Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Oh for the televised excesses of the 1990s!
A recent Metafilter post reminded me of this truly bizarre artifact of the 1990s. Back then, we were content to let Oliver Stone do just about anything he wanted, for as long as he wanted. And in 1993, it turns out what he wanted to do was bring a big confusing graphic novel from Details Magazine to the small screen. "Wild Palms" was a five-episode miniseries that did not make a lick of sense. 
 
I remember having watched it when it aired, and having been completely dumbfounded. Somehow it had been explicitly linked to my then-favorite show "Twin Peaks," although at this point I forget how this linkage was framed. It must have been something in the ad campaign, because "Wild Palms" itself is completely free of any "Twin Peaks" influence, except in so far as it is bizarre and nonsensical. (But not in a fun way, like "Twin Peaks.")

 
This was a cast of the best and brightest in the early 1990s, from Dana Delaney to Brad Dourif. It was a self-aware noir detective story set in the then-far-future year of 2007, when VR projection had finally become a reality. 
 
And unfortunately, it starred James Belushi at his wide-eyed-est and most-cuddly. I can see what they wanted: to turn the noir conventions on their head. They would cast this naïf, this slightly tubby, "aw shucks" regular guy in the position of film noir lead star. How droll! 
 
But it just. Didn't. Work. 
 
What it does is subject the audience to scenes where James Belushi thoughtfully mulls over unspeakable lines of dialogue like, "An old lover came into the office today. Awakened something."
 
The show swirls with symbolism. At times, it seems like nothing but. The rhinoceros, the empty swimming pool, impotency. Palm trees wave suggestively in the breeze, appear as tattoos in Belushi's dreams, and his mother-in-law should be in Palm Springs but isn't. And his daughter, who is "slow to speak" (today we would call it "on the autistic spectrum") speaks her first words: "Everything must go," the key words in a significant anecdote which Belushi's character hears later that night.
 
"Wild Palms" is all suggestion and inference and clever hint, but unfortunately it has little in the way of plot to guide us through this whirlpool of symbolic gibberish. And that's the point. Oliver Stone himself called it a "tone poem" which is a fancy way of saying "it's pretty but it doesn't make sense, and don't expect it to."