TV Shows

'Mrs Davis' review: Relentlessly original, but more trick than miracle

Betty Gilpin makes it hard not to be won over by …whatever this is.
By Caitlin Welsh  on 
A nun in blue strides with purpose through a hospital.
Make way. Credit: Peacock

Mrs. Davis, the TV show, has everything: Schrodinger’s cat, enormous quantities of neon green whale sedative, a love triangle with Jesus, stage magicians, a sword the size of a pickup truck, flawed moms, an elaborate heist involving a special tool christened The Constipator, explosions, Character Actress Margo Martindale, and a liminal space that serves a divine falafel.

Mrs. Davis, the benevolent, omniscient AI at the centre of Mrs. Davis, the show, also has everything. Or rather, she knows everything, from your favorite childhood stories to the specific way you, personally, can make the world a better place. Four billion people the world over wear an earpiece that, through an app on their phone, helps them answer their every question, and do good through a gamified system of acts of kindness. (Different countries call her different things; in the U.S., she's a sort of universal kindly kindergarten teacher figure, while in Italy, they hilariously call her Madonna.) She's Siri, Wikipedia, the Hitchhiker's Guide, and (while He still has a role to play in the lives of plenty of folks) God.

What Mrs. Davis doesn't have is a mystery box plot with a neat ending. Viewers might go in expecting one: it's co-created, with former Big Bang Theory writer Tara Hernandez, by Damon Lindelof, peak TV's king of But What Does It All Mean?!. If you must triangulate, Mrs Davis hovers mystically somewhere between the sublime but devastating Watchmen and the devastating but sublime The Leftovers — both stories about a world like our own that's been shifted on its axis by a superhuman phenomenon.

Don't panic, though. It's also very funny. 

I should warn you that you won't get "funny" from the opening sequence, unless gouts of unexpected gore make you cackle. And you might not get it in the second scene of the show either, at least at first. But then Simone (GLOW star Betty Gilpin) turns up, and it's impossible not to be won over by …whatever this is.

Mrs. Davis will win you over with Betty Gilpin.

Sister Simone is a nun, as you might assume. She helps her sisters make jam, rides her horse (with no name) around the desert outside Reno exposing a very specific kind of scammer, and wears a stunning blue habit that flows into a truly spectacular hidden palazzo-pant situation rather than the traditional robe. Oh, and she hates Mrs Davis, refusing to become a "user" or even talk to the AI directly, and insisting on using "it" rather than "her". So when the mysterious "boss" who helps Simone pick her takedown targets directs her to destroy the ubiquitous AI, she doesn't need to be told twice. Simone's quest takes her around the world, literally and figuratively underground, and deep into the personal history she's been running from for years. The latter initially shows up in the form of her ex, Wiley (Jake McDorman); he brings her into a shadowy and surprisingly well-funded underground network who share her goal, led by JQ (Chris Diamantopoulos).

A man in a cowboy hat and a woman in a nun's outfit sit on a couch in a very white office.
Credit: Peacock

Gilpin makes Simone instantly compelling and then never lets up. She fills Simone up with radiant conviction, exasperated practicality, swashbuckling gusto, and an endless supply of truly fantastic reaction faces. She may be doing God's work and trying to undo the force at the centre of our world, but she's also just a regular girl from Reno who happened to fall in love with the wrong guy. Disbelief, amusement, and panic are plain on her lovely face as often as steely determination.

As one of about three people who appreciated him in the extremely limited run of the Limitless TV series, I am delighted to report that McDorman's smug-bro charm translates even better in the form of roguish, conflicted cowboy Wiley, and fuels a sweet and sexy chemistry with Gilpin. And Diamantopoulos is channeling even more unhinged, fake-tanned energy than he did as batshit billionaire Russ Hanneman(opens in a new tab) in Silicon Valley. (Although for some reason he is valiantly, sometimes successfully, doing it in an Australian accent — one thicker than the horrifying heaped spoonful of Vegemite he downs in one scene, and just as hard to swallow. As a native speaker I'll be the first to admit it's an almost impossible one to get right, and shouldn't be attempted unless absolutely necessary.)

