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The Mrs. Davis Writers’ Room Was Built With New Voices and New Values

Photo: Colleen Hayes/Peacock

Spoilers follow for episodes three and four of the Peacock original series Mrs. Davis.

How to explain Mrs. Davis so far? There are just two episodes left in the Peacock series, and so far we’ve traveled from Reno to Rome to the astral plane (or, maybe more accurately, a spiritual falafel shop), and that’s not the half of it. Mrs. Davis is an omnipotent AI that has taken over the entire world — in a good way. It talks to everyone, figures out what they need to be happy, and finds a way to give it to them. People all over the world love Mrs. Davis, but there’s a resistance intent on destroying it. Simone, a nun with an alarmingly close relationship with Jesus, is tasked by Mrs. Davis to find the Holy Grail, and if she completes the mission, Mrs. Davis will turn herself off.

Creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof conceived of the premise for the futuristic Chri-fi series during the peak of the pandemic. The result is much lighter than the shows Lindelof is best known for creating, including Lost, The Leftovers, and Watchmen. It’s also a departure for Hernandez, who spent years as a room writer for shows such as The Big Bang Theory before showrunning Mrs. Davis. “I had to understand that I’m 51 percent of the vote and Damon’s 49 percent,” Hernandez tells Into It. The division of labor was a relief to Lindelof, who is trying to make amends for the harm he says he permitted on shows like Lost. “There was toxic, misogynistic, even racist language in those rooms because I allowed it to happen,” he says. “All I can tell you is that I became aware of that behavior and tried to iterate forward.” Below, read an excerpt of the conversation, or listen to the full episode of Into It wherever you get your podcasts.

How did you choose the name Mrs. Davis for the AI?
Tara Hernandez: I had a teacher who had a great impact on my childhood: Mrs. Davis, my first- and second-grade teacher. She wasn’t the warm, fuzzy teacher but had this very personal touch. So when we were thinking about the identity of our app, a benevolent leader who we turn to in times of confusion — who can also keep us in line — we realized that it can’t just treat everybody equally but rather takes an individualized approach. My teacher Mrs. Davis came to mind, and I love her dearly to this day.

Most AI you see depicted onscreen is usually trying to kill us. Mrs. Davis ostensibly wants to make us happy. Why did you take the AI character in that direction when it seems like no one else does that?
Damon Lindelof: We felt it was frightening for an AI that just wanted to make us happy. What does an AI even think happiness is? And is that really in our best interests? An algorithm that sort of viewed itself as benevolent — but just gave us what it thought we wanted — combined with stupidity, because these things are not nearly as sophisticated as we think they are. It’s read everything about humanity that exists on the internet and then formed a basis for what it thinks humans are. But it’s never been a human; it hasn’t had the experience of knowing what pain or love or fear is. AI use a flamethrower when a match will do — they’re very bad at subtlety, so that felt like a delightful space to explore.

What I love about the show is how it’s melding two realms that you usually don’t see in TV or movies together: The AI is very sci-fi, very futuristic, and then there’s a bunch of Christian imagery and theology laid over it. You don’t see that a lot. Was that intentional?
D.L.: You talk about having a diverse writers’ room — we all know what diversity and inclusion look like. But in terms of belief systems, it’s very hard to find people of faith in show business. And we were fortunate enough to have a couple incredibly talented writers who were also believers who had a real knowledge of Scripture.

T.H.: One of our writers is Mormon, one of our writers is Muslim, and even the nonbelievers are scholars and had real knowledge of the text. So we wanted to come at it from Simone’s point of view: She is a nun, a bride of Christ, so it had to be accurate to her belief system, which the remainder of the season will unpack. Because she’s gotten a golden ticket — she has a quite literal relationship with Christ.

I don’t need television to tell me to worship Christ, but it is nice to see some of the religious touchstones I grew up with in a prestige-y show. Usually the kind of shows that get the awards and the buzz, they either ignore Christianity or they mock it, and Mrs. Davis is doing neither; it’s just having a good time with it. Why aren’t more shows doing this? 
D.L.: There’s a fear of getting it wrong, of offending, of proselytizing. One of the very first things that Tara said to me was “I really want to understand why a woman would choose this way of life in a contemporary era, and I don’t want to make fun of it. I want to explore it in the same way that Sister Maria exists in The Sound of Music.” I’ve been really interested in exploring belief and religion through a lot of my work in a slightly more dark and sometimes cynical or depressing way. But so many people find community and great, welcoming energy in their faith-based culture. So I think movies and TV can do a much better job of representing that without judgment.

We’ve gotta talk about this: Sister Simone is fucking Jesus. When I saw it start to happen, my little Texas Christian self was like, Oh, they better not. And then it happens, and it’s okay. How did you talk about religion in this show without totally flipping off Christians who might be watching it?
T.H.: Full pearl-clutch on that. But it always scares us, and when we say our answers, it’s not without weeks and weeks of discussion; it’s not without those days where you go home and you can’t sleep. Because you think, Why are we doing this? This always wanted to feel like a marriage. This always wanted to feel like it was going to go through all the stages of a relationship. It would have felt juvenile to attack it without sex involved. I have to credit our performers, Betty Gilpin and Andy McQueen, who treated it with all the care and love, and our director, Alethea Jones.

D.L.: When you think about it as a romance, it’s not just Jesus loving you unconditionally but also her loving him and ultimately having to deal with the reality that he’s polyamorous. She doesn’t want to think about it, but Jesus has this relationship with a lot of different people. So that provides a complexity to the relationship that she has to face, particularly in the later episodes of the season.

