Let’s talk about ‘Mrs. Davis’ and the show’s wild approach to AI

Set in an alt-near future reality, Peacock’s newest original series, “Mrs. Davis,” releasing on April 20, is edging towards being a little too believable—minus the kidnapping Germans, an elusive Holy Grail, and a life-threatening venture inside a gargantuan whale.

The show centers around an all-knowing AI that’s designed to satisfy its users, sending them on quests that give them a sense of purpose and making them feel like all their problems are finally solved.

We spoke with “Mrs. Davis” co-creators, Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez, to find out more about why they were inspired to film a show where AI wants to control our lives.

Lindelof, the co-creator of “Lost,” and Hernandez, mainly known for her work on “The Big Bang Theory,” were introduced to each other during the peak of Covid and brainstormed ideas that would eventually become “Mrs. Davis.”

The showrunners pointed out that the show was dreamed up three years before ChatGPT launched to the public.

“It’s really interesting. Not that we were ahead of the curve, but it’s sort of…taking it to the next level. As you’re well aware, [AI] is moving at a pretty quantum rate right now,” Lindelof told us.

Initially, the co-creators had thought about centering the show’s conflict around an app that could help determine which Covid activities were safe and those that were not, according to the latest Covid rules.

They then spiraled further and thought up an app that could provide relationship advice, professional guidance, and — as crazy as it sounds — replaces religion altogether. This then evolved into the “Mrs. Davis” AI.

Lindelof mentioned to us that he consumed a lot of news related to AI and listened to podcasts like “Rabbit Hole,” which talks about how the internet impacts our lives.

The book, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How AI Works and Why It’s Making the World a Weirder Place by Janelle Shane also came out around the same time they were writing the show, which both Lindelof and Hernandez enjoyed reading. (Shane is an optics research scientist and AI researcher who runs a humor blog called AI Weirdness.)

“It felt like the writer sort of had this relationship with her algorithm and would teach it things and it felt not unlike raising a pet, you know, and a really funny one at that,” said Hernandez. “So, I think that really informed us that algorithms could be super dumb and silly and that we found delight in the fact when they are because it makes us feel a little better about our position in society.”

Hernandez and Lindelof also selected people with diverse backgrounds to help write the show, including those with experience in tech.

“Once we got the green light to continue with our initial pitch, we put together a writer’s room, and we made sure that the backgrounds and the experiences of our writers were unlike our own,” Hernandez added. “We had Jonny Sun, a writer who goes to MIT, and Nadra Widatalla comes from a gaming background…they really became our guides in these worlds that we, ourselves were maybe unfamiliar with.”

Sun is a Ph.D. candidate at MIT with a background in machine learning and evolutionary robotics.

Not only did Sun help expand plot points and write a few episodes for the show, but he also developed an algorithm that generated episode titles.

“We would feed [the algorithm] an episode synopsis in the prompt box, like here’s three or four sentences about what happens in episode three of ‘Mrs. Davis.’ And then the script for that episode. So this algorithm can actually read and understand what a story was and then give us a title,” Lindelof explained to TechCrunch.

“But then we realized it didn’t know what a title was… there were titles that were 35 words or 100 words.”

It ultimately took months to program, and Sun trained several models before the team landed on a favorite algorithm.

“It made up its own language… episode two features these Germans, so there’s [a title] that sounds like it could be German,” Hernandez said. “We are big fans of the strange, weird, and just almost-right-but-indecipherably-wrong ‘unhuman’ quality of algorithmically generated language, and wanted our episode titles to feel that way, reflecting the weirdness of ‘Mrs. Davis’ and the uncanny, surreal, but also poignant, tone of our series.”

Some examples of AI-generated episode titles include:

  • Ep.2: Zwei Sie Piel mit Seitung Sie Wirtschaftung
  • Ep.3: A Baby with Wings, A Sad Boy with Wings and a Great Helmet
  • Ep.5: A Great Place to Drink to Gain Control of Your Drink
  • Ep.7: Great Gatsby 2001: A Space Odyssey

(The below part of this TechCrunch story may contain spoilers.)

“Mrs. Davis” is a wacky vision of an AI future

Artificial intelligence has come a long way since machine learning and is becoming increasingly embedded in our daily lives. With the snowballing ubiquity of algorithms and the current rise of generative AI tools, the show certainly addresses a timely topic.

After watching all eight episodes of Mrs. Davis, we have to say it’s one of the wackier shows that we’ve seen in a long time. We won’t reveal too much, but let’s just say it made our brains hurt a little. (But in a good way, we suppose?)