The rest of the cast is stacked with performers who can carry both the absurdist gravitas of the main quest and the snappy dialogue, which runs the gamut from archly cliché and ritualistic to sexy bickering and bro-speak peppered with Fight Club references. Very rarely do the scripts resort to "Well, that happened"-type cliches, and even if they did, Gilpin's face would be able to turn it into gold.

How does Mrs Davis, the AI, actually work?

In speculative fiction like this, it's hard not to want every single detail about how the world is changed by technology like this, and we don't get that here. The premise handwaves its own setup as the complete removal of conflict and want, via the directions of Mrs. Davis, calibrated and delivered to each individual for "maximum customer satisfaction", and then we get very little else illustrated about how that works on a global scale. 

We also hear a lot about the very personal reason Simone herself hates the Big D, as Wiley calls it; we don't hear enough about why she thinks the technology itself has been bad for the world. Maybe that stands out more right now, as the time between the show being produced and it making it to screens has happened to also deliver the biggest and scariest leaps ever in widely available consumer-level "artificial intelligence" tools

And, more straightforwardly, I would have liked to have seen more demonstrations of how the AI achieves its aims, like the brief but exhilarating sequence where Simone needs money, and Mrs Davis provides.

A woman in a suit faces a woman in an nun outfit, as a man in a cowboy hat looks on in the background.
Credit: Peacock

Mrs Davis is not as thematically cohesive as Lindelof's last series, Watchmen, which also had a similarly haphazard energy at first as it braided its strands together. Where that show had a gorgeous and fresh take on superhero tropes, at the centre of Mrs Davis is an almost too-whimsical mystery box of childhood trauma that unfolds slowly over the course of the series, both inevitable and surprisingly affecting (with no small thanks to Elizabeth Marvel, who is worth twice whatever she gets paid in any role, as Simone's mother Celeste).

It does stumble repeatedly, and in different ways; a slipped stitch early on leads to a lingering plot hole, it pulls some big punches towards the end after executing a perfect windup, and it answers arguably too many of the wrong questions and not enough of the right ones. 

But all that said, Mrs Davis is one of the biggest storytelling swings I've seen on TV in ages. Tonally, it often recalls Richard Kelly's infamous, fascinating flop Southland Tales, while its commitment to relentless originality and faith that viewers will follow it down whatever rabbit hole is next reminded me of a less self-serious Legion. It's full of pop culture Easter eggs that tell us just how much fun the creative team is having with it, from shots echoing The Big Lebowski and costumes nodding to The Life Aquatic to a blink-and-you'll miss it background shout out to the poster for Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Delicatessen(opens in a new tab). And for any former Sunday School kid, the Bible references are plentiful and sly, while the richness of the show's takes on Christian faith and mythology will likely offend and mollify, often in the same moment.

At its best and sweetest and most coherent, it's a slightly heavy-handed fable about healing your inner child, and choosing flawed self-determination over having a perfect purpose assigned to you by a higher power. It's more magic trick than miracle, and might not earn your devotion — but it does deserve your applause.

The first four episodes of Mrs Davis are now streaming on Peacock(opens in a new tab), with new episodes weekly on Thursdays.

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Caitlin Welsh

Caitlin is Mashable's Australian Editor. She has written for The Guardian, Junkee, and any number of plucky little music and culture publications that were run on the smell of an oily rag and have since been flushed off the Internet like a dead goldfish by their new owners. She also worked at Choice, Australia's consumer advocacy non-profit and magazine, and as such has surprisingly strong opinions about whitegoods. She enjoys big dumb action movies, big clever action movies, cult Canadian comedies set in small towns, Carly Rae Jepsen, The Replacements, smoky mezcal, revenge bedtime procrastination, and being left the hell alone when she's reading.

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