NPR’s Camila Domonoske chats with Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof, creators of the Peacock series “Mrs. Davis.” It is an AI-like entity that seems to control much of humanity.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:
In the new Peacock series “Mrs. Davis,” an episode ends with a big twist and a nun uttering words that might as well be shouted out by the audience.
(SOUNDTRACK FROM A TV SHOW, “MRS. DAVIS”)
BETTY GILPIN: (As Simone) What…
(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)
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 rollercoaster of a show involving swords, sneakers, the Knights Templar, not to mention the Holy Grail, a giant whale, and magicians. Writer Tara Hernandez was finishing work on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and ‘Young Sheldon’ series when, to her surprise, a screenplay she had written about nuns found its way to the mind-blowing show creator as “Lost” and “Guardians”, Damon Lindelof.
TARA HERNANDEZ: The call I got, do you want to meet Damon Lindelof? – felt like a joke.
DOMONOSKE: Lindelof knew the script was something special.
DAMON LINDELOF: It was oddly funny, which isn’t something you usually get after the apocalypse.
DOMONOSKE: Damon Lindelof hadn’t even met Tara Hernandez at the time, but knew his background in network television would make them great partners.
LINDELOF: There’s this idea that people come into our business and want to break the television formula, but they never learned the formula in the first place. I started out working on procedural dramas, “Nash Bridges” and “Crossing Jordan,” before I got the opportunity to work on “Lost” and run around screaming and screaming. Now I can do whatever I want. And I had the same feeling that Tara was ready to fly. And if I could do something to build the plane that she could fly, that would be a pretty good idea considering that at this point, I’m a middle-aged man completely and utterly devoid of my own ideas.
HERNANDEZ: He was the best flight attendant I can tell you.
Lindelof: Ah, exactly. It’s good.
HERNANDEZ: Just kidding.
DOMONOSKE: Tara, what 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 science. And, you know, exploring those whose passions are the divine was just kind of a total pivot from a place of these women who have this total and total commitment and feel like that’s so far from my experience and kind of wanting to understand and unpack and just coming from a place of curiosity first and foremost.
DOMONOSKE: I feel like it’s really hard to convey the tone (laughs) of this TV show. I want to be careful here because I don’t want 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 many classic tales. I mean, there’s the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Jonas and the whale. The show pokes fun at itself at times for using these very, very familiar stories. Why incorporate so many different giant touchstones?
LINDELOF: One of the things that I think fascinated and ultimately thrilled us was this kind of idea that algorithms locked onto cliches. If an algorithm is programmed to give its users what they want, things that are familiar to them tend to be sort of those tropes in terms of storytelling. Ms. Davis is – ultimately an algorithm and some kind of AI combined that creates these quests for her users or her users, depending on your view of the personality of Ms. Davis, to sort of find purpose in their life. And so the idea of sort of using the most overused MacGuffin and trope in history – that of the Holy Grail – but also using and trolling that idea of the chosen one. I’m just as guilty as anyone else, as anyone who’s been writing in this town for any length of time – you fall into the trap of, you know, it’s you. You have been chosen. You’re destined to, whether it’s Neo or Harry Potter or – you know, or Katniss Everdeen. But we thought it was funny to – like, what if Mrs. Davis tells everyone they’re the chosen one?
DOMONOSKE: Did you come up with any ideas while you were doing this show that you didn’t put on…
DOMONOSKE: …Because you thought they had gone too far or it was a bit too much?
HERNANDEZ: What was the line?
LINDELOF: Where is the line here?
HERNANDEZ: I know. Surprisingly, there was a line. There are specific ideas. And as any writers room will know, you know, every idea that goes into the show, there’s been 10 corpses in its wake, really. And so find it, “Mrs. Davis” special sauce, they both said, there’s the line, so “Mrs. Davis” is going to pass it three times and wink at us, you know, that, like , an exploding head is enough. Second, are they aware that they have done this? And three is a sweet spot of our show. And I think, you know, I hope the audience gets that while we’re having fun. But yeah, we also knew where we were just going to lose people or jump ship.
DOMONOSKE: Four or five explosive heads is too much?
HERNANDEZ: Yeah, it’s not – too far.
LINDELOF: Spoiler alert.
HERNANDEZ: The dozen bakers.
DOMONOSKE: I want to back up a bit because, Damon, you referenced this question of whether Ms. Davis is a she or a that. It’s something Simone, the nun, and Wiley, her ex-boyfriend, who joins her in this battle with the AI - which they struggle with. And in ordinary people’s lives, we have Siri. We have Alexa. People humanize these machines. Why are we doing this?
LINDELOF: It’s kind of the nature of what it means to be alive – that, you know, we attribute a certain level of humanity and personality sometimes to inanimate objects, but certainly to technological elements that we become dependent on. And one of the things that Tara and I were a bit obsessed with when we first started hatching the show is that the AI has a bad reputation because it really only does one thing which is to immediately obtain the nuclear codes and try to annihilate or enslave us. humanity or push Dave through the door into space.
And it was just like, why would the AI want to kill us? Seems like there’s a more interesting version of this where he just wants the same thing humans want, which is to be seen and to be liked, and he gives us what he thinks we want ? Is there a deep idea at the center of which we created this thing in our own image? We use names like Siri and Alexa, but since everyone uses Siri and Alexa, we don’t really have a relationship with them yet. But when ChatGPT came along and started threatening New York Times reporters and telling them that, you know, he loved them more than their wives, we were like, OK, now we’re talking. Now we are talking about the same code.
DOMONOSKE: In the show, Ms. Davis, this AI, is a main character, but the audience never hears that ourselves. What is she like?
HERNANDEZ: We kind of think Ms. Davis has this individualized approach to her users. She can make us feel like the chosen one. So I think it embraces the way you can customize Siri. Oh, I want a British accent. She presents herself as the voice you personally need to hear.
LINDELOF: I don’t want to know because I – you know, I mean, I feel like when we talked about religion and how God represented in the Old Testament and even in the New Testament – this idea of some kind of Moses coming down and saying, hey, I just talked to God, and that’s what God said we should do. It was just a much cooler way to introduce Mrs. Davis. We watch characters listen to Mrs. Davis, possibly including some of our heroes, but we never hear Mrs. Davis’ voice. It felt like there was so much more to this Venn diagram where faith and technology overlap. A little mystery goes a long way.
DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof. They are the creators of the new Peacock show, “Mrs. Davis”. Thank you very much for being with us.
HERNANDEZ: Thank you.
LINDELOF: What a pleasure. THANKS.
(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “ELECTRIC AVENUE”)
EDDY GRANT: (Singing) We’re gonna go down to Electric Avenue, and then we’re gonna go higher. Oh, we’ll go down to Electric Avenue, and then we’ll go higher. I work so hard like a soldier, I can’t afford anything on TV. Deep in my heart, I hate you. Unable to get food for the child. Good God. We’re gonna rock…
NPR transcripts are created in peak time by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of NPR’s programming is the audio recording.
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