Mrs. Davis: Season 1 REVIEW – Sister Hacked

A nun goes head to head with artificial intelligence.

mrs. davis, betty gilpin

Much like the shaky TV sequel to Watchmen he helmed, with Mrs. Davis, Damon Lindelof is presenting a show chock-a-block with striking, dramatic imagery, and overly wordy episode titles. Per example: “A Baby with Wings, a Sad Boy with Wings and a Great Helmet”.

But unlike Watchmen, Mrs. Davis doesn’t take itself deadly seriously in the face of its own obvious absurdity, and doesn’t make the mistake of trying to offer commentary on race relations (via a TV adaptation of a comic book, of all things – what were you thinking, Damo?) that accidentally stumbles into very unpleasant territory.

However, Mrs. Davis is offering commentary, or at least a moral, and it’s the kind of humanist message that I am admittedly inclined to like: that faith is a great deal more important on an interpersonal level than it ever is when it comes to grand artificial structures, be those organised religion or artificial intelligence. Behind all those cameras, there are actually people, after all.

It’s perhaps telling, then, that both religion and AI are kind of given human embodiments. Kind of, in that they have names in the cast and everything, but at the same time it’s at a remove. Mrs. Davis (and there’s that humanisation again) in particular plays the interesting trick of speaking through users like puppets.

Curiously, beyond this Mrs. Davis seems oddly ephemeral, and not at all like the revolutionary technology she’s billed as. Ultimately she seems more like a catch-all name for Google, Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha, all your go-to guys that are a bit too clever for humans to really trust, who have been given a single voice and agenda of their own.

While she ends up weirdly absent for a show that’s actually named after her, mainly due to the fact that the main characters have sworn off using her in any way, this does all lend it a certain degree of realism that you didn’t get with more sci-fi candidates like HAL or GLaDOS. The distance between us, now, and Mrs. Davisworld is a very small push indeed. And the show needs to take the realism where it can find it, considering its propensity for religious visions, and main plot involving the Holy Grail.

(Mrs. Davis is the second show to wrap up recently where the big prize was the Grail, and by far the superior.)

Now, I’m not going to lie: initially I was quite angry that the show promised a climactic clash between spirituality and technology, only to instead focus firmly on the reheated-cabbage relationship between Betty Gilpin’s motorcycle nun Simone and Jake McDorman’s latter-day cowboy Wiley. But it’s not just romantic slush, it’s taking place as part and parcel of their wacky adventures, with enough charm to carry it off – aw shucks, Lindelof, I didn’t really want you trying to grapple with theology anyway.

Those striking shots of something unlikely and audacious are here wielded with far greater skill than they ever were in Watchmen, too. Mrs. Davis actually presents fair in-universe rationales for them, even if it sometimes seems a little seat-of-the-pants. Admittedly the golden wheatfield dotted with grand pianos seems a little like it was done for the trailer, but the show doesn’t linger on that anywhere like long enough for it to cloy.

I have issues, nasty and pointed issues, with the fact they got in a comic talent on the tier of Tim McInnerny and then hardly used him, much less had him crack a joke or two. But they make up for that with Chris Diamantopoulos as a gung-ho Australian, who approaches all life has to offer with a profane and vein-popping intensity. While he’s not really a source of any of Mrs. Davis’s genuinely comic moments, he’s simply so damn watchable that I sort of love him. All dramas should have Diamantopoulos’s Australian knocking about in the background, barking orders to flunkies and generally getting things done.!

Gilpin herself somehow reaches new levels of being put-upon by dint of her being a nun. I don’t know exactly why this is, just that it works. Sometimes the show gets more action-movie than it should and gives us a slo-mo sequence of her tossing her wimple about, but more often she’s gritting her teeth and getting on with the task in front of her, which is usually something silly enough to nicely offset that gritting.

What the wimple doesn’t interfere with at all, though, is some of the remarkable things Gilpin can do with her face. I either missed it in GLOW, or wrote it off as background wrestling radiation, but it’s approaching the level that gets gentleman actors being routinely described in terms like ‘rubber-faced funnyman’. She’s not quite as visibly elasticated as Jim Carrey (a living cartoon character on lots of sugar), but could easily rival Steve Coogan.

By contrast, there’s nothing wrong with McDorman’s performance, but he’s mainly there as the hunk, and knows it. He’s the love interest, he’s every woman who’s had to share a bill with the likes of Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson.

And it’s apt that I’ve fallen into talking about the cast in terms of these big, recognisable archetypes, because this, too, is a tool which Mrs. Davis wields very well. You’ve got villainous Germans, McInnerny is mainly there to be authentically British but certainly pulls that off, they throw in the Pope at one point, he’s always a hooter, and you’ve already had my hagiography of Diamantopoulos’s Australian militiaman.

While the Holy Grail is definitely the main MacGuffin here, it, too, is really just another one on this list of the show’s big bold toys, toys it’s having a grand old time playing around with. But despite these very familiar building blocks, Mrs. Davis has stacked them up into something quite original.

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mrs. davis, betty gilpin
Mrs. Davis’s absentee title character doesn’t slow down the rollicking pace of the show at all. Funny without being meaningless, sentimental without being mawkish, the subject matter’s too ambitious for almost any creator but for all that it’s a very well put-together piece of television.