TELEVISION FROM A DIFFERENT DIMENSION…THE ENDURING MYSTERY OF DOUGLAS FIR TREES…DAMN FINE COFFEE AND DAMN FINE ENTERTAINMENT…
Twenty-three years since its original broadcast, the early nineties series Twin Peaks remains in a league of its own as a primetime television show. Maybe once or twice a decade an exceptional classic appears, such as The Simpsons, Sienfeld or Friends. Even if you aren’t a fan of those three series you could acknowledge they’ve had a massive impact on countless shows that followed. The best elements that made The Simpsons, Sienfeld and Friends runaway hits are now token go-to formulas that have spawned so many hits they can almost be considered specific genres, possibly; animated social satire (cartoons for grown-ups), snarky awkward-situational banter spiked with oddballs (“You’re not going to believe this, but…”) and the Big City life fantasy beyond all established real-world logic (hang out, hook up, hang out, repeat).
The same genre-establishing (cliffhanger action-comedy labyrinth of twists, turns, clues and holy crap did you see the show last night?) influence could be said for Twin Peaks, and it only consists of one-and-a-half seasons plus a feature film prequel story. It breaks down as an hour-and-a-half long pilot followed by 28 episodes each just under an hour, bookended by the prequel feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
While it’s not as well known as Homer, George or Rachel’s haircut, Twin Peaks is certifiably an overall artistic masterpiece. It remains an enduring body of rich, layered work that is deservedly the subject of study in major universities. Twin Peaks is to primetime television of the late eighties / early nineties what The Velvet Underground was to subversively popular alternative music of the late nineteen-sixties and forever more.
Though it was conceived and produced in the transition years between the nineteen eighties and nineties, the world of Twin Peaks seems to be from a different time altogether. It’s difficult to date precisely. The phones and electronics all look like the late-eighties, but the teenagers dress like the mid-fifties. This is especially featured by the high school girls in their sweaters, tiered skirts and black and white saddle shoes, like they’re headed to an early hip-swinging Elvis concert.
The main drive of the first 16 episodes is the criminal investigation into the murder of teenager Laura Palmer. The real heart of the show is the people who make up the small rural town of Twin Peaks. It’s a soap opera fueled by the constant drama of their good and bad sides, in connection to mystical, otherworldly dimensions that are rarely, if ever actually seen but often referred to by key characters. Interesting heroes and villains of every kind are continually torn between temptation, desire and greed versus honesty, justice and empathy. Above them all, the owls are watching, ghostly winds bluster through the pine trees and something wicked past explanation lurks in the night shadows of the forest…
For all the darkness, there’s a welcome balance of light. Comedy of various degrees pops up often to soften the tension and suspense. A unique tone of morality and idealism is present, and is best described in an earnest quote from FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (quirky Superman-esque Kyle MacLachlan) to his colleague Albert (played by excellent bulldog set-chewer Miguel Ferrer), who has recently arrived to town and badly ruffled a few feathers.
From Episode 3, “Rest in Pain”, written by Harley Peyton;
“I have only been in Twin Peaks a short time, but in that time I have seen decency, honor and dignity. Murder is not a faceless event here, it is not a statistic to be tallied up at the end of the day. Laura Palmer’s death has affected each and every man, woman and child because life has meaning here, every life. That’s a way of living I thought had vanished from the Earth, but it hasn’t Albert, it’s right here in Twin Peaks.”
One clever aspect of the show is Invitation To Love, an over-the-top soap-drama shown on television sets in various locations. Invitation To Love is goofy and cartoonish, but the events mirror and act as comments on what’s happening in the storyline of Twin Peaks. It’s a show within a show. The Invitation To Love announcer voiceover reads the name of one actress playing twin sisters Emerald and Jade. The Twin Peaks camera pans from the flickering TV set back to the somber living room of the Palmer home, where we now see Madeline, the dark-haired cousin of the late blond Laura Palmer. Besides the hair color difference and a pair of glasses, Madeline and Laura look exactly alike because they’re played by the same actress; All-American girl Sheryl Lee.
Twin Peaks is always commenting on the duality found in all people and how the community at large presents itself. How do secrets and hidden desires really drive external behavior? Everyone has secrets, even ultra-clean Agent Cooper, though his aren’t explored until late in Season Two. On a level beyond the horror and comedy of Twin Peaks, the commentary on society is often profound, bordering on genius.
In the middle of a banquet party for Icelandic investors at the Great Northern Hotel, grieving father Leland Palmer begins to have a public nervous breakdown. He stands alone in the middle of the room moaning and tragically half-dancing with himself. He shakes and rocks with spasms of unhinged madness. Slick big-wheel Benjamin Horne implores his mistress co-conspirator Catherine Martell to dance with Leland, to disarm a potential crisis scene which will scare off the Icelandic moneybags. Catherine hops out on the dance floor with Leland. She mimics the way he grips his head in pain as if it’s some newfangled jazz-hands dance move. Soon the room is filled with people doing ridiculous variations of “the Leland”. The foreign visitors are having fun, the champagne flows and the party swings on, ugly scene averted. In the wings, sensitive teenager Audrey Horne hides and quietly cries at the emotional gruesomeness of it all.
