The Creators of Mrs. Davis Want You to Know Something Before You Watch

Peacock series Mrs. Davis is hard to explain and easy to spoil. So Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez just tell you what you need to know.

MRS. DAVIS -- Episode 101 -- Pictured: (l-r) Betty Gilpin as Simone, Kim Hawthorne as Teacher
Photo: Colleen Hayes | Peacock

In the lead up to the premiere of Peacock‘s sci-fi series Mrs. Davis on April 20, you’re likely going to hear from many TV critic-types that the show is tremendously bonkers. Well, I’m a TV critic-type and I’m here to tell you: Mrs. Davis is indeed tremendously bonkers.

Created by Tara Hernandez (The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon) and Damon Lindelof (Lost, Watchmen), Mrs. Davis crams in just about every off-the-wall storytelling concept that the confines of a television program could possibly contain. The titular “Mrs. Davis” at the show’s center is a world-conquering Siri-like artificial intelligence who has seemingly solved every human problem in return for only a little bit of eternal fealty. Opposing Mrs. Davis is a nun, yes a nun. Played by GLOW‘s Betty Gilpin, Sister Simone has a mysterious past, an even more mysterious present, and presumably a most mysterious future.

As if a nun battling an all-powerful A.I. wasn’t enough, Mrs. Davis also stirs quite a few more strange ingredients into its cosmic gumbo like an unexpectedly slapstick tone, an appreciation for Las Vegas-style magic shows, and even a good-old fashioned quest for the Holy Grail itself. Simply put: each subsequent scene in Mrs. Davis feels like it’s inherently an enormous spoiler that the average viewer would want to be left in the dark on. That’s why when Hernandez and Lindelof stopped by Den of Geek‘s studio at SXSW, we decided to ask them what they even could say about the madness to come. True to their show’s God-fights-the-machine premise, their answers were quite surprising.

Den of Geek: What, exactly, do you want viewers to know about Mrs. Davis before they check it out?

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Tara Hernandez: What we can talk about beyond plot is the experience we want people to have while watching it. We want viewers, as we say, to have lift and enjoy talking about it with their friends. We think it’s something people can come to and want to text family members and talk about. We love the watercolor nature of a mystery show. Once you see the trailer you’ll star understanding the tone and what we want you to feel when enveloped in this world. Have a good time! It’s ok to laugh.

Damon Lindelof: I’m always interested in straining the boundaries of what we consider to be science fiction. By definition, science fiction is anything made up that involves science. But at the core of the genre is a way of dealing with anxieties that we have about the world through storytelling. In the 1950s, sci-fi might have been Invasion of the Body Snatchers because we’re worried about communism. Or the fundamental sci-fi story, which is also a horror story, of Frankenstein. It all comes back to this same idea of “what should we be creating as human beings?” The best science fiction stories are always “be careful what you wish for.” It’s Rod Serling 101, which is you thought that you needed this thing but now that you’ve made it, you’re doomed. Before we were talking about Mrs. Davis, we were feeling this real anxiety about technology. This idea of we need it, we love it, but we think we’re using it too much. And we think we’re using it for the wrong stuff. Is there a way to talk about this in a slightly goofier way? And to embody it in a story around a nun who is told to go find the Holy Grail and if she is successful she is able to defeat the A.I. She could be our avatar or superhero.

Speaking of the tone, your star Betty Gilpin described the show to us as “No Country for Old Looney Tunes.” Do you concur with that estimation?

TH: Betty said it, so yes. There is sort of this strong connotation in that of the Western spirit. Any adventure or adventurer has that frontiersman energy, which Simone certainly does. The Looney Tunes references are specifically very prominent in the pilot. I think that will come through. It’s OK to have touchstone references for this. You’re going to see a giant net that’s meant to catch a “wabbit.” It’s all very inentional. It’s ok to be like “do they know what they’re doing?” Yes, we absolutely embrace it.

DL: It’s impossible to do the Coen Brothers because it always feels like a hollow ripoff. That said, a movie like No Country for Old Men has horrifying violence intermingled with ridiculous comedy. It’s not as absurd as [The Big] Lebowski is. But you can put those two movies together and see they were made by the same filmmakers. We do want Mrs. Davis to be a little bit fearless in terms of its tonal shifts. To bring this all back to Betty you need an actor at the center of it all who can say and do absurd things and then pivot into “but this really means something to me.” If people don’t care about the characters in these movies or shows then you’re truly lost.

Will you be involved in the marketing campaign for this? It seems like the kind of thing that would need the creators’ touch to properly explain.

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TH: We’re so fortunate that our collaborators at Peacock are very inclusive of us in the creative process. This is a very specific show and it requires a very specific presentation. They’ve brought us in every step of the way, starting with the teaser trailer we released (“She Wants to Talk to You”). We’re gonna put out our official trailer tomorrow, which we’re incredibly happy with. We think it’s an incredible capsulation of the show.

DL: I’ve had some experience with television shows that require like a Cliff Notes experience as they go along. One of the things that’s exciting about the climate now vs. when I first started doing this is that shows really have two lives. There’s the life that it initially has when the show drops, as the kids say, and then there’s a life that it has once all the episodes exist. The audience gets to be an evangelist for the show as well. We’re here to answer as many questions about the show as possible and guide people through the journey. But it’s also designed to be a bit of a “what the hell is happening here?” show. It teaches you how to watch it as it unfolds. It’s designed to be slightly unnerving and ungraspable but like a mechanical bull.

Damon, you’ve previously said that you were looking for someone with nuts-and-bolts TV experience like Tara when choosing which next project to help shepherd. Why is it important to understand the traditional TV formula when writing for TV?

DL: It does feel a bit non-magical and mundane to break down the fundamental aspects of creativity. That said, there is a structure and a form in broadcast television. First off, an episode has to be a very specific length and it has to be constructed around commercial breaks. Then there’s just sort of guardrails of surviving the paradox of: people watch a television show because it’s comfortable and familiar. They begin to grow attached to the characters based on predictable behaviors. But at the same time if you completely and totally repeat those behaviors the audience begins to get bored. You have to figure out how to incrementally change things without making people uncomfortable.

Those structures are very very rigid. What happens over time is you gain mastery over the storytelling mechanism but you also start to really resent it. Or at least you have a desire to break through. It’s a little like being a teenager. “I’m really glad that my parents are here and they’re providing me shelter, and transporting me places, and giving me clothes, but God I want to strangle them in their sleep.”

I identified a very similar experience that I probably projected onto Tara before I met her because her sample was really pushing against the conventions of traditional storytelling – even though I knew she had been in the Big Bang [Theory] room and the Young Sheldon room for the better part of a decade. I felt the same thing when I was writing on procedurals like Nash Bridges and Crossing Jordan before Lost came along. I was so hungry to kind of say like “Why does it have to be this way?” But at the same time it was so warm and comfortable inside the blanket of “OK in every episode there’s a dead body, at the end of every episode we know who did it and why.”

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TH: I was also a student of Damon’s scripts. I was such a fan of writing on the page beyond watching the show and finding the script online and reading. There’s such an elegance to his writing. I’m not surprised he found me in the pack because I truly admired his craft on the page and did what I could to emulate that.

The first four episodes of Mrs. Davis premiere Thursday, April 20 on Peacock. New episodes premiere weekly culminating in the finale on May 18.