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Jim McDermottApril 27, 2023
Betty Gilpin as an AI-fighting nun in ”Mrs. Davis”Betty Gilpin as an A.I.-fighting nun in “Mrs. Davis” (Peacock)

“Mrs. Davis,” the new Peacock show created by Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof, has been billed as “Nun Fights A.I.” It’s a great logline, and it’s true: At the heart of this insane, madcap, pious story sits a fierce and funny nun, played by Betty Gilpin, who does battle to take down an all-knowing and very maternal artificial-intelligence system known as Mrs. Davis.

(I won’t say whether it is ever explained why she’s called Mrs. Davis—the writers have created such a feast of delightful twists and surprises, you really want to watch this show knowing as little about it as possible. But I will say, early on my brain decided the name must be an oblique reference to Ann B. Davis, who played Alice the housekeeper on “The Brady Bunch” and later became very involved with the Episcopal Church. It’s a leap, I know.)

But to those who are already exhausted by the all-A.I., all-the-time reporting of 2023, have no fear: This is not a show about A.I., not really. Nor is it a show about medieval nuns with swords, magic tricks, bull riding, Medieval Times, the world’s best falafel or the Holy Grail, although all of these figure in the eight-part series.

“Mrs. Davis” is a series exploring our relationships with God, story—and Damon Lindelof’s breakthrough show, “Lost.”

No, from its first to its final lovely moments, “Mrs. Davis” is a series exploring our relationships with God, story and—this one’s a leap too, stay with me—Lindelof’s original breakthrough show, “Lost.”

You remember “Lost.” It was the cultural phenomenon of the first decade of the 21st century. (As I’m writing this I realize Gen Z probably has no idea what I’m talking about and it literally hurts me inside.) The premise: A plane headed from Sydney to Los Angeles crash-lands on an island somewhere in the Pacific. Almost immediately the survivors discover there’s an awful lot about this island that does not make sense—monsters and hatches and guys living in hatches and a colony of scary weirdos and a French woman searching for her daughter who is referred to always and forever as “the French woman.”

All of the characters on “Lost” were types. There was the Hero, Jack Shephard—note the Christian connotations of his last name; the Con Artist; the Cursed Guy; the Old Couple; the Believer; the Criminal; the Soldier; the Screw Up; the Devil. The series set them each up as tropes, but with a secret mission to mess with us. Good storytelling is a magic trick (or a boxing match)—they get you expecting things to go one way, so that you won’t see them coming from somewhere else entirely. Through flashbacks and also the accumulated trauma of the series, the show kept undermining and complicating our sense of who these characters were, sometimes at the risk of alienating us from them entirely—I full-force hated Jack from Seasons 2 through 5—until in the final season they were all so damn real we wept like babies in empty houses as we saw how their stories resolved.

“Lost” was a show that reveled in the conventions of storytelling as it wrestled with all of the big questions about life, death, God and the meaning of it all. “Mrs. Davis” is in some ways very similar. Just as in “Lost,” we are introduced to a series of characters who present as types: Sister Simone often wears a habit; her former love interest and partner on the quest, Wiley (Jake McDorman), is always in a cowboy hat and boots. Her father, the magician Monty (David Arquette), loves a disguise. Her mother Celeste (Elizabeth Marvel) is the epitome of “disappointed mother.”

“Mrs. Davis” is so much about story, in fact, that Wiley himself regularly calls out the tropes of the events he finds himself in.

But this show is immediately much more interested in calling attention to the game that it’s playing. Wiley’s business partner J.Q. (the outstandingly ridiculous Chris Diamantopoulos) presents as so many bad stereotypes of Australian men—insistently shirtless, ultra-gung-ho, with an accent as thick as a steak—that you can’t help but notice. The show also features another French woman (the wonderful Katja Herbers) obsessed with her daughter, and also another doctor stranded on an island (Ben Chaplin). His last name also just happens to be Schrödinger, as in the hypothetical cat in a box who is imagined by scientist Erwin Schrödinger to be both alive and dead because there is no way to know to know for sure—which not coincidentally mirrors the debate that everyone had about the characters on “Lost.” Were they alive or were they dead the whole time? In the end, the answer was an entirely Schrödingerian “Yes.”

“Mrs. Davis” is so much about story, in fact, that Wiley himself regularly calls out the tropes of the events he finds himself in. He shouts “I knew it” when surprising reveals happen while each episode harks back very specifically to beloved stories like “The Princess Bride” or “The Big Lebowski,” and specific genres, too. There is a heist episode, a kidnapping rescue episode, a prison break episode. It actually makes sense that someone might wonder if Mrs. Davis is a “Brady Bunch” reference, because this is a series all about spotlighting and celebrating pop culture worlds and stories.

There’s a reason for all of this: In the world of the show, Mrs. Davis controls the actions of pretty much everyone, supposedly to their benefit. Therefore it’s never clear whether the situations that Simone and Wiley find themselves in are real or have been fabricated by the A.I. in order to push them in certain tropey directions.

And Mrs. Davis is not the only one doing the manipulating: Part of the fun of the show lies in the realization that everyone we meet is always, possibly, playing everyone else, in wild and often hilarious ways, and for a wide variety of motives. The series grounds the practice in its sweetest character, Simone’s father Monty. Everything he does as a magician is about getting people to buy into a story that is absolutely untrue. And yet rather than doing them harm, his purpose is entirely to entertain them. For him—as for the show’s writers—magic is about making the world more interesting, more wondrous, not less.

I know of no other show able to lean into the meta and the absurd as hard as “Mrs. Davis” and yet still pack such a powerful emotional punch.

So as audience members we’re following this never-ending shell game, trying to keep up with where the ball is, which is a lot of fun, though for the characters themselves it can be pretty upsetting. When you never know what is real and what is manipulation, you never know when you’re making a decision that is your own or one that is engineered by someone else. Even if the manipulation is meant to somehow help you, it undermines you, too. You can never trust that anything is truly your own.

But the thing about a shell game is, the ball is never where you’re looking. And so while we’re zoomed in on the story, trying to figure out whether this room is really this room or those villains are villains at all, Hernandez, Lindelof and their collaborators are secretly coming for us—specifically, for those of us who believe in a loving God.

Because on the face of things, what is Mrs. Davis, with her expressed desire to help and virtually limitless power, if not God? And how can any of us claim to have free will if we share our existence with such a figure?

Likewise, when we ask God to intervene in the lives of others—as Sister Simone does in prayer early in the story—what does that mean for those whose lives are subsequently altered? How can they claim either their successes or their failures as their own if there is a force in the universe that is able to step in and change the course of events? Is the Christian image of a beneficent and generous God really a good thing, the show wonders, or a nightmare that leaves us either children or puppets?

These are profoundly provocative questions (and there are others, too, but to share them would spoil the surprise). “Mrs. Davis” is a show that will definitely make believers re-examine their images of God. It’s a modern day “Canterbury Tales,” filled with rich and interesting stories, but with the twist that we’re the ones being sent on pilgrimage.

Honestly, I’m not sure there’s ever been a show quite like it; certainly I know of none able to lean into the meta and the absurd as hard as “Mrs. Davis” and yet still pack such a powerful emotional punch. In the end the show’s greatest sleight of hand might be its capacity to set us on such a challenging path while still filling us with delight along the way.

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