Five minutes into Peacock’s new horror comedy series “Twisted Metal,” it’s evident that the main character of John Doe – an amnesiac driver transporting goods across a war-torn nation – was written more as a vehicle for Anthony Mackie than for the gamers that sustained the original Sony Playstation franchise that inspired it.
Originally a wildly popular 1995 vehicular combat battle game, “Twisted Metal” has had over ten iterations and is the longest-running original title on the platform. The Peacock series is a live-action comedic adaptation created by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick (“Deadpool”, “Zombieland”) and written by Michael Jonathan Smith (“Cobra Kai”).
Those looking for a faithful video game adaptation should hold their applause until the end. Unlike recent shows like “The Last of Us” or “Halo,” the source material for this show is too convoluted to be adapted directly. However, those looking for sequences of vehicular-related carnage should be pleased.
“Twisted Metal” uses enough of the game’s original characters to keep loyal fans interested while creating a whole new story within its universe. For instance, the series includes the franchise’s favorite murderous clown Sweet Tooth, and the diabolical cop Agent Stone, and weaves their storylines in with the new character Quiet, John’s axe-wielding passenger riding shotgun. But the story takes a long scenic route to its destination, using John’s amnesia as its point of origin and a cross-country mission as the vehicle of choice.
The first season introduces an alternate universe where the world’s computers were all knocked offline in 2002. Jump forward two decades, and now people live either in relative comfort within walled cities, or on the outside, surviving on scraps, running from gangs like The Holy Men or militia hell-bent on “restoring law and order” at any cost.
A dangerous occupation born out of desperation gives rise to “milkmen,” armed transporters making deliveries of supplies and food from one settlement to another — battling looters and survivors with their armored vehicles as they go. John Doe’s exploits as a “milkman” are well known, and he’s well suited to the task because the weapons and the wide-open road are all he’s ever known.
John has no memory of his past life, thus his call sign, but his reputation precedes him. After a special delivery to New San Francisco, he meets Raven (Neve Campbell), who invites him inside the gates and promises him a life of milk and honey, in exchange for making a special run for her. Given the promise of a better life, John accepts the challenge and starts his journey across the country to New Chicago to make the pickup.
Less than 24 hours into his trip, he meets Quiet (Stephanie Beatriz), who attempts to carjack John after her traumatic run-in with Agent Stone (Thomas Haden Church). But John doesn’t play around when it comes to Evelyn (his 2002 Subaru WRX), and as the two battle it out just outside of Vegas, they are set upon by an even more significant threat.
Sweet Tooth (voiced by Will Arnett and played by AEW’s “Samoa Joe”) is a homicidal, half-naked giant in a bondage harness and clown mask whose goal in life is to kill people while simultaneously finding an audience that appreciates his Vegas variety show. (His patrons rarely survive the first set). John and Quiet live through their encounter with the sadistic clown by sitting through hours of Sweet Tooth’s narrative and then giving him proper criticism – inadvertently convincing him to take his “show” on the road.
After everything John and Quiet endure to make the crazy pickup for Raven, the actual drop is relatively uneventful, but the return trip to New San Francisco is just as hazardous. Like most gated communities in post-apocalyptic stories (Remember “The Walking Dead’s” Commonwealth?), New S.F. is not what it appears to be and neither is Raven. Sony always marketed the “Twisted Metal” game as “Mad Max” meets “Demolition Derby,” but the show feels less like “Mad Max” and more like “Z Nation” with a better budget.
Even though the series launches with a wild chase scene in the premiere, viewers must wait until almost the finale to witness the same level of post-apocalyptic vehicular carnage.
The other thing the franchise postpones is the actual Twisted Metal tournament. Taking a page out of the “Mortal Kombat” 2021 film, “Twisted Metal” uses the entire first season as a setup for the pile-up event featured in the game. A risky choice, given that most game adaptations don’t make it to a second season.
The majority of the show relies on “an escape of the week” concept, as John and Quiet get captured by everyone from The Lawmen (an alt-right militia) to The Holy Men (a gang of sado-masochistic religious zealots), and fight their way out of one bloody situation into another on their journey.
We mostly see the world through John’s eyes, and since he’s been orphaned from a young age with only ‘90s-era CDs to keep him company, he often gets things wrong. But Quiet has had first-hand experience of what life is like inside some of the coveted walled communities, showing it’s not as perfect as advertised. A series of time jumps provide some backstory on all the main characters, including Sweet Tooth — whose murderous thespian goals result from a childhood acting career gone very wrong.
Mackie as John Doe is entertaining, but he’s mostly being himself, which might be why he and Beatriz take a few episodes to develop enough chemistry for us to care about them. Like Mackie, the one thing that “Twisted Metal” is not is subtle. Everything about this show is over the top. The jokes, the violence, the acting, the arterial spray and even the foreshadowing are pretty on the nose. You usually wait for the characters to catch up to what the audience has already figured out.
Surprisingly, beneath the viscera and the chaos, the writers managed to squeeze in moments of real-world commentary on human trafficking, as well as religious and racial intolerance. Case in point, two of the most significant battles of the series are not with Sweet Tooth, but rather the “new world order” police commanded by Agent Stone and the consistently coked-up Holy Men.
For die-hard Anthony Mackie fans, “Twisted Metal” will be a treat, showcasing the actor’s snarky charisma in full force. The ‘90s vibe soundtrack will also be a hit with viewers. But those expecting a video game adaptation with all their favorite characters must get by on the multiple easter eggs featured throughout the season, and hope the show gets renewed.
However, this show is for you if you like screwball comedy horror sprinkled with Dad jokes, defenestration, and decapitations.
“Twisted Metal” premieres Thursday, July 27, on Peacock.