Twin Peaks [retro feature]

“She’s dead! Wrapped in plastic.”

Although I am severely tempted to launch into the entire tale of how I stumbled onto this series in 1998, complete with wild hand gestures and subtle nuances of flavor, I will restrain myself. This’ll be the first and last time for that. Besides, I’ve mentioned that story about every time on MRFH that Twin Peaks gets mentioned, and it’s only interesting to hear if you’re me.

So instead, let me make a bold claim: Twin Peaks was one of the essential pillars of 1990’s popular culture. I know what you’re thinking: “I really have to go to the bathroom.” But, hey, let me have a minute to defend myself! Sure, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The Matrix and Furbies all had their part, but in its own way, the show and the phenomena that was Twin Peaks forged ahead with an almost breathtakingly new way of doing television. It was a genre-blender: part soap opera, part mystery, part science-fiction, part horror, part cop show, part comedy. Unlike many cult shows that take a while to build up a loyal following, Twin Peaks pretty much did things in reverse. It started out strong, nearly instantly insinuating itself into the national watercooler talk, then dwindling as its mainstream popularity wore off and the cult fans seized it for their own.

“You know, this is – excuse me – a damn fine cup of coffee.”

Twin Peaks was the television brainchild of film auteur David Lynch — a man who makes pompous, crappy movies in my opinion, but hit the right notes with a TV series. Along with writer Mark Frost, Lynch constructed a mind-puzzle of a show that may or may not have had any satisfying solution; it almost didn’t matter, because once hooked, you can’t stop turning the pages of the most peculiar town in TV history.

What is this show, now that I’ve gotten through lauding it with more praise than most parents give to their toddlers when they first become toilet trained?  Twin Peaks takes us on a journey to the titled town, an odd little niche in Washington state just across the border from Canada (eh?). It’s a fairly nice place that seems quaint in a backwoods, early-90’s sort of style. But since one of Lynch’s motifs is that abnormality and complex layers lie underneath superficial nicities, we soon learn that this isn’t exactly a place you’d want to visit. Watch, yes; live in, maybe not.

“Through the darkness of futures past, the magician longs to see. One chants out between two worlds: Fire Walk With Me.'”

The hook of the show was in its initial premise: one of the most popular high school cheerleaders, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), is fished out of the river, floating dead, wrapped in plastic. From there, FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is called in to handle the case, as some of the clues surrounding the murder were across state lines. Cooper is supposed to be the “everyman” that we identify with as he explores this reality-is-stranger-than-fiction burg, but we soon learn that Coop might have more eccentricities than many of the residents.

The first season (pilot and seven episodes) revolves around the question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” It was this question, this mystery that had America tuning in on a weekly basis. As Cooper and Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) dug into the ever-widening evidence behind the homicide, this simple murder was revealed to be shrouded in seemingly supernatural events. Clues were dropped every week, the audience scratching their heads trying to figure it out, and Lynch jerking them around with red herrings galore. Ultimately, audience burnout happened quickly for this one case, and interest dropped off as the whole deal wasn’t close to being resolved by the end of the first season. This presented a problem for the creators, as they wanted to wrap up that storyline to give audience satisfaction while still coming up with an excuse to keep Cooper around. The answer was an uneven second season, where Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed, and a serial killer making the rounds to keep the FBI involved in town. Finally, after two seasons and an agonizing cliffhanger that was never resolved, Twin Peaks got the axe after 30-ish episodes.

“The owls are not what they seem.”

The cult fan base for the show, however, would probably be the first to tell you that the whole Laura Palmer storyline was almost inconsequential to their fierce love of the show. The real meat of Twin Peaks lay in its characters, its snappy dialogue, the dreamy town and magical elements. Every character in the show, from top down, should’ve been in some sort of mental hospital, but here in Twin Peaks their strangeness is nurtured and accepted. Its soap operatic framework set up dozens of stories that continued over the course of the show, making it almost a 30-hour movie instead of an easy-to-view-out-of-order episodic series. The genre-blending helped to pave the way for other shows about eccentric towns (Northern Exposure, Eerie Indiana), supernatural detective work (The X-Files), and intertwining mysterious storylines (Lost).

My love and adoration for this show almost can’t be expressed in simple words. It’s a true joy to watch — the slow pacing might put off some, but I liked being taken for a thourough ride that kept me laughing, thinking and sometimes (Bob’s appearance, especially) freaking out. There were backwards-talking midgets, people getting turned into doorknobs, Indian mysticism, prostitution, and more unanswered questions than you could shake a donut at. It’s like an incredible dream that you wake up from and wish to remember every single last detail.

“How’s Annie? How’s Annie?”

In short, you gotta see this show. No excuses. But if you do (when you do), be aware of the following issues when it comes to viewing it:

  • The two-hour pilot is separate from the DVD first season, and is difficult to find (I bought it on VHS).  This is because of some rights issue, and its annoying in that you HAVE to see it before watching the season, but if you do, make sure to turn it off before the last fifteen minutes when the quick resolution to the mystery is revealed (something which isn’t part of the actual series). [UPDATE: The full series, including the pilot, is now available in the ‘Definitive Gold Box Edition’ DVD set released in 2007. You may choose to watch the pilot with or without the TV-movie resolution.]
  • Do NOT expect answers and resolutions to everything. While this is a more coherent effort than Lynch typically puts out in his films (probably thanks to Mark Frost), there are dozens of plot threads and clues that either are never mentioned again, have nothing to do with anything, or are never answered. It’s been said that they sort of wrote this show from the hip, without any definite resolution or master plot in mind, and that can be frustrating if you need answers to everything in life. But… mystery is good, too, and Twin Peaks’ mysteries get you thinking if nothing else. You WILL scream in anguish as you get to the second season (and the show’s) cliffhanger finale that leaves you with a couple whopping questions that have never been, and probably never will be, addressed.
  • The prequel movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, is not really essential in the least. As it comes before the show, it doesn’t answer any of the cliffhanger questions from the second season, and actually brings up far more questions with its weird storytelling approach. Plus, Cooper isn’t in the film except for a brief snippet, and that is unfortunate.

“One day my log will have something to say about this. My log saw something that night.”

Even with those provisos, Twin Peaks is the ultimate TV film noir, a stylish, unforgettable series that will gladly eat up over a day’s worth of your viewing time if you let it. I’d suggest so. The owls are watching.

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