Thursday, June 30, 2011

Toughing Out "Twin Peaks"

So after posting about the "Twin Peaks" pilot a few weeks ago, I watched the other twenty-nine episodes and came out with very mixed feelings about the whole series. "Twin Peaks" can be described as a combination of a soap opera and a crime drama, with some supernatural elements, bizarre humor, satire, and occasional horror in the mix. Very quickly the balance tilts toward soap opera, and the murder mystery at the heart of the series becomes only one storyline among many. I have no great love for soap operas, and tend to get frustrated quickly with the stereotypical plots based on characters having a multiplicity of affairs, unlikely plot twists like evil doubles and amnesia, and the good old game of "Who's the Father?" "Twin Peaks" manages to tackle every single one of these and more.

Twenty-nine episodes of "Twin Peaks" might sound like a lot to get through, but not when you're really only half-watching them. Whenever Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was onscreen investigating the death of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), I was happily engaged. However, I got fed up with some of the other stories, like the travails of poor waitress Shelley Johnson (M├Ądchen Amick), married to an abusive jerk named Leo (Eric Da Re), and having an affair with a hunky teenager, Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook). Shelley had my sympathies at first, but not after it became apparent that she really had awful taste in men and was too much of a featherbrain to extricate herself from any of the fixes she got herself into. Similarly, the super-strong, super-sensitive, one-eyed Nadine (Wendy Robie) was a fun running joke at first, but then she got amnesia and thought she was a teenager again, which led to her re-enrollment in high school. And there was also the endless saga of the lovely widow Josie Packard (Joan Chen), lover of Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), whose convoluted power-struggles with her sister-in-law Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) resulted in a tragic and rather awkwardly handled downfall.

I think, of all the side characters, the only one I was really rooting for most of the time was Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), devious daughter of the local, slimy business tycoon Ben Horne (Richard Beymer). Audrey was initially set up as a villain in the pilot, who greets the news of Laura's death with a disturbing look of glee that would seem to reflect deeper personality flaws. But soon after, harboring a fierce crush on Agent Cooper, Audrey infiltrates a sleazy gentleman's club to try and help with the investigation, getting herself into deep, deep trouble. Her sharp mind and sharper tongue made her a lot more fun to watch than the trio of teenagers also looking into Laura's death - brooding good-girl Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), Laura's boyfriend James Hurley (James Marshall), and Laura's cousin Maddy, who looks exactly like Laura and is also played by Sheryl Lee. Many of the minor, more unconventional characters like Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis), Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), and the beloved Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) turned out to be the most memorable.

The longer the show went on the more repetitive it got, like the Angelo Badalamenti score that seemed so moodily strange and interesting in the pilot, but started getting on my nerves toward the end. I remember a great, creepy shot of a streetlight that was used in one of the very early episodes, but got steadily less effective each time it popped up again. Much of this was due to the fact that "Twin Peaks" was made way back in 1990, and the production values for television simply weren't up to the level of what they are today. I'm sure it was one of the more impressive-looking shows of its time, from the intentionally retro set and costume design to the inclusion of a lot of fun little visual details - keep and eye on those donuts. But after twenty years, it too often looks exactly like the early-90s soaps it was meant to skewer. In addition, there was no small amount of studio meddling. David Lynch has stated in interviews that revealing the identity of Laura Palmer's killer in the second season came about only at the express orders of the studio, and may have lead to the show's early demise. I'm not so sure. The leisurely pace and constant digressions were becoming issues for me long before the truth about the murder emerged. The resolution of the Laura Palmer investigation and and the new storyline that was rolled out afterwards actually added some much-needed momentum to a meandering plot.

What kept me watching "Twin Peaks," though, was what people tend to remember the show for - the bizarre supernatural elements. The fact that there were these otherworldly, intangible characters running around like MIKE (Al Strobel) and BOB (Frank Silva), was utterly unique. I can see why "The X-Files" was often compared to "Twin Peaks," because both had lead FBI agent characters who had to take things like prophetic logs, surreal dreams, black magic, and possession by evil spirits absolutely seriously. The whole mythology of the Black Lodge, the White Lodge, and the Red Room is the most coherent explanation David Lynch has ever given us regarding the nature of good and evil, life and death, and the things beyond, that come up in his work so often. Thus, it provides an irresistible clue to interpreting some of Lynch's later films like "Lost Highway" and "Mulholland Drive." No wonder people have been puzzling over the trippy Red Room sequences for years. Oh, and the backwards-speaking dwarf (Michael J. Anderson) and the cryptic Giant (Carel Struyken)? Awesome.

I wish these darker, more interesting ideas hadn't been used so sparingly in "Twin Peaks." It often felt like whole episodes were swallowed up by leaden love triangles and small-scale local intrigues, with only a bit of fancy camera work or a bizarre visual to remind us we were watching "Twin Peaks." Did we really have to see a whole comedic subplot about Deputy Andy's rivalry with clothing salesman Dick Tremayne (Ian Buchanan) for the affections of receptionist Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson)? I actually liked the quieter romance of Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton), except that the third point in their triangle was crazy Nadine. Or maybe it was just because all these romances seemed to follow the conventional soap opera norms of the time. Everyone was shallow and prone to jealousy, men often flew into fits of violent, animalistic rage, and the women, aside from Audrey and Catherine, were too often passive or self-deluded. But then, the result of all of this was that a lot of attractive young women got victimized by older, desperate men, a theme that recurs in "Twin Peaks" again and again, most prominently with Laura Palmer herself. If the show had gone on longer, maybe the creators could have gone further with this idea - but well, bygones.

The good parts of "Twin Peaks" are worth sitting through the weaker material to see, and I'm glad I stuck it out all the way to the end of the series. In the last handful of episodes familiar faces like David Duchovny, David Warner, Heather Graham, Billy Zane, and David Lynch himself show up to play recurring characters. The cliffhanger at the end of the second season is a real shocker, and I wish we could have seen a resolution, even though I know deep down it was never really that kind of show. There is a follow-up film, "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," that I plan to track down soon. It's a prequel to the events of the series, so I know there won't be many answers forthcoming. Hopefully though, in a big screen format, free from the constraints of prime time television, David Lynch might be able to at least flesh out the story a little better. So many of the more unsavory parts of Laura Palmer's last days were mentioned in passing but left ofscreen - the drug use, the implied sex addiction, and whatever was going on with her parents, Leland (Ray Wise) and Sarah (Grace Zabriskie). Her story could easily benefit from being told on film.

In the end, "Twin Peaks" more than deserves its cult status and its place in popular culture. I've honestly never seen anything like it, aside from parts of Lynch's own movies. The television format helped in some ways, affording the creators more time in which to build up the story and explore a wider universe of different characters, but also hampered it in others. I remain intrigued, but also more than a little unsatisfied with "Twin Peaks." So many unanswered questions remain. Would the show have come off better if it had been a more limited miniseries? If it had been made in the current cable television Renaissance? If audiences hadn't lost interest in "Twin Peaks" as quickly as they became enamored with it? If we had never learned who killed Laura Palmer?

Hmmm... has anyone heard from that log lately?
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