Guest contributor Mark Campbell looks back at the virtual reality mini-series Wild Palms.
Wild Palms arrived on UK television in November 1993 with the first two episodes airing back to back. It left me thinking "eh?", and reviews at the time were not altogether positive, but the show made such an impact on me that I kept thinking about it for days afterwards, and I found myself strangely hooked. Eventually it sought out the VHS (which has subsequently been replaced by DVD), and even now, over 20 years later, I'll still dip back in, and often discover many new things despite it only consisting of 5 one-hour long episodes.
The series was bought to the screen by Oliver Stone (who has a brief cameo), and was based on a comic strip written by Bruce Wagner (who wrote the TV screenplay) first published in 1990 in Details magazine. Wild Palms attracted an impressive cast, with names including James Belushi, Dana Delany, Robert Loggia, Kim Cattrall, David Warner and Angie Dickinson.
Wild Palms tackles the issue of how much power the media have and the nature of
what we perceive as reality, these are issues that are even more relevant today than they were in 1993. Set in a futuristic 2008, former patent attorney, Harry Wykoff (played by James Belushi), accepts a job with Channel 3 television. They are about to launch a new television format called "Church Windows", which creates a virtual reality broadcast into people's living rooms. As Harry rises up to the top of the
company he, and his family, become entangled in a web of
intrigue, betrayal and murder.
What initially attracted me to watch the show was the virtual reality aspect, it was a very new and 'hot' topic back in 1993, and Wild Palms was almost presenting a kind of dystopian Tomorrow's World view of the technology. Their VR was advanced, as well as projecting holographic images it was also possible to physically interact with
them, so anyone watching would feel like they were part of the TV show. But to do so you would need to take a drug, prolonged use of which would cause side effects. Senator Tony Kreutzer (Robert Loggia), who is owner of the Channel 3 television station and the larger Wild Palms Media Group, is also the leader of the religious sect called the Church of Synthiotics. He wants the public hooked on the drug. I won't spoil the reasons for anyone who has not seen it, because I know that many people likely haven't and I do feel that Wild Palms is worth the investment of time.
The mini-series is a little like The Prisoner in a way because it is challenging to
watch, there's even a feel of Twin Peaks mysteriousness about it. It still looks fantastic today and has some strong performances from all the main cast. The plot at times does seem all over the place, but if you view it as a whole it's much more rewarding. The tone does vary between episodes, as they were all directed by different but very capable people. The double length first episode, Everything Must Go, directed by Peter Hewitt and the middle installment, Rising Sons, directed by Kathryn Bigelow are the strongest in my opinion.
Wild Palms is a stylish, lavishly produced series, packed full of unexpected twists and turns that will keep you guessing "what's coming next?". And I doubt you'll correctly guess. If you've never seen it then I recommend binge watching it over a couple of evenings. It's far more rewarding that way.