Mrs. Davis premieres on Peacock on Thursday, April 20.
“What the f—?” combative nun Simone (Betty Gilpin) asks in the final moment of the four-episode premiere of Mrs. Davis, right before the credits roll. She’s voicing a question I asked repeatedly when watching this new science fiction show (from creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof) which has moments of brilliance but is mostly defined by being unrelentingly bizarre.
The show is set in an alternate version of 2023 where the world is dominated by an AI known as Mrs. Davis in the U.S., Mum in the U.K., Madonna in Italy, and presumably plenty of other names across the globe. It’s a novel setup that feels far more like a pod person story than The Terminator, raising extremely topical dilemmas about how the AI revolution will transform the world. Here the algorithm has unlocked the secret of human happiness, giving everyone fulfillment by sending them on quests. Further emphasizing her near godlike powers, Mrs. Davis rewards her most loyal followers with angelic wings that can only be seen through augmented reality.
Mrs. Davis Photos
There’s definitely some biting commentary here on chosen one narratives and the feeling of satisfaction from chasing video game achievements, particularly viewed through the lens of Simone’s ex boyfriend Wiley (Jake McDorman) who was born rich and desperately wants to earn something of his own, but the execution of the themes is utterly surreal. For instance, Wiley is confronted with his shortcomings by his former rodeo mentor, a cowboy caricature who storms into a boardroom carrying his own spittoon to recount a tale that involves strategically cupping a bull’s testicles.
A cloistered nun who believes Mrs. Davis killed her father, Simone is one of the few people who hasn’t fallen under the AI’s sway. Like Sister Night in Lindelof’s Watchmen series, she wears her habit like a vigilante’s costume to take down rogue magician con artists. Riding a horse who may or may not understand human speech and bantering about her extracurricular activities with her cryptic mother superior played by the always excellent Margo Martindale, Simone is instantly compelling as a fierce if pulpy hero who’s willing to take on anyone and mostly fears standing still. The magicians’ schemes are among the many ways the show reminds us not to believe what we see as scenes are constantly being given new context and revealed to be complicated constructs created just for the benefit of a specific character.
The dizzying effect sometimes feels like a continuation of Lindelof’s twisty storytelling on Lost, and other times a parody of it. For instance, Mrs. Davis seems to glitch and spout numbers in a manner reminiscent of the mysterious sequence on Lost. There’s even a scientist named Schroedinger (Ben Chaplin) trapped on an island with only a cat for company! Just as Michael Haneke’s home invasion thriller Funny Games was intended to reprimand the audience for their love of violence, it almost feels like Hernandez and Lindelof are taking the same tack of mocking anybody who comes to a Lindelof show for the thrill of putting together the pieces of mystery. The showrunners repeatedly pull back the curtain to reveal truths that would’ve been nearly impossible to predict.
But the mystery is so tantalizing! Rather than speaking with a singular AI voice, Mrs. Davis uses a variety of people as intermediaries. It’s a deeply creepy touch, adding a chill to already dark real-world moments, like a family of four sitting in a restaurant with each person focused just on their phone. In one of the most striking scenes of the premiere episodes, Mrs. Davis grants a wish for $1 million — not with a wire transfer, but by having an endless stream of people show up to empty their wallets, fusing a church collection plate with a GoFundMe campaign.
It’s also a highly meta show, with characters repeatedly mocking the plots they’re presented with as evidence that the algorithm is so predictable. After entangling Simone with machinations that resemble a Wile E. Coyote scheme — complete with tantalizing road signs and a giant magnifying glass — Mrs. Davis sends her on a quest for the Holy Grail that spins into something between The Da Vinci Code and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s hilariously over the top schlock, involving evil priest Father Ziegler (Tom Wlaschiha of Game of Thrones), an enormous replica of Excalibur, and Simone receiving divine messages in the form of a very annoying dove.
Gilpin brings the same manic energy she showed in GLOW to Mrs. Davis, whether berating Wiley for getting easily distracted or describing her surprisingly tangible relationship with God. She also shows off her deeper emotional range when grappling with her complicated role in the schemes of very powerful beings. Simone’s mysterious ally Jay (Andy McQueen) provides a calming contrast while Chris Diamantopoulos is one of the show’s comedic highlights as JQ, the leader of a ludicrous underground group devoted to fighting Mrs. Davis. With his exaggerated Australian accent, propensity for ending calls by snapping burner phones in half, and aversion to shirts, he’s a perfect parody of every action hero fantasy.