It’s pretty safe to say that 2023 has been a breakout year for video game adaptations in film and TV. From the weekly drama of The Last of Us on HBO to the family-friendly blockbuster success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, these adaptations are no longer the maligned flops they once were, which is what makes Twisted Metal on Peacock so curious. It’s based on a popular PlayStation series but one that hasn’t had a new entry in over a decade. And for much of the first season’s runtime, it also barely has anything to do with the vehicular combat games that it’s pulling from.
At a time when game adaptations are striving more than ever to be faithful to their sources while also trying to thrust them into a new medium, Twisted Metal stands apart — instead of getting at the heart of the franchise, it’s a generic postapocalyptic story that tries to slather over its missteps with far too many jokes that result in far too few laughs.
The show takes place 20 years after some kind of Y2K-style disaster turned the US into a Mad Max wasteland. There are still major cities, but they’re all surrounded by walls to protect them from the lawless and dangerous world outside. Keeping the system together are couriers called milkmen, who make deliveries of important (and sometimes not very important) goods between cities. Twisted Metal primarily follows a milkman named John Doe (Anthony Mackie) who is presented with an amazing opportunity: pick up a package in Chicago and deliver it on schedule, and he gets to live inside of the safe haven known as New San Francisco, giving up his dangerous life for good.
There is lots of driving in the show and many cars with guns strapped to them, but most of the action in John’s journey takes place outside of the vehicles. The world of Twisted Metal’s America is divided into a number of different and often very strange factions. There are the butchers, BBQ fanatics who are also cannibals; a biker gang that doubles as a religious cult; a convoy of truckers who never stop moving; and a hardline police force led by Agent Stone (Thomas Haden Church) that treats any small offense with a brutal form of justice. And then there’s the killer clown Sweet Tooth (voiced by Will Arnett but physically played by wrestler Samoa Joe) who rules over Las Vegas. Basically, there’s a lot that can go wrong between San Francisco and Chicago, and most of it does.
Over the course of that journey, Twisted Metal tries to be two very different things, neither of which it pulls off very well and that don’t really gel together anyway. First, this show really wants you to know that it’s an irreverent comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. John Doe never shuts up, spewing out a never-ending stream of jokes and one-liners that rarely land. He’s balanced out somewhat by his partner Quiet (Stephanie Beatriz), who makes jokes more sparingly (hence the name), but the sheer barrage of comedic attempts means that even the rare funny moments — a sex scene in a ball pit comes to mind — are quickly forgotten because of even more jokes and oh so many early 2000s pop songs. Basically, the two main characters — John Doe and Sweet Tooth — do almost nothing aside from kill people and joke about it.
At the same time, Twisted Metal tries to get surprisingly dark and serious at various points. This mostly has to do with the characters’ backstories, which often have lots of tragic deaths and brutal circumstances that turned them into the killers we see in the show. But these moments are often either too silly to take seriously — Agent Stone’s ridiculous backstory is the prime example — or completely undercut by a bunch of dick jokes. The result is two very disparate sides of the same show that feel at odds with one another.
Making matters worse is that, aside from the inclusion of Sweet Tooth, there’s very little about this show that screams Twisted Metal. I’ll be first to admit that the original games didn’t have much in the way of memorable stories or characters (Axel aside), but if that’s the case, why adapt it at all? For most of its runtime, Twisted Metal feels like a typical postapocalyptic show that just so happens to have Sweet Tooth and a bunch of characters with the same names as those from the Twisted Metal video game. This does change in the final episode when — spoiler warning — we’re promised some of the actual vehicle combat the series is known for. But that’ll have to wait for a new season, if that ever happens.
Ultimately, the first season of Twisted Metal feels like a 10-episode cutscene before we get to the gameplay, which isn’t actually available yet. Obviously, it was important to set up the world and characters for a show like this, but the series does it in a way that both takes too long and isn’t particularly fun. Twisted Metal is neither twisted nor metal, though it does make me wish Sony would make a new game already.
The first season of Twisted Metal starts streaming on Peacock on July 27th.