By Noel Vera
DAVID LYNCH and Mark Frost’s murder mystery/spiritual horrorshow/police procedural/goofball soap opera Twin Peaks debuted on ABC Network April 8, 1990 and television hasn’t been quite the same.
Oh major filmmakers have done television before; several generations (from Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer to Steven Spielberg) graduated from the tube, a few — Alfred Hitchcock being arguably the first in the 1950s, with Altman following suit in the ’80s — sought to translate their style to the smaller venue. Lynch is perhaps the most experimental to venture into the small screen; of those active in early ’90s I would say he was the least likely to take the plunge.
Which may partly explain why the show aroused so much interest — Lynch had already piqued curiosity for his nightmare urban enigma Eraserhead, gained mainstream acclaim for the beautiful black-and-white fable The Elephant Man, provoked more than a little controversy over the sadism in the small-town crime drama (black comedy?) Blue Velvet.
Call Peaks Lynch’s expansion on Velvet’s black comedy (crime drama?) — it was his chance to stretch Jeffrey Beaumont’s bildungsroman into a seasons-long soap, tailor Kyle Maclachlan’s apple-cheeked good looks to fit FBI agent Dale Cooper’s (basically Jeffrey all grown up, an overgrown Boy Scout backed by federal resources and a smidgen of Tibetan mysticism). It was a chance to expand Velvet’s insect underside (suggested by that memorable early shot of the camera shouldering past grass blades into a sea of teeming beetle violence) into a demonic netherworld, part feeding into and part being fed by the eponymous town’s malignant attitude towards women.
Somehow it works. In the pilot episode the death of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is communicated through several scenes, arguably the finest in the series: of mother Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) striding through her house in search of her missing child, of Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) interrupted in the middle of an important conference to answer worried Sarah’s call; and of a grave Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean, wearing the ludicrous weight of his character’s presidential moniker lightly) coming up to Leland with the burden of heavy news. One looks at the officer, the other listens to the silence over the line and everyone simply knows, like a ripple crossing a pond, like a hive mind realizing the loss of one of its own: Laura is dead, and the town — a breathing pulsing living entity — reels from the impact.
Lynch walks a delicate line between operatic intensity and comic grotesque: Sarah and Leland’s pain is pushed as far as can credibly go, perhaps half a step further; folks say the pilot feels so serious but I submit it’s more deadpan than straight serious. You look at Sarah’s twisted face and feel for her agonizingly slow and extended display of grief, same time an insidious voice in your head whispers: “She’s taking so long; is she putting us on? Is Lynch?”
Not really, but Lynch seems to take his cue from Blue Velvet: show images from a small town — the kid playing on the street; the fireman waving from his truck; the white picket fences, the bright fresh-bloomed flowers — all rendered eerily off-kilter by having them happen in lyrical slow motion. In Twin Peaks he takes the tropes of TV soap (the affairs, the bursts of anguish and violence, the regular characters confined in a deep coma) and applies not slow motion but its real-time equivalent, an amble-through-downtown pace that takes in not just the main sights of the little burg but its more oddball details.
At the same time and to no small effect Lynch makes a visual fetish of certain images, objects, faces. BOB’s feral snarl contrasts with Cooper’s serene smile; cup after cup of coffee steam beside huge wedges of berry pie; monumental pines wave their arms in gale-force wind, and what seems like the only traffic light in the entire municipality blinks green yellow red, green yellow red with mysterious regularity.
Does the show’s quality fall sharply in second season, the delicate balance upset between writer/producer Mark Frost’s eccentric eloquence and Lynch’s visual surrealism? Do the filmmakers fail to find an equally compelling substitute to Laura Palmer’s death past the second season’s seventh episode? Well (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the series!), yes, but in response to the second question Laura’s murder was never meant to be solved — never really meant to be the point of the series. When Frost and Lynch shifted focus to other projects (Frost’s Storyville, Lynch’s Wild at Heart) and the show started lurching in one direction or another a kind of overarching narrative developed: would the series find its footing (never did) or would Frost and then Lynch come back in time to save the show (they did but still failed)? What happens to Sherilyn Fenn’s character’s story line, now that Lara Flynn Boyle’s dating Maclachlan and is jealous of the two actors? Not suggesting Lynch planned all this in advance but he must be pleased pink to see how it all panned out — how the frustration arising from cancellation, Lynch’s cliffhanger finale, and the feature prequel’s perverse obtuseness seems to have keep the coals steadily smoldering against the day a third season might come.
Meanwhile that second season isn’t all duds — James Foley adds a noirish intensity to his episode (“Wounds and Scars”), Caleb Deschanel (husband to cast member Mary Jo Deschanel) a gorgeous sheen to his. Lynch himself is a lively addition to the cast, as affable hard-of-hearing Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole; David Warner makes a brief but memorable appearance as malevolent Thomas Eckhardt.
By series’ end Lynch does come galloping to the rescue; the finale works — for me at least — not by restoring the balancing act of the first season but by tossing out (along with chunks of Mark Frost and company’s original script) any pretense of balance, by acknowledging the darker style of storytelling Lynch developed with Wild at Heart.
Fire Walk with Me — which opens with the investigation into the murder of Teresa Banks, then covers the final seven days of Laura Palmer — is an extension of that impulse, I think; without Frost’s influence Lynch’s feature prequel feels like Peaks with the ragged edges left unsanded, with the town of Deer Meadow functioning as Peaks’ dark twin, in a series brimming over with doubles (Laura/Maddy, Good Dale/Bad Dale, Black Lodge/White Lodge). If the series’ skewed humor is missing, that may be because Lynch has chosen to tell the one story left untold, Laura’s — and learning what happened to her and knowing what will happen, I doubt if we can fault Laura for the grimmer tone.
The film is a corrective, I think; it sketches for us what kind of person Laura was, why we (along with most folks in Peaks) should mourn her passing. It also with a neat little timey-wimey trick suggests what happens after the finale; even with the rules governing prequels Lynch plays fast and loose.
Strange but the film for all its explicit sex and disturbing violence is also more hopeful than the series — Lynch fashions a final image literally out of nothing that manages to be joyful somehow, despite all the suffering that comes before.
Whither Peaks? Good question, as opposed to the more common one of “what happened to all the people?” — Lynch was never one for plot resolution. All I know is that the filmmakers have been given a third chance, and I’m interested in what they might want to say. That traffic light swinging softly in the deep night? Stuck for so long in red — 25 years, almost — the signal has finally turned green.