Anyone who has ever experienced David Lynch’s work knows he has a taste for the bizarre. The idea of trying to convey his eclectic sensibility onto the small screen seems almost too difficult a task, and yet “Twin Peaks” succeeds brilliantly. Equal parts chilling murder mystery, supernatural thriller and melodramatic soap opera, “Twin Peaks” is perhaps the most unusual show you will ever see. Originally aired in 1990, the series was the brainchild of Lynch and Mark Frost. The first season consisted of a 90-minute pilot — which because of right entanglements has only recently seen an official U.S. release as part of the DVD box set of the entire series — and seven regular episodes. Despite critical lauding and a strong viewer following (stop me if you’ve heard this one), it was canceled after its second season, mainly due to the plot’s becoming denser, not to mention (this might seem familiar, too) the network constantly changing its time slot, thus creating further frustration for the viewers. However, “Twin Peaks” still maintains a strong (deservedly so) cult following, and is without question one of the best shows you will ever see.
The show was not for everyone. Part of the challenge was that it was a true serial, and missing a single episode felt like tearing out chapters in a book. Every scene, every action and interaction was linked to events in the past as well as the future. Watching each episode in order was crucial. Unlike, say, “The X-Files,” there are no standalone episodes, and several episodes end in a cliffhanger. Added to that, the list of characters was huge, and almost all of them fully fleshed-out with their own backstory; as such, everyone was in some way integral to the main plot. The characters were also downright odd, partially attributable to the fact that Lynch and Frost each chose specific characters to write, partially because they also wanted to make the town something of a cabinet of curiosity, with widely and wildly varied thoughts and feelings, and partially because, well, it’s David Lynch. “Twin Peaks” also had elements of the paranormal and the supernatural — characters have visions, Cooper is aided in solving mysteries through eerie dream sequences — most of which is rarely questioned by the other characters and instead simply accepted as part of the natural order of things. Even the music had a dreamy, ethereal quality to it that creates an almost fairy tale-like atmosphere throughout the show.
The simplest, and perhaps most inadequate, way to describe “Twin Peaks” is with the infamous simple question: “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Set in fictional Twin Peaks, Washington, the series begins with a fisherman finding the body of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) bruised, beaten and wrapped in plastic. Quickly, town sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) realizes he is out of his depth, and FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) arrives to assist with the murder investigation and is quickly drawn into the quirky, strange town and the complicated lives of its residents. Along the way, Cooper and his steadfast partner Truman get caught up the other mysteries and the affected townsfolk — Leo Johnson (Eric DaRe), the dangerous trucker who is smuggling drugs into the town while abusing his wife, Shelley (Madchen Amick), who is in turn cheating on him with Laura’s troubled boyfriend, Bobby (Dana Ashbrook); Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), the wealthy hotelier and store owner who is plotting the downfall of the town’s mill for his own nefarious purposes; Josie Packard (Joan Chen), the quiet, mysterious owner of the mill (as well as Truman’s lover); and Blackie, the owner of One-Eyed Jack’s, a casino and brothel across the Canadian border that plays an integral role in the show. To face all of these various personae, Cooper is also joined by the several intrepid deputies, including the seemingly bumbling Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) and the somewhat derivative wise Native American, Hawk (Michael Horse). Several other parties are also conducting their own personal investigations into Laura’s death, like James Hurley (James Marshall), the James Dean wannabe who Laura was seeing on the sly before she was killed, who is joined by his new girlfriend, Donna Hayward (a surprisingly cute Lara Flynn Boyle, back when she still ate solid food). And Ben Horne’s daughter, the innocent yet coquettish Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn), harbors an infatuation with Cooper and tries to assist him, usually with mixed results.
MacLachlan is spectacular in this show. His Agent Cooper is simultaneously a Holmesian investigative genius, a sensitive believer in the supernatural, a good friend to the townspeople and a crack shot with a pistol. He’s filled with quirks that humanize his character even more — his continued pursuit of a great cup of coffee and his love of pie are particularly fun — and sage wisdom. What will strike many as curious, however, is his investigative style. Some of it is based on forensics, common sense and experience. Some of it, however, is based on dreams and visions. One of the most famous bits from “Twin Peaks” is Cooper’s dream with “The Man From Another Place,” a tiny man in a red suit who speaks in a distorted voice (created by having the actor recite his lines backwards, then lip-syncing that recording as it’s played backwards), who talks in riddles to provide Cooper with clues. Cooper is open about his beliefs and his dreams, and yet the sheriff simply makes the leaps and believes him. MacLachlan is probably better here than he’s ever been. In fact, most of the cast is better here than they are in the rest of their careers. Fenn, who was pretty much never seen in anything popular again (and don’t you dare mention Boxing Helena) is wonderful here, wide-eyed yet seductive and one of the best actors on the show. Most of the cast is, for the most part, unknown or forgotten these days, with a few exceptions. Miguel Ferrer, as Cooper’s socially defective, abrasive forensics expert Albert, shows up rarely, but when he does, he takes up the screen with his presence. Everyone else, despite being relatively unknown, fits into the show beautifully. Other standouts include Ray Wise as Leland Palmer, Laura’s father who slowly descends into madness after the murder, and Piper Laurie as the conniving Catherine Martell, who is colluding with Ben Horne for the downfall of the mill.
