In ‘Twisted Metal’ Series, Killer Clowns Come With Class Commentary

When Stephanie Beatriz likes a script she enjoys reading it aloud at home to get a better feel for the character and story. She warmed up quickly to “Twisted Metal,” the new Peacock mayhem machine based on the popular PlayStation game series that first burned rubber in 1995. But as she turned the pages, encountering psycho clowns, murderous religious cults, cannibalism and other manner of good times, she had to pause. Her 8-month-old daughter was in the room.

In a June video interview she recalled what she told her husband: “I’m going to take a break and stop because I’m not sure that this is great for her subconscious.”

Her concern was well-founded. Premiering July 27, “Twisted Metal” is nothing if not extreme. Fast and profane, it is fueled by what “A Clockwork Orange” once called a bit of the old ultraviolence. It is blood-soaked, bullet-ridden and chaotic. In one early scene, two men sit in massive tubs, waiting to be cooked and served. One of them is sprinkled with a generous portion of lemon pepper spice as a human foot dangles from a line; Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” (“Ooh, baby, I like it raw”) blares on the soundtrack.

Starring Anthony Mackie as John Doe, a wiz behind the wheel hired to deliver a mystery package across a hazardous, postapocalyptic America, and Beatriz as Quiet, his no-nonsense, vengeance-minded passenger, “Twisted Metal” stakes out a sometimes-queasy intersection between terror and glee. It’s a little like “Mad Max” on laughing gas.

“It’s a very weird apocalypse,” Marc Forman, an executive producer, said. “It’s crawling with cannibals and weird cults. What’s great is that you never know what’s around the corner.”

The series stars Mackie as an ace wheelman on a cross-country mission and Beatriz as his vengeful passenger.Credit…Skip Bolen/Peacock

There’s very little that is old fashioned about “Twisted Metal,” yet it has a fair amount of nostalgia in the tank — for both the pre-apocalyptic world, and for an earlier age of gaming. The story is set in the wake of a hazily defined, world-destroying event that occurred in 2002, freezing culture as the characters know it in that year. An evil interrogator uses the late ’90s Europop earworm “Barbie Girl” to torture his prisoners.

As Mackie’s John drives his beat-up 2002 Subaru through a dilapidated shopping mall, he’s excited to see the remnants of a Foot Locker (he grabs some kicks as he races by). A Twisted Metal game cartridge falls onto his windshield; he looks at it quizzically.

Mackie, 44, recalled playing the earliest versions of Twisted Metal. “I remember it just being destruction,” he said in a June phone interview as he sat, ironically, in traffic. “The game was just demolition derby, and I loved it, but it was impossible to play. You couldn’t control the cars — you were just flying past each other, shooting missiles and hoping they hit.”

The playing experience advanced, along with the rest of the gaming industry, through subsequent iterations. Now “Twisted Metal” is just the latest TV series hoping to translate gaming popularity to small-screen success, following in the footsteps of series like Netflix’s “The Witcher” and HBO’s abundantly Emmy-nominated hit “The Last of Us.”

In gaming circles, “Twisted Metal” belongs to the genre of “vehicular combat.” The game isn’t big on narrative. The series’s creative team, including the showrunner Michael Jonathan Smith and the writer-executive producers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (both writers on the “Deadpool” movies), were charged with expanding the game’s world to the scale of a TV show — to take it beyond, in Mackie’s words, “just being destruction.” (PlayStation Productions and its corporate cousin Sony Pictures Television produced the series along with Universal Television.)

Sweet Tooth, a macabre killer clown, is played by the body of the wrestler Joe Seanoa paired with the voice of Will Arnett.Credit…Peacock

Some characters exist in both Twisted Metal mediums, including the psychotic clown Sweet Tooth, perhaps the show’s most macabre creation. A bare-chested hulk with a leering clown mask — he is played by the body of the wrestler Joe Seanoa paired with the voice of the actor Will Arnett — Sweet Tooth controls what is left of Las Vegas, driving what appears to be a refurbished ice cream truck and wielding a machete that he uses to slash open all comers.

At one point he assembles a ragtag army of outcasts to do his bidding, giving him a literal insane clown posse. But Sweet Tooth has one thing in common with John and Quiet: an enmity for Agent Stone (a platinum-dyed Thomas Haden Church), a petty tyrant who essentially runs the country.

Somehow, amid all the mayhem, “Twisted Metal” finds room for contemporary class consciousness. John has been tasked with a cross-country trip, from New San Francisco to New Chicago and back, with the promise of a cozy life by the bay if he succeeds. New San Francisco is a walled urban paradise where the swells dwell, while throughout most of the country, it’s a mad scramble to survive. Inside the wall you can eat dinner. Outside, you might be dinner.

“The metaphors abound,” Beatriz (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) said. “It is silly, it is violent, it is funny. But so much of the show is about who has and who doesn’t. There’s an argument to be made that there’s a certain kind of cannibalism happening now, within our society, at all times.”

“The metaphors abound,” Beatriz said, but the series is also a chaotic blood bath.Credit…Cedric Angeles for The New York Times

But fans of the Twisted Metal game needn’t worry that their beloved bedlam has gone highbrow. The series’s bread and butter remains people shooting and slicing each other to pieces, often while driving cars equipped to do the same. This is car culture at the end of the world, a land of last resorts. So it seems appropriate that John drives not a souped-up sports car but a true beater, modified to handle the wear and tear of the apocalypse. John’s true love in “Twisted Metal” isn’t Quiet, but Evelyn — or, as her license plate reads, EV3L1N.

Mackie can relate. After his breakout performance in “We Are Marshall,” from 2006, he was able to purchase his dream car: a 1964 ½ Ford Mustang (as the earliest Mustang models are known by enthusiasts). He’s been tinkering with it ever since. The car’s name is Marshall.

“Me and Marshall are always cruising and enjoying our time together,“ Mackie said. “Before I had my sons, Marshall was like my best friend. Some people talk to their plants, some people talk to their cats. I would talk to my car.”

Beatriz had a slightly different automotive coming-of-age. She was acting in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when she started thinking of moving to Los Angeles. One problem: She didn’t know how to drive, and a car is a must in L.A. So she learned from a friend and fellow Shakespearean, Catherine E. Coulson, perhaps best known as the Log Lady in “Twin Peaks.” Coulson would take Beatriz around Ashland, Ore., where the festival was located, in her Prius, a far more fanciful image than any you will see in “Twisted Metal.”

Beatriz’s maiden voyages with the Log Lady have given way to faster adventures: She was grand marshal for the Indianapolis 500 in May. As part of the gig she got to ride shotgun in an Indy car before the race, hitting speeds of 190 miles per hour. “Could have gone faster, would’ve been great,” she said.

All that fun, and not a killer clown in sight.

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