Friday, August 26, 2011

Two Decades Ago, There Was a Little Town Called Twin Peaks

As a lifelong geek, the unusual, the supernatural, even the disturbing are elements that act as enticements for me in the entertainment I choose to consume. Of course, everyone has their own limits there. I've watched most of director David Lynch's films and projects, and I don't always enjoy them. I kind of hated Eraserhead, liked Mulholland Drive even though it gave me a headache, and have really mixed feelings about Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet. It isn't surprising then, that my favorite Lynch project is the one with the most mainstream appeal, where his weirdness and dark, disturbing imagination is tempered by collaboration with Mark Frost, in the early 1990's mystery/drama Twin Peaks. Frost's stuff, on its own, usually has a strong sense of moving plot along and mainstream appeal, but doesn't have a whole lot of depth (he wrote a few entertaining but unremarkable novels and was a lead writer for the Fantastic Four movie.) Lynch is all depth, his work dripping with visual metaphor and convoluted and cryptic plotting, but he goes so far into his own worlds that the stories are nigh-incomprehensible to the average person. Together, they made something amazing.

Gone too soon.

Twin Peaks rose to popularity by posing a single question: “Who killed Laura Palmer?” The prom queen, volunteer, friend to so many in the little Northwestern town had her life ahead of her, and she was savagely murdered. The ritualized manner of her death brought in the FBI, most particularly the peculiar and unconventional Special Agent Dale Cooper. The atmosphere of the logging town with local eccentrics, long standing traditions... I'd be hard pressed to identify another fictional location that was as well developed. The town itself was a character with more depth than most protagonists in TV before or since. To this day, if someone talks about excellent coffee and pie, I think of Twin Peaks. The combination of mystery, soap opera, cop show and supernatural elements blended together to create something unique and special.

The town itself, and the plot, had three distinct layers. The top layer was the public face of the town, where the local high school kids ride motorcycles around with their girlfriends, the Great Northern Lodge ran its business, the quirky local sheriff's office handled local crime. The small town character on this surface layer was interesting enough, but just below the surface, there was something else. The seedy, secret side of the town dealt with addictions, sex, violence and madness that lurked somewhere below the local festivals and town meetings. Laura Palmer was the darling of the surface world, but just a little digging showed that she lived in the shadowy world of the town's secret shame. Almost every character has a secret that makes them touch on this second layer, and they'll lie, cheat and maybe even kill to keep these secrets.

To date, this man's best role.

The third layer of depth in the series and the town that gave the show its name is perhaps what it is best known for. A touch of the supernatural, where there are secrets that the town eccentric, the log lady knows and discusses with her pet piece of firewood. Something in the woods, connected to an ancient cave that locals know about, but don't speak of in the daylight, something that can send a message through military satellites in the SETI program. A figure with long hair, bestial in nature that insists that HE killed young Laura Palmer. Giants and dwarves who talk backwards, and an unusual room with red curtains for walls, a black and white zig-zag pattern on the floor and sparse furnishings where secrets might be learned in dreams, but not understood. A place real enough to have a name, The Black Lodge.

I loved this show. I was distraught when it was canceled, and more distraught at the ending, since the second season cliffhanger remains to this day unresolved. The demise of this series was, from the beginning, a classic case of studio interference in a great thing. Pressure was put on the series creators to pay off the mystery plot, to answer the big question of who Laura Palmer's murderer was by the end of the first season. David Lynch originally never intended that question to have a solid answer, the pursuit of the mystery and the dark twists and turns Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman would follow were the story, they pursued an answer that wasn't important to the narrative. It was simply the driving goal that would motivate the characters to plumb the depths of the town's dirty laundry and start reaching that third layer of dark and ancient magic. This is probably why most people were unsatisfied with the answer once they got it, and stopped watching in droves.

This program was about a question. When it was answered, people said,
"All right, then." and they stopped watching.

Predictably, the studio responded with typical further interference. Long breaks between scheduled episodes, night and timeslot change, the full laundry list of what a network can and too often does go through to dismantle a struggling series' remaining fanbase. These actions inevitably result in cancellation, and that is precisely what happened. Incensed by the network's actions, Lynch refused to rewrite the series finale to provide closure, leaving it as originally conceived. Fans drew some hope when several years later, there was the Twin Peaks film, Fire Walk With Me... but many were disappointed to find that this was a prequel of sorts that answered no lingering questions and instead posed several new ones.

I highly recommend checking out the whole series if someone can stand the emotional impact of knowing there isn't a proper ending. The supplementary reading materials, from the Access Guide to Twin Peaks, to the Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and Dale Cooper's My Life, My Tapes really round out the setting and background of some of the principal characters. Answers are found in these books, if not resolution to hanging plot elements. Every few years, I go back and watch the two seasons of this 20-year old program again, and I think it has actually gotten better as I've gotten older, rather than tarnishing over time. I think I'd rather have the incomplete but compelling story of something like Twin Peaks over the host of other shows that got their plots wrapped up neatly by the end, but were never all that great to begin with.
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Timothy said...

Lifelong geek + David Lynch = NO DUNE (1984) REFERENCE?
And no mention of the Psych tribute epsiode?

Jay said...

the only thing that popped to my mind when reading the title was "twin pines mall" from back to the future. :|

Alpha said...

No resolution to a cliff-hanger ending?

Completely unacceptable

A Beer for the Shower said...

Wow, blast from the past, I absolutely loved this show. And I 100% agree, this was the best role Kyle MacLachlan ever had. You know, before he became the annoying, snobby guy on Sex and the City. Terrible.

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