Daring 'Wild Palms' certifiably weird, virtually wonderful

TELEVISION PREVIEW

May 15, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

There are two things to know about "Wild Palms." It's weird and it's worth it.

How weird? Beyond "Twin Peaks" weird.

Worth what? Worth six hours of a viewer's time over four nights, starting tomorrow at 9 o'clock on WJZ (Channel 13). Worth taping and viewing a second time to savor some of the weird.

ABC's "Wild Palms" is more than just weird, though. While it's uneven and flawed in major ways, it is also the most daring movie or miniseries of the TV season. It aims for nothing less than finding a new voice for prime-time TV.

The voice it sounds is one that speaks simultaneously to multiple generations, with as much for twentysomething viewers as for baby boomers. Part T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," part soap opera, part old-fashioned family TV drama, part cyberpunk science fiction, and part parody of each of these, "Wild Palms" lives up to its pre-air buzz.

A warning, though. "Wild Palms" might not be TV for the literal minded or the viewer who prides himself or herself on being a couch potato. It speaks mainly in the language of dreams and cinema where imagery can be more important than the logic of conventional narrative. As Dana Delany, one of the stars of "Wild Palms," has been telling interviewers, "Don't try to figure it out; just let it flow all over you."

The flow starts with the hero of the miniseries, Harry Wyckoff (Jim Belushi), having a nightmare. It's the same one he's been having over and over. He's standing in his empty swimming pool face to face with a rhinoceros. Yes, a rhinoceros. Rhinoceroses are all over the place in "Wild Palms."

"So, this is how it begins," Wyckoff says dreamily, looking at the rhino. Yes, Harry, this is how it begins.

The year is 2007. The place is Los Angeles. Harry, a patent attorney, is married to Grace (Delany), who is going off the diving board of sanity for her own reasons -- most of which are related to her mother, the evil Josie, played deliciously by Angie Dickinson. Josie is the consort of Sen. Anton Kreutzer, played somewhere beyond over-the-top and over-the-rainbow-of-reality by Robert Loggia. Kreutzer is the big bad wolf of "Wild Palms," the egomaniacal villain you can't take your eyes off.

Kreutzer owns Channel 3, a TV network that specializes in virtual reality. Before long, Harry is working for Kreutzer as head of business affairs and well on the way to seeing his worst nightmares become reality, or virtual reality anyway.

Time to try to explain virtual reality.

Thematically, "Wild Palms" is all about appearances, ways of seeing, whether what looks real is real, and what is reality, anyway. For many Americans in 2007, the reality of choice is virtual reality, a 3-D hologram that can be broadcast through TV sets and enhanced when the viewer consumes a drug called Mimezine. When a viewer takes Mimezine, he or she can physically interact with the holograms.

Harry, for example, who is impotent in his marriage, is offered "virtual sex" with a hologram of a beauty queen. He is also offered sex with a femme fatale (Kim Cattrall) who lures him into Kreutzer's web with her spooky, seductive ways.

Kreutzer has two goals: to own the prime-time audience with his virtual reality TV shows and to find something called the Go Chip (a computer chip) that will somehow guarantee him immortality. If all of that's not confusing enough, try this: Kreutzer is also head of a group called the Fathers, which kidnaps children and rules politically through terror, violence, TV and Mimezine.

Their opponents are the Friends. Grace's father is leader of the Friends, while Josie, her mother, is second in command of the Fathers. Meanwhile, a boy (Ben Savage) who Grace thinks is her son, is really Kreutzer's son. And the boy is more evil than Damien in "The Omen."

No wonder Delany said don't try to figure it all out. And she's right.

Let yourself go with the flow. Some of the miniseries' most pleasant surprises pop up just when it seems farthest off track: Robert Morse as a cabaret singer doing Bob Dylan. A soundtrack full of retro goodies like "House of the Rising Son" playing during a machine gun battle. A villain in Kyoto who recites the lyrics from the Beach Boys' "In My Room" as he brands a victim.

The imagery of arid deserts and blinded eyes -- a '90s TV version of Eliot's "Wasteland" -- is the thing to keep your eye on. Though the name of executive producer Oliver Stone is the one ABC has been using to promote the miniseries, "Wild Palms" is the vision of writer Bruce Wagner, who developed "Wild Palms" in a comic strip in Details magazine. And though Wagner used several directors for the miniseries, the imagery is consistently eloquent.

There are some bad things about "Wild Palms." It starts out so slow and weird that many viewers are not going to make it though Sunday night. Belushi starts out badly and is downright awful by the final night in the starring role. And it is extremely violent throughout. Either of the first two problems alone could spell ratings doom. But TV is not going to get better unless it takes the kinds of risks "Wild Palms" takes. Besides, it's not really that hard to understand. I can sum it up in a word:retro-nouveau-science-fiction-cyberpunk-sixties-film-noir-soap-opeThis line is longer than measure/can't be broken1 ra-homage-parody-avant-garde-revisionist-futuristic- . . .

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