Violent `Wild Palms' Breaks New Ground

LOS ANGELES in the year 2007 is "Wild Palms" country, ABC's six-hour sci-fi melodrama (Sunday, May 16, through Wednesday, May 19).

In this near-future thriller, the City of Angels is tough, crowded, brutal. Advanced technology has produced "holosynths," three-dimensional holograms that are projected into living rooms through television screens. Mimezine, a new drug, allows viewers to interact with the images. A quasi-religious cult called Synthiotics confers terrifying powers on a diabolical pair of villains. Politics is utterly corrupt, as is the police force.

"Wild Palms" is a bizarre, apocalyptic vision. It is not for everyone because its tone is so sinister and the nature of the violence is particularly disturbing.

But "Wild Palms" - a production of Oliver Stone's company, for which the director of "Platoon" and "JFK" served as executive producer - breaks new ground in the miniseries format. Sumptuous cinematic style replaces the usual flat TV form, especially in the first two-hour segment directed by Peter Hewitt. Fancy camera angles and graceful camera movement, beautiful interiors, costumes, and lighting lend elegance to the film's "look."

Then, too, "Wild Palms" is a highly complex, intense hero's journey laden with symbolism in which the line between dream and reality is very thin indeed. Writer-creator Bruce Wagner's ambitious, imposing parable is a warning against a future in which technology has replaced religion, easing the populace into complacency, while evil geniuses plot and plan. One of the main ironies of the production is that this warning against television is on television.

The responsibility of Everyman, as embodied by the main character, Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi), is to tackle the onslaught of evil (in this case, a tyrant by the name of Senator Kreutzer), despite the cost to himself.

Harry is a rising young patent attorney whose life spins out of control when a former lover asks his help in finding her kidnapped son. The seductress draws Harry into Synthiotics, which teaches a belief in "multiple realities." Founded by the senator (Robert Loggia), Synthiotics is really a mind-control cult, and Harry finds his dreams haunted by a rhinoceros and other strangely terrifying images. He goes to work for the senator. Then Harry and his wife and children are thrown into a series of nightmari sh events, from which only Harry can liberate them. The labyrinthine plot weaves a fantastic number of grotesque characters together.

The villains are very, very evil - almost caricatures at times. The senator's sister Josie, in particular, becomes too extreme to sustain our credulity, though Angie Dickenson is terrific in the role. There are other serious flaws: A number of loose ends are never tied up; toward the end of the film, the mood abruptly changes and the ending is unbelievable and safe. Four directors filmed the four parts, and it doesn't always hang together.

But the most serious problem for many viewers will be its unremitting violence. "Wild Palms" breaks new ground visually, stylistically, and thematically, but maybe some of that new ground should not have been broken. Paradoxically, most of the violence takes place off screen - an unusual choice and a good one. What makes the series seem more violent than your average cop show is the menacing tone of the series. Characters are trapped, rendered physically unable to escape, and then tortured. The viewer do esn't have to see it to be disturbed by it. A child commits a brutal murder off camera. A woman strangles her daughter. A man is ritualistically drowned. We've all seen so many murders in film and on TV, we have become desensitized to much of it. But "Wild Palms" attacks areas of thought still sensitive - which may numb us further, or worse, contribute to the culture of violence.

The series is very different and challenging compared with most TV. "Wild Palms" holds up the proverbial mirror where we may see one logical end of a materialistic, drugged-out, amoral society - as well as the clear and immediate antidote. It's a bigger vision than we are used to on the small screen.

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