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How the Wild Palms TV show predicted the future

Updated: Apr 7

BRUCE Wagner is an acclaimed novelist and Hollywood screenwriter who has worked with Oliver Stone and David Cronenberg over a successful 40-year career. His most fascinating creation is the 1993 Wild Palms TV show, which starred James Belushi and was set in Los Angeles in the far-flung future of 2007. The dictionary definition of a cult show, it somehow predicted the ideas which formed the modern world. Bruce was kind enough to answer The Hindsight Hut’s questions about his show’s prescience.


What is the Wild Palms TV series?


Originally a hallucinogenic comic strip published in Details magazine, Wild Palms was written by Wagner and illustrated by artist Julian Allen. It charted lawyer Harry Wyckoff’s fall into a conspiracy lead by the authoritarian Fathers, an untouchable group of powerful men whose sinister acolytes could grab people off the street at will. It caught the eye of Stone, who persuaded ABC to greenlight an 11 million dollar 5-episode series, which he produced.


The main cast of the Wild Palms TV mini-series, written by Bruce Wagner and produced by Oliver Stone for ABC in 1993. The cast of Wild Palms TV mini-series from left to right: Tully Woiwode (Nick Mancuso), Tabba Schwartzkopf (Bebe Neuwirth), Josie Ito (Angie Dickinson), Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi), Paige Katz (Kim Cattrall) and Senator Tony Kreutzer (Robert Loggia).
The cast of Wild Palms TV mini-series from left to right: Tully Woiwode (Nick Mancuso), Tabba Schwartzkopf (Bebe Neuwirth), Josie Ito (Angie Dickinson), Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi), Paige Katz (Kim Cattrall) and Senator Tony Kreutzer (Robert Loggia).

As showrunner, Wagner crafted what he described in his own words as a “playful, masturbatory and prophetic” melodrama. While Wyckoff (Belushi) was the hero messianic Senator Tony Kreutzer (Robert Loggia) was the villain at the epicentre of a multi-headed conspiracy - heading the groundbreaking Mimecom media company, the Church of Synthiotics cult and the Fathers. Charming and charismatic, he’s a unique politician with eyes on the presidency of USA and control of human perception itself. Throughout he pursued the techno mystical MacGuffin, the ‘Go Chip’, which would give him power over the digital word.


Loggia’s “exceedingly enjoyable” performance is recognisable for a modern audience. He radiates the same over the top charisma exuded by populist politicians while being just as innovative as today’s tech entrepreneurs. “He’s a perfect representation of the Shadow Father,” said Wagner. “And that fits because in Palms, two groups are pitted against one another: the Fathers and the Friends - i.e. Darkness vs Light.” Does he recognise Kreutzer in contemporary figures? “He’s an avatar,” he added. “There’s Trump in there. There’s Sinatra and Jackie Gleason. There’s Gates and Zuckerberg. There’s Kanye and there’s swinging dick NFL owners. The gamut of the Shadow.” 


Of all the performances, Wagner’s favourite was by Angie Dickinson, who plays Kreutzer’s sadistic sister, Josie Ito, a Japanese speaking assassin. He commented: “There was something almost vintage-pornographic about her performance.” Opposing them were the Friends, a rebellious liberal group lead by her ex-husband, Eli Levitt (David Warner), who clandestinely met under the pristine private pools of LA. The Fathers and Friends extreme actions anticipated the polarised nature of politics and the surge of violence currently afflicting Western democracies.

 

Like Facebook, Amazon and Google, Kreutzer’s firm was an innovative disruptor which replaced market leaders. Instead of social media or commerce, it developed 3D holographic TV which reacted to a viewer’s touch and virtual reality more advanced than the Metaverse. Enhancing this experience was the sinister drug Mimezine, which convinced the brain that holograms could be touched but also eroded an individual’s ability to differentiate between real and virtual. Just like its actual world counterparts, Mimecom promised to deliver a better future through new tech but at a cost. In reality, the price of access to the internet is the sale of personal data for profit, while in Wild Palms Kreutzer preached ‘freedom’ but exposed humanity to the Fathers’ malign influence.

 

But the novelist played down his predictive powers: “I’m always suspicious of art – even pop art – when it’s called predictive,” he said. “In the sense that everything that will happen has already happened. It’s like the tense used in the Bible that’s called the prophetic perfect. Human behavior is predictive, cyclical.” But he did feel the danger posed by Mimezine was "very close to home”, adding: “I do enjoy Big Pharma’s role in the mesmerization of the culture, and its fomenting of emotional addiction to its products.”

 

Novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner, who has written Wild Palms, Force Majeur and David Cronenberg film Maps to the Stars.
Bruce Wagner is a screenwriter and novelist.

