Betty Gilpin is divine in ‘Mrs. Davis,’ Peacock’s nutty nun drama

Betty Gilpin is divine in ‘Mrs. Davis,’ Peacock’s nutty nun drama

Dear Lord, please let the Academy nominate her for an Emmy.

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Mrs. Davis

Mrs. Davis

“Algorithms love clichés, and there’s no cliché bigger than the quest for the Holy Grail — the most overused MacGuffin ever.”

So announces a character in Mrs. Davis, the new Peacock series about a nun on a quest to find the Holy Grail. The adventure-drama from Tara Hernandez (The Big Bang Theory) and Damon Lindelof (Watchmen) is a wonderfully wackadoodle work of meta — featuring a spectacular performance by Betty Gilpin — that never stops winking as it unspools a story about mothers and daughters, forgiveness, faith, and free will.

Sister Simone (Gilpin) lives a peaceful and unplugged life in Reno, Nevada at the Our Lady of the Immaculate Valley convent, run by the warmhearted Mother Superior (Margo Martindale). Unlike almost every other person on the planet, Simone refuses to engage with Mrs. Davis, a powerful AI program that provides users with “gentle guidance, structure, and unconditional care” through their ever-present earpieces. She blames the algorithm for the death of her magician father, Monty (David Arquette), and rebuffs Mrs. Davis’ increasingly aggressive efforts to reach her — which are communicated through the AI’s loyal user base. But Mrs. Davis will not be denied, and the program ultimately offers Simone a deal: If the nun can find and destroy the Holy Grail, the algorithm will shut itself down for good.

Mrs. Davis

Jake McDorman as Wiley, Betty Gilpin as Simone on ‘Mrs. Davis’

| Credit: Colleen Hayes/Peacock

With this just-go-with-it premise in place, Simone embarks on her hero’s journey — one that sends her straight into the path of an anti-Mrs. Davis resistance group led by her ex-boyfriend, Wiley (Jake McDorman), and his buff and bombastic Australian buddy, JQ (Chris Diamantopoulos). Their mission to annihilate the powerful AI mother figure brings Simone back in contact with her estranged mom, a withholding engineer named Celeste (Elizabeth Marvel), who is certain Monty is still alive and that Simone knows where he is. In times of extreme stress, Simone turns to her mysterious and loving mentor, Jay (Andy McQueen), who is always there to offer comfort.

Mrs. Davis is better experienced than explained. The plot is cheerfully, doggedly weird, punctuated by elaborate set pieces (Wiley tests his endurance in Excalibattle, a Hands on a Hard Body-style competition featuring a giant replica of King Arthur’s fabled sword), sight gags, and lively action-adventure sequences (a high-seas hunt for a sperm whale who’s gone “a bit mental”). Showrunners Hernandez and Lindelof consistently pull the narrative rug out from under viewers with various misdirects, sending Simone and Wiley on a series of oddball detours — all the while poking fun at the very story they’re telling. “Don’t underestimate just how stupid this gets, sweetheart,” quips Wiley, explaining his theory about why Mrs. Davis wants Simone to find the Grail.

Certain key elements of backstory, including the origins of Mrs. Davis and her connection to Simone’s father, are held back longer than necessary. Still, the show largely works, simply because Simone’s quest for the Holy Grail — MacGuffin or not — is so fun to watch. McDorman and Gilpin crackle with screwball-comedy chemistry, as Wiley and Simone take their bicker-banter around the globe in search of Jesus’ cup. Of course, Mrs. Davis is a drama, and it delivers plenty of pathos: Wiley is forced to revisit his lingering heartbreak over Simone, who in turn must come to terms with troubling truths about her dad, as well as her mother’s hurtful disapproval.

Gilpin, a seamless comedic actress with vast emotional range, is exceptional. Whether Simone is sniping at Wiley (“Dummy, focus!”), sharing a quiet moment of reflection with Jay, or arguing with an Italian baker over a cake she needs to bring to the Pope, the actress commands our devotion. Gilpin doesn’t even need dialogue to dazzle. When Simone finally allows Mrs. Davis to speak to her directly through an earpiece, the camera holds on her face as she listens to the AI, whose voice we never hear. In those 30 seconds, Gilpin delivers a silent monologue with her eyes, which flutter with confusion briefly before welling up with tears of poignant understanding. “Thank you,” she whispers at last.

MRS. DAVIS — “A Baby with Wings, a Sad Boy with Wings and a Great Helmet” Episode 103

Chris Diamantopoulos on ‘Mrs. Davis’

| Credit: Ron Batzdorff/PEACOCK

It takes a lot to stand out in an ensemble this good — I haven’t even mentioned Evil‘s Katja Herbers as imposing Grail expert Mathilde, or The Nevers‘ Ben Chaplin as a brilliant scientist, or Game of Thrones‘ Tom Wlaschiha as a priest with an agenda — but Chris Diamantopoulos manages to do just that. Strutting through each scene as JQ, a chiseled resistance operative with a burnt sienna complexion and a husky Strine, Diamantopoulos turns every line of dialogue into a tour-de-force of bluster. “Don’t give it a name!” he barks at Simone when she refers to Mrs. Davis. “Nobody calls Facebook ‘Doug’!” At one point, he and Wiley have a macho standoff in the middle of the desert wearing nothing but their shoes and underwear; it is glorious.

“Your hatred of the algorithm will destroy you,” Mother Superior warns Simone. “But love will set you both free.” Notes Joy (Ashley Romans), a pivotal figure Simone meets toward the conclusion of her quest, “Oh yeah, algorithms are super dumb.” Separate sentiments, sure, but both are programmed deep in to Mrs. Davis‘ code. Grade: B

The first four episodes of Mrs. Davis premiere Thursday, April 20, on Peacock.

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