Welcome to the latest installment of Platform Shift, a column about the way the internet changes how and what we watch on TV.
You always know a critic is truly mad when they refer to something as “algorithmic.” From music to film to TV, the demands of the algorithm are the perfect foil for anything that feels trite, focus-tested, appealing to some abstract equation’s ideas of what consumers want rather than, you know, the alternative: the raw and imperfect output of a real human’s creativity. With the explosive rise of generative A.I. over the past year, the prospect of popular media created entirely by machines and passed off for human consumption feels even closer at hand. That entire media companies while experimenting with nightmarish new forms of bot-written content is certainly not present in this freelance writer’s mind, either.
Regardless, no one is confusing the recently concluded Mrs. Davis for the product of an A.I. The Peacock exclusive — from the unlikely pairing of The Leftovers and Watchmen showrunner Damon Lindelof and The Big Bang Theory writer Tara Hernandez — is resolutely anti-algorithmic, down to the positioning of an all-powerful A.I. as its antagonist. If you haven’t been following along, a refresher: The titular Mrs. Davis speaks to users through earbuds and smartphones, gradually engineering human behavior to eliminate wars and famine — and, more subtly, to give purpose to the purposeless. She does all this by lulling users into complacency with validations and then invisibly “pre-motivating” them to do her bidding.
For awhile, we appear to be following a group of freedom fighters seeking to free humanity from Mrs. Davis’ clutches. That comes apart pretty quickly. Whether you’ve followed the show or not, you’ve probably seen the way its plot points lend themselves to maximalist framings. To wit: Betty Gilpin plays an ass-kicking nun who is literally married to Jesus (he cooks her falafel in heaven). Everyone involved is looking for the Holy Grail, which may or may not have been revealed to humanity in a shoe commercial during the Super Bowl. You get the idea. Mrs. Davis lurks malevolently in the background of every disparate thread, neither seen nor heard except through the proxy of other people.
More industrious writers than me can probably surmise “what it all means” about technology and religion; in some ways, the show seems like another play toward the Reddit conspiracy-theory hivemind. But I think its real concerns are a little closer to home: Creatives have reason to disdain this technology. One of the central concerns motivating the current WGA strike is the threat of A.I. being used to minimize or outright replace writers. A recent Hollywood Reporter article detailed the suspicion among many industry insiders that writers will be turned into rewriters, punching up scripts generated by language models that have been trained on other successful scripts.
Formulas already power much of our popular entertainment, and if you’ve played around with ChatGPT at all, you can see how a better model might be able to churn out Whedonesque quips and “saves the cat” narratives on spec. TV shows like Law & Order and Saturday Night Live, which have huge bodies of copy already written, are great candidates to be fed into a large language model.
Mrs. Davis was written long before the WGA strike, and, its writers say, before the rise of chatbots. But its central argument is that narrative created by an A.I. will be bad — that what “the algorithm” likes is cliche. Hence the literal quest for the Holy Grail, the ultimate MacGuffin; the presence of Nazis as antagonists; the underground resistance fighters straight out of a ’90s USA network show. The cliches pile on top of each other, and Gilpin, in particular, gets a lot of comic mileage out of exasperated eyerolls over them. But there’s also a sort of narrative uncanny valley that we wander into eventually. If every plot point is a knowing cliche, does any of it matter?
The show leans into the zaniness because it has to — without it, what are we even watching for? Lindelof has certainly created television that wrestles with such ontological issues before, from Lost’s notorious fading resolution to The Leftovers’ satisfying sense of finality. And Mrs. Davis does stick the landing with an endearingly loopy finale that may well be its series finale (the show is now campaigning in the Emmys' limited series categories.)
This rootlessness may be on purpose. The sense that nothing matters is one of the more realistic doom scenarios for real-world A.I. If you start reading the thinkpieces, you’ll come across a few strains of thought. One is that developing A.I. at our current pace is like inviting a malevolent and hyperintelligent alien civilization into our world and that we should pretty much nuke the data centers today. (You may recall this plot from the Terminator series.) Another, eloquently proposed by Ted Chiang in the New Yorker, is that A.I. will be a sort of happy executioner of capitalism’s worst functions, replacing workers and enriching an increasingly small few. Still another, espoused by a former head of A.I. research at Google, is that an internet flooded with false photos, videos, and text will finalize our descent into a post-truth era, where average people do not trust literally anything. In one of Mrs. Davis funnier bits, two prisoners repeatedly (and incorrectly) accuse the other of being a plant set up by Mrs. Davis. Each escalating incident in their imprisonment feels to the other like an even more cliche plot twist from the A.I.
This is ultimately Mrs. Davis’ most novel addition to the corpus of art concerned with A.I.: not that A.I. will, to lift a motif from Westworld, make us question the nature of our reality, but that it will suck. That it will be boring and cliche and it will coddle us. This take can be traced back to the late critic Mark Fisher, who coined the phrase “boring dystopia” to describe the way capitalist conveniences “foster a vague sense of isolation or unease," and it has become increasingly common online, as writers and artists see their professions under threat from the technology. But to the show’s credit, it doesn’t just settle for easy dunks on the cliches: the technology is powerful enough to engineer all human behavior, after all. And its writers seem interested in at least some sort of collaboration, using a mocked-up algorithm to generate its episode titles (example: "A Baby with Wings, A Sad Boy with Wings and a Great Helmet"). If the show gets a second season, that’s the thread to follow, exploring the capacity to subvert the technology, or at least embarrass it a little before it takes over.
Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor based in Shaker Heights, Ohio. You can see other things he writes on Twitter.
TOPICS: Mrs. Davis, Peacock, Andy McQueen, Betty Gilpin, Damon Lindelof, Elizabeth Marvel, Jake McDorman, Margo Martindale, Tara Hernandez, Ted Chiang, Algorithm, Artificial Intelligence, Boring Dystopia