Despite Wild Palms sharing DNA with Cyberpunk, he had “no awareness at all” of its ideas when writing Wild Palms and was more interested “in writing a neon fascist pop opera than exploring technology or theories per se.” While Neuromancer author William Gibson cameoed in the show, its influence was most prominent in the Wild Palms Reader, a companion book edited by Roger Trilling and Stuart Swezey. It featured contributions from creators including Genesis P. Orridge, Lemmy and Malcolm McLaren. "The privilege of Wild Palms was bringing in so many visionaries," Wagner commented. Author Norman Spinrad wrote two eye-catching pieces which evocatively laid out Kreutzer’s mantra of a ‘multi-reality future’, controlled by Mimecom. This vision has been realised by social media, where we get stuck in echo chambers or tumble down the misinformation rabbit hole.

 

One by-product of our fractured information system is the rise of conspiracy theories. Wild Palms shares elements with these modern myths that have set the internet ablaze. In one tongue in cheek cameo, Stone’s controversial theory that John F Kennedy was killed by the CIA is vindicated in an interview. The Fathers’ kidnapping and indoctrination of children plays on the same fears as Qanon, which theorises Satanist paedophile ‘elites’ control America. Even the injection of the ‘Go Chip’ into Harry is a prophetic precursor to Covid vaccine scare stories. What did Wagner make of this? “An argument can be made that once something is called a conspiracy theory, it in fact has become true, and that those things that aren’t yet called conspiracy theories are what we really should be afraid of," he mused.

  “Wild Palms is an extended hallucination, as is the so-called real, everyday world." Bruce Wagner

Adding to the strangeness, the Wild Palms Reader was written as if plucked from the series and dropped into the actual world. Wagner enthused: “I love what it says on the back [of the Reader]: ‘This is not a book about the world of Wild Palms. It’s a book from that world. It doesn’t know it’s fiction.’ That says it all. Because fiction was cancelled a few years back, and reality too.” It described the Senator being a major part of 60s counterculture as an anti-establishment science fiction author. Both Wild Palms and Cyberpunk emerged from the American West Coast, the home of the California Ideology, a fusion of hippy utopianism and neo-liberal capitalism prioritising the liberty of individuals within the marketplace, which found its ultimate expression in the digital revolution. This journey is also reflected in Kreutzer, who promised individual freedom through technology but only under his control.


The Wild Palms Reader, edited by Roger Trilling and Stuart Swezey and featuring Lemmy, William Gibson, Genesis P.Orridge and Malcolm McLaren.
The Wild Palms Reader fleshes out the world of TV mini-series.

But it’s folk tales and classical story telling which are the biggest influence on Wild Palms. “I was mostly inspired by Japanese folk tales. Japan plays a big part of Wild Palms. Many of the superstitious stories of Old Japan deal with child abduction by foxes or river spirits,” said Wagner. Harry’s “classic hero’s journey” is triggered by disturbing oedipal revelations surrounding wife Grace (Dana Delany), ex-lover Paige (Kim Cattrall) and children, Coti and Deidre. “He’s a fearful innocent that awakens through a continuous series of jolts and dislocations, until forced to take action – and become a warrior," the writer explained.


While Wild Palms reached for the future, it has roots in the past, accentuated by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s haunting theme tune. He added: “I was listening to Debussy’s Three Nocturnes, and it sounded like an inspiration for what Ryuichi did.” From the Avanti Studebakers driven by the Fathers’ thugs to the fact the show shares a name with the 1939 novel by Williams Faulkner, the past is prominent.


What does he think Wild Palms got right? "Well, the obvious things it got wrong were that the government’s kill squads aren’t driving the Raymond Loewy-designed Studebaker Avanti!" he joked. “It’s a difficult one for me to assess,” he added. “Wild Palms is an extended hallucination, as is the so-called real, everyday world. How can one be surprised by anything that happens within a hallucination, however vivid, boring, beautiful, or improbable?”

 

Is Wild Palms prescient? For Wagner it’s subjective: “Wild Palms is a novelty, an anomaly, a sustained pop fever dream, what some call a prophetic melodrama – all or none of the above.” Undoubtedly, the mini-series explored ideas which are now prevalent such as demagogues, tech firms, conspiracy theories and polarisation. Unlike fellow cult TV show Twin Peaks, it garnered a mixed response but is ripe for re-evaluation. The series was written in the contemporary world’s crucible, and those ideas found their way into this unique melodrama. Wagner’s aim was to “intrigue, captivate and provoke" audiences and absolutely he succeeded in doing so.   


Further Reading


  • An extraordinary piece by Michael Grasso about Wild Palms on We Are The Mutants.

  • An article by political scientist Professor Brian Klaas on the America’s history of conspiracy theories.

  • A podcast interview with Bruce Wagner on Midwest Momentum.

  • William Gibson, one of Cyberpunk’s founders, talks about the power of the Wild Palms Reader in his blog from July 22, 2006.

  • The Wild Palms Wikipedia page is also worth looking at.  

  • Bruce Wagner's website can be found here.

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