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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Wild Palms
Wild Palms
MGM // Unrated // October 4, 2005
List Price: $14.94 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Joshua Zyber | posted November 28, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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"I have seen the future, and it is Channel 3."

The Miniseries:
Back in the early '90s, despite the fact that the great Twin Peaks experiment had ultimately imploded in its second season and was unceremoniously cancelled prematurely, the ABC network was still attempting to develop "edgy" programming that would set it apart from the competition. Among the first wave of Peaks imitators was the five-part science fiction miniseries Wild Palms, based on a script from Nightmare on Elm Street 3 co-writer Bruce Wagner and executive produced by Oliver Stone (who does not seem to have had much creative input beyond attaching his name to the project). Headlined by a cast of recognizable names and filmed with slick production values, the show premiered amidst a barrage of intriguing publicity that initially attracted sizable ratings. Unfortunately, the audience slipped away in subsequent weeks when basically no one could figure out what the hell the damn thing was about.

Set in the near future of 2007, a time when every home has a virtual reality hologram projector in the living room and business suits are worn with their collars flipped up (you know, just like today!), the story of Wild Palms concerns patent attorney and family man Harry Wycoff (Jim Belushi) who has recurring nightmares about a rhinoceros in his swimming pool. Unbeknownst to Harry, the dream is apparently shared by others with a common connection to a crazed US Senator (Robert Loggia) who founded a Scientology-like religion called Synthiotics and is planning a run for President. The Senator is also a billionaire media mogul with grand plans to introduce a new virtual reality technology into people's homes that will allow them to interact physically with holographic projections, so that every viewer can take active part in their favorite idiotic sitcom. As a side effect, the technology may happen to brainwash everyone into voting for the Senator, but that must be just a weird coincidence or something, right?

After taking a job at the Senator's Owellian media conglomerate, Harry is soon introduced to the workings of a secret war taking place behind the scenes of American politics, where rival factions the Fathers (headed by the Senator's evil minions) and the rebellious Friends (led by Joey, Chandler, and Monica… no wait, sorry, wrong show!) vie for control of the hearts and minds of the American public. Harry will eventually discover that his own friends and family have mysterious ties to both of these organizations, and will himself flop around like a rag doll, first helping one side and then the other as he tries to fit together all the pieces of a paranoid conspiracy puzzle. Surreal dreams, crackpot religious cults, illicit mind-control drugs developed by "rogue neuropharmacologists", and other vaguely plausible futuristic technobabble all swirl around in a big stew of confused ideas that largely amount to a lot of stylish nonsense.

When it first aired, much to-do was made about how "crazy" and "weird" the show was, including lead actor Jim Belushi admitting bemusedly in interviews that he had no idea what any of it meant and was just reading the lines handed to him. You can tell. A lousy actor even at his best, Belushi stumbles through the miniseries like a dinner theater production, playing each scene in the broadest of strokes, clearly having no clue how the scenes connect to one another. In comparison, co-star Dana Delaney is pretty terrific, acting circles around him. Loggia is suitably creepy and convincingly insane. Notable supporting parts are handled by Kim Cattrall (looking frankly haggard prior to her Sex & The City career reinvention), Angie Dickinson, Brad Dourif, Ernie Hudson, Bebe Neuworth, and Ned Beatty. Little Ben Savage plays Harry's son, a precocious and seethingly evil little twerp (essentially the same role he'd later parlay into seven years of Boy Meets World). Keen-eyed viewers will notice The West Wing co-star Richard Schiff in a bit part as a jail guard with two lines. "Cyberpunk" genre innovator William Gibson has a rather forced cameo at the beginning, but look for an amusing background TV appearance from Oliver Stone riffing on the JFK controversy.

Helmed by feature film directors Peter Hewitt (Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey), Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days), Keith Gordon (A Midnight Clear), and Phil Joanou (State of Grace), the Wild Palms miniseries is ambitiously stylized and intriguingly atmospheric, somehow managing to incorporate the idiosyncratic vision of each director (Bigelow throws in a cool shootout at the end of her episode) into a larger consistent framework. It's also pretty bizarre, racy stuff for network TV. The characters all speak in enigmatic dialogue loaded with cryptic pop-culture references. The story is a confusing mess, nearly impossible to follow when watched over a five week span. Strung back-to-back on home video it seems slightly more coherent, but even so it's damned difficult to keep track of who did what to whom and why. Much of it looks pretty hokey in retrospect, both in terms of its fictional science and its dramatic turns (the only Black character of course becomes a drug addict). The Ryuichi Sakamoto theme music is also painfully cheesy. Nonetheless, it does hold together surprisingly better than expected.

Not quite "the next Twin Peaks" the network was hoping for, Wild Palms never caught lightning in a bottle but did develop a cult audience who appreciated its mix of near-future cyberpunk surrealism and old-fashioned film noir mystery. Developed in the days when television programming was still considered largely disposable, to be remembered at all this far into the real future is an impressive achievement.

The DVD:
MGM presents all five episodes of Wild Palms in a 2-disc set: Everything Must Go; The Floating World; Rising Sons; Hungry Ghosts; and Hello, I Must Be Going. The premiere Everything Must Go was a double-length episode that originally aired in a 2-hour slot, but for some reason has been identified in the disc menus as two separate parts even though it plays through continuously with no interruption. Therefore, despite the fact that the disc menus count off six episodes, there are really only five.

Each episode includes full opening and closing credits. Previous VHS and laserdisc releases of the miniseries combined footage into two extra-long episodes by removing credits from some of the middle parts. The original broadcast version has been restored for DVD.

Aside from restoring the credits to every episode, the video transfer used for the DVD is otherwise an obvious recycling of the old VHS and laserdisc master, which isn't such a great idea considering that neither of those looked very good in the first place. Presented in its 4:3 broadcast ratio, the picture is extremely soft. The show's photography is a little hazy by design, and features deliberately exaggerated colors, but the DVD exacerbates this with too much digital noise reduction and some noticeable composite video color bleed. The laserdisc in particular was extremely grainy and noisy, yet while the DVD image has been DNR'ed to clean it up quite a bit in that respect, it does so at the expense of filtering out picture detail, leaving the whole thing looking rather fuzzy.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is set at a low volume by default. The track's fidelity is very flat, and amplifying it only serves to make it shrill. The show has decent stereo surround dimensionality for an early-'90s TV production and a mild amount of bass activity, but as a whole the audio quality on this DVD is very underwhelming.

Optional English or French subtitles have been provided.

Aside from the fact that the last four episodes begin with their original "Previously on…" trailers, the DVD has no bonus features relating to the show. A trailer for Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital hardly counts.

Both discs open with an obnoxious anti-piracy commercial, and have very ugly generic menus.

No ROM supplements have been included.

Final Thoughts:
An interesting if flawed television miniseries that represented one of the early attempts to bring the "cyberpunk" genre to TV, Wild Palms holds up better than expected. Even though the DVD has poor picture and sound, and no bonus features, the low list price makes it certainly worth a look anyway.

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