While most people are pointing to The Simpsons and Family Guy for their odd predictions of the future events, one 1990s TV show is rarely ever mentioned. It’s no surprise. Wild Palms, which aired this week in 1993 on ABC has been mostly forgotten after it was hyped up a lot especially for a TV show at the time.
Wild Palms was promoted as an “event series.” Nowadays, it would be called “limited series.” With five episodes airing on five consecutive nights, it was breaking free of the miniseries format which was starting to run stale. The series was produced by Oliver Stone back when he had the clout that his name attached to anything was important. It was created and written by Bruce Wagner, an actor and writer who may be remembered from One Crazy Summer as Uncle Frank, a maddening person who sits nervously by a telephone and radio waiting to win a contest. He had also co-written the script Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills with Paul Bartel.
Wild Palms was based on a comic series he had written for the now-defunct Details magazine. Set in the Los Angeles area in 2007, the series would be directed by four directors including future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow and actor Keith Gordon as well as Peter Hewitt, who had directed Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and Phil Joanou, who had made Three O’Clock High and State of Grace.
The series focuses on Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi) who is a patent attorney who is approached by an old college girlfriend, Paige Katz (Kim Cattrall) who wants Harry to find her missing son. Unfortunately, Harry’s relationship with Paige creates a conflict with the law firm where he works and he is passed over for a promotion. It doesn’t matter because he is introduced through Paige to Sen. Tony Kreutzer (Robert Loggia), a media mogul who founded the Wild Palms Group, a media and TV business and also the founder of an alternative religion called Synthiotics.
Tony offers Harry a job at Wild Palms with a much higher salary. But little does Harry know, he’s more connected to Tony, who happens to be the sister of his mother-in-law, Josie Ito (Angie Dickinson) who has an estranged relationship with him and his wife, Grace (Dana Delany). Grace owns a fashion shop focusing on Japanese decor. They have a son, Coty (Ben Savage) who is also an aspiring child actor who is selected to star in an upcoming TV show, Church Windows, produced by the Wild Palms group. Harry and Grace’s 4-year-old daughter, Deirdre (Monica Mikala) is going through social issues as she doesn’t speak much.
Church Windows is a revolution in TV as it will be broadcast through Mimecom, an advanced virtual reality hologram device attached to TV sets that will project the actors into the rooms. Coty works on the show with popular actress, Tabba Schwartzkopf, who is also involved in the Wild Palms group. As the show becomes popular, the Senator sets his sights higher as he will run for President in 2008. It’s implied but never really mentioned that Tony is a Republican as well as a member of the Fathers, a very conservative organization of business people and movers and shakers, that have a shady past involving child kidnappings.
While Harry enjoys a bigger success working at Wild Palms, he soon discovers his long-time friend, Tommy Laszlo (Ernie Hudson), a wealthy businessman, may be suspected of kidnapping Paige’s son. Tommy is reportedly a member of the Friends, a group of Libertarian people opposed to the Fathers and what Wild Palms is attempting. Their leader and founder is Eli Levitt (David Warner), who is also Grace’s estranged father, and a former lover of Josie. Also in the Friends is eccentric artist Tully Woiwode (Nick Mancuso), who is a leader in the Friends as well as Tommy’s lover. Tully’s eyes are gouged out during an attack and he wears special sunglasses.
More things begin to change as people aren’t as they seem. One of Harry’s co-workers at Wild Palms, Gavin Whitehope (Charles Hallahan) is also involved in the Friends with a stand-up comic, Stitch Walken (Charles Rocket) who navigate through underground tunnels connected to swimming pools. Because of his connections to both the Friends and the Fathers, the Friends want Harry to be their spy while he also gets closer to the Fathers as Coty, only a child becomes a high-ranking official.
But there is suspicion that Coty may not be Harry’s son as his real son may be Peter (Aaron Michael Metchik), a street urchin who has body tattoos and sells maps to the stars. As Harry struggles between Grace, who attempts suicide, and Paige, who eventually marries Tony but obviously doesn’t love him, a war erupts between the Friends and the Fathers.
Wild Palms may seem confusing and audiences and critics didn’t really see it as the big deal Stone and ABC made it out to be. It also ran with a viewer discretion disclaimer for its violent content. There were no TV ratings at the time. And the movie does push the envelope with violence but keeps the profanity and sexual content toned down.
