Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof on creating the Peacock series 'Mrs. Davis'
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:
In the new Peacock series "Mrs. Davis," one episode ends with a big plot twist and a nun saying words that might as well be shouted by the audience.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MRS. DAVIS")
BETTY GILPIN: (As Simone) What the...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DOMONOSKE: Betty Gilpin stars as Simone, that nun, who takes on an all-powerful artificial intelligence called Mrs. Davis that most of humanity uses religiously. But that's not quite enough to describe everything that happens in "Mrs. Davis," a roller coaster of a show involving swords, sneakers, the Knights Templar, not to mention the Holy Grail, a giant whale and some magicians. Writer Tara Hernandez was finishing up work on the series "The Big Bang Theory" and "Young Sheldon" when, to her surprise, a script she had written about nuns found its way to the creator of mind-bending shows like "Lost" and "Watchmen," Damon Lindelof.
TARA HERNANDEZ: The call that I got of, do you want to meet with Damon Lindelof? - felt like a joke.
DOMONOSKE: Lindelof knew the script was something special.
DAMON LINDELOF: It was oddly funny, which is not something that you usually get in post-apocalypse.
DOMONOSKE: Damon Lindelof hadn't even met Tara Hernandez at that point but knew her background in network TV would make them great partners.
LINDELOF: There is this idea that people enter into our business, and they want to break the formula of television, but they never learned the formula in the first place. I got my start working on procedural dramas, "Nash Bridges" and "Crossing Jordan," before I had the opportunity to work on "Lost" and sort of, like, run around screaming and yelling. Now I can kind of do anything that I want to. And I kind of got the same sense that Tara was ready to fly. And if I could do anything to build the airplane that she could pilot, that would be a pretty good idea considering, at this point, I'm a middle-aged man completely and totally bereft of my own ideas.
HERNANDEZ: He's been the best flight attendant, I can tell you.
LINDELOF: Oh, exactly. That's good.
DOMONOSKE: Tara, what is it about the nuns?
HERNANDEZ: You know, why nuns? Why not? You know, I really respond to characters with passion, you know, coming from "Big Bang," and you had these physicists who - their passion was with science. And, you know, exploring those whose passions are the divine was just sort of a total pivot starting from a place of these women who have this full and total commitment and feeling like that's so far outside of my experience and wanting to sort of understand and unpack and just coming from a place of curiosity first and foremost.
DOMONOSKE: I feel like it's really hard to communicate the tone (laughter) of this TV show. I want to be careful here because I don't want to have any spoilers because part of the joy of watching the show is the wild unpredictability. But maybe I'll put it this way. There are homages or maybe even parodies of a lot of classic tales. I mean, there's the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Jonah and the whale. The show makes fun of itself at points for using these very, very familiar stories. Why incorporate so many different giant touchstones?
LINDELOF: One of the things that I think we became very entranced and then ultimately delighted by was this sort of idea that algorithms locked in on cliches. If an algorithm is programmed to give its users what they want, the things that are familiar to users tend to kind of be these tropes in terms of storytelling. Mrs. Davis is an - ultimately an algorithm and an AI sort of combined that is creating these quests for her users or its users, depending on what your perspective on Mrs. Davis's personhood is, to kind of find purpose in their lives. And so the idea of using sort of the most overused MacGuffin and trope in history - that being that of the Holy Grail - but also kind of utilizing and trolling this idea of the chosen one. I am just as guilty as anyone else, as anyone who's been writing in this town for any period of time - you fall into the trap of, you know, you're the one. You were chosen. You are destined to do this, whether it's Neo or Harry Potter or - you know, or Katniss Everdeen. But we thought it was funny of - like, what if Mrs. Davis was telling everyone that they're the chosen one?
DOMONOSKE: Did you have any ideas while you were making this show that you didn't put in...
DOMONOSKE: ...Because you thought they went too far or it was a little too much?
HERNANDEZ: What was the line?
LINDELOF: Where's the line here?
HERNANDEZ: I know. Surprisingly so, there was a line. There's specific ideas. And as any writers room will know, you know, every idea that makes it into the show, there's been 10 dead bodies in its wake, really. And so finding it, the special sauce of "Mrs. Davis," was both saying, there's the line, so "Mrs. Davis" is going to go three times past it and just sort of wink at ourselves, you know, that, like, one exploding head is enough. Two is, are they aware that they've done this? And three is a sweet spot of our show. And I think, you know, hopefully, the audience receives that as we were having fun. But yes, we were also aware where we were just going to lose people or have people jump ship.
DOMONOSKE: Four or five exploding heads is too many?
HERNANDEZ: Yeah, it's not - too far.
LINDELOF: Spoiler alert.
HERNANDEZ: Baker's dozen.
DOMONOSKE: I want to go back a little bit because, Damon, you referenced this question of whether Mrs. Davis is a she or an it. It's something that Simone, the nun, and Wiley, her ex-boyfriend, who joins her on this battle with the AI - that they wrestle with. And in people's ordinary lives we have Siri. We have Alexa. People do humanize these machines. Why do we do that?
LINDELOF: This is kind of the nature of what it means to be alive - that, you know, we assign some level of humanity and personhood sometimes to inanimate objects but certainly to pieces of technology that we become reliant on. And one of the things that Tara and I were kind of obsessed with when we were first hatching the show was that AI gets a bad rap because it only really does one thing which is immediately get the nuclear codes and try to wipe us out or enslave humanity or push Dave out the door into space.
And it just felt like, why would AI want to kill us? It sort of feels like, is there a more interesting version of it where it just wants the same thing that humans want, which is to be seen and to be loved, and it's giving us what it thinks we want? Is there some profound idea at the center of we've created this thing in our own image? We use names like Siri and Alexa, but because everyone's using Siri and Alexa, we don't really have a relationship with them yet. But as ChatGPT sort of came along and started threatening New York Times reporters and telling them that, you know, it loved them more than their wives do, we were like, OK, now we're talking. Now we're speaking the same code.
DOMONOSKE: In the show, Mrs. Davis, this AI, is a main character, but the audience never gets to hear her ourselves. What does she sound like?
HERNANDEZ: We sort of believe that Mrs. Davis has this individualized approach to her users. She can make us all feel like the chosen one. So I believe that she adopts the way you can customize Siri. Oh, I want a British accent. She presents as the voice that you personally need to hear.
LINDELOF: I don't want to know 'cause I - you know, I mean, I feel like when we talked about religion and the way that God proxied in the Old Testament and even in the New Testament - that idea of kind of Moses comes down and says, hey, I just spoke to God, and this is what God said we should do. That just felt like a much cooler way to present Mrs. Davis. We watch characters listening to Mrs. Davis, including some of our heroes eventually, but we never hear a Mrs. Davis' voice. That felt like it was much more in that Venn diagram where faith and technology overlap. A little bit of mystery goes a long way.
DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof. They are the creators of the new Peacock show, "Mrs. Davis." Thanks so much for being with us.
HERNANDEZ: Thank you.
LINDELOF: Such a pleasure. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELECTRIC AVENUE")
EDDY GRANT: (Singing) We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue, and then we'll take it higher. Oh, we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue, and then we'll take it higher. Workin' so hard like a soldier, can't afford a thing on TV. Deep in my heart, I abhor ya. Can't get food for the kid. Good God. We gonna rock... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.