Thursday, April 08, 2010
"She's dead — wrapped in plastic"
By Edward Copeland
Those weren't the very first lines in Twin Peaks when it aired on ABC on this date 20 years, but when Pete Martell (Jack Nance) called Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) and spoke those words into the phone, they were the words that officially kicked off the series' central mystery, the mystery that was really only a small part of what made this such a special and landmark series and whose rushed conclusion urged by network executives, such as Ted Harbert and Bob Iger who suffered from attention deficit disorder, ultimately signaled the show's untimely demise. As Mark Frost, who co-created the show with David Lynch, often said, Twin Peaks was more about, "the journey than the destination." Rabid fans such as myself who'd never seen a show remotely like it on network television understood that. Unfortunately the suits at ABC who paid the bills didn't. (Harbert eventually was fired. Iger, following the good old Peter Principle, became chairman of Disney after it acquired ABC and Michael Eisner retired. These two were the same pair who also bungled My So-Called Life.) It was ahead of its time. If only HBO was the place for great dramas then... By the way, I'm assuming if you read this, you know the show, so there will be no spoiler warnings. Besides, after 20 years, if you don't know this stuff, you must have been hiding with Harold Smith inside his house, tending to his plants.
Over the past two decades, I've written countless things about Twin Peaks and made many references to it in other pieces. I try not to repeat myself too much and you'd think by now my thoughts on the show would have reached the bottom of its well, but I always find more to say. It's like great series that have come in its wake such as Deadwood, The Sopranos or The Wire: the depth is so great and the achievement so astounding, I never tire of discussing them. I suspect Breaking Bad will join that pantheon someday.
Since Twin Peaks' reputation now is that of a cult favorite, it is hard to remember that its premiere was a highly rated hit, thanks to a big promotional push emphasizing the "Who killed Laura Palmer?" mystery. The two-hour premiere certainly had more than its share of the quirks its fans would love and that would alienate others, but it still scored well. ABC started making mistakes in terms of scheduling right away, figuring that if it scored so well they should try to use it as a giant killer and scheduled it opposite Cheers, one of the top-rated shows on the air and part of NBC's then-impenetrable Thursday night line-up. Despite this challenge, the second episode held up fairly well. What cost the series its fair-weather viewers was its third episode, the one that contained the series' classic dream sequence where Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) first heard from a one-armed man named Mike (Al Strobel) about another man named Bob (Frank Silva) and learned the poem containing the famous phrase "fire walk with me" before Cooper saw himself 25 years older, seated in a red room beside a dancing dwarf (Michael J. Anderson) and someone who appeared to be Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Oh and everyone spoke backwards and then had their words played forward to make their voices sound very odd, too odd for casual viewers and the ratings never recovered but the true fans were hooked forever. Still, for a brief time it held the zeitgeist with references everywhere from Saturday Night Live skits to nods on Northern Exposure and spoofs on The Simpsons. My own favorite coincidence, whether intended or not, came in the second season when Norma (Peggy Lipton) sought a divorce from her scumbag ex-con husband Hank (Chris Mulkey) so she could be with longtime love Big Ed (Everett McGill). Hank refused, calling her Ed's whore to which Norma replied, "I'd rather be his whore than your wife." This was the same season Billy Zane joined the cast as environmentalist entrepreneur John Justice Wheeler. Years later, Kate Winslet delivered Norma's line verbatim to Zane in the film Titanic.
For the Twin Peaks fans in my circle of friends at least, the show wasn't merely a cult favorite, it was the formation of an extended community. I honestly don't remember once the show's mystique took hold ever watching it by myself. Most times involved a watch party, often with at least a box of doughnuts. This was no small feat considering the schedule calisthenics ABC put the series and its viewers through, often hiding it in the Saturday dead zone — and we were college age. Still, this was our show. There were many marathon viewings, drawing new addicts into the circle, catching up people who had fallen behind or giving friends visiting from abroad an early glimpse of the episodes that had yet to play overseas. When ABC finally dumped the final two episodes in the summer in one night, after most of us had graduated from college, many of us gathered at my parents' house for one last blowout with all the works: doughnuts spread out appropriately, cherry pie and damn fine cups of coffee. I've never been involved with another series that way. I'm sure others have, but I haven't.