Unfortunately, the series went into obscurity as time went on. Belushi, himself, later said he had no idea how to understand the material and just did what the directors told him. It does have a lot of characters who seem to be too conveniently connected. There’s also a technical wizard, Chickie Levitt (Brad Dourif), Eli’s son and Grace’s half-brother, who is kidnapped by the Fathers. There’s also a crooked, corrupt police detective Lt. Bob Grindrod (Eugene Lee) who handles some of Tony’s dirty work and Harry’s suspicious psychiatrist, Dr. Tobias Schenkl (Bob Gunton) who is a loverof Josephine and later revealed to be working for Tony and the Fathers.
But there’s a lot of things looking back that seem like foreshadowing. While the series does focus much on Japanese and east Asia cultures, there was fears in the 1980s and 1990s that Japan would become a big powerhouse in America. It didn’t really happen. But there has been a rise in anti-Asian sentiment, some of which is implied here. The rise of the Libertarian party in the last 20 years is very prominent in America and I predict we’ll have a President by 2040 if not sooner.
The Fathers are conservative and seemed to be extreme far-right. This was aired two years before Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders would push a far more right agenda. You could look at Tony as an example of Donald Trump, a TV personality, who is seen more as a demagogue rather than a politician. Mimecom, itself, is an example of the rise in higher definition TV screens and technology with 3-D becoming more in use.
It seems that Stone and Wagner were focusing on the dangers of TV and Scientology, which is obviously what Synthiotics is modeled after. In one scene between Harry and Peter at a dilapidated movie theater showing Rebel Without a Cause, Peter mentions that no one seems to go to the movies anymore as TV has become popular, which has happened due in part to Covid-19 but also in the advance of streaming services. A movie can be released in theaters and then streaming online within 60 days or on DVD/Blu-Ray within three or four months.
There’s also the issues of deep as a crucial character’s murder is broadcast during a pirated airing of Church Windows. A fake re-edit is later shown with another character committing the murder. With technology becoming so advanced as it is, there are always to graph actors’ faces on others to make them look younger, older or like they have identical twins. Disney has done this with Marvel and Star Wars movies.
Chickie spends a lot of his time using virtual realty to interact with a Japanese woman, Terra, who is actually a middle-aged Japanese businessmen. While virtual reality has changed its direction from how it was originally viewed in the early 1990s, many people have used video games and avatars online for both entertainment and sexual pleasure. There is a hallucinagenic synthetic drug called mimezine that makes people dazed unsure of what is real and what is fake. One could argue this is represented by the rise of social media and the dangers of using our mobile phones at night affects our sleep patterns.
But you could also argue a lot of this stuff is circumstantial and has been focused on in other sci-fi shows and movies. Parallels betwen Trump and Tony are eerie. They both have very tanned skin as well as short to anger. Tony lives out at his Palm Springs mansion which is almost similar to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago location. Wagner could have been inspired by Ronald Reagan as well as Sonny Bono and Clint Eastwood who had both gone into politics in the 1980s California. This is obviously the “Which came first?” question. Writers do a lot of research and Libertarianism was around since the early 1970s. And both Stone and Wagner didn’t just step off a bus in L.A. prior to filming the series. They’ve worked in the entertainment industry. They hear things.
I will say that when the series aired, it was compared unfavorly to Twin Peaks which had become popular and running two seasons before being cancel. Like Peaks, Wild Palms was supposed to be a satire on TV formats. One might argue Palms was a parody of the night-time soap operas (Dynasty, Dallas and Knots Landing) that had become prominent. And it’s not without its faults. Some events seem to happen with little explanation of the time lapse between them. Some characters almost seem to appear at places and there’s too much of a coincidence between them. And like most limited series, it seems too quick to wrap things up but the series does tell a coherent story, whereas Peaks seemed to be left more open.
Maybe audiences in the 1990s weren’t ready for series that changed things up. Nowadays, I think the series would’ve fared better with audiences. It’s hard to believe that a series spear-headed by Stone and with a cast like this would fall so fast into obscurity. Readers of the British trade weekly Broadcast called it one of the worst TV imports of America behind Baywatch, The Anna Nicole Show and The Duke of Hazzard.
Now, I would advise people to give it a new look. The whole series is on a YouTube and DVD copies can be found online. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s beautiful musical score alone is worth the watch. It’s also nice to see Savage in a role totally different than what we’ve seen of him on Boy Meets World. Loggia, himself, has fun as Tony. Belushi does his best but since his character is out of the loop a lot, he works best. Delany is very nice in her role even though I wished her character had more to do. Dickinson also has a nice role playing a cross betwen Cruella de Vil and her role in Big Bad Mama.
What do you think? Please comment.