Sunday, January 20, 2008

David Lynch and Mark Frost, "Twin Peaks" (1990).

After watching the complete offerings of several television programs that I had always wanted to see (Oz, Carnivale, The Prisoner), I finally decided to take a stab at seeing the entire Twin Peaks series. The show was created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, and was first aired starting in 1990 on ABC. It was tremendously original, and took millions of viewers by surprise. Lynch had made a string of extremely idiosyncratic features, including Eraserhead (1977), Dune (1984), and Blue Velvet (1986) . In short, he was already known as one of the strangest filmmakers in American history. I remember when Twin Peaks first came out because it got an astonishing amount of critical and commercial acclaim. It caught media observers off guard, because it was put up against Cheers (one of the most popular sitcoms in history) on Thursday nights. Everyone involved with the project was taken aback by its tremendous reception. Viewers were captivated by the show, and anxiously waited out the intervening days between episodes, wondering what would happen next.

The central puzzle in Twin Peaks dealt with the question, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" The teenage character was everything a girl would want to be- popular, beautiful, smart and talented. She had what appeared to be a loving family and many friends. Yet in the wake of her death, it was revealed that she had a hidden life that no one truly knew about. The unraveling of that story is the focus of the series pilot and its first season of seven episodes. Surrounding that main narrative was a full cast of quirky and odd characters. Kyle MacLachlan played FBI agent Dale Cooper, who was called in to help sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) investigate the killing of Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee). Meanwhile there was a devious hotel owner (Richard Beymer), a black widow (Joan Chen), the manager of a saw mill (Lynch-favorite, Jack Nance), and a community doctor (Warren Frost). Surrounding these prominent figures was a bevy of young and attractive actors including Sherilyn Fenn, Lara Flynn Boyle, Madchen Amick, James Marshall, and Dana Ashbrook. And this was but a mere sampling of the major players.

There were certainly a lot of folks to keep track of. In fact it might have been an overwhelming prospect had it not been for the genius of Lynch and Frost. The dark atmospheric beauty and the enigmatic qualities of the main setting made watching Twin Peaks particularly compelling. The rustic little Northwestern town and its surrounding forests provided a suitable tableau for the type of mysteries that its creators had in store. Charming details like Cooper's love of cherry pie, and the inordinate donut consumption in the sheriff's office seized its obsessive audience, and inspired parties organized around each episode. Tantalizing glimpses of a surreal dreamworld, and appearances by a giant, a dwarf, and a woman carrying a log for a companion hooked the collective imagination of all who watched.

By the time the first season was concluded, Twin Peaks had been promised a second one. It took nine more episodes to get to the revelation of Laura Palmer's killer. Some were satisfied, and others were left cold by the explanations. Still there were thirteen installments yet to come. Many felt that the show lost its tension and genius with the solution of Palmer's death. Naturally people had been clamoring for the answer for as long as it was dangling on the edge of events. Yet its eventual disclosure somehow removed an essential aspect of what had made the story so irresistible. Indeed neither Lynch nor Frost had ever planned on resolving the main question in the first place. They had correctly identified that device as the element that made the series work. But the network financiers believed that the audience needed resolution, and forced it upon Lynch and Frost. The remaining 13 episodes meandered through a range of fantastic and unlikely narrative threads. The back end of Twin Peaks was still quirky, but vaguely anticlimactic.

Despite the relatively disappointing nature of the second half of the series, I found a wealth of enjoyment in watching Twin Peaks in its entirety. More than fifteen years after it originally came out, its excellence is still obvious. There is a good reason that this show forever changed the standard for quality serial television. I noticed more possibilities for development that ultimately went unexplored in Twin Peaks than most shows have offered altogether. Any loose ends it left by its conclusion should be forgiven- as it delivered more in its two seasons than 99% of all television, before or since its appearance. In fact there is a whole new generation of viewers just now discovering its brilliance, with the recent complete series release on DVD. If like me you missed it the first time around, make sure to grab this opportunity to see Twin Peaks. It's more than just entertaining... it's an education in the possibilities of the form.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:08 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Duly noted, and edited.

3:10 PM  

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