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Mrs. Davis Review: Jack Of All Trades, Master Of Nun

  • Scattershot plot points hit more than they miss
  • Betty Gilpin shines in what could become an iconic role
  • The show reinvents itself multiple times, staying fresh
  • Non-Gilpin actors fail to shine
  • Gobbledegook storyline crumbles under scrutiny
  • The show's a bit too precious for its own good

Imagine it: A crowded writer's room, with a dozen or more highly-caffeinated scribes sitting around, tossing out ideas. The conversation turns to things that are awesome. Motorcycles with sidecars, strawberry jam explosions, crossbows, Australian people saying "crikey!," Scots saying "laddie," cowboy spittoons, king cakes, renaissance faires, blow darts. "Ooh," someone says. "What if we had a chase scene where somebody had to jump through a giant donut?" "Yeah," another replies. "And a scene with an expansive countryside, filled with pianos as far as the eye can see?"

To tie these disparate elements together, all the room needs is a scaffolding that removes all laws of nature, common sense, and plausibility. A dash of "The Matrix" here, a touch of "The Flying Nun" there, some "The Boys," some "Kingsman," a dash of "Alias," a little "Da Vinci Code" and a dozen more post-modern, self-referential, meta entertainments that present their stakes with a knowing wink that reminds the viewer there are no real stakes. Welcome to "Mrs. Davis," a stylized show that destroys the boundaries of reality so effectively that viewers are presented with a grimy bar people sometimes transport to when they're having sex. Jesus is there, mopping the floor. It's the type of show where a character is sent to retrieve the Holy Grail from inside a whale's belly, and viewers are encouraged to say, "Sure, that tracks."

Having watched the first eight episodes of the show, one near-religious epiphany rises above all others: Thank God for Betty Gilpin. After standout supporting work in the 2017 wrestling show "GLOW" and the 2022 miniseries "Gaslit," she has finally landed a lead role ideally suited for her talents — in fact, it's hard to imagine anyone doing it quite this well. Gilpin has the physicality to pull off her lethal quasi-outlaw nun, the pathos to elicit empathy from her struggles with her truly messed-up parents, and the deadpan comedic chops to be briefed by a long-winded exposition character who says, "I know what you're thinking," and reply, "I should've peed first." Gilpin is the ideal poker face to sell the entire premise and encourage the audience to take the ride.

A vicious circle

Early episodes of "Mrs. Davis" paint the picture of a behind-the-scenes reality where the Holy Grail is the ultimate MacGuffin — the cheeky series uses the term and everything. Various factions have battled for centuries to, at turns, find, destroy, or weaponize it. As the series time-hops like Doc Brown on pixie sticks, it introduces the Skynet-meets-Facebook Mrs. Davis, an A.I. technology that is ostensibly supposed to help people and enrich lives. Everyone is plugged into it (except Gilpin's Lizzie/Simone), and it likely has some sort of nefarious long game in mind. As negotiated by various "users" delivering messages from Mrs. Davis (often puzzlingly punctuated by error messages), the girl in the habit and the habitual app broker a deal: If Simone can find and deliver the Grail, Mrs. Davis will take herself permanently offline.

The next several episodes are straight out of the Damon Lindelof playbook (he created the show alongside "Big Bang Theory" vet Tara Hernandez), dropping bizarre sights and off-the-wall behaviors like frogs from the "Magnolia" sky, than peeling back the onion layer by layer until it (sometimes) makes sense. Then comes Episode 5, which is both clever and somewhat reminiscent of an '80s clip show: The main characters only pop up every now and then, largely setting up clips while another character tells them a story that will make viewers re-evaluate everything that has come before. It flips the whole series on its head, and propels "Mrs. Davis" forward through the next several hours. Then, in Episode 8, everything gets flipped again as viewers learn the significant (and frequently humorous) backstory of the A.I. creation.

Sadly, most of the supporting talents who orbit Gilpin are rather vanilla, awash in accents and stereotypes and forced references to Pat Benatar and "Braveheart." It's also best to not dwell too deeply on any individual plot points, as character motivations — and frequently, common sense — prove as elusive as the Grail itself. The show establishes a unique personality with gimmicks like cheeky title cards, such as when it cuts from France to an island via a title card that reads "Present Day, Not Paris, Obviously." In another memorable shot, a woman gets impaled by a long sword from behind — then runs toward a nemesis, leaps onto a table, and uses the pointy side protruding from the front of her abdomen to stab the dude in the face. There is a long-running Schrodinger's Cat joke that clearly tickled someone in that aforementioned writer's room. There's even a shoe phone joke that would make Maxwell Smart proud. Taken out of context, these and other gags work great. Taken together, hour after hour, it's like watching someone play "Connect the Dots" and wondering whether the completed picture at the end will make it all worthwhile.

This is getting to be a habit

"Mrs. Davis" is granted a unique dimension of gravitas (not unlike Lindelof's excellent 2014 series "The Leftovers") because whenever its quirk factor seems on the verge of swallowing itself whole, the show is smart enough to slow down for an instant, re-focus on its central character's spiritual journey, and allow the talented Gilpin to effectively depict growth (the whale scene of Episode 7 is a particular stunner). Don't be surprised if you find your self-referential smiles balanced with tear-tickled eyeballs.

Taken as a laundry list of individual parts, "Mrs. Davis" is a jack of all trades: Cowboys, magicians, religious allegory, German "Sprockets"-like baddies, and jokes about long-forgotten sneaker brands from the '80s are all on offer here. But does it master any of them? To watch it as an overarching series, one that tells a story not only worth following but also able to be followed, can be a frequently frustrating exercise — at least, through the first 8 hours. If you choose (like Simone) to embrace the show's mission, you're buying into a series that many action-adventure, sci-fi-fantasy fans seem likely to love. You're also likely to fall hard for a layered, complex, often laugh-out-loud performance that could make Gilpin an icon.

"Mrs. Davis" Season 1 is currently airing on Peacock, with new episodes every Thursday.