James Belushi, Angie Dickinson, Ernie Hudson, Robert Loggia and Dana Delany Star in Overly-Ambitious Science Fiction TV Miniseries.
DIRECTED BY PETER HEWITT, KIETH GORDON, KATHRYN BIGELOW, PHIL JOANOU/1993
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 30, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Concocted under the influence of previous success and who knows what else, ABC television’s presentation of the science fiction miniseries Wild Palms confounded no shortage of viewers. Along the way through this new Blu-ray edition courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics, we come to learn that that response also, at times, extended to members of the cast and crew. The endeavor is a classically overreaching failure, there’s no way around that fact. Nevertheless, as it happens to resurface all these years later, there’s an unavoidable prescience about the mess that is Wild Palms.
Fully committed to any number of feverish convoluted ideas about technology, religion, law enforcement, cultism, ancient Japan (someone behind the scenes has a samurai fixation), perception and class division, Wild Palms arose from the immediate ashes of the Rodney King riots. Filmed in and around ravaged Los Angeles, the series feels both of its time and quite coincidentally in step with June 2020.
Therefore, it’s a real shame that Wild Palms isn’t better. There are several reasons to say this, one being the magnitude of its cast, another being the attempted boldness and depth of its ideas, yet another being the reality of committing to its 280+ minute runtime.
Originating as a comic in Details magazine by show creator Bruce Wagner, Wild Palms materialized as a six-hour (with commercial breaks) network television special event. With Oliver Stone onboard in an executive producing capacity, and a group of episode directors hailing from theatrical features (among them Peter Hewitt of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journeyand future Oscar winner Kathyrn Bigelow of Point Break), Wild Palms embraced a heightened cinematic look and style that was rare of for television at the time. Rare, but not unheard of, as David Lynch and Mark Frost had already shattered that barrier a few years earlier with ABC’s Twin Peaks. Wild Palms, though a science fiction drama set in the futuristic year of 2007, was noticeably marketed and packaged to evoke Twin Peaks. Unfortunately, the miniseries never approaches that level.
It’s not for lack of vision and talent. The cast list alone begs a double take: Dana Delany, Angie Dickinson, Robert Loggia, Ernie Hudson, David Warner, Kim Cattrall, Brad Dourif, and Bebe Neuwirth. There are also some welcome curiosities like Robert Morse, Charles Rocket, Ben Savage, and Nick Mancuso. This is an undeniable powerhouse assembly for early-1990s television.
At the head it all, however, is an awkwardly fish-out-of-water Jim Belushi. Belushi, known almost exclusively for lowbrow comedy at the time (K-9; Taking Care of Business), isn’t in over his head quite as badly as he might think, but his apparent self-doubt comes through all too often. According to one of the newly recorded commentary tracks (every episode has one, by different participants), Belushi was a late replacement for Jeff Daniels, who would’ve been a much better fit. Belushi is working very hard here. The problem is, it shows.
Then again, it doesn’t help that most of the other actors were given the freedom to chew scenery at will. Between the fact that Wild Palms is a dense piece of futurism that demands introspection, speculation, and concentration (none of which is necessarily earned, but that’s a separate matter), the talent often comes off as confused and then overcompensating by way of the Jack Nicholson School of Unhinged Crackpot Acting (still all the rage in 1993). As skilled as this cast is, very few (standouts include Ernie Hudson and David Warner, who actually makes this look easy) can sell Wagner’s nomadic, unintentionally wacky dialogue. No one in real life would ever say aloud “So this is how it begins”. But in the pilot episode alone, several do. This very deliberate, bad-comic book-level dialogue choice never settles with the storytelling, leaving the actors, all too often, out to sea. (Interestingly enough, Belushi himself does not go down the road of over-the-top hamminess, maintaining an everyman method of uncertain centering.)
It starts with a bizarre, lucid night terror, as Belushi’s character Harry Wyckoff, a successful patent attorney, confronts a rhinoceros ominously standing in his drained in-ground pool. As he then utters, and as it is obvious from fact that we’re only a few minutes in, this is indeed how it begins. Sigh. 279+ minutes to go…
From here, tracking the plot is not unlike trying to make sense of the over-caffeinated brain-dumps of a brilliant-but-loopy professor, the type who knows his stuff perhaps too well in his own head, but can never articulate it thoroughly. There’s a lot of references to things like “The New Realism”, where perception is subjective and seeing is not believing. Nothing is well explained, and character development is often the casualty in the face of it all.
Robert Loggia plays a Satanic villain registering today as part Donald Trump, part Mark Zuckerberg, part Elon Musk. Throughout the series, he unleashed a holographic video technology upon the TV-viewing public, runs for president of the United States, and orchestrates all manner of devious evils against Belushi’s Wyckoff. In the mix is a welcome Dana Delany (China Beach) as Wyckoff’s poor wife; Angie Dickinson (Rio Bravo) as her twisted, wealthy mother; Kim Cattrall as his ex-lover and new temptation; and a very impressive young Ben Savage (Boy Meets World) as one imperious child.