Many argued that perhaps Twin Peaks should have wrapped itself up as a miniseries with its initial eight episodes, ending with conclusions instead of the multiple cliffhangers that led to the series' second season, but I say phooey. Yes, the first season was a thing of beauty of which I wouldn't change a thing but despite some aimless wandering and story missteps, I wouldn't have changed much about season two either. The ABC executives demanded that Lynch and Frost solve the murder of Laura Palmer in the season two premiere and they did. Of course, they didn't explain who or what it was that was killing Laura or what it meant as a comatose Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) recalled BOB's brutal stabbing, but they didn't break their promise. It probably didn't matter: Iger already was spitting up blood when the season two premiere opened with a gunshot Agent Cooper lying on the floor of his hotel room, first having a slow, frustrating conversation with a decrepit old waiter (John Ford favorite Hank Worden) before having a vision of a giant (Carel Struycken) who offers the FBI agent three clues to the case.
The conventional wisdom is that once ABC pressured the showrunners to solve the mystery, which they did in the seventh episode and which they resolved in the ninth episode, Twin Peaks had nowhere to go. For about three episodes, it did seem to lack direction but even then it was fascinating to watch, especially the episode immediately after the demise of Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) and the revelation of his role in Laura's death. However, once other stories began to kick in and Cooper's deranged former partner Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh) came to town, the show really started to pick up again and viewers realized how much larger the mystery of BOB was. Besides, other stories had yet to be resolved: Who shot Cooper? The fight between Catherine and Ben (Piper Laurie, Richard Beymer) over Ghostwood Estates, Bobby and Shelly (Dana Ashbrook, Madchen Amick) taking care of the invalid Leo (Eric DaRe) as part of an insurance scam, Nadine (Wendy Robie) believing she was back in high school, joining the wrestling team and dating Bobby's friend and Donna's ex, Mike (Gary Hershberger). Now, there also were the stories worth fast-forwarding through: anything involving James (James Marshall) and most scenes involving Lucy, Andy and Dick Tremayne (Kimmy Robertson, Harry Goaz, Ian Buchanan), but the good far outweighed the bad. What really harmed the show was ABC's relentless mistreatment of the show, constantly changing its day and time and removing it from the airways for weeks at a time, testing the patience of even the most patient of fans. The final indignity came when, though it was all but certain there would be no third season, they dangled that idea out there so the writers had no opportunity to wrap things up in the final season two episodes and ABC then didn't even air those final two episodes until they combined them as a two-hour block to burn off in the summer. In the beginning, the show at least had good humor about it, producing some hysterical promos about the time changes, including a Wizard of Oz spoof with MacLachlan waking from a dream about changing slots with various cast members including Piper Laurie and Michael J. Anderson gathered around his bed. Still, no series, no matter how large its fan base, can survive this kind of reckless scheduling, scheduling that makes it clear that network's only intention is to give it more than an ample reason to kill the show off and in the case of Twin Peaks, it was because the execs themselves didn't get it. Many series have suffered from this type of abuse, a most recent example being Scrubs which was first mishandled by NBC before getting the same schedule runaround from ABC for two more years. How that series lasted nine seasons is a minor television miracle that has more to do with the growing irrelevance of network television today than with any magic or huge ratings numbers that Scrubs drew itself.
Earlier, when I did my "What if?" speculation about what would have happened if Twin Peaks had been an HBO series as opposed to an ABC one, I have to say that I don't know if the show would have been as good there. When I began watching the show and became an obsessive fan, I was not a huge David Lynch follower. It took until much later for me to even start appreciating Blue Velvet and when you compare the series with its feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, perhaps the limits placed on Lynch by the standards of network television is part of what made the series even stronger and a limit-free channel such as HBO might have encouraged Lynch and Frost to go too far. While ABC definitely screwed the show over, I have to think that by keeping the reins on Lynch, they forced him to be more creative to get around their restrictions and a better series resulted. When Lynch (incredibly) agreed to work on another potential series with ABC which they ended up not even airing after he filmed the pilot, he was able to re-edit it, film new material and release Mulholland Drive as a movie and I still believe that is his best feature film. When HBO did attempt a series that was somewhat in the Peaks vein, Carnivale, it didn't really work for me. Alright, enough bellyaching about how the show was mistreated or dreaming of what could have been. This should be a celebration of the show's 20th anniversary.
Now, Twin Peaks, because of its initial promotion, essentially is thought of as a mystery, but that's an oversimplification. There are plentiful elements of soap opera at his core (It even had a soap within a soap called Invitation to Love that could often be seen on characters' TVs), a healthy dose of romance, the supernatural, and more than its fair share of flat out creepiness. What it doesn't get enough credit for is just how damn funny it was. Its comedy ran the gamut from broad slapstick, to macabre humor, from double entendres to just plain well-written dialogue with unexpected one-liners that come out of nowhere. There was the time when Catherine stumbled upon a bound and gagged Shelly tied up in an area of a mill she'd been lured to and as Shelly screamed incoherently, Catherine replied, "I can't understand a word you're saying. You have a thing in your mouth." One of my personal favorites came late in the much maligned second season when Windom Earle abducted Major Briggs (Don S. Davis) and was interrogating him. In the midst of his barrage of questions, Earle asked Briggs what the capital of North Carolina was. Briggs answered Raleigh, of course, to which Earle replied, "Fat lot of good that'll do me." In fact, in addition to the odd characters and the characters clearly written for comic relief, many of the performances were played primarily as great comic ones. MacLachlan's brilliant Dale Cooper had his moments of seriousness and pathos, but his work was primarily a comic creation. Check out the shooting range scene from season one if you doubt me. The same can essentially be said of Beymer's Ben Horne (especially when teamed with David Patrick Kelly as brother Jerry) and Laurie's Catherine Martell. There's no doubt when it comes to Nance's Pete Martell. Try delivering the line, "There was a fish in the percolator" with dead seriousness. Goaz and Robertson's Lucy and Andy were meant as comic relief purely, even if they often fell flat. Robie's Nadine certainly had a tragic side, but she still was damn funny. The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) and Davis' Major Briggs played it straight, but they produced a lot of laughs. Perhaps other than MacLachlan the other greatest comic performance of the series belongs to Miguel Ferrer in the recurring role of FBI Agent Albert Rosenfeld. Every time he appeared, it was a delight and he often had the ability to surprise as well. I'd also be remiss if I forget to mention the brief guest appearances by David Duchovny as Dennis/Denise Bryson, the transvestite DEA agent. One of my fantasies always was for a Twin Peaks/X-Files crossover since Don S. Davis played Scully's military man father on the other series. Briggs disappeared for three days in season two and was known to vanish before: Perhaps he led a double life and the Black Lodge was a natural X-file for those other FBI agents. Now if you'll excuse Ben Horne, it's time to give Little Elvis a bath.
For a series that was full of great performances, for me the greatest one deserves a paragraph all his own
and that is Ray Wise as Leland Palmer. His work ran the full spectrum of emotions, beginning as a grieving father, so overwrought that he begins compulsively dancing (something that is treated as both sad and funny simultaneously) then, when he mistakenly believes the authorities have fingered one Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz) as Laura's killer, he turns vigilante killer. Overnight, his hair turns white and he begins to add singing to his repertoire. How Wise was denied an Emmy nomination for his work in the second season is one of the largest outrages in an award that is practically nothing but outrages at this point. In the span of three episodes, we learn that Leland is possessed by an inhabiting spirit and that's what BOB is and that BOB used Leland as the vehicle to rape and murder his own daughter, something he tries to recreate by killing her lookalike cousin Maddie (also Sheryl Lee). Wise gets to play funny (practicing golf in his living room and singing "Surrey With a Fringe on the Top" while driving his convertible all over the road) evil (when BOB speaks through him once he is captured) and, once BOB exits him, a mortified, saddened man in his dying moments, realizing the horror of the crimes he has committed, the worst being against his own daughter. It was a performance of wonder. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Wise's work and to the character of Leland Palmer is that, even though Leland was possessed, he was still someone who brutally murdered several people and drugged his own wife so he could rape his own daughter, yet we were still sad to see him die and missed him as a character. I doubt real-life serial killers who commit incest would earn that sympathy, if any, and they shouldn't, because they won't have BOB as a legal defense. Last year, for the second of two seasons, Wise got to strut his acting stuff again in a comic wonder as the Devil himself in Reaper, but alas that show was short-lived as well. Wise appeared in the awful feature film Rising Sun, but he provided the one moment of enjoyment for me in that film playing a senator who entertains at a party and then says, "I'm an old song and dance man from way back." Only a Peaks fanatic such as myself could truly appreciate that moment.