I want to talk about the creative and professional relationship that you two have on this show. It seems unique, two creatives sharing space in this way. Tell me specifically: What is your relationship on the show? Who’s in charge of what? Who’s the boss?
D.L.: Tara is unequivocally the boss. That was very clear on both our sides from the jump. But I was so used to being the boss on my three previous shows that it was a struggle at first.

With Tara, there’s something about the way that she writes and the way that her mind works that I just trust. Tara’s always made me feel like I’m her partner, but at the same time, these things don’t work unless there’s someone at the top of the pyramid who’s saying, “We’re doing this. We’re not doing that.” I also feel like showrunning is an 80-hour-a-week job. There are no days off. In the writers’ room, I was investing 80 percent of the time that Tara was, but once we were humming, for every hour that I spent working on Mrs. Davis, Tara spent five hours. She’s the one who woke up every morning and had to respond to 50 new emails that appeared while she was sleeping. And I got cc’d.

Tara, you’re running this show, but you’ve got Damon Lindelof over your shoulder. How did you navigate it?
T.H.: I started as a room writer. I like to think I’m a very loyal room writer. And when I say that, I mean a writer on staff who is serving a showrunner. There was a steep learning curve because my job for almost a decade was pitching ideas. Now, I say, “This is the direction we’re going.” That wasn’t easy, but Damon would say, “What do you want to do? You’re gonna have final say here.” Any good creative relationship that I’ve ever been in has that push-pull, a little bit of compromise. But I had to understand that I’m 51 percent of the vote and Damon’s 49 percent, so I made the calls.

So much of the conversation around showrunning right now is how it needs to change. Writers’ rooms have historically been somewhat toxic spaces. A lot of times, showrunners, who were in many ways creative geniuses, weren’t managerial geniuses and didn’t know how to tend to people. I wonder how both of you think about the changing expectation of a showrunner in that regard. The spotlight is on a showrunner more than ever before. And they have to get it right in ways they weren’t expected to ten years ago.
D.L.: I want to make it very clear that I don’t distinguish myself from those showrunners. I was one of the people that you’re describing. If you were in the writers’ room on Lost — I can’t speak for all the writers in the room, but I know that for many of them, their mental health was not prioritized. There was toxic, misogynistic, even racist language in those rooms because I allowed it to happen. What I said or didn’t say is not really important. That was the culture, and just because it was happening 20 years ago is no excuse. I’ve tried to reach out to many of the people that I know were hurt by that culture, some of whom have accepted my apology and granted forgiveness and others of whom are completely within their rights to say, “Leave me alone.”

All I can tell you is that I became aware of that behavior and tried to iterate forward. There’s a finite amount of microphones in this job, and you have to put down the mic and let someone else pick it up. You can use your experience to offer some guidance in terms of the mistakes that you made, but more importantly, it’s not too late for me to learn. I’m now the oldest person in the room by five or six years, and the youngers, they definitely do prioritize work-life balance and mental health.

The worst feeling in the world is to be passionate about an idea and for it to fall flat, and that’s the job. But there are other parts where you can circle back, where you can say, “That could have sounded really harsh,” what I said in there. I was not taught how to do that, and now I’m learning. The only way to learn is to not be running the show anymore. And it required a tremendous amount of learning and mistake-making before we got to a place where all of the writers on Mrs. Davis would say that we care deeply for one another now. But boy, was it a journey to get there.

When you’re talking about Lost and what folks experienced there, you’re very forthcoming about what role you might have played in things and wanting to make amends. But I’m wondering have you made peace with whatever that experience was?
D.L.: I’m not sure if peace is the goal. I think that I’ve become comfortable with the idea that I may not be worthy or deserving of peace; it’s something that I just have to wrestle with again. It’s not about winning, and it’s not about losing. It’s about struggling. And I think that the idea of trying to reconcile — I don’t wanna get to a place where I’m constantly depressed or I can’t sleep, but I also understand that forgiveness is a thing that you can assign to a deity. It’s something that you can assign to the people that you hurt. But most profoundly, it’s the thing that you have to assign to yourself. I’m not in a place right now, at this moment in my life, where I forgive all of the bad behavior that I’ve engaged in professionally. I’m still trying to reconcile and understand it without putting that on other people. It’s not necessarily peace but this idea of being okay to not be entirely okay with it — and that is a weird bedfellow of peace. There was a time where it was very hot, and now it’s more lukewarm.

Tara, you’ve been in the writers’ room, and now you’re coming to showrunning in the midst of these larger conversations that Damon’s talking about. What was your approach to doing this job on this show?
T.H.: I came in with a gross amount of naïveté because I had been in the room and I assumed that since I’ve observed it, I’ve seen success, I’ve seen failure, and that observation would immediately be transferable to my own success and I could avoid all those failures. But it’s an incredibly different job, and it is so difficult. To Damon’s point, the safety of that room is critical. And that’s something that I think we realize now: It has to feel like an environment where you’re getting the best out of people. You can only do that from a position of creating safety and owning your mistakes.

As a showrunner, you’re pulled in a million different directions. Because you are terrified of misstepping, it can be very easy to let your own fear cloud all that because you’re the one who needs to keep it together. But it’s about prioritizing filling your cup, making sure that you have the systems in place to succeed as a human being — having successful relationships, or therapy, or medication, or whatever it is that helps you get by so that you can then support your room. We’re all terrified, and I think that’s something that we never would have talked about a decade ago or even five years ago. I’ve been fortunate to witness the transition. I’m still absolutely learning, but the success of others and the safety of others is your success. That’s the bottom line.

Into It With Sam Sanders

The Mrs. Davis Writers’ Room Was Built With New Voices