It has no dancing midgets. No Log Ladies. No shrink-wrapped dead bodies. Still, there is a spooky resemblance, a certain kinky je ne sais quoi, that makes ABC's Wild Palms seem, at first glance, eerily familiar.
''It's nothing like Twin Peaks,'' moans novelist-turned-TV auteur Bruce Wagner, who created the six-hour, four-part ''event series'' (as ABC insists on billing it) with a little help from his friend and co-executive producer, Oliver Stone. ''I've heard all the comparisons Wild Peaks, Twin Palms but this is its own thing. This is very different.''
Different is putting it mildly. Based on the surreal comic strip Wagner wrote for Details magazine from 1990 until earlier this year, Palms (premiering Sunday, May 16, 9-11 p.m.) is part science fiction, part political thriller, and part prime-time soap. Set in Los Angeles in the year 2007, the miniseries sorry, event series twists and turns through a wacked-out world of switched-at-birth babies, eye-gouging mothers-in-law, deadly cybernetic drugs, megalomaniacal media moguls, and enigmatic rhinoceroses that keep popping up in empty swimming pools.
''It's very tough, very challenging a lot of viewers probably won't dig it,'' admits James Belushi, who stars in the series with Dana Delany, Robert Loggia, Kim Cattrall, Ernie Hudson, and Angie Dickinson. ''I shot the show for 12 weeks, looped it, watched it, and there are still things I'm not catching.''
Here's Palms' corkscrew plot: Belushi plays Harry Wyckoff, a mild-mannered TV executive who finds himself drawn into a quasi-religious power struggle between a crypto-fascist group called the Fathers and an underground libertarian movement called the Friends. Delany is Harry's boozy but soulful wife, Grace; Loggia is Anton Kreutzer, a senator-slash-TV-network-owner who's Harry's boss and the charismatic kook who started the Fathers; Dickinson is Grace's power-hungry mom, who also happens to be Kreutzer's sister; and Cattrall is Harry's ex-lover, who also happens to be Kreutzer's current flame. All of them have their eyes on something called the GO chip, a teeny techno-whatzit that mysteriously holds the future of humankind.
''It's like Dynasty on peyote,'' gushes Belushi. ''It's thirtysomething gone to hell. It's Donna Reed getting stabbed. It's got everything in it. The Singing Detective. The Prisoner. You name it, it's in there.''
''It's a futuristic melodrama with a dash of virtual reality,'' offers Delany. ''You shouldn't even try to make sense of it. Just let it wash over you, enjoy each scene, and by the end it'll make sense.''
''For me,'' says Loggia, ''the piece is reminiscent of Elizabethan blood-and-thunder plays like The Duchess of Malfi. Or a Greek play like Medea. Plays where you're dealing with incest and treachery and tearing somebody's eyes out.'' Some viewers may feel like they need a machete and pith helmet to hack their way through it all, but ABC is gambling that the show's supreme weirdness will find a following and is even airing Palms during the crucial May ratings sweeps. The network, though, is hedging its bet: To keep the attention-span-challenged from getting hopelessly lost in the tangled story line, St. Martin's Press has already published The Wild Palms Reader, a primer containing time lines, secret letters, and bios of all the characters. More tips and help will be available by dialing ABC's 900-773-WILD (75 cents per minute).
''Don't forget, a lot of people said the same thing about Twin Peaks that it was too complex and challenging for network TV,'' says Ted Harbert, ABC's president of prime-time programming. ''But look what happened with that show.''
That earlier experiment in existential programming, produced by David Lynch, became the surprise cult hit of the 1989-90 season. But after being strung along by its who-offed-Laura-Palmer plot for almost a year, viewers finally got bored, and Peaks' once-lofty ratings fell off a cliff. ABC wasn't about to make the same mistake again and insisted that the Palms producers provide a swift and satisfying conclusion. ''Peaks probably should have been a seven-hour event series,'' says Harbert. ''The lesson we learned was that we need to tell a complete story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.''
Palms has all of the above, though considering its trippy beginnings, it's a wonder they came out in the right order. Wagner, 39, began writing his funky Palms cartoon for Details around the same time his down-and-out-in-Hollywood novel, Force Majeure, was making an underground literary celeb of the former limo driver and sometime screenwriter (Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, Nightmare on Elm Street 3). ''I used the cartoon as a sort of surreal diary,'' he says as he steers his brand-new jet-black Range Rover along Sunset Boulevard, where some of Palms was filmed last summer. ''It was dreamlike and hallucinatory. I put my friends in it. I put famous people in it. I didn't care about the story. It was a tone poem.'' He hangs a right onto La Brea. ''Then Oliver saw it.''
Oliver Stone knew Wagner from purchasing the film rights to Force Majeure (a movie Stone still hasn't made), and the Palms cartoon struck a special conspiratorial chord with the JFK director. ''It was so syncretic,'' Stone says. (Syncretic? ''Look it up,'' he says.) ''It was such a fractured view of the world. Everything and anything could happen. Maybe your wife isn't your wife, maybe your kids aren't your kids. It really appealed to me.''
With Stone signed on even doing a cameo as a guest on a futuristic talk show (''Fifteen years after the film JFK, the files are released. You were right. Are you bitter?'') ABC gave the project plenty of creative elbow room. Wagner sealed himself into a suite in Santa Monica's Shangri-La Hotel and banged out a shooting script in a couple of months. The $11 million budget meant the futuristic effects had to be kept simple: Except for the groovy retro-Edwardian clothes and holographic TV sets, life in this version of the early 21st century looks a lot like it does now, only prettier. Palms' four director Keith Gordon (A Midnight Clear), Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break), Phil Joanou (Final Analysis), and Peter Hewitt (Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey) gave the series a dreamy, feature-film lushness.
''I'm hoping viewers will get wrapped up in the look of the show,'' says Wagner, swinging his Rover into a parking spot at Sony Studios, where he's delivering pages for his next project-a proposed TV series set in the 1950s (it's being coproduced by another big-time movie director, Francis Ford Coppola). ''But if we lose some viewers, what can we do? We thought about calling it Alex Haley's Wild Palms. We thought about taking hostages to make people watch. But all we can do is put it on the air and hope people like it. What else can we do?''
Not even Agent Cooper could answer that. With additional reporting by Nina Malkin