So, this semester, for the first time, I had the students screen the 1993 television miniseries Wild Palms (copies of the DVD are placed on reserve, students watch it on their own time, then we discuss it in class). I never had a chance to use it before, because it wasn't available on video for about a decade (it came out on VHS circa 1994, but was discontinued not long afterwards), and only came out on DVD late in 2005.
My students were not at all familiar with Wild Palms, hadn't even heard of it, and this is no doubt due to the fact that the miniseries was not only unavailable for something like a decade, but has rarely, if ever, been rerun on television. Many of my students are quite savvy when it comes to sci fi, so I imagine that anyone who was too young to see it when it aired, or otherwise missed it, would be in the same boat, that is, not fully aware of this remarkable production.
So, let me first of all tell you that this is quality television. If you like programs like Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Twin Peaks, or The Prisoner, then you ought to check out Wild Palms.
Here's some background for you. The miniseries is 285 minutes long, which means it's almost 5 hours. It was intended to be a miniseries, so the story is resolved in the end, not left open for a series to follow. In this sense, it is like a movie, albeit a very long one, although it is broken up into 5 episodes (it was aired over one week). But it also draws in some ways on the soap opera genre, specifically the primetime soap opera such as Dallas and Dynasty, with a large number of characters involved in complex familial, romantic, economic, and political relationships.
The miniseries was officially billed as
and the famous film director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, Alexander, World Trade Center) is seen as the creative force behind the miniseries, although he does not actually direct any of the episodes (in film, the director is generally considered to be the auteur, in television it's the producer). Stone is listed as the Executive Producer along with Bruce Wagner, who is credited as the writer, and Wagner is the writer of the comic that the miniseries was based on, which was illustrated by Julian Allen, and appeared in the magazine Details back in 1990.
Stone's JFK looms large in the background of Wild Palms, which revolves around a mysterious conspiracy, and Stone even appears briefly in a scene in which he is being interviewed on television, the interviewer asking Stone if he's bitter now that the files on JFK have been unsealed and Stone has been vindicated.
The story is set in 2007, which makes it interesting to watch now that it is 2007, but 2007 was 14 years in the future back then. The future that Stone and Wagner envisioned is quite different from our own, but I imagine that many people would say that Wild Palms' image of an America subtly slipping into authoritarianism was not so far off the mark. But images of the future ultimately say more about the times that they were produced in than the times that they depict (and supposedly predict). More on this later, but first some further notes on the production.
The casting is very interesting, and very interestingly television-ish. The main character, Harry Wycoff, is played by James Belushi, who back in 1993 was best known as the brother of John Belushi, and a kind of John Belushi-light on Saturday Night Live (some of my students had trouble with this casting, because they identify Belushi with his more recent sitcom dad persona). It was an unusual choice, because this was basically a dramatic role, although there were some moments where he shifted into a comic persona. Harry's wife, Grace, was played by Dana Delany, who best known for her starring role in the TV series about Vietnam, China Beach, which went off the air just a couple of years before the miniseries premiered. Grace's mother, Josie, is played by Angie Dickinson, a move actress and at one time a sex symbol with a long track record, also known for her television work as the star of the seventies series, Police Woman. Coty, the son of Harry and Grace, is played by Ben Savage, then best known as the younger brother of Fred Savage of The Wonder Years, but soon afterwards to become the star of Boy Meets World. Bebe Neuwirth, a very talented Broadway actress, but best known as Lilith, the wife of Frasier Crane on Cheers, plays the role of the famous actress Tabba Schwartzkopf. Film and television actress Kim Cattrall, who would in a few years become famous for her role as Samantha in Sex and the City, plays Harry's old lover, Paige Katz. Additionally, the character actor Robert Loggia, known for his work in the crime genre, typically as a mobster, plays the villainous Senator Tony Kreutzer; the British actor David Warner plays the imprisoned revolutionary and Grace's father, Eli Levitt; Ernie Hudson, who would become known for playing Warden Glynn on Oz, was Tommy, a friend of Harry's; Charles Rocket, probably best known for getting fired from Saturday Night Live after saying "fuck" on a live broadcast in 1981, played Stitch, a comic revolutionary. And that's just to mention some of the cast!
The Wikipedia entry on the miniseries contains a plot synopsis, as does the TV.com listing. Neither summarizes the complex and convoluted plot in its entirety, nor do they give away the ending. I won't go into much detail here, but what's intriguing about this image of a future America is the sense of slipping gradually into fascism. Individual citizens are beat up and kidnapped in public, in broad daylight, off of the streets, in restaurants, etc., by men in black types, secret service/agents/police, this happens repeatedly, and mostly people ignore it, make believe they don't see anything. In and of itself, it makes for a powerful set of images, and the idea for this comes from the real life situations in countries such as Argentina and Chile back in the 70s and 80s.
The leader of the opposition is imprisoned in a "Perceptory," an image again taken from real life, e.g., Nelson Mandela. And children are kidnapped and indoctrinated, turned against their parents, an idea that has its source in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The rhinoceros is a significant recurring symbol in Wild Palms, and it is an allusion to the 1959 play by Eugène Ionesco in which one individual after another turns into a rhinoceros, symbolizing the spread of fascism and Nazism in Europe. Rhinoceros is a classic example of theater of the absurd, and Wild Palms could be considered a TV miniseries of the absurd, coupled with numerous film noir elements.
There are references to a nuclear event brought on by terrorism at some point in the recent past, which occurred in Florida, Boca to be specific (but actually part of the conspiracy). Now, as a New Yorker it's always a relief when my hometown isn't made to be ground zero in these narratives, as we were always the ones who were hit first in all of the old atomic war stories (but not, refreshingly, in 24 or Jericho). But this event in Wild Palms serves the same function as our 9/11, in changing the political climate of the United States (in the miniseries, there is a reference to Pearl Harbor as similarly pivotal). It is also interesting to note that that region of Florida was ground zero for another kind of era-defining disaster, the disputed 2000 presidential election.
