Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Films of David Lynch: Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

Twin Peaks (TV Series) (1990-91) 30 Episodes
Created By: David Lynch & Mark Frost.

Note: This isn’t an episode by episode breakdown – not even of the six directed by Lynch - of the show just some general thoughts on it. I don’t have the time for that – although I have seen the entire run of the show within the last six months – for the third time.

More than 20 years after Twin Peaks went off the air, the series still stands as perhaps the weirdest show ever to make it to network television in America. Stranger still is the fact that for a brief time, Twin Peaks was the pop culture sensation of the moment. It’s thrilling first season – a two hour pilot and 7 more 1 hour episodes – became must watch TV, no matter how weird it all got. Perhaps it was inevitable that the show could not maintain the level of inspired genius of season 1. With Lynch not as hands on in season 2, the series suffered – it took weird detours into overstuffed subplots, and started to feel like it was just adding stuff for the sake of being weird. The mastery of tone that was present throughout season one – perched precariously between parody, thriller, comedy and surreal nightmare – began to slip. Knowing they were going to be canceled at the end of the season, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost decided not to wrap up the series, as most would do knowing the ax was falling, but instead end season 2 with what seemed like a giant fuck you to the audience and the network. Than when Lynch went on to make the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me the year after the season was cancelled (which will get its own post), people assumed he would wrap the series up for real. Instead, once again, Lynch basically said fuck you to the audience with the film – no wonder it was hated (and not wonder it has since found the cult it deserves). Lynch was a cult director before Twin Peaks, and he returned to one after. But for a few glorious moments, David Lynch had mass appeal – and he used it to its full potential.

The first season of Twin Peaks remains one of the great TV seasons of all time. If you’re looking for the start of auteur driven television – which has since given us everything from The Sopranos to Mad Men – it’s here. The series opens with the body of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) being discovered in the titular small town. Twin Peaks seems like the perfect place – an idyllic logging community, where everyone knows everyone else, and people are friendly. They have a square jawed Sheriff, a bumbling deputy, the local diner, where everyone eats. Life revolves around the high school, the diner, and the logging companies – where most people work, or depend on anyway, to support them. Laura was one of the stars of the town – a beautiful, teenage blonde, who was dating the popular football star, Bobby, and was best friends with the goody-two shoes Donna. The pilot episode is all about the immediate aftermath of discovering the body – and how it affected everyone in town in strong ways. Laura’s parents (Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie) most of all, but hardly alone.

Into this town walks FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) – who immediately falls in love with the place. It has the smell of pine, great coffee, and one hell of a piece of pie. He sees the inherent goodness in the town, and wants to get to the bottom of the case. He gets “feelings” sometimes about a case – and occasionally has dreams in which he’ll discover clues. Perhaps the most famous scene in all of Twin Peaks is one such dream – in an episode directed by Lynch himself – as a mysterious dwarf in a red room speaks backwards telling him what he needs to know.

The first season of Twin Peaks works brilliantly because it is able to keep all its many moving pieces in the air at the same time. It’s certainly an odd series of television – and we’re never quite sure how everything is going to fit together, but you also don’t really care. It feels like Lynch and Frost have you right where they want you – and twist the series every so often to keep you guessing. The cast is large – but it makes sense since the show isn’t solely about a murder of a woman, but her effect on the town. As the season progresses, Agent Cooper continues to believe in the inherent goodness of the town and its people – but we in the audience aren’t as convinced. There is something evil in this place – and it’s been there a long time – and the town has seemingly actively avoided it. Laura’s death makes it impossible to look away. The season ends with a cliff hanger – Agent Cooper getting shot by a mask man. It was the perfect way to end – and set up what was to come brilliantly.

What came, of course, was the wildly uneven Season 2. For everything that worked brilliantly – like the opening of Season 2, with Agent Cooper lying on the ground bleeding for the first half of the first episode – there were an ever increasing number of subplots, characters and detours that took us away from what we really wanted to see. Lynch and Frost conflicted about whether or not to solve the murder – Lynch didn’t want to, Frost did (they both said they knew from the beginning who the murderer was) – and when they did solve the murder halfway through season 2, the show didn’t seem to have a plan on where to go to next. Ratings kept dropping, and the show was eventually axed – but not before Lynch returned to direct the series finale, a mindfuck of an episode worthy of him.

Twin Peaks remains one of my favorite TV shows ever – even the uneven season 2. Say what you want about – it was still weirder and more daring than anything else on TV. No, it didn’t work anywhere near as well as season 1 – but it was something anyway.

At its best, Twin Peaks was a masterful mixture of tragedy, comedy, thriller, parody and surreal nightmare. It walked that line brilliantly – and introduced us to a host of characters that remain lodged in your mind. The first season is genius – and deserves all the praise it receives. The second season is deeply flawed, but is worthy of your attention. Twin Peaks represented the apex of Lynch’s popularity – for a short period of time it seemed that people were on his wavelength. It didn’t last long – but I’m amazed it happened at all.

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