‘Mrs. Davis’ Review: Betty Gilpin Stuns in Damon Lindelof’s New Series That Takes AI Conversation to Scary Heights

Gilpin is a nun searching for the holy grail in this strange Peacock series from Lindelof and Tara Hernandez

Jake McDorman and Betty Gilpin in a still from "Mrs. Davis."

The new Peacock series “Mrs. Davis” boasts some unusual sights and sounds: a nun on a motorbike, earpieces feeding communication from a worldwide AI into the mouths of willing human supplicants, a gruesome childhood accident, a horse wired with C4 — and that’s just in the first few of its eight episodes.

But the strangest thing about this ambitious program is how its voice feels like it’s replicating a source material that doesn’t exist. “Mrs. Davis” creates the pervasive feeling that it’s based on a beloved cult comic book; specifically, its particular recipe of big-swing speculative ideas, loopy world-building, and irreverent characters brings to mind non-superhero comics series like “Preacher,” “Y the Last Man,” or “Paper Girls.” (All, not coincidentally, shows that made uneven small-screen transfers.) But “Mrs. Davis” has no previous incarnation; it’s the original creation of Tara Hernandez (“The Big Bang Theory” and “Young Sheldon”) and “Lost,” “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers” mastermind Damon Lindelof.

Without a stack of back issues, it feels, both thrillingly and frustratingly, as if the creators are working without a net.

The show’s hooky but out-there central concept is more head-spinning than high: In an alternate version of 2023, an Alexa/Siri-like artificial intelligence called Mrs. Davis dominates life on Earth. Most have accepted it; a virulent few resist it. One of these few is Simone (Betty Gilpin), daughter of magicians (played by David Arquette and Elizabeth Marvel!) and now a converted nun.

Simone’s convent doesn’t put her in direct opposition to Mrs. Davis; mostly it allows her to live largely off the grid, outside of the app’s direct influence. She does yearn to take a more active do-gooder role, as witnessed by her willingness to assist people in danger of being conned by other magicians, which is guided by a higher power feeding her tips. That’s small potatoes compared to her eventual mission: By the end of the first episode, she’s struck an uneasy bargain with the Mrs. Davis algorithm, which has tasked her, for reasons initially unknown, with finding the Holy Grail. (Not a metaphor; the actual grail.)
In return, Mrs. Davis promises Simone anything she wants, and she immediately knows what to ask for: the self-destruction of the A.I.’s entire system. To her surprise, Mrs. Davis agrees. Simone, then, must actually find the Holy Grail in order to destroy the all-seeing algorithm, enlisting the help of Wiley (Jake McDorman), her good-natured semi-doofus of an ex-boyfriend, and the guidance of a gently mysterious figure (Andy McQueen).

Simone’s mission could be considered a spoiler for the entire pilot, because “Mrs. Davis” takes the better part of a full hour to arrive at its wild premise. (This is the kind of show that includes violent 14th-century pageantry as a prelude, in addition to its multitude of flashbacks throughout the season.)

Jake McDorman and Betty Gilpin in a still from “Mrs. Davis.”

Hernandez and Lindelof seem eager to use the broad canvas of television for a digressive style more often seen in comics, with backstories and side histories a bit more rococo than the A-to-B motivational explanations so often supplied by TV flashbacks. They have a lot of fun with the dedicated force of anti-Davis operatives, led by a buoyant Australian (Chris Diamantopoulos), who are constantly goggling at their own amazing surveillance techniques and snapping burner phones in half at every opportunity. That group spearheads a clever heist sequence later in the season; the fifth episode, meanwhile, is a winding campfire story explaining a brief scene from back in the first episode.

Some of these hairpin turns, set pieces and clever comic conceits are thrillingly unpredictable; a good measure of it, though, threatens to turn the viewer into an exhausted recipient of a shaggy-dog story. And sometimes it’s precisely the show’s cleverness that undermines its attempts at heartfelt if playfully provocative religious searching. (Let’s just say Simone has a surprising relationship with her faith.)

Given Lindelof’s involvement, it’s no surprise that “Mrs. Davis” seems to want to tackle issues related to thorny spirituality, in addition to the reach of modern technology. Yet those supposedly opposing forces only highlight how little the show really says about our dependence on devices and algorithms. Both the AI’s ubiquity and Simone’s particular form of religious devotion are abstracted by the gimmickry of their presentation.

Both of these aspects also come and go more or less at the story’s convenience; it’s hard to believe either force is quite as urgent as the show seems to want. In terms of pure screen time, Hernandez, Lindelof and their writers place greater emphasis on the psychological dimension of deceptive magic tricks — which, to be fair, both faith and tech can sometimes resemble. Still: This is not exactly a stunning insight as the show flits between familial wounds — figurative and literal — and fantastical plot twists.

The show’s constant, in “Lost” terms, is Gilpin. Expressive whether summoning gravity in ridiculous situations or communicating that ridiculousness herself, she gives a near-impossible performance: Charismatic and sincere without seeming completely daft or condescending to the material. She delivers self-referential lines that could easily come off as glib or cutesy — “don’t over explain,” she says when faced with one of many exposition-packed scenes — with razor-flicking quickness. In short, Gilpin is a star; the overtaxed strenuousness of the show as a whole doesn’t affect her. It might even somehow level her up further.

The show itself, however, starts to feel addicted to its own rug-pulling. “Mrs. Davis” keeps raising complicated issues, then threatening to reduce them to Occam’s-razor resolutions. As admirably elaborate and frequently great-looking as the show is, it ultimately leaves you with the odd sensation that the nonexistent book was probably better.

“Mrs. Davis” premieres Thursday, April 20, on Peacock with its first four episodes, with new episodes released weekly.