The title Wild Palms, which presumably comes from the Faulkner novella about an ill-fated love affair (which is part of the plot in the miniseries), points to the geographical setting of the narrative, Los Angeles, and we are very much in the world of Hollywood show business here, which perhaps accounts for the noticeable use of Jewish names for many of the characters (and German names as well). There are also several gay characters, unusual especially for this time, but not for Hollywood. And there is a strong Japanese emphasis, which is definitely a west coast thing, but also reflects the ascendancy of the Japanese economy in the 80s, Japan's important role in electronics and computer technology, and also the influx of Japanese popular culture in the past few decades. The use of tattoos for identification purposes follows, I believe, the Yakuza (Japanese mafia), but also presages the recent rash of tattooing in mainstream culture. There's also a lot of play and pun with GO!
Virtual reality technology is the big thing in Wild Palms, and there is a Neuromancer-like interface (William Gibson has a cameo appearance where he is identified as the man who coined "cyberspace") to a virtual world where individuals can interact with one another through avatars that appear to be fully human. But the big breakthrough is its combination with holographic technology to create entertainment that breaks out of the box and projects into the room, and this is used to create a sitcom that takes place in your own living room (the technology is called Mimecom, and the slogan goes, is it real or is it Mimecom?, a take off on the actual advertising for audio cassettes that went, is it live or is it Memorex?). Like I said, this is Hollywood.
The sitcom is part of a conspiracy plot, however, and another technology that's introduced is Mimosine, a drug that makes VR and holograms seem real to us. Note the connection to mimesis here, and also Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, but there actually is an amino acid called mimosine which inhibits DNA replication in mammals, possibly a reference to the child abduction plot element. Mimosine is shown to be addictive (addicts bleed blue liquid out of their noses, reminiscent of the nose bleeds caused by cocaine use, especially associated with the entertainment media), and there are hints of future drug dealers and addicts, and links back to LSD and psychedelics. While most of the story centers on prominent personalities, there is a bit of the cyberpunk scenario in Wild Palms (i.e., Wilderzone), and also some references to technoshamanism.
The sitcom is called Church Windows, and the program, the VR/holographic technology, and the Mimosine drug all have the same source, Senator Tony Kreutzer, who is also the founder of the Church of Synthiotics and the New Realism. This is patterned on L. Ron Hubbard (it's said that Tony wrote science fiction, just like Hubbard), on Dianetics, and Scientology. Tony is a cult leader, and where Scientology hooks you up to some kind of electric device, Synthiotics connects you to VR technology. And just as Scientology has very powerful connections to the entertainment industry (again, a West Coast thing), Wild Palms takes this a step further in making Tony a media mogul. And he is not only a senator, but a presidential candidate, so there is a strange combination of religion, media, and politics at play here. It may seem a bit distant today, when the media tend to be identified with liberal politics, but let's not forget about all that conservative talk radio. And more importantly, Wild Palms looks back to the eighties, and that was the decade when a Hollywood movie actor became president, and there was, and is, a conservative cabal out there in addition to Reagan (John Wayne, Bob Hope, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger). Also recall that Reagan's rise also represented the ascendancy of the religious right, the Moral Majority, and they remain a powerful force in the Republican party. So, a media-religious-political complex is a plot element that reflects trends originating in late 20th century America.
I go into all this not because I'm pushing the politics of Wild Palms, but just to explain where the miniseries is coming from. Conspiracy makes for an exciting plot, and the miniseries draws on the conspiracy theme that begins with the Kennedy assassination, runs through Nixon's Watergate scandal, and culminates in the Reagan era. But instead of the heavy-handedness of films like JFK, the sci fi scenario provides enough distance to handle these themes safely, and even make them fun. The distancing effect of science fiction was put to good use by Gene Roddenberry in the Star Trek series, enabling him to tackle social issues that could not be dealt with in a straightforward manner. But Star Trek's style was realism, the same for Battlestar Galactica, whereas Wild Palms is much closer to David Lynch's Twin Peaks in being mysterious and intriguing, and stylized and yes, artsy (in a good way).
Wild Palms is a delight if you are into symbolism, and quotations and allusions. Towards the end, there are clear allusions to scenes from the movies Videodrome and Blade Runner. There are quotations of Yeats' "Running to Paradise," Eliot's "The Hollow Men," and Whitman's "O, Captain, My Captain" (about the Lincoln assassination, but often invoked in reference to Kennedy). There's an outrageous version of "All Along the Watchtower" done crooner-style, and Tony Kreutzer sings the Groucho Marx song, "Hello, I Must Be Going." The soundtrack in general is terrific if you're into sixties music--I get chills from the way Gimme Shelter is used in the last episode. The two groups at war with one another are The Fathers, which references both hierarchical religious organization and the older generation on one side of the generation gap, and The Friends, which references the Quakers who are associated with peace, as well as the baby boomer peer group (e.g., Woodstock) on the other side of the gap. In this sense, Wild Palms anticipates the culture wars that continue to plague us today.
A further note, Harry's daughter, Deirdre, nicknamed "Buddha," is a late talker who has not started to speak yet. I understand this to be a metaphor for silence in the face of atrocity, cultural trauma, a bit of Pete Townsend's Tommy. But I can't help but wonder if this character wasn't also inspired by an encounter with autism (as was the case for Townsend). I was surprised to see, when I looked up Angie Dickinson, that her character in Police Woman had an autistic daughter who appeared in a few episodes.
Be that as it may, Wild Palms has the kind of depth to it that makes repeat viewing worthwhile.