If Twin Peaks opened the door to TV surrealism in the form of a prime-time soap (think Knot's Landing on heavy psychiatric drugs), a few years after its cancellation the surfacing of Wild Palms was even more potent, at least as far as the sense of surreal-TV goes.
The bizarre saga of Laura Palmer generated a cult following despite dwindling ratings and scratched heads. Wild Palms, when first aired, was a mass failure: despite Oliver Stone's name on the credits almost no one I know knows it; now that it is out on DVD, perhaps in a few years Wild Palms will be hailed as the great work of art that it is, and become a hugely popular cult item. If you missed the series on television, you'd be wise to track down a copy now. (You might want to supplement your viewing with The Wild Palms Reader, which is probably difficult to find but well worth the search as a host of writers and artists--from Bruce Sterling to Spain Rodriguez to E. Howard Hunt to Lemmy of Motorhead--tie up some of the mini-series' loose ends, and typically add all sorts of new twists and mysteries.)
Set in Los Angeles in the --ever closer now- year 2007, and based on Bruce Wagner's subversive comic-book, it has its roots more firmly stablished in tinseltown than in the notion of the future; this is not a Los Angeles populated by people in shiny silver space suits or the gloom-doom paradise of Blade Runner. Instead, the world bears an unsettling resmblance to the one we live in now; if anything, it takes us back a few decades, as most of the inhabitants listen to the Beach Boys and drive sleek '60s replicas, the fashions are very Liz Taylor-ish, and the Dickensian look is back on men. As a creative playground, Wild Palms is a feast for sore eyes.
Broken down in the simplest terms, the story centres around two warring factions, the 'Fathers' and the 'Friends.' The Fathers are led by Senator Tony Kreutzer (Robert Loggia), who also owns Channel 3, a technologically dazzling propaganda factory. Kreutzer's ultimate goal is to invade the dreams of the entire population through virtual reality; in the words of his mistress, Paige Katz, "the Senator wants to kick-start himself into the cosmos." The Friends are an underground organization determined to keep their knowledge of the new technology out of the Senator's hands, and as things heat up they pledge to destroy the Senator and his network altogether. Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi), a patent lawyer hired by Senator Kreutzer, is the confused, well-meaning wildcard, the man in possession (though he doesn't know it) of the much sought-after Go-chip, the missing link in the Senator's bid to be immortal, "like Jesus."
I'd need at least another 1,000 words to do Wild Palms' multilevelled story any justice at all, but like any great viewing experience, the series has much more to offer than a good--albeit confusing in spots--plot. There are tons of memorable characters and performances (you have to see Angie Dickinson strut her stuff to believe it), gorgeously streamlined photography, frightening special effects, plenty of violence (often psychological) which is hard to watch and even harder to ignore, dialogue that can only properly be described as poetry, and an overall hellish vision of the non-world we already sort-of inhabit (and certainly seem headed towards), and a wonderful rock and roll soundtrack.
In a word: WOW!