The Holy Grail, a character in “Mrs. Davis” observes, might be the “most overused MacGuffin ever.” From “Monty Python” to “Indiana Jones,” the mythical chalice is an easy shorthand for a magical object that motivates heroes and antagonists alike. Sister Simone (Betty Gilpin), a nun who spends her days mak- ing strawberry jam at an abbey outside Reno, is the latest protag- onist to set her sights on the Grail. She’s been assigned this quest by an artificial intelligence known as Mrs. Davis, which marries the menace of Skynet with the affable mien of Alexa. For reasons both principled and personal, Simone despises Mrs. Davis, but she’s been extended an offer she can’t refuse: If she finds the Grail and destroys it, Mrs. Davis will destroy herself. As the same supporting player notes: “Algorithms love clichés, and there’s no cliché bigger than the quest for the Holy Grail.”
Viewers might appreciate the use of such a simple, ubiquitous symbol in the Peacock series, which otherwise seems to revel in absurd, surreal set-pieces designed to disorient. Between an endurance contest involving a giant sword (it’s called “Excalibattle”), an interdimensional open relationship and a heist contingent on a tool dubbed “the Constipator,” the Holy Grail acts as an anchor to a recognizable form of alternate reality: basic, familiar and easy to understand. “Mrs. Davis” may wink at the influence of AI on modern storytelling, which only looms larger with the rise of tools like ChatGPT; all eight episodes bear nonsense titles, like “Mother of Mercy: The Call of the Horse” and “A Great Place to Drink to Gain Control of Your Drink,” that are themselves generated by a machine. But in its inventiveness, “Mrs. Davis” acts as an antidote to the programming-by-numbers and algorithm appeasement that’s becoming common in the streaming age — even when such lunacy sometimes outstrips its ability to tell a totally cohesive story.
The show is co-created by Tara Hernandez, an alum of “The Big Bang Theory,” and Damon Lindelof, whose post-“Lost” CV is marked by increasingly audacious takes on faith in the near future. Like “The Leftovers” and “Watchmen,” “Mrs. Davis” has a playful tone that helps counter its metaphysical scope. Our introduction to its world comes via one Dr. Schrodinger (Ben Chaplin), who’s been stranded on a desert island since before Mrs. Davis ended famine, war and all competing social media platforms. (A rescuer brings him, and by extension us, up to speed.) Naturally, Schrodinger has a cat.
Grounding all these antics is Gilpin, stepping into her first series lead role since the early, unjust cancellation of “Glow.” As Simone, the actor is a skeptical center of gravity. To her, Mrs. Davis is “it,” never “she” — let alone “Mum” or “Mama,” as the program is known abroad. The nun’s animosity is more than just that of a believer toward the Catholic Church’s competition; as she tells Jay (Andy McQueen), a mysterious figure who runs a falafel joint, Simone also blames Mrs. Davis for the death of her father, a local magician. But she’s just as wary of her ex, Wiley (Jake McDorman), the self-styled leader of the anti-AI resistance. Nothing instills a healthy bullshit detector like knowing from birth that “magic” tricks are anything but.
In appearance and attitude, Simone bears a strong resemblance to Angela Abar of “Watchmen,” who was played by Regina King. Angela, too, kicked ass while wearing a habit, under the moniker Sister Night. She also helped puncture the madness around her by asking questions on the audience’s behalf, chief among them “What the fuck?” — a direct quote from both series. Such a surrogate comes in handy as Simone and Wiley’s mission sends them across the ocean and into the depths of the Vatican, where they encounter exploding heads, a cult of female bankers and a sneaker-based conspiracy. It’s a lot of exposition that is frankly far too much to keep track of. Gilpin nonetheless gives us something to grab on to, especially in scenes with Simone’s mother Celeste (Elizabeth Marvel), whose grief takes the form of extreme denial. Beneath jokes about reading Ayn Rand to her daughter as a child, there’s a conflict with more human-scale stakes than technology versus religion.
“Mrs. Davis” lacks the sanctimony and self-seriousness that can weigh down “Black Mirror,” the dystopian anthology that makes for an obvious point of comparison. Instead, the series combines the gleeful blasphemy of “The Young Pope” with the screwy science fiction of “Made for Love,” a show abruptly cancelled in a move that may bode poorly for mass appeal here. “Mrs. Davis” doesn’t actually depict its title character; other people interface directly with the AI, but Simone and Wiley speak only to its “proxies,” random users — a kindergarten teacher, a living statue — who volunteer to act as messengers. The device is eerie and effective, turning Mrs. Davis into a many-headed Hydra with eyes and ears all over. It also obscures our understanding of the plot’s primary mover, though certain subplots depend on grasping trivia like “wings,” the Mrs. Davis version of a blue checkmark. For better and for worse, “Mrs. Davis” puts spectacle over practicality.
Whatever its faults, the series takes a stand against the soulless, generic world its characters fear a total AI takeover would produce. Mrs. Davis is a threat to the uncertainty that inspires religious faith, or the sense of wonder that gives an illusionist his impact; Wiley’s right-hand man JQ (Chris Diamantopoulos) is a former poker player whose livelihood has been destroyed. Simply by existing, “Mrs. Davis” fends off that nightmare scenario in our own universe by at least another day. When viewed in that light, some messiness is forgivable — and even part of the plan.