14 March, 2008

It is happening, again ... It is happening, again

“Brilliant. Heh heh heh. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”
- Homer watches Twin Peaks, "The Simpsons", Lisa’s Sax, (season 9 episode 3)

So here’s the thing.

I’m currently on a Twin Peaks rewatch, taking it nice and slowly (one episode a week – a nice easy pace that really allows you to digest and contemplate each episode – unlike my first viewing of the show where I compelled to race through the entire TV show plus movie in about 2 ½ weeks).

Anyway, this week brought me to Episode 16, the ninth episode of the second season. Two episodes ago, we discovered the killer's identity when the character commits another, this time on-screen, murder of such shocking and disturbing brutality that it is chilling just thinking about it. And this week, Cooper catches Laura Palmer’s killer, who is for the first time confronted with what they have done, in a powerful scene both moving and disturbing (and quite possibly the finest moments in the show). And it occurred to me that this is probably the ideal point to talk about Twin Peaks, because I’m still excited by it. It’s still a great show, still entrances and moves me, and so now is a good point to talk about it, because starting in the next episode, the show gets really bad. And while it does improve towards the end, and the final episode is so great that you really find yourself wanting to see the third season that never happened, if I were to post when I finish the show, the memory of the middle 7 or 8 episodes would temper my writing. And a show like Twin Peaks deserves to be written about in excitement

I can imagine quite a few of my friends wouldn’t be familiar with the show, so for those of you: Twin Peaks was a TV series created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. The first season (a very short season, only a pilot episode and 7 other episodes) aired in early 1990, and it was huge. There was colossal buzz around the show. And deservedly so – I think it’s safe to say that the first season of Twin Peaks is some of the greatest television ever made, existing as a perfect flawless work of art. And then the second season...

Actually, I should explain what the show was. The show opened with the discovery of the body of Laura Palmer, a beautiful 17-year-old homecoming queen, now found naked and wrapped in plastic. And this established the first key element of the show – a murder mystery revolving around the question “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” Kyle MacLachlan played the FBI agent Dale Cooper, assigned to the case, who on his arrival finds himself charmed by this sweet little town on the Canadian border. This was the second element – a quirky small-town comedy, in which people are eccentric, fish are found in coffee percolators, and surprisingly strong one-eyed women become obsessed with developing silent drape runners.

But by the end of the pilot episode, we’ve already discovered that the beautiful sweet virginal Laura Palmer was in fact a drug-addicted nymphomaic. And Laura Palmer stands as a representation of the town of Twin Peaks as a whole – just as Laura seemed pure and innocent but clearly wasn’t, so the town of Twin Peaks seems quirky and funny on the surface, but has an entirely hidden side to it. Part of that comes from the show’s strong melodrama element (while you could describe it as a soap opera, I personally think it definitely has the feel of a 1950s era melodrama), where everyone is having affairs - Bobby is angry that his girlfriend Laura was secretly seeing James, even though James is himself sleeping with waitress Shelly who is married to the abusive Leo, who is ... you get the idea. If they're not doing that, they're engaged in some complicated scheme of some kind. The show continues an idea that Lynch explored in his film Blue Velvet, exploring the darkness that lies under the shining surface of small-town America.

But there was a fourth element to the show – a dark element that pushed the show into the realm of supernatural horror. We first encounter this in the final scene of Episode 2, a nightmarish dream sequence in which Agent Cooper encounters a a poetry-reciting one-armed man named MIKE, the dirty-looking Killer BOB threatening to kill again, and a mysterious Red Room with a Laura Palmer-doppelgänger and a backward-talking dwarf making strange cryptic statements. And as we explore the supernatural realm further, meeting other residents of this world, the Giant, Mrs Tremont and her grandson, we find ourselves frequently but briefly visiting this terrifying world. (When I first watched the show, I usually watched it right before going to bed, and the scene in episode 9, where BOB walked through the lounge, climbed over the sofa, and reached out for Maddy - watching that scene at midnight doesn't help you sleep. Probably the most scared any TV show or movie has ever made me.)

