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Hollywood Archaeology: Wild Palms

Unearthing Oliver Stone and Bruce Wagner's long-lost gonzo miniseries on Scientology, technology, and graphic novels

1. Hallucinating Cathedrals

The day will come when some genius crossbreeds a pair of Google Glasses and an Oculus Rift headset to create virtual-reality hardware as easy-to-use and omnipresent and unremarkable as the iPhone. Then each new @Horse_ebooks tweet will show up in our Daft Punk helmets as a whirling polygon we can pretend to fondle. Finally! For now, though, “virtual reality” remains a retro punch line, the Zima of technological innovations, robbed of its cool by a hundred bad ’90s movies that reached for it whenever their plots needed a hip device — the parkour of its day, more or less. Kari Wuhrer’s trapped in the game-grid and only cybercop Lorenzo Lamas can save her!

If you’ve never seen it, I assume ABC’s Wild Palms — which aired 20 years ago last week, as a five-night “event series” — will sound no less dated. In the not-so-distant future — 1993’s idea of 2007, to be confusingly exact — Los Angeles attorney Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi) accepts a high-powered job at a TV network run by Senator Anton “Tony” Kreutzer. Kreutzer’s a former sci-fi writer and the founder of Synthiotics, a New Age religion with many celebrity adherents; as with “The Cause” in P.T. Anderson’s The Master, any resemblance to actual faiths is officially coincidental. In any case, we know Kreutzer’s a bad guy because he’s played by the reliably fucking terrifying human killdozer Robert Loggia, an actor whose amp starts at 11. In an Entertainment Weekly story published before the first episode aired, Loggia compared Palms to Euripides’s Medea and Elizabethan blood-and-thunder plays like The Duchess of Malfi. The rest of the cast does fine work, particularly Dana Delany (as Harry’s wife, Grace, unraveling fast) and Brad Dourif (as crippled tech guru Chickie Levitt), but only Loggia and Angie Dickinson, as Harry’s demon-dog mother-in-law, Josie Ito, really seem to understand what this bloody, operatic show wants from them. Belushi’s the weak link, although his apparent bewilderment with the material suits the character, at least for a while.

Anyway: Harry thinks he’s been hired to help Kreutzer’s network, Channel 3, launch the first 3-D holographic sitcom, but it turns out the show is just the first step in Kreutzer’s plot to hook the world on a synthetic hallucinogen called mimezine, which makes holograms seem real; once that happens, he’ll be free to crush his enemies, transform himself into an immortal living hologram using a high-tech MacGuffin called the “Go chip,” and rule the collective unconscious with an iron fist. It’s all part of a war between two secret political factions, the totalitarian Fathers and a libertarian resistance group called the Friends, who work out of a system of tunnels connecting the swimming pools of L.A. like “a subway for paranoids.” Once Harry drops down the rabbit hole, just about everyone he knows turns out to be embroiled in the conspiracy, including his own family.

Wild Palms was written by novelist Bruce Wagner (who adapted a serialized graphic novel1 he’d created for Details with artist Julian Allen) and executive-produced by Oliver Stone, back when movie directors doing television was still a big deal. ABC was excited enough about the show to air it during sweeps week, but nervous enough about its complexity that the network set up a support line; confused viewers could call 1-900-773-WILD and pay 75 cents a minute to hear a recorded recap of what they’d just watched. If this innovation helped the show retain its audience from night to night, it didn’t help enough. The big ratings winner for the week turned out to be Woman on the Run: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story, with Tatum O’Neal as the titular Playboy model turned folk-hero fugitive.

I’d love to hear some of those 900-number recordings someday; they probably sound totally psychotic. What did they say about Dickinson, gouging out Nick Mancuso’s eyes with her silk-gloved thumbs? Or little Ben Savage, soon to become the Tumblr generation’s Jerry Mathers via Boy Meets World, playing Harry’s bad-seed son, a child star and pawn of the Fathers who vows to “make bare every womb that ever was”? Or Ernie Hudson collapsing in the street, dosed on holo-drugs, dripping blue snot and hallucinating cathedrals? Were important thematic developments addressed when they cropped up? Last night on Wild Palms, it was suggested that addictive entertainment media turns us all into unwitting enablers of fascism. Thanks for watching ABC!

It’s the kind of show that would have instantly birthed a cult, had Twitter and the Web been around to support one. But it aired in 1993, a few years before the Internet revolutionized obsessing over things, made lost causes easier to rally around, and permeated every aspect of human life. We didn’t even know what that permeation would look like yet: Palms takes place in a 2007 where set-top hologram projectors are about to become as common as cable, but there seems to be no such thing as e-mail or the Web. Which isn’t actually that strange, in historical context. The first issue of Wired magazine (which also turned 20 this year) included features on morphing FX, phone-phreaking, virtual tank-battle simulators, and Camille Paglia; the only story that portended anything about today’s Internet was the trend piece about online porn, of which there was apparently quite a bit.

Wild Palms mis-imagines what the virtual world will look like; Harry dons a pair of glowing Matsuda-style eyeglasses and finds himself goggled into a Victorian ballroom, wearing a powdered wig. It’s all wrong — too immersive, too holodeck-y. But as artifacts of the early-’90s let’s-surf-the-cyberweb moment go, it’s eerily prophetic about the new and exciting forms of existential ache the Internet would infect us with. The future-tech moments that work best are the quieter scenes of desperate people reaching out to flickering images for hollow comfort and a human-connection placebo. In retrospect, only the idea that we’d have to take drugs to become afflicted with “image sickness” rings false.

Not that any of this seemed obvious at the time. When Wild Palms first aired, I was 15, and David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks was still my favorite TV show, even though it had been off the air for two years after a spectacular flameout of a second season. Twin Peaks came up in nearly every advance review of Wild Palms; I was in the tank before I saw a second of it. Looking back, I realize how much of it sailed over my head. I hadn’t seen The Prisoner yet, so the shot of inmates at a state hospital tossing a big white ball around didn’t strike me as an in-joke. I didn’t realize that when Robert Morse’s Chap says “I’m a good whore — I go where I’m kicked,” he’s quoting one of Sam Peckinpah’s favorite one-liners about his relationship to Hollywood, or that Kreutzer’s recurring dream about having to dig himself out of a sand pit is basically Kobo Abe’s existential-horror classic The Woman in the Dunes.

I knew who Brian Wilson was; I’d read Neuromancer, so when William Gibson showed up as himself, a gawky hipster scarecrow stooping into frame like an out-of-place boom operator, I understood why he was there.2 But without Wikipedia to act as decoder ring, I drew a blank on the references to Kansai TV and Bruno Bettelheim, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon and the Watchman’s prophecy against Edom from the book of Isaiah, ectopic pregnancy and “Classical Gas,” hungry ghosts and the Floating World. I liked that the show seemed smarter than me; I was probably in the minority in this regard.

For every obscure name-drop, there was a sequence of perfect images, hard and bright and violent and scored with the exact right elegiac/ironic vintage pop song. At the end of the third episode, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the Friends storm a motel where the Fathers are holding Chickie Levitt; as they shoot their way out, “The House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals builds on the soundtrack, Eric Burdon’s doom-blues wail cutting against the heroic-rescue imagery onscreen. You know it’s not going to work even before the Fathers’ goons — in black suits and mirror shades, like Air Force intelligence guys on the weather-balloon beat or Lew Wasserman acolytes working for MCA — mow down Charles Rocket with machine guns. Moments like this have a visceral power that transcends cleverness and nostalgia; like the show as a whole, they’re pop-apocalyptic. We’re hearing and watching the culture collapsing into itself, the future dissolving the certainties of the past even as the past robs the future of its promise.

2. Unicorns Fallen From Grace

Although Wagner went on to become an acclaimed novelist, he was just getting started when Wild Palms happened. He’d published a scabrous, undersea-trench-dark Hollywood satire called Force Majeure, shared a coscreenwriter credit on Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and studied for 10 years with Carlos Castaneda, which is sort of the exact mix of professional qualifications you’d expect the writer of something like Wild Palms to have.