Of course, at the beginning of the show, everyone is a suspect. The show is filled to overflowing with hints, red herrings, and confusing plot twists. You never know which of the several sub-plots is directly connected to the murder, and only by slow, thorough process of elimination does the show direct you toward the killer. Meanwhile, the narrative process is dictated by Cooper, who routinely records his thoughts and suspicions into a voice recorder, directed at “Diane,” perhaps his assistant, whom you never see or hear. It’s a simple tool that serves both as an insight into Cooper’s mind and personality as well as a chronicle of the show’s progress. Simultaneously, the more soap-opera themed scenes, while off-putting to some, are also all part of Lynch’s deliberate, clever plan. Many of the confrontations or dramatic scenes are filmed with the kind of gauzy, overwrought acting that one expects to see in “Guiding Light,” yet they are very deliberate and all part of the fascinating infrastructure of “Twin Peaks.” In fact, there even is a show-within-a-show, a television soap called “Invitation to Love,” that not only provides some amusing side notes but also frequently serves as a kind of foreshadowing, mimicking elements of the real show before they happen. As such, it serves as an ironic play off the more melodramatic scenes in the series. It’s one of the several strange elements that provide additional narrative direction; others include The Log Lady, a strange woman who talks to an empathic log, and Palmer’s mother, who is the only one to have perhaps seen the killer — although, of course, it was in a vision.
Despite being dead, Laura herself plays a continuing key role. Prior to her death, she was blindly adored by the town — the homecoming queen who helped Josie learn English, assisted Audrey’s disabled brother and enjoyed the perfect life. However, as the investigation progresses, deeper and darker and more depraved secrets are uncovered. It becomes apparent that this sweet, beatific flower had a sickness eating at her roots, choking and sometimes even destroying her as well as those around her. Over time, we see how her self-destructive flaws set her on the path that led to that virtually inevitable fateful night. With each secret that’s discovered, there is a reverberation felt by the other characters. As each wall of Laura’s carefully constructed facade crumbles, the people around her are irrevocably changed … and rarely for the better.
Lynch’s production, however, is the star of the show. He manages to juggle more than a dozen main characters, giving you reason to care about, or fear, each and every one of them. You’ll remember every single name after the first couple of episodes. He uses the spectacular scenery as its own character, and the regular sets all become living, breathing things and begin to feel like home. But at the end of the day, it’s his (and Frost’s) writing and directing that make the show. The plot is chaotic and confusing; after all, it involves dreams, people with precognitive abilities, murders, and even a hint of demonic possession, while still maintaining its central focus as a character-driven murder mystery. Lynch deftly weaves all of these elements together, never letting you in on the secret, while managing to keep you engaged and interested. Some of that interest is in the sheer audacity of the show — you simply have to continue watching to see what madness he’ll come up with next — but much of it is due to genuinely caring about the characters and their lives, smiling when they’re happy and worrying when they’re in jeopardy. The show is rife with melodrama, while light on violence and action, yet with Lynch writing and directing, the strange world is so addicting that the slowness doesn’t hinder the story.
All of this combines into a beautiful disaster of a television series. The second season, while still good, was unable to capture the glory of the first. When the show debuted, “Twin Peaks” was a complete surprise. Much like many shows that are driven by a single event or theme (“Lost,” for example), it was difficult to keep viewers coming back, a situation not helped by ABC’s meddling with Season Two’s schedule. Yet the world of “Twin Peaks” is so fully rendered, so intricately detailed, that for much of the show that central theme — the murder of Laura Palmer — seems almost secondary. It instead becomes a series of tales about the lives and relationships of the town’s denizens, and all the strange, sweet, and sometimes terrible and venal actions they take. Although everything seems like it may be linked to the murder, the characters are so richly developed that one could easily imagine any one of them being the focus of their own show. As a result, “Twin Peaks” is a masterpiece of densely plotted, gorgeously filmed television, the likes of which I’ve never seen before and have yet to see since.
TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.
Guides | May 6, 2008 | Comments ()