No one will risk actually trying to help Leland, to comfort him, a shattered man whose daughter was murdered mere days before. They humor him briefly only to save embarrassment in front of outsiders, then shuffle him off so the manufactured fake laughs can continue uninterrupted. Somewhere in this scene is an appraisal of how we as a modern society, in so many cases from homelessness, domestic abuse, intolerance to pollution (and many more), would rather look away and pretend it doesn’t exist than have to directly confront and try to solve or at least help the problem. Better to not ‘stick your neck out’.
The shining gems of Twin Peaks are the actors and the beguiling array of characters they bring to life. One of the more cryptic fan-favorites is known as “The Log Lady”, played with award-worthy gusto by the remarkable Catherine Coulson.
From the “Log Lady Intro” to Episode 1 “Traces to Nowhere”(not the pilot), written by David Lynch;
“I carry a log, yes. Is it funny to you? It is not to me. Behind all things there are reasons. Reasons can even explain the absurd. Do we have the time to learn the reasons behind human beings varied behavior? I think not. Some take the time. Are they called detectives? Watch, and see what life teaches.”
When Twin Peaks originally aired on network primetime TV, no Log Lady intro was present, although the character was part of the supporting cast. The first time Twin Peaks was rerun in syndication on the Bravo network, co-creator David Lynch wrote short introduction scenes featuring Catherine Coulson as the Log Lady for each individual episode (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Log_Lady). If you haven’t seen them, each one looks exactly the same; a serious middle-aged woman with red hair and red glasses sits in a chair holding a large wooden log. She holds the log in her lap, cradled like an infant, sitting next to a wooden table with a teacup in a room paneled in wood and stone. Some of the monologues from these scenes are outright bizarre, right in key with the shows overall tone. They seem to reference the events of the upcoming episode in varying degrees of direct metaphors or mind-boggling riddles. For example;
“Pie. Whoever invented the pie? Here was a great person. In Twin Peaks we specialize in cherry pie and huckleberry pie. We do have many other types of pies, and at the Double-R Diner, Norma knows how to make them better than anyone I have ever known. I hope Norma likes me. I know I like her and respect her. I have spit my pitch gum out of my mouth onto her walls and floors, and sometimes onto her booths. Sometimes I get angry and do things I’m not proud of. I do love Norma’s pies. I love pie with coffee.”
It’s almost like Lynch and Frost are trying to find a group of images particularly American in style and tradition that are simple yet profound enough to suggest some relatable pattern of keys to purity, truth and possibly happiness. Where Jeff Bridges’ “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski has his famous signature sweaters, white russians and love of bowling, Kyle MacLachlan’s “Special Agent Dale Cooper” has his FBI-man trenchcoat, donuts and love of pie with coffee.
This motif is present throughout the series, and best personified by the central hero of Agent Cooper. Initially, Lynch and Frost did not name the episodes, but when the series aired in Germany, each episode was titled. These titles were subsequently translated in English and have been used by fans ever since. Episode 2 is known as alternately “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer” or “Zen and the Art of Killer-Catching”. Eastern mysticism meets small-town America in a murder mystery soap opera. It sounds ludicrous on paper but it’s enchanting on-screen.
Composer Angelo Badalamenti delivered a score that is tremendously moving and superb. Like many elements in Twin Peaks, the quality level is worthy of mega-budget feature films. You can’t fully comprehend the word “haunting” without hearing the music of Twin Peaks. The soundtrack can also be playful and mercurial, bopping along with a rockabilly funk like a 1950’s teenager buzzing on an overload of caffeine and sugar from the local soda fountain. In some moments the melodies are beautiful and angelic, effortlessly soaring into heavenly grace. Just as you feel totally comfortable at ease it careens into passages of darkness and dread that not only suggest but even threaten to summon true evil.
The series is a mutant hybrid of high-caliber, fine-crafted writing, acting, casting, directing, production design, everything involved in making a show. The locations are so unique and clever they almost become characters themselves; from the coffee cups of the Double R Diner to the endless wood paneling of the Great Northern Hotel. The surroundings of each scene have a strong presence. You are somewhere else while you’re watching. The sense of transportation and immersion is palpable. The shots of flora and fauna in the rugged Northwest are striking; majestic Douglas fir trees, mysterious owls looming in the sky, the churning white mist of the towering waterfall behind the Great Northern Hotel.
Twin Peaks is an unconventional experiment that should not have worked as well as it does. It aggressively breaks the rules and common practices of television. Mark Frost, David Lynch and a top-shelf cast and crew created an anomaly, a fascinating enigma that continues to endure, inspire and captivate new audiences. As the charismatic red-suited “Man From Another Place” of The Black Lodge / Red Room (played by memorable Michael J. Anderson) would say backwards in distorted slow-motion; “She’s full of secrets…”
*A very special thanks to the staff of the University of Southern California’s “Voices And Visions” program for the exceptional Spring 2013 Twin Peaks retrospective and all the special guests who attended for inspiring this article.