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Inside the Bizarre World of ‘Mrs. Davis’ at SXSW

By Proma Khosla,

2023-03-15
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A nun teams up with an enemy AI to find the Holy Grail . That synopsis sounds like it was written–  well, by an AI, but actually it comes from Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez, who premiered their eclectic drama at South by Southwest on Tuesday.

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At the premiere, star Betty Gilpin described the show as “No country for old Looney Tunes” and laughed afterward, saying they had just shared “the two normal episodes.” Costar Jake McDornan described the scripts as “mad libs that snowballed out of control.”

“The missive here is ‘Keep Austin weird,'” Lindelof said ahead of the March 14 premiere. “‘Mrs. Davis’ is hopefully going to do just that.” The first two episodes had the crowd laughing at scripted jokes, visual gags, and general absurdity, including multiple high-octane action sequences.

Hernandez and Lindelof joined forces in early 2020, and were set to collaborate right when COVID-19 hit. As they bounced around ideas and figured out Zoom, Lindelof recalls his colleague wishing that there were an algorithm or app that could just tell her what to do, and that’s how “Mrs. Davis” was born.

“It’s nun v. AI plus lift and joy and zany and weird,” Hernandez said, noting that early ideas were a lot darker than the end product.

“‘Post-apocalyptic’ loses its charm when you’re in the middle of an apocalypse,” Lindelof noted.

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In the days leading up to the premiere, nuns popped up throughout downtown Austin to promote the series, telling people that they were looking for Mrs. Davis and inviting SXSW attendees and locals to do the same. Flyers all over the Austin Convention Center and nearby streets and establishments depicted Gilpin as Sister Simone, with “HAVE YOU SEEN THIS NUN?” in big, bold text.

“The aim is to transport fans into a sort of in-world experience here,” Peacock SVP of brand marketing Jo Fox told IndieWire at SXSW. The festival’s intersection of entertainment and technology seemed like the perfect fit for a show like “Mrs. Davis,” and the activation included layers of incentive and mystery surrounding the show. Anyone taking a photo with one of the activation’s nuns and posting it to social media tagging Peacock would be eligible to win prizes like Uber codes and AirPods (which play a big role in the show). The nuns also handed out “maps” to help locate Mrs. Davis, which ended up leading to local businesses to be used as free food and drink vouchers.

“The engagement in terms of social media and people posting has been strong,” Fox told IndieWire. “And then as you will have seen, there’s just the surprise and delight of people constantly taking photos of the nuns themselves, interacting with them, asking them to sing.”

At a conference panel the day before, the creators shared inspiration for the upcoming Peacock series, from “Pinnochio” to Willy Wonka to a line that Hernandez accidentally internalized from “A Knight’s Tale.” The confluence of AI and religion speaks to Lindelof’s own “obsession with religion,” tying back to how “horrifically manipulative” he finds Wonka.

“What is religion if not the question ‘Am I being manipulated?'” Lindelof asked at Monday’s panel. He glanced around the room, his eyes catching the handful of Peacock nuns scattered throughout the crowd. The crowd chittered nervously, including Peacock’s hired nuns, scattered throughout the conference room.

“Sorry, Sisters,” he added.

“Mrs. Davis” premiere March 14 at SXSW. The first four episodes hit Peacock on April 20.

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