The Peacock adaptation of the video game series spins its wheels, although it’s not without its charms.
Through the haze of nostalgia, someone might find themselves thinking, “I remember Twisted Metal being a fun video game. I don’t remember there being a story to it though.” If that’s you, good news: your brain is not playing tricks on you. While the series gained complexity over time and each character took on backstory and better-defined goals, the on-screen experience essentially boiled down to a demolition derby in which the victor received an ironic fulfillment of their biggest wish.
If that’s the story you’re hoping for, prepare for disappointment. Like 2021’s Mortal Kombat, Twisted Metal has brief moments that mirror the games series’ love of vehicular destruction, but the tournament it derives its name from doesn’t occur within this first season. Instead, the show Frankensteins its plot, borrowing names and appearances from the games and joining them with story details from a current popular video game, Death Stranding.
John Doe (Anthony Mackie) is a “milkman,” a courier who navigates the Western portion of a decimated United States. While making a delivery to New San Francisco, city leader Raven (Neve Campbell) invites him inside the walled city for the first time. There she offers him a deal. If he can make a run to New Chicago and return with a special package within ten days, she will reward him. Gone is the dangerous instability of being a milkman, constantly racing between locations without a home of his own. Instead, he can begin a new life in her city. Despite never driving anywhere near as far East as New Chicago before, John leaps at the chance, tired of the life he’s lived since being a tween.
On his journey east, he encounters Quiet (Stephanie Beatriz)—a thief weighed down by tragedy—Agent Stone (Thomas Haden Church)—an autocrat in a crip police uniform who dreams of the kind of law and order the puts him in charge—Sweet Tooth (Joe Seanoa in body, Will Arnett in voice)—Stu (Mike Mitchell)—a softhearted exile from Seattle who bounces from dangerous mentor to dangerous mentor—among several others.
The story is primarily a collection of post-apocalyptic tropes gathered from better films, shows, and video games. As noted previously, it especially resembles the plot Death Stranding, right down to freakish weather phenomenon that sends characters scurrying for cover lest it catch them in the open. As a result, Twisted Metal relies on its performances to generate any storytelling momentum. On this score, they’ve certainly chosen well.
[T]he strong performers get repeatedly pushed aside for action set pieces that rarely raise the heart rate above resting.
Mackie is a tremendously likable actor whose charisma frequently distracts from John Doe’s paper-thin characterization. Beatriz is a proven commodity when it comes to playing hardasses with layers. The more the show lets her grow, the more interesting her performance—and the character—becomes. Church and Jason Mantzoukas both go enjoyably big as two extreme but diametrically opposed flavors of zealot. Especially intriguing is Campbell. She brings back some of her Party of Five mannerisms in service of a very different character than most would expect, given that detail.
Unfortunately, Twisted Metal isn’t a character drama and has no interest in trying to be one. Thus, action set pieces that rarely raise the heart rate above resting repeatedly push aside the strong performers. It stakes out a position that’s the worst of both worlds. It doesn’t take advantage of its biggest strength enough and doesn’t deliver the kind of action that fans of the video game want.
Twisted Metal runs all the red lights to stream on Peacock starting July 27.