Monday, February 28, 2011

Television Review: WILD PALMS (1993, Kathryn Bigelow, Keith Gordon, Peter Hewitt, & Phil Joanou)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 300 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (STRANGE DAYS, NEAR DARK), Phil Joanou (THREE O'CLOCK HIGH, ENTROPY), Peter Hewitt (BILL & TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY, THE BORROWERS), & Keith Gordon (THE CHOCOLATE WAR, WAKING THE DEAD). Written by Bruce Wagner (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET III: DREAM WARRIORS, SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS), based off of his comic strip of the same name. Produced by Oliver Stone, Bruce Wagner, and Michael Rauch (POINT BREAK, SUPERMAN, LIVE AND LET DIE). Music by Ryuchi Sakamoto (MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE, THE LAST EMPEROR). Starring James Belushi (THE PRINCIPAL, HOMER & EDDIE), Dana Delany (LIGHT SLEEPER, TOMBSTONE), Robert Loggia (LOST HIGHWAY, SCARFACE), Kim Cattrall (MANNEQUIN, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA), Angie Dickinson (THE KILLERS, BIG BAD MAMA), Ernie Hudson (GHOSTBUSTERS, THE CROW), Bebe Neuwirth (THE FACULTY, GREEN CARD), Nick Mancuso (UNDER SIEGE, STINGRAY), David Warner (TIME BANDITS, THE OMEN), Ben Savage (BOY MEETS WORLD, LITTLE MONSTERS), Bob Gunton (DEMOLITION MAN, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION), Brad Dourif (CHILD'S PLAY, WISE BLOOD), François Chau (Dr. Chang on LOST, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE), Charles Hallahan (THE THING, VISION QUEST).
Tag-line: "Your reality is their business."
Best one-liner: "Babylon has fallen. Let's boogie!"

WILD PALMS is a lurid soap opera, an epic Greek tragedy, and a mesmerizing techno-prophecy, mingled and wired into a jerry-built cyber-apparatus posing as a mini-series. Audiences weren't ready for this in 1993, and they're not ready for it now.




It presents a world in transition– religions, corporations, and governments gradually coalesce into a single body; human brains, oversaturated with sheer data, begin to lose their capacity for an emotional response; pop cultural references become out only 'shared experience' as a society- and our only means of expression. The concept of childhood becomes meaningless- if you want a shot at becoming apuppet master instead of just a puppet, you'd better burst forth from the womb and hit the ground running.

It's the little details that lend the series' vision of the future verisimilitude– male formal wear has reverted to the Nineteenth Century, sixties rock is back in style (the rights to all these songs must have cost a fortune!), and digital fixes (consisting of a steady diet of images) have become the addiction-of-the-month. The brainchild of Robert Wagner, Oliver Stone, and Michael Rauch, and featuring direction from Kathryn Bigelow and Phil Joanou , among others, the series draws equal doses of inspiration from of William Gibson (who appears in a cameo!), TWIN PEAKS, Sophocles, and the Church of Scientology- and somehow emerges with singular, unexpected vision and actual emotional stakes.

The cast is a marvelous, chilling ensemble– James Belushi lends a dazed weight to the proceedings as our overwhelmed hero; a suave Kim Cattrall is done up like Audrey Horne;

Belushi chats with Audrey Horn– I mean, Kim Cattrall.

Robert Loggia exudes teeth-baring vehemence (“They’re trying TO RAPE ME, Harry!”);

Robert Loggia provokes yet another pants-shitting.

a likable Ernie Hudson hallucinates cathedrals, a soothing David Warner sprays Uzi fire; a somber, bedridden Brad Dourif wears a (virtual) powdered wig;

David Warner comforts Brad Dourif.

a bitchy Angie Dickinson delivers believable beatdowns worthy of Joan Crawford;

Angie Dickinson takes it to the next level.

and a pre- BOY MEETS WORLD Ben Savage is a gleeful, sociopathic kiddie. The icing on the cake is a Ryuichi Sakamoto score which you’ll at first deem corny, then magical, and ultimately, bewitchingly, poetic. WILD PALMS is some of the boldest, most expressionistic work television has ever offered and I must wholeheartedly recommend it.


-Sean Gill

6 comments:

J.D. said...

An interesting idea but I think the script lets this one down - it is quite uneven throughout and you can see Kathryn Bigelow almost using WILD PALMS as a warm-up for the much better STRANGE DAYS. For me, the casting of James Belushi is the fatal flaw. I just don't believe him in the role. Still, some interesting ideas going on in this thing.

Sean Gill said...

Well, from what I've read, Belushi didn't understand the plot, and just kinda did the best he could. I can understand him being a dealbreaker for some people, but I've taken a real liking to him in the past few years, between THE PRINCIPAL, RED HEAT, this, & SALVADOR. And any Belushi shortcomings are probably overshadowed by Dourif, Warner, crazed Dickinson and Loggia, et al.

As for the script, it's weird and sprawling and prescient enough that I can sweep any unevenness (kinda like TWIN PEAKS Season 2) under the rug. Also Sakamoto's score, the sunny production design, and soap-opera-ish video quality, and the 60's soundtrack (combined with the fascinations of contemporary sci-fi) builds a singular atmosphere- and as far as I'm concerned it's always a good thing when I'm thinking 'how the hell was this allowed to air on TV?'

Anyway, certainly not everyone's cup of tea, but I really thought it was quite something.

Tempest said...

I know I watched it and couldn't understand it. I don't recall much. The promo poster caught my attention, which was why I tuned in.

Sean Gill said...

Tempest,

It was possibly a little too esoteric (perhaps even moreso than predecessors like TWIN PEAKS) for TV, but I salute its boldness while at the same time recognizing that it's surely not for everyone.

lee said...

watched this when i was too young to even vaguely grasp it but found it fascinating all the same (much like twin peaks) and am now revisiting it and finding it even more fascinating than the first time, this time with my 'adult' brain! just done the pilot/1st episode so hoping this joins twin peaks as a firm favourite!

Sean Gill said...

Lee,

I've been meaning to revisit this myself. For me it's not quite an equal to TWIN PEAKS, but its sheer weirdness and wonderful atmosphere definitely make it one of the more compelling pieces of 90s TV.