Although it was Stone’s imprimatur that got the show made, Wagner was essentially its auteur, long before auteurist television was a thing — yet another way Wild Palms was ahead of its time. I was curious about how this weird mythical beast of a show came to be, so a few weeks ago I got in touch with Wagner through his agent and e-mailed him a long list of questions. Minus the answers to a few fact-checking questions, this is what he sent me back.

So how did this show happen? How did you convince a network to put this show on the air? Do you think they saw this as a potential ratings bonanza? Or a project that would burnish the network’s reputation? Did they just want to be in business with Oliver Stone?

It was, needless to say, a different time. Television drama has since evolved into serialized narrative that is more often DVR’d than not. It’s the new way to “read” — just as one used to settle down with a good book over a weekend or on a plane, it’s fun to marathon-watch dramas season-to-season. At the time we made Wild Palms, there was still an obsession with per-episode resolution. It was the Law. The elusive, outlandish reward of eventual syndication was always given as the reason, but the whiff of anything that could be labeled “soap opera” was almost primitively feared. The notion of unresolved hours gave agents and executives a seizure of panic akin to noticing a violent, homeless schizophrenic in the local Rite-Aid. My agent at the time was Tony Krantz, at CAA. He represented David Lynch as well. After Twin Peaks, he was in a position of strength. He showed the comic strip I wrote for Details to Oliver Stone, and Oliver immediately wanted to do something with it. I already had a relationship with Oliver, who’d optioned Force Majeure. Oliver’s always been in my corner, god bless him. I wrote a two-hour pilot but wasn’t quite sure what Tony or the network had in mind and it was a great shock when they said they wanted to do a limited series.

It’s especially odd to me that it aired on ABC, considering that they’d just been through the spectacular rise and fall of Twin Peaks a year or so earlier and presumably had a sense of what kind of audience a show like this can draw. Was that show a part of the conversation when you were trying to sell Wild Palms?

It was never discussed. Perhaps that was deliberate. I was a fan of Lynch’s feature work but never saw Peaks. I know that sounds phony, but it’s true nonetheless. I wasn’t a big TV watcher at the time. One aggravating thing was that because of the titles — Wild Palms, Twin Peaks — I was asked for years if I wrote Twin Palms. (I actually did write an essay for a book on the photographer William Eggleston for a publisher called “Twin Palms”!) It’s my memory that Lynch was irritated as well. I remember him shouting “Twin Peaks has nothing to do with Wild Palms!” at some party. It wasn’t a dis, he was just stating the truth.3

Do you remember what the germ of the idea was? Was there an initial image you had in your head, like the door in the bottom of the pool, or the rhino?

There was a very popular restaurant on La Brea called the City Cafe. A lot of agents and showbiz people used to eat there. An image came to me of someone being dragged from their table by other showbiz-looking men in suits and thrown into a Range Rover — what looked to be a political kidnapping of some sort. The key element of the scene being that afterward, everyone went back to their lunches without much of a fuss. (We shot that very scene at the City.)

Swimming pools have always been somewhere in my work and my consciousness. I was born in the Midwest and I remember that when I first flew out to California, as the plane descended I was riveted by the thousands of little blue squares — it was a shock to my system that every backyard seemed to have one. If you add my own personal fear of drowning to that, you have my entire oeuvre in a nutshell — childhood wonder laced with death.

As far as the door in the bottom, the “portal” to the radical Underground, there was a Twilight Zone called “The Bewitchin’ Pool” that made a huge impression on me as a boy. It was about two kids, a wealthy brother and sister, who escaped the horror of their parents’ violent marriage by vanishing into their beautiful pool and resurfacing through a river into a Huck Finn paradise with other orphans of ruined homes. My parents had a violent marriage, and so many of my friends had these enormous houses and gorgeous pools (we never had one — we lived in apartments). It was so evocative. Leave it to Mr. [Rod] Serling.

I’m not sure where the rhino came from anymore. I’ve always regarded rhinos as unicorns fallen from grace.

