of the financial system, at least in their moderate expression, advocates more government regulation. The "Friends" oppose any kind of tyranny.  In Wild Palms, the "friends" use poetry as their mantra, primarily Whitman's "My Captain, My Captain."  They're keeping humanism alive.  I like the idea of an underground movement using poetry as the last defense against tyranny.

Jim Belushi gives the performance of his life as Harry Wyckoff, a corporate lawyer living an average upper middle class life with his wife Grace (Dana Delaney) and their two kids.  His life changes after a politician-media mogul Anton Kruetzer, played by Robert Loggia, in a totally over the top performance, offers Harry the chance to run a TV network.  That's the basic plot.  Through the course of the series Harry gradually finds out most of his reality is fiction.  Harry's character arc has a strange trajectory from an everyman hero to a new age media prophet.  Scientology also looms in the background with the the film's emphasis on spirituality and technology.

There's quite a bit going on.  Unlike modern television which uses linear storytelling (with exceptions of course), Wild Palms still looks (and feels) subversive with its use of vivid imagery and fractured narratives - thus standing as a unique moment in TV history well worth revisiting.