Over twenty years ago now, America went through Peaksmania, a brief but rabid obsession with the television crime drama "Twin Peaks." It was conceived in part by American film auteur David Lynch, who also wrote and directed several episodes. I never saw any of the series while it was airing, not being quite old enough for it, but I remember the cultural impact. Subsequent supernatural shows like "The X-Files" and "Eerie, Indiana" were always compared to "Twin Peaks." Parodies were everywhere. Even the "Darkwing Duck" cartoon got in on the action with a surreal "Twin Beaks" episode. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that the show was weird and a bit disturbing, but in a novel way that inspired endless fascination.
Soon enough I grew up into the pretentious film nerd I am today, and after getting my brains utterly warped by a viewing of "Mulholland Drive" back in 2001, I watched nearly everything David Lynch directed. For a long time now, one of the last unwatched titles on the list has been "Twin Peaks," along with its movie sequel, "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me." I just never had the time, the means, or quite enough curiosity to commit myself to tracking down and viewing the whole thirty-episode series. (My fatal flaw is that I'm a completist.) But now "Twin Peaks" is on Netflix's Instant Watch, so I'm all out of excuses. I watched the ninety-minute pilot last night and I'll definitely be back for more. Here are a few initial thoughts.
I never could reconcile the status of "Twin Peaks" as this massive popular phenomenon with the rest of David Lynch's work, which is often difficult and of very limited appeal. Wouldn't Lynch's signature surrealism and experimental cinematic sensibilities be compromised by the television format? This was 1990, remember, when you never saw television shows take the kinds of risks that they regularly do today. "Twin Peaks," to my delight, was well ahead of the curve. Lynch directed the pilot, which looks like a very typical murder mystery at first glance. The body of teenage prom queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is found one morning on the bank of a river, wrapped in plastic. This sparks an investigation in her home town of Twin Peaks, a tiny logging community just south of the Canadian border. The pilot spends a lot of time introducing us to various townsfolk, who we'll surely learn more about later.
But right from the start, there's something odd about the atmosphere, and a dissonance about certain elements. I found myself laughing incredulously as deeply emotional moments were accompanied by deliriously melodramatic music. I was prepared for weirdness, but I didn't expect "Twin Peaks" to be so funny and so subversive. It takes all the familiar elements of crime procedurals like "L.A. Law," and prime time soap operas like "Dynasty," and subtly mocks them, sometimes by taking certain tropes to their extremes, or highlighting incongruities by playing incompatible cliches against each other. There's a heightened, satirical quality to most of the characters, like Laura's ratfink boyfriend Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), and the chirrupy sheriff's receptionist Lucy (Kimmy Robertson). Some are just plain bizarre, like the eye-patch wearing Nadine (Wendy Hurley) and the briefly introduced Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson), who is notable for carrying around - you guessed it - a small log.
The show's best creation, however, is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, who comes to Twin Peaks to lead the investigation into Laura Palmer's murder. I'd seen MacLachlan before in Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and "Dune," and was not convinced of his charms. As Agent Cooper, however, MacLachlan is fantastic. The super-cool G-Man seems to have stepped out a Dashiell Hammett novel, often providing his own detail-oriented deadpan narration into a pocket recorder. MacLachlan's comic timing and dialogue delivery are perfect, especially as he waxes poetic about the cherry pie at the diner and the pristine natural scenery. He's working on such a different wavelength from anyone else in the show, Agent Cooper doesn't seem to be just from out of town, but from another planet entirely.
At the same time, there is something terribly unnerving about the way "Twin Peaks" breaks from form, and the tone can change from humorous to sinister without warning. One of the deputy sheriffs, Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), has a bad habit of crying at crime scenes, which is played for laughs at first. But then, later in the pilot, the camera stays on him during another breakdown, and suddenly it's not so funny at all, but a little frightening. And then there's the ending, shot with a jostled handheld camera and set to a soundtrack of shattering screams from Laura's mother Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), that takes us to the brink of all-out horror.
It's clear that under that veneer of civility and small town charm, darker things are lurking in Twin Peaks. Some of these secrets are fairly benign, like couples having affairs and teenagers defying parental authority. Others surely are not. "Twin Peaks" has a lot in common with David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," which explored the dark underbelly of suburban America. Based on that film, I expect the show to go to some very dark and terrifying places usually shunned by network television. I already know that supernatural elements are going to manifest sooner or later. Apparently there will also be a dancing dwarf. I can't wait to see how far Lynch and his crew are willing to go.
And I haven't even gotten into the cinematography, or the Northwestern setting, or the editing, or the donuts, or even most of the sprawling cast, which includes a young Lara Flynn Boyle looking remarkably like a "Heathers" era Winona Ryder. But this post has gone on long enough. While watching the pilot I had to marvel that a major television network actually had the guts to air this, to put something really challenging and original and David Freakin' Lynch in front of the unwary mainstream audience.
And I'm absolutely tickled that the American public went for it.