In this “Black Mirror”-esque show, Mrs. Davis has seemingly eliminated the need for social media apps, distracting its four billion users from the world’s issues with a gamified reward system. It sends its users out on quests until they eventually earn their “wings,” which provide a sense of status (much like a verification mark).

These wings are almost impossible to get, which is why Mrs. Davis offers a shortcut. If a user wants instant wings, they must give it their life.

Cue dramatic, dystopian music.

Image Credits: Peacock

TechCrunch spoke with the main cast, which includes Betty Gilpin (Sister Simon), Jake McDorman (Wiley), and Chris Diamantopoulos (JQ).

All three characters have personal vendettas against Mrs. D.

Sister Simone, the protagonist, is a nun that hates the algorithm because it took away her parents’ livelihood and – in her eyes – is responsible for her father’s death.

Before the algorithm was created, Simone’s parents were magicians. However, Mrs. Davis took away the curiosity behind magic since it gave users all the answers. Consumed with vengeance, Simone teams up with a resistance group to try and destroy it.

Throughout the show, we see Mrs. D speaking to Simone through its cult-like followers (a.k.a. users). Every time Mrs. D wants to tell her something, the user asks Simone if they can “proxy” or repeat what the algorithm is saying through their earphones.

We asked Gilpin what she thought about algorithms and AI before the show and what she thinks of them now.

“Before we were filming and even when we were filming, ChatGPT wasn’t really a thing… It wasn’t in the headlines like it is now,” Gilpin told us. “Now I have a pretty healthy fear of it, where I used to think it was sort of this niche thing that smarter people than I am were interested in. I think now I’m sort of asking the same question that Simone asks in the series, which is, ‘Is this an incredible thing for society or is this poison?’ I don’t know.”

“I understand the impulse in a world where, particularly in the pandemic when we had so many questions and no answers…to follow something that purports to have all the answers. But that’s against the purpose of being alive…having a robot try to sidestep those moments in life for us… It may be helpful in curing disease, but in terms of interfering with human interaction and being existential, being a person of faith or the intangible, I don’t think those are things that I’m willing to give up,” she added.

Betty Gilpin as Simone (Photo by: Sophie Kohler/Peacock)

Like Simone, Wiley and JQ are also personally affected by Mrs. D and dedicate their lives to ending the algorithm once and for all.

Wiley, who is Simone’s ex-boyfriend, leads this resistance group, alongside his friend and confidant, JQ. They enlist a team of tech nerds to build an off-grid, “top-secret” hideout equipped with an advanced server that – to their knowledge – Mrs. Davis can’t access.

There’s even a bit throughout the series where Wiley and JQ have an endless supply of burner flip phones, breaking them after every single call to avoid suspicion. (Albeit wasteful, it’s also hilarious.)

“It’s a physical manifestation of the paranoia that ‘The Big D’ is everywhere, and in order to avoid and to continually scramble and make sure that [Mrs. Davis] is not anywhere intercepting any of these calls or ahead of us, we break the phone to break a signal after the call is done,” Diamantopoulos told us.

“It’s like in those old World War II movies when the French Resistance would meet under candlelight in a small bar somewhere in like north of Berlin, and they’d have the names of these German generals written on a piece of paper, and then they’d light a cigarette and light it on fire,” he explained.

What’s so great about this show is that it never takes itself too seriously, whether that’s how it portrays Mrs. D or all the outrageous tasks the AI assigns to Simone and Wiley.

“When I got the script, it was clear that this was like five different genres in one,” McDorman said.

“There were elements of an adventure story, science fiction, obviously with an algorithm, a little bit of a rom-com, definitely comedy and also drama. I think I said this to Damon [Lindelof] — and I mean this in the best way – it’s like a game of Mad Libs that just got out of control. So yeah, something that’s that unique and that original and not afraid to take big swings like that is obviously exciting and rare to come across.”

Diamantopoulos as JQ (left) and McDorman as Wiley (right)

The show takes us down many theme-driven roads, including religion, spirituality, toxic masculinity, and some serious mommy issues. However, the central theme focuses on how technology rules our lives.

However, Lindelof and Hernandez want to add that “Mrs. Davis” isn’t an anti-technology show. It is only meant to encourage viewers to talk about it.

“Mrs. Davis was always intended to provoke discussion. To be an exploration. To ask the question: is this really good for us? Is this helping me or hurting me? Which is why it felt like such a natural pairing to center the series on a nun—who is also going through the same kind of exploration as it relates to her faith,” said Hernandez.

Peacock will release the first four episodes of Mrs. Davis on April 20.

Let’s talk about ‘Mrs. Davis’ and the show’s wild approach to AI by Lauren Forristal originally published on TechCrunch

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Photo and Author: Lauren Forristal

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