Television: Never mind reality, just revel in the kitsch: 'Wild Palms' began as a cartoon strip, now it's a mini-series with a major twist. Mary Harron reports from Los Angeles

'WHEN YOU killed your daughter your pulse never rose above normal. We're alike in that respect. But my crimes will be grander, I assure you. One day I'll put out the sun,' one of Wild Palms' cast of monsters tells another. This is Jacobean tragedy done as an Eighties mini- series: lifestyles of the rich and famous, with conspiracy, incest, murder and insanity - overkill in all directions.

Cynics called it Twin Palms, a rip-off of Twin Peaks, but this is only fair in that both were radical reworkings of traditional genres. Twin Peaks was soap opera - a long-running, intimate look at a small town; Wild Palms crashed on to American television for only one week, five successive nights, a dream you could slip into every evening.

The series was like a hallucination. It arrived with loud fanfare and then disappeared, having made little impact for something so daring and so bizarre. 'What the hell was that?' was the general verdict. Afterwards, there was almost a conspiracy of silence about this rhinoceros that had splashed into the swimming pool of American TV. The series had mixed reviews and was ignored by the Emmy Awards despite its visual brilliance and the backing, as executive producer, of Oliver Stone.

The plot was universally criticised for being impossible to follow, but what mini-series isn't? Part of the show's appeal is the way it plays to the genre's rules, as when it takes the usual glossy TV drama lighting and over-exposes it to a dreamy radiance. Naturally the plot focuses on the rich and powerful; a dynasty headed by the evil megalomaniac Senator Tony Kreutzer (Robert Loggia) and his even more evil sister Josie (Angie Dickinson). The bad characters are very bad indeed, and in true Jacobean style they turn on each other once they have fed off weaker prey. No love survives their fevered ambitions as they stalk marble hallways and plan media takeovers. It's the House of Atreus crossed with Aaron Spelling.

The hero of Wild Palms is a regular guy named Harry Wyckoff, a genial entertainment lawyer specialising in copyright, happily married to Josie's daughter Grace. There is damage beneath the perfect surface: Harry is impotent, his little daughter mute and he has repeated nightmares - that damn rhino in the swimming pool. One day he is visited by an old girlfriend, Paige Katz, who works for the Wild Palms Group run by Senator Kreutzer. Seduced by Paige into working for the Senator, Harry finds himself on the wrong side of a battle over society's soul. He seems unaware of his wife's connection in all this: even by mini- series standards, Harry is remarkably dense.

Kreutzer is the leader of a cult called Synthiotics (a play on Scientology, much loved by Hollywood stars) and a philosophy called New Realism, which involves playing with holograms and running around in virtual reality. We are in the near-future, the year 2007. All the records are oldies, and clothes and cars are retro: the men wear wing collars, the women parade in New Look cocktail dresses. The Nineties were the time of an artificially manipulated great depression, and since then authoritarian forces have been in control. The author, Bruce Wagner, says he wanted to create an 'Orwellian Los Angeles' where dissidents were beaten up and kidnapped on the streets. It's not so much the future as the Reagan-Bush years gone mad.

Such an apocalyptic view of the city seemed fanciful when the series aired on American television in May, but this week it looks like simple realism. For the past few days Southern California has been on fire: as I write this I can see the flames of Malibu from my office window. All day a black sulphurous cloud - the soot of brush fires and million-dollar beach homes - has hung over the city, and the evening news looks like the Book of Revelations.

If Wild Palms has an Eighties feel, that's because the Eighties is when it began, as a comic strip in Details. The magazine's British editor, James Truman, commissioned Wagner to write a strip about Hollywood, inspired by Wagner's cult novel Force Majeure, about a Hollywood screenwriter. Wagner decided on a different tack.

'It began as a dream diary, written on the spur of the moment,' Wagner says. 'The first few months James felt it was too non-linear. Eventually we agreed it should be non-linear. But the plot of the cartoon is much more difficult than the series.'

Wagner is explaining this at a Hollywood coffee shop staffed by savagely hostile actress- models. As one of them slams down our order, Wagner points out a scenario at a nearby table; a man is lifting his shirt to display a belly full of tattoos. It's quite a Wild Palms moment - the series is big on tattoos. Wagner, all in black with a cropped head and stubble, looks at the man and sighs: 'A 40-year-old wearing Doc Martens. Of course, I'm almost there myself.'

Wagner grew up in Hollywood, the son of a stockbroker. At 25 he was commissioned to write a screenplay which immediately went into production, which is as near to Nirvana as a young writer can get. A few months later the rumours started: the director was whacked out on drugs, the picture was unsalvageable. It was shelved and never released. Now Wagner was something worse than an unproduced screenwriter: he was the author of a disaster.

Years later that experience and the humiliations that followed became the basis for Force Majeure. The hero, Bud Wiggins, is a screenwriter - hardworking, talented and shameless. Bud he will do anything to get ahead: let agents insult him or an elderly mogul go down on him. But every effort and every golden opportunity ends in the same vortex of failure.

Force Majeure has the same hallucinatory quality as Wild Palms, but this is daily life in what Scott Fitzgerald called Hollywood's 'anxious sunshine'. This world is unsettling because there are no absolutes. Time and time again Bud finds the same script dismissed as garbage and then acclaimed as a masterpiece, and then dismissed as garbage - usually by the same people. And usually Bud agrees with them. The characters live on shifting sands.

Wagner survived his early debacle and climbed out of the trough with screenwriting credits for Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Now he's adapting part of Force Majeure into a film, Maps to the Stars. Has he achieved an impregnable cult status within Hollywood, safe forever from the spectre of Bud Wiggins? 'I'm just another poor Jew, struggling to get by on a half a million a year.'

Wild Palms will probably be cherished in Europe. It does have flaws, particularly in casting. James Belushi is a very odd choice to play Harry Wyckoff: with his clumsy presence, he blunders through the series seeming not so much innocent as thick. The drama is better served by the women. As Josie, Angie Dickinson makes a fabulous villainess. And in the best performance Dana Delany provides a tender humanity as Grace, the innocent victim of her family's machinations.

The real weakness in Wild Palms is that its 'Orwellian' vision just doesn't carry enough threat. A world of synthetic reality, of images that seem as real and involving as our own lives - isn't that the world we're living in already? We understand artifice, and we learnt long ago how to channel-surf. The synthetic dreams in Wild Palms look like loads of fun; and undermine its own premise.

Wild Palms' paranoia about the media is like a quaint Sixties throwback, to the panic that pop culture would turn us into zombies. The real danger is not that the virtual world will undermine our sense of reality (whatever that is), but that it will be used to inundate us with more rubbish.

So forget about the message, and about what the rhino means. Wild Palms should be watched like opera; for its gorgeous images, its emotional set-pieces and its high style. And don't worry if you can't follow the plot. That just makes it more like the modern world.

'Wild Palms': BBC2, Mon 15 Nov (9-10.30pm), Tues 16, 23, 30 Nov, 7 Dec (9-9.50pm).

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there