Wild Palms

Credit ABC with another provocative exercise in television-for-people-who-don't-like-television -- a six-hour "event series" that makes "Twin Peaks" look like "Mayberry R.F.D." Scheduling this show during the May sweeps (it was originally set for April) was an enormous roll of the dice, and while it may benefit from critical and cult adulation, prospects in Peoria seem doubtful.

Credit ABC with another provocative exercise in television-for-people-who-don’t-like-television — a six-hour “event series” that makes “Twin Peaks” look like “Mayberry R.F.D.” Scheduling this show during the May sweeps (it was originally set for April) was an enormous roll of the dice, and while it may benefit from critical and cult adulation, prospects in Peoria seem doubtful.

That said, “Palms” lives up to its hype, emerging as a jaw-dropping combination of disturbing imagery, dark humor and startling moments spread over a narrative that’s virtually impossible to follow.

Then again, those who buy into this futuristic mother-of-all-conspiracy tales from Oliver Stone and exec producer-writer Bruce Wagner won’t care about its story line (or lack thereof), content to savor the production’s intriguing look and toothy performances.

The idea driving “Palms” essentially hinges on the belief that “Twin Peaks” would have been more satisfying if the show had a beginning, middle and end without trying to milk the idea as a weekly series.

That logic is sound, though “Peaks” had one asset “Palms” lacks: namely, the “Who killed Laura Palmer?” mystery to help pull the audience past its dark corners. By contrast, in the jumbled world of “Wild Palms,” the corners are where the action is.

Any plot recap can, as a result, only seem woefully inadequate. The story starts in the year 2007, where Los Angeles lawyer Harry Wyckoff (Jim Belushi, as the ultimate dense Everyman) watches his seemingly picture-perfect existence with his wife (Dana Delany) and two kids start to unravel after an old girlfriend, Paige (Kim Cattrall), walks back into his life.

Paige helps convince Harry to leave his firm and go to work for the Senator (Robert Loggia) — a messianic political leader who runs a Scientology-like cult and is preparing to launch his own TV network, Channel 3, featuring the staggering innovation of mass-distributed virtual reality.

Like cable or VCRs, virtual reality at first looks like just one more technological gimmick, allowing TV sets with a special adaptor to project life-size, 3-D images into one’s living room, creating the illusion that the characters are sitting right there on the couch.

Still, there’s more here than meets the eye, with Channel 3 actually part of a vague master plan by the Senator and his sadistic cohort Josie (Angie Dickinson, in perhaps the best performance of her career), whose organization is known as the Fathers and opposed by an equally ruthless group dubbed the Friends.

Confused? If not, it’s not for writer-exec producer Wagner’s lack of trying. Working from his comic strip, Wagner and a quartet of talented directors have deftly taken modern society to logical if nightmarish extremes, creating a future more frightening than “Blade Runner,” for example, because it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched — particularly to those who see the Orwellian risks in our reliance on ever-more-ingenious gadgetry.

The filmmakers drive home that “the future is now” sensibility by using local edifices that look surprisingly comfortable as part of the 21st century. Enormous credit should go to those involved in that endeavor, including Judianna Makovsky’s slightly off-kilter costumes, Dins Danielson’s production design, Phedon Papamichail’s camera work and, especially, the brilliant, haunting score by Ryuichi Sakamoto (“The Last Emperor”).

Belushi provides a strong central presence as Harry, a not-too-bright man forced to grapple with the truth that everything he knows is wrong. The rest of the cast is uniformly superb — particularly Dickinson and young Ben Savage, in the two most chilling roles, as Harry’s mother-in-law and son.

After the frenetic build-up, “Palms” can’t sustain itself through a violent and crowded final act, when things unravel both literally and figuratively. At that point the dizzying array of characters makes it difficult to follow what’s happening, or, in some instances, to care.

Still, this is more a collection of moments than anything else, delivering foremost on a visceral level and keeping the viewer off-balance — following scenes of striking brutality with disarming humor. At one point, rebellion leader Eli (David Warner) quips that an assault on Channel 3 will “put a serious crimp in sweeps week.”

Wild Palms

(Sun. (16), Mon. (17), 9-11 p.m.; Tue. (18), Wed. (19), 10-11 p.m., ABC-TV)

  • Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by Ixtlan Corp. in association with Greengrass Prods. Exec producers, Oliver Stone, Bruce Wagner; producer, Michael Rauch; directors, Peter Hewitt, Keith Gordon, Kathryn Bigelow, Phil Joanou; writer, Wagner.
  • Crew: Camera , Phedon Papamichail; editor, Patrick McMahon; production design, Dins Danielson; sound, Don Summer; costume design, Judianna Makovsky; music, Ryuichi Sakamoto.
  • Cast: Cast: James Belushi, Dana Delany, Robert Loggia, Kim Cattrall, Angie Dickinson, Ernie Hudson, Bebe Neuwirth, Nick Mancuso, Charles Hallahan, Robert Morse, David Warner, Ben Savage, Bob Gunton, Brad Dourif, Aaron Michael Metchik, Francois Chau.