As Twisted Metal fans well know, PlayStation’s seminal car combat series only loosely follows two story arcs. One is that everyone is a contestant in a kind of bloodsport demolition derby staged in the Los Angeles underground on Christmas Eve. The other, the basis of the most recent Twisted Metal game 11 years ago, vests the tournament’s mysterious organizer with occult powers to ensure that the victorious driver has a lifelong wish granted — but only in the worst and most ironic way.
Twisted Metal, the television series premiering Thursday on Peacock, blazes a third trail, one that might be a little more understandable to a less familiar audience: It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world of fortified city-states and murderous outlaws, with up-armored couriers called “milkmen” traversing the deadly wastes in between.
“We truly believe you’ve never seen an apocalypse like this before; it’s just fun,” executive producer Marc Forman told Polygon. “Everything John Doe faces, he does with a sense of humor, and we hope that resonates with fans.”
John Doe is, literally, the name of the empty-vessel character players control in 2001’s Twisted Metal: Black for PlayStation, the amnesiac driver of the Roadkill vehicle on a quest to discover who he really is. In the TV series, Doe is portrayed by Anthony Mackie (the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s new Captain America), who likewise has no memory of his family. In the show, John Doe also makes a bargain in hopes of securing a peaceful and happy life, which leads to a deadly cross-country adventure.
Showrunner Michael Jonathan Smith (a writer and story editor for all episodes of Cobra Kai’s first two seasons) has raved about playing Twisted Metal: Black as a teenager, most recently in a statement accompanying pre-release review copies of the Peacock series. “That inescapable feeling of joy is what I wanted to bring to life in our show,” Smith said.
But Smith was brought aboard after Forman and Will Arnett, two of a dozen executive producers, reached a deal with PlayStation Productions to adapt one of its video games, and picked Twisted Metal out of the Sony catalog as the candidate with the most TV potential.
“We viewed it as a very valuable IP, and not necessarily a dated IP in that; we thought there was something really special about the game,” Forman said.
Perhaps, but the story arc chosen still raises the same question PlayStation fans must have asked when they heard about the TV adaptation — with Arnett supplying the voice of the rampaging homicidal clown Sweet Tooth, no less: Why this? Why Twisted Metal? It’s a game that hasn’t been seen in two console generations. The series’ appeal and long-term replayability seemed to come more from the fact there was only the barest story or justification for the players’ bloodthirsty activities, not that any of the characters were relatable or made an interesting narrative journey.
“The games always felt a bit apocalyptic,” Forman reasoned. “I mean, every level in Twisted Metal: Black is a chaotic hellscape. The creative team always thought of our show as, What if Twisted Metal was a whole world? What would those sensibilities look like?
“Like, it is an older title,” Forman allowed. “But you also have this sort of nostalgic feeling like you’re playing with your friends, demolishing each other back in the day, and we wanted to inject that feeling into the series.”
The first three episodes of do convey that kind of merry, wanton violence — I’m sometimes left wondering how many bullets John Doe’s beater, whom he calls Evelyn, can actually take. But it’s also refreshing how much of the show takes place outside of the cars, particularly episode 2’s detour into Sweet Tooth’s deranged turf. Twisted Metal is more Dukes of Hazzard than Knight Rider, in that it’s a show with cars, rather than a show about cars.
The “Divided States of America,” as our wasteland is now known, fell in 2002 when some kind of EMP burst pulled a Y2K on every electronic device and plunged the nation into anarchy. This was right around the time, canonically speaking, that the Cordyceps outbreak in HBO’s The Last of Us sent that vision of America straight to hell, too. I asked Forman if there was some coordination or purposeful acknowledgement that 2002-2003 was probably the shittiest year on record in PlayStation-land; he said the narrative timing was purely coincidental. But it also allows the show to be nominally set in the present day, even if technologically it’s frozen in the year when Twisted Metal was at its apogee.
Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, two more Twisted Metal executive producers best known as co-writers on the Deadpool film trilogy, came up with the show’s post-apocalyptic underpinning, Forman said. Smith took it from there. “I don’t want to give away too much; we definitely have a ton of Easter eggs, and things that pop up along the way for religious gamers,” Forman said. “Along John’s mission, you’re going to see a lot of the iconic characters pop up, and a lot of things set up within this insane and crazy world.”
Mackie’s John Doe isn’t the only one. Although co-star Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s glowering Rosa Diaz) is an all-new, even more taciturn character named Quiet, Twisted Metal will also serve up mainstays like Agent Stone (Thomas Haden Church), in addition to series mascot Sweet Tooth (voice by Arnett; body by professional wrestler Samoa Joe).
Talking with Forman about the filming of Twisted Metal, one gets the sense of Hollywood types with shit-eating grins having a wild time making a picture out in the middle of nowhere, like Burt Reynolds inviting his pals to do Cannonball Run 40 years ago. But, Forman said, Twisted Metal can’t succeed only on wild car chases, stunt driving, and motorized trash cans blowing up one another. Mackie and Beatriz play two distrusting antiheroes forced to cooperate by desperate circumstances, and Forman hopes the chemistry he saw between the two actors gives some purpose and depth alongside the shenanigans wrought by Sweet Tooth and Stone.
Mackie, however, did do some of his own stunt driving for Twisted Metal, Forman said. It speaks to the actor’s enthusiasm for the game from his youth. The big set-piece that opens the first episode was one of the more uproarious days of shooting that Forman attended, he said.
“It all came back to the fact that we are all fans of the game,” Forman said. “The first Zoom meeting with Anthony and his manager and a producer who’s with us on this ride, Anthony talked about how he played this game back in the day, and it sort of gave him this feeling. As we were approaching him with this, he got so giddy and excited; it’s that same sort of feeling that attracted all of us at the beginning of this.”
All 10 episodes of Twisted Metal launch July 27 on Peacock.