Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Twin Peaks: An awesome show that falls short of what it could be

"She's dead. Wrapped in plastic."

The title here may seem strange. Twin Peaks is awesome. It's one of the best TV shows I've ever watched. And yet, from interviews with the cast and crew (mainly David Lynch) we can see that this show is still another story of network pressure changing the face of a show in a way that nearly maims it.
The first season of Twin Peaks is as perfect as it gets. From minute one, every character is engrossing and multi-layered. The setting immediately grips the viewer as both a place so usual and so strange. And while the central story surrounding the brutal rape and murder of high school student Laura Palmer is the most interesting, the stories of the town that grow from that central plot feel so organic. Slowly, the show transforms from being about a murder in a small town to being about that small town, in all of it's quirkiness. The way that town so naturally grows is infectious. If someone had told me I would one day be interested in a show that contained a plot about a waitress with a jailed husband and her new love life with a gas clerk who is married to a pirate lady...well I would consider that person mentally unstable. But the way every character has relationships with others creates a web, and with the Palmer case at the center, I couldn't help but dive into this town and enjoy it all.
Lynch also uses clever techniques to engross and frighten the viewer. Lynch ignores the common tropes of "pop-out" scares and grossing out the viewer to instead deliver scenes that are so unbelievably out there that they become terrifying. Speaking backwards and midget dancing doesn't sound scary, but when our protagonist Dale Cooper has a vision of just that, along with the murder victim, it feels as if Lynch has destroyed the boundaries of what could happen in a show with so basic a premise. And not only these scenes are scary. Using wide and static camera angles for simple events like conversations, we can contrast the discussions of drug deals and darkness in the woods with ordinary context environments like a diner. With that contrast allowed, we can feel as if the blackness that permeates Twin Peaks can reach us at any moment.
This feeling of inevitable consumption by something out of our control continues until the first third of season 2. The behind-the-scenes story here is that the network pressured the show into revealing the killer of Laura Palmer and wrapping up her story in general. From my viewing of season 2, I feel this was an awful choice. The episodes that reveal and then kill the murderer, the spirit BOB that has taken control of Leland Palmer, are wonderful. They're tightly dramatic, violent, and twisted. Did Laura know that it wasn't truly her father hurting her? Could Leland have done more to stop it? Is there any way to stop BOB?
We are still left with questions, but the story moves on to a different plot for Dale Cooper. Here's where it goes wrong. The show removed the center of the carefully crafted web that guided the show, but tried to keep all of the outer strands. The new middle didn't feel related, and therefore lessened the impact of every single storyline. Even with Wyndom Earle being a great adversary and a compelling character, the rest of the season until the finale feels almost flat. For the first time, storylines began to annoy me. I could barely handle Nadine having the mind of a high schooler. The beginning of an Audrey/Bobby romance only to have it become Audrey/Random Man was annoying. Andrew Packards return and Josie's demise are slightly interesting, but too drawn out. They also aren't given enough previous meaning.
The series finale reveals how great the season could have been without network meddling and with more involvement from Frost and Lynch. By the finale, we are shown that Earle wants to summon the power of the Black Lodge. By then, his quest has grabbed some other characters, and the show has started to gain the same dramatic weight it had at the beginning. But there are still lose threads, like Audrey, and the Packards and Pete, and the Ed/Norma/Nadine love triangle. My retroactively proposed solution (I am sure there are better stories that could have been told; this is more of an example of what season 2 could have been): if Leland hadn't been revealed as the killer, or even if he had but the characters knew BOB was still on the loose, the season could have included not only the search for Earle, but also the search for BOB/Leland. All of it could have lead to the Black Lodge in the finale. This would have kept the same central story from the beginning, gaining more emotional draw and still pushing forward. Imagine the fright to have Dale enter the Black Lodge in an attempt to finally stop BOB and save Annie from Earle, only to have the same events happen. It would instill hope in the viewer: this has come to an end, BOBs victims are vindicated, Earle is dead, and Annie and Dale can be happy. But with BOB being inside Dale, a season 3 involving the rescue of Dale and maybe a trip to the White Lodge to finally vanquish BOB would have continued to be compelling by being related to the original murder. And picture a dark scene early in the season where Dale murders Ronette, and then investigates it later.
The opportunity for chilling moments like that were there, but an invasive network and distracted creative team prevented Twin Peaks from achieving true perfection for all of it's two seasons. Nonetheless, it's a frightening and infectious show that will occupy all areas of your mind, and I recommend it to all.

(Side note: I did watch Fire Walk With Me, but I found all it did was weaken Laura's character, create illogical stories for others [bobby murdering? what?], and create a way for Dale to be saved, which was unnecessary after cancellation. Overall, unremarkable and I'd rather ignore it.)

"Black as midnight on a moonless night."

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