There are times when Peacock’s “Mrs. Davis,” launching with four episodes on April 21st before dropping one weekly on the streaming service, feels like it could take place in the same world as the wildly successful HBO adaptation of “Watchmen.” It’s undeniably influenced by that project, one that saw writer Damon Lindelof’s brilliant voice tied to the incredible source material about heroism, responsibility, and the forces that shape society. In “Mrs. Davis,” Lindelof, working with co-creator Tara Hernandez ("The Big Bang Theory"), tackles nothing less than the two biggest structures of the modern world: faith and technology. Like "Watchmen," it’s an unpredictable genre hybrid that takes giant swings. That it misses some of them is almost like a compliment. But given Lindelof’s track record with projects like “Lost,” “Watchmen,” and “The Leftovers” (my pick for the best show of the 2010s), it’s hard not to be a little frustrated by how often “Mrs. Davis” raises ideas without tying them together. It’s a show that can be more exhausting than enlightening, even if it seems sacrilegious to complain about a program throwing in too much in an era when so many streaming offerings aren’t trying to do anything at all.
The phenomenal Betty Gilpin ("GLOW") stars as Simone, a nun who has committed her life to Jay (Andy McQueen), a magnetic figure who works at a diner, makes falafel for Simone and gives her tickets for jobs to do from his boss, an unseen force behind the kitchen door. The tickets are targets for Simone to unmask. For example, in the premiere, she shows up in time to stop a group of magicians from pulling a scam on someone—people who use artifice and trickery to diminish the role of belief in this world. Simone is ultimately given a big target—Mrs. Davis, an A.I. like Siri or Alexa, has become part of the fabric of the entire U.S. population. Mrs. Davis seems like a force for good, especially in how the program encourages acts of kindness to give users “wings” that identify them as decent people. But Simone knows there’s something wrong with an A.I. this powerful, not only because it's like worshipping a false God.
Got that? It’s just the tip of a narrative iceberg that’s almost impossible to put into a plot summary paragraph. I didn’t even get to the cowboy named Wiley (Jake McDorman), Simone’s ex-boyfriend who leads a group of action-movie-quoting musclemen who form a resistance against Mrs. Davis. Or what about Simone’s parents? Her dad (David Arquette) was a magician who died doing an impossible trick, but her mom (Elizabeth Marvel), a security expert now, doesn’t think Pop is actually gone. And most of the plotting is driven by Simone trying to get her hands on the Holy Grail, which will lead to Simone’s demise. Yeah, that Holy Grail. If that’s not enough belief-driven plotting, there’s even a character named Schrodinger (Ben Chaplin). And he’s got a cat.
The main thing that holds “Mrs. Davis” together thematically is iconography. Just the image of a nun and a cowboy traversing the globe conjures themes of religion, Americana, heroism, faith, etc. Muscle men, a magician, the Knights Templar, even the Holy Grail—it’s almost as if Lindelof was done unpacking the role of the hero image in society and decided to ask himself what else drives culture, good or bad. It results in a show overflowing with ideas that don’t always work together. The show's ambition can get tangled sometimes, such as in the fourth episode, which dives right into the world's religious center in a way that's more haphazard than insightful.
And yet maybe that’s the point of it all. You can't tie this all together because there's nothing to hold onto. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that “Mrs. Davis” is blasphemous. On the contrary, it regularly delineates between faith and organized religion, valuing the former over the latter. It’s more a deconstruction of what matters to us in this life and how that has to shift when we cede control over so many of our decisions, values, and choices to something like an all-powerful A.I. For centuries, human beings have allowed vital aspects of their life to be driven by religion, but what happens when technology has that same kind of world-shaping power? It’s an essential question that creative geniuses like Lindelof will ask for years.
While “Mrs. Davis” sometimes lacks the necessary teeth or focus, it's never anything less than fascinating. It helps that Lindelof and Hernandez have a performer as fearless as Gilpin, who carries the show with her blend of badass confidence and vulnerability. There aren’t many of her generation who could sell a character that’s equal parts faith and force like Gilpin. She makes invigorating choices, even when her character is sometimes underdeveloped because of the requirements of the breakneck plotting.
About that plotting, “Mrs. Davis” has a habit of raising ideas only to drift off to the next one, like an A.I. so overstuffed with code that it’s glitching. But with all of these forces trying to play puppet master in our lives, which ones matter? Which ones should we follow? Which ones should we destroy? Do we even have a choice anymore? Does it matter if God or Alexa wins the war for the human heart and soul? While I’m not sure that the creators of “Mrs. Davis” have the answer to that question, it gives me faith in the future of TV that they’re asking it.
Whole season was screened for review. "Mrs. Davis" launches April 21st on Peacock.