March 29, 2023

What I've been watching: February, 2023

Shows I’ve Watched:
Shows I've Added:
Twin Peaks (season 1)

The Lineup

There's a blogathon that's run several times in the past: "The Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon." I've never entered it when it's come around, partly because I couldn't decide if it means my most favorite TV episode ever, or if it's the favorite episode of my favorite TV series. Now, I don't know if Twin Peaks is one of my top 10 series of all time (I'll be revisiting that list next month, so maybe we'll find out then!), but I can say with complete certainty that it contains my favorite episode of any show I've ever watched. Having determined that, we can now be sure that this particular blogathon will never come around again.

For anyone under the age of, say, 40, it may be hard to explain just how transformative—how radical, how subversive, how bizarre—the pilot for Twin Peaks was when it premiered on ABC on April 8, 1990. I think it's safe to say that nothing like it had ever been seen on network television before, and rewatching it 33 years later, it still comes across as a remarkable two hours. If anything about it seems clichéd today, it's because of the many attempts to copy it since then; but Twin Peaks was the first, and in most ways, the best.

For one thing, it had the involvement of one of the boldest filmmakers of his time, David Lynch. Lynch had first appeared on the scene with his cult favorite Eraserhead, and followed up with a Best Director nomination for The Elephant Man. (He received a second nomination for Blue Velvet, a movie with a passing resemblance to Twin Peaks; perhaps it happened in another neighborhood. A third followed, for Mulholland Dr., which is strange on a different plane.) Giving Lynch the keys to a weekly television series was a real statement; the fact that I can't really say for sure what kind of statement it was speaks for itself. He teamed up with Mark Frost, a writer who'd worked on episodes of Hill Street Blues; together they came up with a combination police procedural/soap opera/coming of age story, one that took the conventional (police trying to solve a murder) and dropped it in the middle of a fantastical setting, one that would have been perfectly at home in a Fellini movie. 

If you're not familiar with Twin Peaks, the basics are this: a teenaged girl's dead body, wrapped in plastic, washes ashore in the town of Twin Peaks, Washington. Because of the similarities to another murder that took place in the Northwest, the FBI, in the form of special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLaughlin) is brought into the case, and forms a close working relationship with Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean). Laura Palmer, the dead girl, was popular, beautiful, homecoming queen of the high school, and her violent death affects every member of the town; those effects form part of the deepening mystery, which combines elements of the supernatural with prostitution, drug dealing, surrealistic dream worlds, and absurdist comedy. Nothing, as they say in these kinds of stories, is what it seems.  

And that's Twin Peaks in a nutshell. Lynch shot the pilot with an alternete ending, solving the murder, so that it could be released as a movie if ABC passed on it as a regular series. But the network did pick it up, and so Twin Peaks premiered as a limited series; when it proved to be a ratings blockbuster (one of the most talked-about TV shows of its time), renewed it for a second season, where it turned out not everything was wrapped up as neatly as we thought. Not surprisingly, the second season floundered—ABC, proceeding on the assumption that nothing succeeds like excess, drove it into the ground (as it would Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? a decade later)—and the series was eventually cancelled, only to be resurrected a quarter-century later on Showtime, with Lynch and Frost picking up the story after 25 years had passed.

But this isn't about Twin Peaks Season One, which, for the most part, is superb; nor is it about Season Two, which, for the most part, isn't; or Season Three, which we'll look at after we're done rewatching seasons one and two. This is all about the pilot, and what made—and makes—it so unsettling, so extraordinary.

Take, for instance, the scene in Twin Peaks High: the empty desk at roll call, a girl running screaming past the classroom window just before the students are given word of Laura's death, the principal's announcement echoing down the empty corridors of the school. The scene at Laura's house, her mother calling around wondering where she is, the framing of the ceiling fan in the upstairs hallway (surely the most sinister ceiling fan ever seen on television). The scene at the Great Northern Hotel, where Leland Palmer, Laura's father, tries to reassure his frantically worried wife while Sheriff Truman is seen in the background through the window, preparing to give Leland the horrible news. The malfunctioning fluorescent lights in the room where Agent Cooper examines Laura's corpse, a surreal moment made even moreso by the knowledge that the light actually was malfunctioning, and Lynch decided to go with it because of its disorienting effect. The intermittent shots of a lonely stop light, swaying back and forth to the sound of an ominous wind. The brawl at the Roadhouse (actually, the "Bang Bang Bar"), a dive favored by "bikers, loving couples, and lovers of good music," set against the backdrop of hypnotic vocals sung by singer Julee Cruise (and written by Lunch), set to the haunting music of Angelo Badlamenti (perhaps the most unlikely kind of biker bar music you're ever apt to encounter).

All this is the stuff of genius, a masterpiece of composition, the kind of thing that you might see on the big screen but seldom on television, and the effect it leaves on viewers is indescribable. As Washington Post critic Tom Shales wrote in a preview of the pilot (which is where I might have gotten the urge to watch it when it came on, "Twin Peaks isn’t just a visit to another town; it’s a visit to another planet. Maybe it will go down in history as a brief and brave experiment. But as can be said of few other TV shows in the near or immediate future: This You Gotta See."

Couple this with Frost's elliptical dialogue, brilliant performances by everyone (especially Kyle MacLaughlin) and a cast of memorable characters—townsfolk that play as comic relief, but drawn from theater of the absurd, scenes that leave you laughing out loud one moment and gasping in shock the next—and you have the makings of what The Boston Globe's Diana White called "the movie that will change TV" history. It introduced a flock of quirky, weird shows hoping to capitalize on how weird was now in, but of course imitations are seldom able to live up to the original.

It was, of course, just as impossible for the series to live up to the initial billing of the pilot, and as the second season progressed, things strayed further and further away from Lynch's original concept. Lynch deliberately left plotlines hanging in the final episode, knowing that they weren't going to be resolved—at least not right away. When the series returned on Showtime in 2017, with Lynch's total involvement, the series promised to return to its original weirdness. 

There's no question that the longer Twin Peaks went on, the weaker it became. The first season managed to maintain a high level throughout, but even near the end, it seemed to be losing steam. The second season started off strong, but I remember, during its original run, that I eventually quit watching; when the cancellation was announced, I was glad. It was like seeing a badly injured animal put out of its misery. The soap opera elements, which had been played for satire, started to overwhelm the show. With the Laura Palmer mystery settled, there was really no reason for the show to continue. But then, how many times have we seen this in the era of "Prestige TV," when a book gets spun off not into a miniseries, but a series that may last two or three seasons, with the storylines getting further and further away from the source material. (The Man in the High Castle, anyone?) For those reasons, I'm not sure I can put Twin Peaks in my Top 10 list. As for the pilot, though, there is no doubt.

As I said, I haven't seen that third season yet, but I'll tell you this: I can't wait. TV  

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!