Twisted Metal May Be TV’s Stupidest Video Game Adaptation Yet

6 minute read

Do you enjoy ironic pop-music syncs? Would you cheer at the spectacle of a cop car exploding to the guileless, pubescent harmony of Hanson’s “MMMBop”? Does the thought of an aerial apocalypse scored by Len’s cartoonishly upbeat “Steal My Sunshine” absolutely crack you up? Do you thrill at the prospect of watching a bad guy get shot between the legs, on the roof of a speeding car, as Oasis’ coruscating “Champagne Supernova” blares in the background? If so, you’re going to love Peacock’s new action comedy, Twisted Metal, premiering July 27.

But if the above juxtapositions don’t strike you as the height of wit, well then, I regret to inform you that they are all real, representative examples of the show’s sense of humor. In a serendipitous nod to Barbie mania, there’s also a torture montage set to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that this bloody, quippy, self-satisfied adaptation of the ’90s Playstation vehicular combat games comes from the minds of Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (with Cobra Kai’s Michael Jonathan Smith serving as showrunner).

Twisted Metal - Season 1
Stephanie Beatriz and Anthony Mackie in Twisted MetalSkip Bolen—Peacock

Not that Twisted Metal’s demolition-derby IP offers much in the way of narrative. Unencumbered by even the skeletal backstory of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, much less the lore of more sophisticated game franchises like The Last of Us or The Witcher, the show’s creators nonetheless settled on a premise that recycles familiar post-apocalyptic tropes. In an alternate 2002, a computer virus killed the internet and crashed the power grid, plunging the U.S. back into the Dark Ages. A survivalist free-for-all ensued. (“Not having easily accessible porn freaked people the f-ck out,” the opening voiceover explains.) And ultimately, cities walled themselves off, consigning criminals, the poor, and other undesirables to roam a dangerous rural wasteland.

A couple of decades later, our hero John Doe—so named because he doesn’t know who he is or where he came from, and played by Marvel stalwart Anthony Mackie—is one of those outsiders. A so-called milkman, John makes his living by driving his beloved car, Evelyn, between fortress cities in what used to be California, delivering goods from one gated community to another. It’s a treacherous job; Evelyn is patched, bullet-pocked, and, as a defense against bandits who are always trying to steal John’s cargo, tricked out with heavy-duty weaponry. Milkmen, we’re told with “see what I did there?” frequency, have an expiration date.

A loquacious, street-smart, lone-wolf survivor, John wants nothing more than to experience life on the inside. He gets his chance when the “COO of New San Francisco” (Neve Campbell) invites him into the city for an industrial-strength shower, a fancy dinner, and a potentially life-changing proposition: If he can pick up a precious package in New Chicago and deliver it to her within a tight timeframe, she’ll grant him citizenship in this urban idyll. The 4,000-mile round trip sounds like a suicide mission, but it’s not like John has much to lose.

Twisted Metal - Season 1
Thomas Haden Church in Twisted MetalSkip Bolen—Peacock

The quest will put him face-to-face with antagonists like Agent Stone (Thomas Haden Church), a deranged supercop obsessed with the broken-windows policing popularized by former New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton, and Sweet Tooth, a beefy psychopath in a clown mask, with the body of wrestler Joe Seanoa and the voice of Will Arnett. (Yes, Twisted Metal video-game nostalgists, he still drives an ice cream truck.) He also finds an unlikely ally, co-pilot, and inevitable love interest in a carjacker (Brooklyn Nine-Nine alum Stephanie Beatriz) bent on avenging the death of her brother (Richard Cabral), who killed himself on Stone’s orders to save her life. She won’t tell John her name, or even speak much at first, so he christens her Quiet.

It’s bad enough that Twisted Metal is basically Mad Max meets The Last of Us meets every other post-apocalyptic quest narrative pop culture has coughed up over the past five decades—a violent journey across desolate terrain, all in the name of survival. What’s worse is the way the creators wink-wink, nudge-nudge viewers through its 10-episode first season, as though tongue-in-cheek humor can compensate for a lack of originality. Mackie and Beatriz have solid chemistry; equal parts road warrior and diplomat, his chatty character plays well off her brooding one, who gains dimensionality through her subtle performance more than anything that’s in the script. Too often the violence is itself the punchline, and the baroque ways in which it’s meted out the prime evidence that anyone put any thought into this show at all.

Twisted Metal does, to be fair, make a ham-fisted statement or two. Every now and then, Reese, Wernick, and Smith see fit to remind us that, you know, inequality is bad. When Quiet’s backstory comes out, midway through the season, it couldn’t be more apparent that a brutally hierarchical society all but forced her to become an outlaw. (The show comes closest to provoking actual thought in the rare moments when it’s contrasting John’s aspirational hustle with her burn-it-all-down radicalism.) Also bad: police-state fascism, as extolled in Stone’s Bratton-worshiping monologues. Truly, where else in pop culture could a viewer find such searing social commentary?

Twisted Metal - Season 1
Stephanie Beatriz in Twisted MetalSkip Bolen—Peacock

It’s shallow enough to feel disingenuous, and the flatness of the characters doesn’t help. A horrific, ’80s-set origin story for Sweet Tooth becomes just another excuse for gratuitous gore; it turns out that there’s not much psychological insight worth mining from an unhinged clown in a leather harness who sets his own bald spot on fire for kicks. Hot and tough, with luxurious hair and gobs of eyeliner, most of the female characters are straight-up teenage-gamer fantasies. The most substantive conversation of the season between two such creatures concerns their competing romantic claims on the same guy; Bechdel wept.

The low-budget cult classics from which Twisted Metal cribs its lurid action scenes and broad anti-Establishment message—the original Mad Max, Death Race 2000, The Warriors, and so many more—have a certain scrappy appeal. But their shoddiness is kind of the point; messy satire serves the filmmakers’ countercultural purposes. What they lacked in subtlety, they made up for in urgency. In a big studio production like this, however, the approach is just an off-the-rack aesthetic, crassly deployed in lieu of an authentic reason to exist. The sound you hear, along with rubber hitting road and “Barbie Girl” superimposed over anguished screams, is the scrape of studio execs’ knuckles against the bottom of the IP barrel.

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