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)

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