Whatever else it is, Wild Palms (ABC, May 16 and 17, 9-11 p.m.; May 18 and 19, 10-11 p.m.) is a very good bad dream, one whose key image is that of a rhinoceros pawing the cement in an empty Hollywood swimming pool. (No, this isn’t the new Tom Arnold project.)
Co-executive producer Oliver Stone has jumped into made-for-television moviemaking with a six-hour miniseries so ripe with abrupt violence, lush illogic, and slashing humor that it makes most of his films (The Doors, JFK) look like-well, like bad TV movies.
Set in the year 2007, the initially confusing, just-stick-with-it plot of Palms is essentially about Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi), a patent attorney who joins a media conglomerate, the Wild Palms Group, headed by visionary businessman Sen. Anton Kreutzer (a silver-haired Robert Loggia). Kreutzer is convinced he is going to revolutionize entertainment by introducing TV programming that projects holographic images into the viewer’s living room.
Wild Palms, written by Bruce Wagner and based on a comic strip he created for Details magazine, dazzles us with political conspiracies, cyberpunky techno-babble, surreal hallucinations, Japanese mysticism, and thriller subplots that include kidnappings and gun battles. But the miniseries boils down to Kreutzer’s overweening pride and power hunger, plus all the creepy secrets he knows about Harry’s childhood. Among other things, Palms is a six-hour response to a slogan of the French surrealists from the 1920s: ”Parents, tell your children your dreams!”
One big reason Palms is so immediately addictive is that it is first-rate soap opera, complete with twisted family trees and bitter blood feuds. Palms features a large cast that includes Dana Delany as Harry’s wife, Grace, and Angie Dickinson in a spectacular, career-reviving role as Grace’s mother, Josie, who is also Kreutzer’s sister. (Josie is so tough that she blinds her enemies by sticking her thumbs in their eyes until they bleed.) Kim Cattrall (Bonfire of the Vanities) plays Paige Katz, a former lover of Harry’s who is now under the spell of Kreutzer.
And ”under the spell” isn’t much of an exaggeration, either, for Kreutzer is an entrancingly charismatic leader of spiritual, as well as business, matters. A sci-fi novelist and gasbag philosopher who created Synthiotics, a kind of futuristic self-help movement, Kreutzer would seem to be Wagner’s wicked caricature of the late author and Church of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
Kreutzer’s version of Scientology is a sect called the Fathers; as a media baron, he promotes the organization on the TV network he controls, Channel 3. Bullyboy fascists in a future in which lawlessness reigns wherever show business doesn’t, the Fathers inspire both fanatical fervor and a terrorist counter-force: the Friends, left-wing revolutionaries led by Grace’s father, played with wan wisdom by David Warner.
Palms’ six hours are parceled out among four directors, Keith Gordon (A Midnight Clear), Phil Joanou (Final Analysis), Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break), and Peter Hewitt (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey). A common inspiration for the nightmare logic of Palms’ visual style would seem to be the ’60s Patrick McGoohan series, The Prisoner. Most valuable director award goes to Big-elow, whose work in the miniseries’ fourth hour combines deadpan visual jokes with slam-bang action sequences.
As a piece of Los Angeles popular art, Wild Palms is squarely in the tradition of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Raymond Chandler’s detective novels: L.A. as a beautiful trap, a corrupt paradise. There’s a lulling musical score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, but Palms’ real soundtrack is the succession of rock & roll oldies that regularly surge up to drown out the dialogue. Palms revitalizes a familiar tune like the Rolling Stones’ ”Gimme Shelter,” investing it with fresh foreboding when it accompanies a scene in which Kreutzer orders a killing.
In its length, scope, sweeping visual tableaux, and over-the-top passion, Wild Palms is more like an opera than a TV show. But then, it’s also more like a TV show than the series to which it’s most likely to be compared: Twin Peaks. Unlike Peaks, which started out brilliantly lucid and then rambled into incoherence, Palms sustains its length and adds layers of complexity to its characters. It also has something crucial that Peaks did not: a sense of humor about itself. There are sly references to everything from The Mickey Mouse Club to Lenny Bruce; a typical political slogan is, ”Those Father Knows Best days are over; only the Fathers know best.” And Cheers’ Bebe Neuwirth is dryly hilarious in a small role, as vain sitcom actress Tabba Schwartzkopf.
So what are Wild Palms’ weaknesses? Well, its final, frazzled hour isn’t very satisfying — this miniseries needed a big, emotional conclusion to match its ambitions. But there probably wasn’t any way Wagner, Stone, and the episode’s director, Joanou, were going to be able to tie up all the loose ends blowing in this miniseries’ maddening Santa Ana winds. And then there’s the black hole at the center of Wild Palms: James Belushi’s performance. Cold and inexpressive, Belushi just doesn’t communicate the emotional agony Harry endures. (If Stone and Wagner were looking for a close-cropped, bullet-nosed guy to anchor their miniseries, they shoulda gone with Civil Wars’ Peter Onorati.)
But the audacity of Wild Palms — its constant, dreamlike pull — transcends such mundane complaints; as television events go, this is a trip and a half. Toward the end, Warner’s Eli Levitt announces, ”I’ve called a war meeting; I’m going to suggest that we blow Channel 3 all the way to hell.” ”What’s that gonna do?” asks a skeptical Harry. ”Put a serious crimp in sweeps week,” says Eli. So will Wild Palms. A