In July, David Cronenberg is shooting a script that I wrote called Maps to the Stars. Swimming pools are a motif. Someone called to my attention recently that the little boy in Wild Palms has stars tattooed on his chest. “I’m the one with the maps to the stars,” he says. Go figure. But the title itself was a stunning engine for me. I’d been obsessed with Faulkner’s title The Wild Palms. It was so beautiful that it’d become a poetic fetish.

Paul Thomas Anderson had trouble convincing a studio to bankroll a movie about an L. Ron Hubbard–esque character and ended up having to seek out private funding to make The Master. And yet you managed to get a major network to air a miniseries that portrays a Scientology-like group (led by a former sci-fi writer) as a murderous, vindictive, child-stealing personality cult, way back in 1993. Did anyone ever raise concerns about what you were doing? Were you at all worried that you’d never work in this town again?

I never had a thing about Scientology. I didn’t think The Master — which I thought was an extraordinary, elegiac film — had anything to do with Scientology either. But yes, considering the organization’s reputation, it was perhaps peculiar that there was never any discussion that I can recall from either side: ABC’s or the Church’s. It was a non-issue from start to finish. Go figure.

Was there ever any kind of conversation about what you’d do if this show became a runaway hit? Did you ever think about ways to continue the story?

It was always conceived of as a six-hour series. Ratings never warranted further exploration. I can’t tell you how it would be received today because it would be a completely different show. I’ve changed so much. My storytelling abilities have evolved. Wild Palms was a baptism by fire. The luxury that cable shows have is that stories can unfurl. The pace, without sacrificing that propulsion all entertaining drama must have, can be slower. These are things I didn’t understand at that time.

I’d love to do a show for cable. I’ve tried. We got close with a show for FX called Self-Help, about a group of young people who create their own religion. I own the rights to all of the books by Carlos Castaneda, who I spent 10 years with. I spoke with David Chase about that a few years back. I’m in talks to develop my novel Dead Stars as a series about L.A. and Hollywood. I’d love to create a long-form world, to have that freedom to create character nuance and narrative. Oliver and I developed my novel Still Holding last year, and we have a script for television. When I was 26, I saw Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, and thought: a 15-hour movie. What a concept! That’s what I’d like to do. A six-season movie. To be able to play in that Mad Men world.

It’s been said that science fiction doesn’t really imagine the future; it just puts a frame around certain aspects of the present and amplifies them. Was there anything particular about the culture of the early ’90s that informed the portrait of the future in Wild Palms?

You know, I’ve never been a techie, but back then, “virtual reality” was very much in the air. A large part of me thought: This is coming. That this was enough to hang one’s artistic hat and story on. I’ve always been a fan of dreams and hallucinations — Bergman and Buñuel saw me through my tween and adolescent years. In Wild Palms I fused the virtual-reality experience with drugs and created something melancholy, a chemical that enhanced computer-created images, a world where one would be able to spend time with the dead, with loved ones who’d passed. That’s a recurring theme in my work: communion with the dead. In my new book, The Empty Chair, there is a woman who is searching the Sonoran Desert for a lost city whose inhabitants purport to have the power to reunite one with those one has lost. The best science fiction for me — the Varley story “Air Raid,” Phil Dick’s “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” — are terribly moving, terribly human. That’s what gets to me.

In general, how prescient does Wild Palms seem to you? Does it seem dated, or do you look back on it fondly?

You know, I haven’t watched all six hours in a while. Some of it’s noir, some of it’s camp, some of it’s deadpan existential. Some, hopefully, is just fun. I remember Angie Dickinson’s character raging in Japanese, with subtitles. And little Ben Savage, in his captain’s cap and uniform, aboard a yacht, his followers kneeling around him, reciting Wallace Stevens! It doesn’t get any better than that. For me, anyway! It was, as they say, an education. My consideration and experience wasn’t so much accuracy or vision, it was melodrama and imagination. People loved it, people hated it. Critics loved it, critics hated it. Millions of people saw it. I holed up at the Hotel Pierre and the reviews were slipped under my door. Time said it was the best of the year, James Wolcott did a column about it in Vanity Fair and said that “Wagner is a cult of one.” I had a great time. What can I say?

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.