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
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
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.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable