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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Classic TV: Obsessing over "Twin Peaks"

I should hardly qualify as an authority on "Twin Peaks" since my viewing only began this year - close to two decades after the show's commercial zenith. Promptness aside, I heartily endorse the recently released "Definitive Gold Box Edition," which marks the first time "Peaks" fans can get both seasons, including the rare hour-and-a-half pilot (original and European versions), in one DVD set. Best of all, there's a spectacular full-length documentary chronicling the rise and fall of the landmark series with contributions from Kyle MacLachlan (Special Agent Dale Cooper), Ray Wise (Leland Palmer), Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer) and co-creator Mark Frost, among others. A separate feature with surrealist mastermind David Lynch, MacLachlan and Madchen Amick (Shelly Johnson) chatting over pie and coffee is also worth the relatively steep price ($99.99). Of particular note is when Lynch discusses the network-induced revelation of Laura's killer roughly midway through Season Two - largely regarded as the series' death knell - by equating it to "killing the golden goose."

It's hard to argue with the logic. Revisionist history usually rears its ugly head while discussing pop culture classics, cult or otherwise. But in the case of "Peaks," sacrificing art for commerce was - and forever will be - the wrong move. Bitterness aside, I'm thankful I never watched "Peaks" during its original run. As an ill-prepared fifth-grader, I likely would have been scarred for the rest of my life by visions of BOB or the incendiary death of a principal character in Episode 14, which will go down in TV history as one of the most disturbing, graphic scenes ever aired. Watching it this year, I was still shocked. Like, "refusing to look in mirrors and peering over my shoulder while turning out the lights" shocked. You'll never get the image out of your head.

My enjoyment also wasn't sullied by the fact that, having read critical commentary about the show years ago, I already knew the identity of Laura's killer. Coming into "Peaks" as a relatively informed newbie isn't a bad thing, and regardless, there's a heavy emotional investment still required. One, you have to embrace the bizarrely comical, particularly during the first season - which, as the documentary also notes, plays like seven mini-films as opposed to traditional, serialized TV. The progression of the Laura Palmer murder mystery is more of a MacGuffin than anything, which is why its (selfish?) resolution essentially killed the momentum of Lynch's unorthodox creation.

Knowing who killed the homecoming queen wasn't important in the broader sense of the show. Instead, her murder gave "Peaks" an eerie sense of urgency by turning a pristine logging town on its head - making suspects of everyone, and revealing dark, forbidden layers about physical and metaphysical worlds in the process. Once ABC forced Lynch to bury that connection alongside the killer (presumably for a ratings spike), the characters became disjointed - and as a result, less interesting while the series regressed without its creators' precise guidance. (Frost is a bit disingenuous about this in the documentary.) Sadly, the same soap opera conventions brilliantly parodied in Season One became the show's backbone after Episode 16, (leading to the unforgivable James storyline, amnesiac Nadine going back to high school, Donna's daddy drama and Windom Earle's over-the-top villainy.) Lynch made up for the "Days of Our Lives"-ish plot twists by taking complete control of the hypnotic Season Two finale, which it appears he knew would be "Twin Peaks'" swan song.

Despite its flaws, the series is essential viewing for fans of "The X-Files," "Lost" and perhaps even "Pushing Daisies." The new DVD set was supervised by Lynch, so the picture quality is stunning, particularly for the pilot, which was shot entirely on location in the Northwest. As standalone art, Season One is unparalleled. Even "Lost," which I'm a huge fan of, doesn't offer the same depth or, dare I say, audacity in terms of challenging the viewer with its uncompromising vision of a seemingly peaceful town rife with secrets. That cohesion and tension was missing in Season Two, and having just watched the pilot again, it's sad, even a bit hard to accept. But viewing the weaker episodes - all while knowing how the show withered from cultural phenomenon to cancelled series in such a short time - is still intrinsically captivating, if only to acknowledge the fleeting nature of art, and ultimately, the public's attention span.

* As a bonus, the Onion AV Club chose "Twin Peaks" as the first show for its new Classic TV feature. They start with a recap of the pilot on Wednesday, so if you're ambitious enough, you can watch the new DVD set along with them.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,

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"Who's the lady with the log?" "We call her the log lady ..." Classic.

By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 28, 2007 at 8:42 AM  

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