TELEVISION / Virtually real in some roundabout way

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The Independent Culture
THE WORLD of Wild Palms (BBC 2) is the World of Interiors. The script for this dystopian fantasy - it is set in the LA of 2007 - is self-consciously high-toned (every now and then you get an allusion to Dante or Yeats), but these cultural objects sit in the series like a pricy bit of architectural salvage in a very expensive living room. They are no more indicative of intellect or spirituality than a quattrocento pew-carving or a Cambodian temple mask would be in the commissioned tastefulness of a porn star's bedroom.

The result is certainly stylish, rich even, in its display of wealth, but it isn't rich in the way a television drama should be, in fruitful connections and narrative depth. The story, such as it is, concerns a patent lawyer, Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi), whose bad dreams start to spill out into waking life. Weirdness abounds: there are scenes of stylised violence in the streets ('Like a Robert Longo painting,' the script notes, popping down another cultural knick-knack on the mantelpiece) and everywhere he goes Harry encounters evidence of the secretive Wild Palms group, a blend of synthetic religion (Symbiotics) and conspiratorial capitalism (they have plans to corner the market in broadcast virtual reality). Rival groups called the Fathers and the Friends appear to have been abducting children for some unrevealed purpose.

If you like this sort of thing (and lots of people do, as the cult following for Twin Peaks and The Prisoner demonstrate), then this is top-dollar stuff, beautifully shot by Oliver Stone and sparing no expense in its pursuit of the surreal image (Harry's repeated dream is of a rhino, a baleful beast which actually lumbers through his ranch-style home at one point). There are signs, too, when the script isn't straining to pose elegantly, that Bruce Wagner is capable of something really sharp and funny - the scenes between Harry and his wife have a vitality which is backed up by Belushi's relaxed, captivating performance. When he's on screen you can almost believe that this stuff might really matter in some way, might have emotional consequences. For most of the time, though, the fear and dread is the Formica version. Wild Palms suffers from the problem of all fantasy fiction - you keep thinking that there's no big deal in doing card-tricks with a rigged deck.

Barry Levinson's Homicide (C 4), another foray into television by a Hollywood director, was playing with a proper pack, dog-eared and greasy perhaps, but the real thing. In its way it's even more grandly self-conscious than Wild Palms, filming the stories of a group of Baltimore Homicide Police with hand-held cameras and a roaming, over-the-shoulder style which makes you think you're in the hands of an unusually privileged news cameraman (in one strangely exhilarating scene you actually jostle past the television crews to go into the murder scene, unchallenged by the uniformed officers holding everyone else back). The final result isn't even documentary - it's a rough-cut for a low-budget documentary, with jump-edits, unbalanced sound and inconsequential leaps from scene to scene.

At first this is hard work but the terrific script helps a lot. It keeps step with the visual style, moving from rambling off-duty conversations (bar-room arguments about movies and Lincoln's assassination) to cynical one-liners ('Nobody stays fat down there,' says a black gravedigger explaining why an exhumed body doesn't look the same as a detective's snapshot). It's literary, too, at times - 'Frankly I liked the Jamaican story better,' says a dyspeptic detective called Munch to a suspect who has just changed his alibi. 'It had a kind of Elmore Leonard quality to it.' This was a little wink to the audience because Levinson's style - overlapping investigations, and a mixture of failure, luck and skill in the way they're pursued - owed more than a little to Leonard's style of police procedural. Wild Palms based its story on the allure of virtual reality; Levinson shows you how close you can get without complicated equipment.