Cult Classics: Wild Palms

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The early 90’s was a watershed moment in American culture: the alternative was quickly becoming mainstream, and with it large corporate interests were starting to wonder if there wasn’t something to the weirder side of music and film that couldn’t make them some delicious money. After all, David Lynch broke through the mainstream and had a huge hit on TV (for a while, anyway) with Twin Peaks. This led networks to stretch the boundaries of the type of material that would be aired on major networks, mainly surreal mysteries and strange sci-fi shows. The X-Files was one of the more notable series that came from this wave of strange post-Peaks programming fare, but more often than not odd shows, like 1995’s American Gothic and Nowhere Man and 1996’s Profit, barely lasted a season.

Hot on the tail of Twin Peaks, however, came 1993’s Wild Palms, a 5-part miniseries produced by Oliver Stone and written and created by Bruce Wagner, who adapted it from his comic strip of the same name. One of the strangest things to ever air on American television, this sci-fi drama dealt with a Scientology-like cult Church of Synthiotics, which is revolutionizing television by creating a new broadcast channel that airs lifelike holographic programming into people’s homes. Among other things.

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Because Wild Palms is one of those shows that kind of goes in twenty different directions, including dealing with the dangers of virtual reality; a long-standing underground political feud between the right-wing “Fathers” and the libertarian “Friends,” the former of which won the initial war against the latter and are now rising in both political and media power; an ultra-stealth parody of Scientology years before the controversial church’s background, beliefs, and activities were well-known in popular culture (and as such is particularly eerie to watch now, years later); and a number of bizarre, terrifying, and bewildering events that, in Lynch-like fashion, are left up to the viewer to interpret.

Airing from May 16 – 19, 1993 on ABC, Wild Palms was like a quick flash in pop culture, where it drew big ratings and produced a flurry of discussion and then was quickly forgotten. In those days before DVRs and On Demand services, things simply aired and then disappeared. Now, 24 years after its first airing, it’s an obscure piece of television history that only the more dedicated seekers of the weird (or those, like your humble writer, who watched it when it first aired and left an indelible impression on their 11-year-old mind) have sought it out. With just a single release on DVD 12 years ago with prices that now can range from $10 to $50 and currently unavailable on streaming services, at this point it may remain relegated to perpetual obscurity.

Which is unfortunate as it was a wildly original miniseries–perhaps the most original to ever air. With a radical cyberpunk storyline, eerie and surreal visuals, an overall paranoid tone, and a number of layered mysteries–some of which are never fully explained–Wild Palms was so forward-thinking that the closest analog for modern viewers would be the haunting tone and striking visuals of HBO’s Westworld.

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While in some fundamental ways it’s dated–after all, it was set in 2007, now a decade long in the rearview–in others it’s still a futuristic show. Thanks to the production designer’s decisions to make their version of 2007 in the midst of a retro revival, the characters wear Edwardian suits and drive classic cars and listen to 60’s pop music. Although there is still old tech that look out of place today in the mini-series such as landline phones, other technologies depicted are radically futuristic even for today. And although it had to pull its punches and not get nearly as bizarre and graphic as it most assuredly would have been were it made for HBO today, for a miniseries that aired on ABC in 1993, there are scenes of eye gouging, children murdering adults, and disturbing family secrets and close-to-home conspiracies that would unnerve most audiences. Like Twin Peaks without the supernatural angle but still surreal and often jarring in its tonal shifts, in just 5 episodes this miniseries created a paradoxically memorable but largely forgotten cult classic.

Wild Palms – A Cult Classic

Taking place in Los Angeles, 2007 (remember, this aired in 1993), Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi) is a patent attorney living in luxury with his wife Grace (Dana Delaney) and their two children, the child actor Coty (Ben Savage) and mute daughter Deirdre. But Harry is suffering from impotence in his sex life and is experiencing disturbing dreams at night that include a rhinoceros standing in his backyard and a woman with a large tattoo of a palm tree on her back.  

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One day at work, his past lover Paige Katz (Kim Cattrall) shows up at his work to seek his help in finding her son Peter, who disappeared five years earlier. Unknown to him until later, Katz is closely associated with the “Wild Palms Group,” a media organization that’s developing a new broadcasting system that will be the first to air holographic 3D content. Meeting her intense boss Senator Tony Kreutzer, who is also the leader of the “Church of Synthiotics,” Kreutzer gives a monologue to Harry about the ominous ending of his father’s business, which was burned down and how the closing sale for the shop was “Everything Must Go.” Harry is also summarily fired by his company for a conflict-in-interest case between meeting with a high-level executive of the Wild Palms Group, of which his law company is in litigation with, and is simultaneously offered a job by Channel 3, Kruetzer’s channel, as their patent attorney. His son Koty is also given a starring role on the first holographic 3D show, Church Windows, that will air on the channel. Meanwhile, Harry’s wife informs him that their daughter finally spoke that day for the first time. What she said was, “Everything must go.”

But the audience is shown more than our characters know of each other: Coty and his grandmother, the fiercely determined and demanding mother of Grace, Josie Ito, have curious and private conversations about his involvement with Channel 3 and the Wild Palms Group. It’s also revealed that there was a political war between the conservative “Fathers” and the libertarian “Friends” that’s still ongoing in the country, and that Grace’s father–unbeknownst to Harry–was once the (now-imprisoned) leader of the Friends. In short, there are secrets between even the most intimate relationships in Wild Palms.

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As Harry is absorbed by his new career at Channel 3 and Koty becomes even more distant and weirdly independent of his family thanks to his new star-making role on the channel, Grace befriends Koty’s co-star on Church Windows, the woman playing his mother on the show, Tabba (Bebe Neuwirth), and they are both also absorbed into the strange social scene that surrounds the actress. This social scene strangely involves Harry’s old friend Tommy (Ernie Hudson), revealing an up-to-then unknown side of his supposedly close old friend’s life. Here, they meet a number of odd characters that are revealed to have more connections to the Friends, Fathers, and Harry himself than he first suspects.

From here, the rest of the series is unbelievably difficult to describe without providing a 10-page detailed synopsis. Even what’s been described so far is just a sliver of what happens within the first 2-part episode and what it sets up for the rest of the series. It’s a dense, difficult plot to follow in which many aspects are never even fully explained and only gets bigger and more complex as the miniseries goes on.

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And it’s deliciously complex in a way that will appeal to fans of movies and TV shows that indulge in the oddest ideas and have faith that the audience will follow them into the unknown. Some of the strongest cult content lives on this fuel, from the at first unfathomable Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension to the alternate dimension Meet The Hollowheads to the unwieldy surreal Fantastic Planet, Wild Palms exists in the realm of cult classic that misses the general audiences’ parameters of what’s not only acceptable in their entertainment but what they will sit through to watch unravel.

Wild Palms awaits the cultist’s gaze that enjoyed any off the aforementioned films and their puzzlework design. It’s a miniseries that has been lost in the sands of time, not just in US culture but general Western culture. And fans of the odd, bizarre, and outright outre in their entertainment will find it delicious material to uncover, investigate, and try to understand. Wild Palms is here for the tenacious viewer to unknot, and the cerebral cultist will find an intriguing mystery inside of it to untangle.

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Categories: culture, television

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