It goes without saying that Twin Peaks raised the standards of television, but it didn't do it in the way you might think. It didn't pave the way for more adventurous storytelling, better writing or better directing, the way more recent acclaimed shows did. I think the real lasting impact of Twin Peaks is its look. It was a damn great-looking show, probably the best I'd seen on television up until that time and I think it made shows that came in its wake more conscious of trying not only to tell good stories but to present them in visually stunning ways. From the interiors of the Great Northern Hotel, to the strangeness of the Black Lodge, from the simplicity of the Double R Diner to the bright fluorescents of the high school, Peaks resembled no series that came before it. (I'd be remiss if I leave out the wonderful set of One Eyed Jack's as well.) That's not even counting the series' uncanny ability to make the woods full of Douglas firs and other aspects of nature both beautiful and menacing, often at the same time. Many series since have come close to that style, with the wonderful work of art director, set dressers and cinematographers, but to my eyes, the series that has looked consistently best (with the added plus of period costumes) is Mad Men. Then again, each series must draw on its own look. Breaking Bad does wonders with its New Mexico setting. The Sopranos went to any variety of settings from glitz to gutter and always chose the appropriate look and Deadwood made the dirt and mud look beautiful. Prior to Peaks, few shows seem to make that much effort. I can't speak for Lost, since I've never watched it.
Throughout the 30 episodes of Twin Peaks, which given the way the series was set up only covered a little more than a month of actual time, a mere 14 directors guided the show and most of the names were familiar ones or would become so for both feature films and television. In addition to the obvious, co-creators David Lynch, who personally helmed six episodes himself, and Mark Frost, other directors included celebrated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who directed three episodes. His real-life wife, Mary Jo Deschanel, played Eileen Hayward, Donna's mother. Tim Hunter, who directed the acclaimed film River's Edge, filmed three episodes and is one of television's most dependable directors working on Homicide, House, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Law & Order, Mad Men and Dexter. Lesli Linka Glatter directed four episodes and has gone to work on NYPD Blue, Freaks and Geeks, Gilmore Girls, The West Wing, ER, Mad Men and House. Todd Holland directed two episodes and then went in an entirely different direction, helming many episodes of The Larry Sanders Show and Malcolm in the Middle as well as my favorite episode of My So-Called Life, "Life of Brian." One episode was directed by Graeme Clifford who directed Jessica Lange in Frances and edited The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Uli Edel, who most recently earned acclaim for The Baader Meinhof Complex, helmed an episode. Diane Keaton even got to direct an episode, even if it unfortunately was one heavy on the series' worst storyline, James' dull, predictable film noir tale that took place outside of Twin Peaks. James Foley, who made the great After Dark, My Sweet and the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, also spent an hour in Twin Peaks. Still, the series always looked as if it came from the same place, no matter who was sitting in the director's chair. It was one long piece; no episodes seemed to be from another show.
As I said at the beginning, I've written a lot about Twin Peaks over the years and I try my best not to repeat myself, yet I feel I still could go on infinitely extolling the show's praises and recalling favorite moments from episodes. However, I couldn't forgive myself if I went through this long piece and did not devote any space to at least tipping my hat to the brief, but pivotal, work of the underrated Japanese actor Fumio Yamaguchi who played Tojamura in the Ghostwood Estates storyline. Yamaguchi said so much with so few words, always leaving an air of mystery about motive and identity. I salute you. Still, after 20 years, I feel I must recall a handful of my favorite moments from the series. In the two-hour premiere, the way grief was portrayed in a manner never seen on TV before. When Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) receives that call with the news of Laura's death and goes on her crying jag, we break for commercial, return to her and she's still wailing, leaving the viewer uncomfortable and uncertain whether it is sympathy or laughter that is called for at this point. Then there are the unusual investigative techniques of Agent Cooper, but my favorite scene remains when he gives the sheriff's department a short lecture on his fascination with the Dalai Lama and Tibet followed by a rock-throwing experiment to eliminate potential suspects based on an initial in Laura's diary. The hike into the mountains the lawmen and Doc Hayward (Warren Frost, Mark's father, by the way) make to interview the Log Lady and find out what her log saw the night Laura was murdered, a scene punctuated with humor as when Andy reaches for a cookie before they've had their tea and the Log Lady scolds them, "Wait for the tea. The fish aren't running." The scene at Laura's graveside funeral, led first by Bobby calling them all hypocrites for ignoring the signs she was in trouble followed by a grieving Leland