And here is the great thing about Twin Peaks - these disparate elements should not work together. They don't fit, they can't fit, in one show. And yet they do. I think a lot of that comes from David Lynch - the show feels a lot more like one of his films than it does an episode of Hill Street Blues, and throughout his career, Lynch has managed to handle horror, drama, comedy, comprehension and incomprehension, in a delicate balancing act. And that is what makes the first season of the show so perfect - the show was just starting out, and Lynch still had a strong handle on the show, helping to ensure that, even in episodes he didn't direct, it all works. The result is a a first season that works incredibly, never putting a step wrong. The viewer is presented with this perfectly-realised world, filled with intriguing mysteries, fascinating characters, and incredible food, from damn fine coffe and cherry pie to a baguette with brie and butter. It's a scary world, never quite safe to enter, but there is something compelling that kepps drawing you in. Man, I love the first season.

The problem was, when it came to the second season, a number of problems arose. I think the main problem in season 2 arose because of the network executives. ABC had let the first season be made relatively free from interference, but this wasn't true for the second season. The most damaging bit of interference was the requirement that Lynch and Frost reveal the identity of the killer - the show could have survived if it wasn't for that. People kept asking that the killer be identified, so ABC forced this to be revealed. But without time to put all the groundwork (this was a mystery intended to run for a few seasons, remember), it just feels like they just played Eeney Meeney Miney Moe and picked a killer at random. Plus, the mystery was the hook, the thing to grab the viewers and keep them watching the show. Without it, the show lost interest to a lot of people. In the David Lynch-written Log Lady Introduction to this episode, this point was summarised succintly

"So now the sadness comes--the revelation. There is a depression after an answer is given. It was almost fun not knowing."

(Are you listening, everyone that wants Lost to hurry up with the answers?)

And so, without that mystery hook, people left the show. It didn't help that Lynch having directed three of the first seven episodes of the season, left to direct Wild At Heart. Without Lynch to control the balance, it veered wildly off-course. The show felt like it was trying to emulate what had made Twin Peaks so distinctive, but there was nothing organic about it. It was pretending to be quirky or weird for the sake of it. The comedy became too broad (an amnesiac Nadine goes to high school), the supernatural just becomes weird (the drawer pull, anyone? And yes, I get the connection with the wood and the Log Lady, but still...), and the soap opera just became bad (James and his femme fatale). Meanwhile, without the hook of the Laura Palmer mystery, the showmakers feel like they were scrambling for a good six or eight episodes, trying to work out "where to now"? It's really only after the drawer pull episode (episode 23) that the show starts to get on track - Windom Earle has been introduced by this point, and the show makers started to use the supernatural element to tie the show together, and provide the show with a direction to move towards. By the time Lynch returned, to direct the final episode, it was pretty much on course again, and episode 29 reminds us of why we love the show so much, and why it really is sad that the show never survivied for a third season.

Lynch made the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me, which people seem to rather inexplicably hate as not being like the show. I don't understand that, since to me it feels like Twin Peaks. I get the impression these are people that liked Twin Peaks for the comedy, but failed to appreciate what it was really about. The comedy wasn't the point of the show, the comedy was there to make the show watchable. It was an incredibly dark show, and the comedy was necessary to make it easier for the audience to handle. (I once read something someone once wrote about watching all of Twin Peaks in one weekend, skipping all the comedy parts, and the writer said he was depressed for a week afterward.) But in a film that is explicitly about a girl who will be brutally murdered at the end, and how every event in her final week led up to that, there's no room for a light comedy bit from Andy and Lucy. It doesn't fit.

So why do I keep returning to Twin Peaks, when it is as flawed as it is. Partly because it is a rewarding experience - the first season is perfect, and a lot of the second season is very good, occasionally great. And it is worth sitting through the dire parts to reach the great parts.

But partly, I just love the sense of excitement. When you watch Twin Peaks, you get a sense of adventure, of invention, of new ground being broken. You get the impression Lynch looked at the television landscape, and decided he was going to reinvent television. And he did it. He made a show that entirely changed how we view television. Today, television is cinematic, has incredible power, and actually functions as the most incredible means of storytelling we have. And that is something that Twin Peaks really started. (David Chase supposedly described The Sopranos as "Twin Peaks in New Jersey", which I think really illustrates the influence the show has.) There is a sense when watching Twin Peaks that the medium of television itself is being changed forever. There is something radical and exciting about the show. And I love it.

No comments: