‘Twisted Metal’ Review: Anthony Mackie Struggles In Peacock Series
TWISTED METAL -- "WLUDRV" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Anthony Mackie as John Doe -- (Photo by: Skip Bolen/Peacock)

‘Twisted Metal’ Review: Anthony Mackie Struggles In Peacock Series

Earlier this year, the creative and commercial success of “The Last of Us” all but guaranteed video games would be television’s next great font of IP. Yet there are reasons video game adaptations have historically been troubled, and why “The Last of Us” was uniquely suited to become not just a show, but a prestige drama on HBO. In protagonists Joel and Ellie, “The Last of Us” game had complex, conflicted characters who could guide the viewer through their world in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. The show leaned even further into this aspect of the game, fleshing out supporting players Joel and Ellie encounter on their journey.

The Peacock series “Twisted Metal” enjoys no such advantage in helping its source material conform to the standards of TV. A player can insert themselves into the action; a viewer needs a proxy, or several, to connect to a story. “Twisted Metal” is named for a game franchise that dates to 1995, but isn’t quite based on it. The games just don’t have much to go off of, besides a demolition derby setup that boils down to “The Hunger Games” with cars. Iconic cityscapes and a mysterious organizer only matter as a backdrop to and excuse for vehicles smashing into each other. That leaves “Twisted Metal” show creator Michael Jonathan Smith to supply everything from characters to motivation to narrative momentum — everything that isn’t cool-looking cars going fast and blowing up. 

In the current entertainment landscape, such a blank slate can be an opportunity. Creatives with a vision can use a brand name as camouflage for their own ideas, like a writer who pitched Mattel on an “intense sports drama” pegged to a toy fishing rod. The situation isn’t ideal, but it is workable. “Twisted Metal” instead opts to assemble a sort of Franken-franchise, filling in the gaps of the game with component parts from blockbusters past. The resulting take splices the blueprint of “Mad Max” with the smirking quips of “Deadpool.” (In fact, executive producers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who developed the series before handing it off to Smith, have writing credits on all three “Deadpool” films.) What’s still missing is a sense of why it was worth retrofitting “Twisted Metal” in the first place.

The show’s new mythology introduces an apocalypse that ended society in 2002. (In a preview of the series’ tone, an expository voiceover explains that a global computer bug led to lawlessness because “not having easy access to porn freaked people the fuck out.”) Twenty years later, the world is divided between heavily walled cities and the lawless roads between them. John Doe (Anthony Mackie) is a “milkman,” a courier who ferries goods between settlements with Evelyn, his trusty sedan. Milkmen may be useful, but they lack the protection and comfort of permanent residence in a major city. So when the leader of New San Francisco (Neve Campbell) offers John citizenship in exchange for fetching a package from New Chicago, he jumps at the chance.

John’s errand comes with a strict 10-day deadline, coincidentally matching the season’s 10 half-hour episodes; while TV and video games are structurally distinct, an overarching quest works as an organizing principle for both. Along the way, allies and antagonists present themselves. John Doe is an invention of the show, but the game’s most iconic character is a killer clown named Sweet Tooth, here reimagined as a wannabe showman holding court in a Vegas casino and voiced by executive producer Will Arnett. If Sweet Tooth is chaotic evil, his lawful counterpart is Agent Stone (Thomas Haden Church), a former mall cop turned law-and-order evangelist. To navigate this treacherous landscape, John begrudgingly partners with Quiet (Stephanie Beatriz), a taciturn bandit out to avenge a loved one.

For all its inventions, “Twisted Metal” still bears the aesthetic marks of its origins as a game. What plot there is reads like a setup for chase and combat scenes animated with CGI. Characters goad each other with one-liners that may not be direct quotes from the game, but have the pre-recorded feel of dialogue to be played as one mashes a controller. (“Well, aren’t we a tall glass of water?” Sweet Tooth trills mid-combat. “Me? I’m more of a Hawaiian punch!”) John used to have a family, but has no memory of his life before the fall; like a virtual avatar, he’s an empty vessel to project onto. These elements give “Twisted Metal” a perfunctory feel, like we’re watching someone else play level after level. But the show is never more uncanny when it attempts to have emotional stakes.

It’s a common problem with self-aware satires: an allergy to earnestness that only wears off after the viewer has learned not to take what they’re watching seriously. Over time, John and Quiet act out a classic enemies-to-lovers arc, going from open hostility to grudging respect. But the attempts to deepen their relationship don’t square with the crass, cartoonishly bloody humor “Twisted Metal” otherwise cultivates. Mackie is a veteran of the MCU, and does fine with an R-rated version of those movies’ jokey banter. He struggles more in selling John’s longing for safe harbor or human connection.

“Twisted Metal” is not flawed because it’s a game adaptation. Its flaws still speak to why “The Last of Us” was an exception to an otherwise ironclad rule, and how copying that show’s playbook is not a surefire formula for success. The story of “Twisted Metal” is thin and packed with tropes; it’s still an undertaking to get there from no story at all. The rest of the industry should ask whether that effort was worth it before the next wave of game TV starts to break. 

All 10 episodes of “Twisted Metal” premiere on Peacock on July 27.