throwing himself on the coffin and the device lowering the casket into the grave malfunctioning, making Leland ride it up and down like a ride. This is followed by a dark-humored scene at the diner where Shelly is making two old men crack up by re-creating the scene with her fingers and a napkin dispenser. Of course, who can forget the great trick Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) pulled off to get a job at One Eyed Jack's: tying a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue. Leland's unusual first season behavior provided another great moment when he showed up at an important business function at the Great Northern and immediately began looking for someone to dance with him. Ben enlisted Catherine to save the day, but then Leland started having his spells where he hunches over grabbing his head and flinging his hands away from it, so Catherine imitates him and the rest of the dancers do the same, inventing a great new dance craze, emphasis on the craze. In the second season premiere, it's uncertain whether Sarah and Maddie were shocked more by Leland's hair suddenly being all-white or the fact he came bounding down the stairs that morning singing, "Mairzy Doats." Another great scene from that episode was when Cooper was being treated at the hospital after his shooting and Truman instructed Lucy to give him a rundown of what had happened. Forgive me for not remembering the proper order: Jacques Renault was murdered; Dr. Jacoby was attacked; Nadine attempted suicide; Leo Johnson was shot; the mill burned; Pete Martell and Shelly Johnson suffered smoke inhalation; Catherine Martell and Josie Packard (Joan Chen) are missing. To this list, Cooper responds, "HOW LONG WAS I OUT?" David Lynch himself directed what may be one of the most disturbing sequences in television history but also ranks as a triumph of direction and editing. In the scene that reveals Leland as the killer and that he is possessed by BOB, we are confronted first by images of a drugged-out Sarah crawling down the Palmer stairs and seeing a vision of a horse. Meanwhile, the Log Lady tells Cooper and Truman that the owls are gathering at the Road House. There, Julee Cruise is performing, singing some of the many songs she's performed with lyrics by Lynch and music by the series' brilliant composer Angelo Badalamenti. Bobby Briggs is there. So are Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) and James. Even the old waiter. As Cruise sings the haunting song "The World Spins," she vanishes and the Giant appears and tells Cooper, "It is happening again." Indeed it is. At the Palmer house, Maddie comes down the stairs smelling an unusual smell and she sees Leland as BOB for the first time and he proceeds to brutally beat her to death, telling her at one point, "You are going back to Missoula, MONTANA!" before slamming her head into the wall and placing another letter beneath another fingernail. Back at the Road House, the singer reappears, Bobby seems affected, Donna is bawling and James, as one would expect from that dimwit, seems clueless. The waiter crosses to Cooper and says, "I am so sorry." "The World Spins" continues and Cooper stares, wondering what clue he missed. It's a long, truly unsettling and amazing sequence and may be the best ever produced for television.
I think I better wrap this up before this ends up being longer than the health care reform bill, but I can't help it: My Twin Peaks obsession is a preexisting condition. I did it. I wrote the piece without even repeating myself about ideas of duality or references to Hitchcock's Vertigo or Preminger's Laura. Before I do one last tribute, I leave you with this reminder that you must never forget: the owls are not what they seem.
Twenty years is a long time and as you would expect, we were liable to lose some of the performers who appeared on Twin Peaks as those two decades passed. This might not be a complete list. I'm relying on IMDb and some don't even have birth information, let alone death information. Most who have died played minor roles, but three played pivotal roles in the series (one played a character who had already died on the show). So, now, to remember those who have left us since the series went off the air and the roles they played.
Hank Worden (the old Great Northern waiter) died Dec. 6, 1992
Royal Dano (Judge Sternwood) died May 15, 1994
John Boylan (Mayor Milford) died Nov. 16, 1994
Frank Silva (BOB) died Sept. 13, 1995
Jack Nance (Pete Martell) died Dec. 30, 1996
Jane Greer (Vivian Niles, Norma's mom) died Aug. 24, 2001
Ron Taylor (Coach Wingate) died Jan. 16, 2002
Royce D. Applegate (Rev. Brocklehurst) died Jan. 1, 2003
Dan O’Herlihy (Andrew Packard) died Feb. 17, 2005
James Booth (Ernie Niles) died Aug. 11, 2005
Tony Jay (Dougie Milford) died Aug. 13, 2006
Don S. Davis (Major Garland Briggs) died June 29, 2008
Frances Bay (First Mrs. Tremond) died Sept. 15, 2011
Ian Abercrombie (Tom Brockman) died Jan. 26, 2012
Labels: Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Diane Keaton, Hitchcock, Homicide, House, Kyle MacLachlan, Larry Sanders, Law and Order, Lost, Lynch, Mad Men, Piper Laurie, Preminger, Ray Wise, The Simpsons, The Sopranos, The Wire, TV Tribute, Twin Peaks
Catherine's exasperated delivery of "You have a thing in your mouth" is definitely a top moment. I think the only thing I'd add is how terrifying BOB is; we once managed to spook ourselves by freeze-framing through scenes he popped up in. Eventually we had to stop and talk about happy things for a while.