At the time of this Blu-ray release, we’re about as far the other direction from 2007 as 2007 was from 1993, when the show was made. Wild Palms has got ideas, ideas everywhere, oozing attempted futurism that results in a rather funny alternate 2007. While Bruce Wagner can’t be faulted for not predicting, say, 9/11 (though a cataclysmic “nuclear event” is referenced), he does completely miss the mark with cell phones and the way television worked by then. (Even though the writing was on the wall regarding the shift to high definition even in the early ‘90s). Weirdly, the nostalgia circa 1993 for 1960s classic rock (helped along greatly by Stone’s film, The Doors) is fully embraced as part of 2007, as prominent songs such as “House of the Rising Sun”, “In My Room”, and “Gimme Shelter” (used twice in one episode- does Martin Scorsese know about this?) distractingly turn up here and there. This is just one of the many ways that Wild Palms cannot escape its early-‘90s trappings.
One thing that Wild Palms kinda sorta gets is the rise of the internet. “The web” is vaguely referenced here and there though never really seen. Cyberpunk, though, as a concept was already a cool topic then. That influence is particularly obvious at one point in the pilot as a character pulls visionary Nueromancer author William Gibson from out of nowhere just as Woody Allen once produced Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall– though too lesser ends.
At the time of this writing, America finds itself in a prolonged state of reassessment regarding societal implementation of law enforcement. Among the current hot points is police ubiquity in nearly every situation under the sun, a pressure that demands far too much of cops, and likely helps foster their sometimes us-versus-them mentality. Also, operating budgets of major cities reveal that so much money goes to the cops that we might as well think of the cities themselves as police forces with city components. In Wild Palms, Belushi rides around noticing strange instances of police stepping over the line of proper conduct and isn’t sure what to make of it. He admits at one point that he found himself rooting for the oppressors. But later, as he is being made to square off against Loggia and someone tells him to call the police, he actually utters the eerie line, “Police?? There’s no police! Or… maybe it’s nothing but police. I gotta go.” Later, a street peddler of black-market holographic DVDs (which didn’t exist in 1993) says to a guy with high-tech glasses, “Come on 20/20, you’re gonna like what you see”. 2020, indeed… and about as stable.
Though it’s always ideal to for films and television to be made available in the highest quality possible, the leap to 1080p isn’t entirely favorable in this case. Certain actors, particularly Belushi and Loggia, appear to be utterly coated in thick, tan-granting pancake makeup. It’s explained, probably accurately, in a commentary track that only now with this HD 2K transfer- the likes of which has never been the case for Wild Palms until now- is that visible as flaw. In scenes with subtitles, the picture quality takes a noticeable dip. One wonders if maybe the restored elements couldn’t include subtitles, and rather than encode them again for this two-disc Blu-ray set, they simple cut in standard definition shots and called it a day. To be clear, Wild Palms was probably never particularly attractive. But this handling unfortunately does it fewer favors than one would expect.
The commentary breakdown is as follows:
- James Belushi & Executive Producer/Writer/Creator Bruce Wagner talk over the pilot episode, “Everything Must Go”. Belushi is just kind of happily along for the ride here while Wagner is audibly distraught by revisiting his own project.
- Star Dana Delany & Executive Producer/Writer/Creator Bruce Wagner comment on episode three, “Rising Sons”. Wagner is less self/punishing here, as he’s got Delany to dote upon, and the episode itself was directed by Kathryn Bigelow. For that, it is the most watchable individual episode of the series.
- Director Keith Gordon enthusiastically dissects his work on both of the episodes he helped, the second and the fourth. (“The Floating World” & “Hungry Ghosts”). Although all of these commentaries were only recorded in March of this year, his memory for the details of making this series is impressive. He discussed it all rather positively, though frequently blames lack of time and budget for most shortcomings.
- Most entertaining and enlightening of all is Phil Joanou, who came in to only direct the final episode, “Hello, I Must Be Going”. Joanou is hilariously honest throughout about how he arrived confused about the world he was hired to depict, and that it never really was clarified. He takes to questioning and even ribbing details about the episode in a refreshingly comedic way. It’s as though, after five episodes and four other commentaries, someone on the inside is finally saying, “Yeah, it’s not just you.”
To attempt a takeaway on Wild Palms in the quasi-mythic parlance it prefers, Bruce Wagner and Oliver Stone (both of whom Joanou ends his commentary by calling out as “crazy”) shined too bright in their own confidence and flew too close to the sun. Consequently, their palm leaf wings burst into flames and their oh-so-brilliant project plummeted into relative obscurity. That’s not to say there isn’t moments that speak prophetically to the here and now, it’s just that ABC took all the wrong lessons from the success of Twin Peaks. Dense, stylized confusion from a big-name filmmaker isn’t what made that series work. Twin Peaks, even when it wasn’t hitting on all cylinders, had heart and a moral compass at its forefront. Wild Palms only has murky ideas piled onto social commentary projected as a hologram.
The images and promotional material used in the review are present only as a reference to the film and are not meant to reflect the actual image quality or content of the Blu-ray.