Sunday, March 04, 2012

Welcome to Twin Peaks

We recently watched the whole of the 1990-1991 Twin Peaks series from David Lynch and Mark Frost, including the 1992 film Fire Walk With Me at the end ... I had sort-of enjoyed the show when it was first aired, but remembered feeling at the time that it lost its way, and so I was interested to see how a proper re-watch would pan out. Sam had not seen it at all, only catching a couple of episodes on the initial run, so again she was intrigued by the whole idea and looking forward to watching it.

For those who haven't seen it, the show was basically a weekly soap opera, but one where there was an undercurrent of supernatural happenings throughout. There are a great many characters (, and the show jumps from the stories of one to the other to the other. Sometimes characters will go weeks without appearing, sometimes they get just one scene as the show concentrates on someone elses' story for a time. If you're interested in a full rundown of the plot and other details then have a look here:

For our re-watch, I decided to take notes, episode by episode, to try and remember some of the key elements as they happened ... the show is so detailed and complex, that to try and rely on memory alone would be near impossible. Be warned that some of this blog might not make total sense to anyone who has no idea what Twin Peaks was all about ... but to try and explain it all would take far longer than I have to write about it!

First off, I was surprised that Killer Bob actually makes an appearance in the very first episode! I had thought that this revelation would be kept back, but no, there he is ... The strangeness continues with Agent Cooper's dream at the end of episode two ... and this starts to suggest at the themes that will be explored as the series unfolds.

The show seems to be about the death of Laura Palmer, found wrapped in plastic on the shore of the local river. Who killed her and why forms the core of the initial set of episodes, and they are gripping and interesting as Cooper, an FBI agent brought in to investigate as there have been some similar killings elsewhere, gets to grips with the townsfolk of Twin Peaks, all of whom have secrets of their own which they do not wish to be made public. Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, is a brilliant character, watchable and interesting, and he forms the lynchpin (excuse the pun) to the series.

Episode 8 has a different title sequence, and is longer than all the others at 130 minutes according to my DVD timer but 90 mins apparently (the rest are around 45 minutes). I guess this is because the episode opened Season Two of the show, but watching them back to back you get little evidence of this. The previous episode ends with Cooper being shot, which seems in reflection to be a 'season ending' act ...

Things ramp up and up as the series progresses, until episode 13, where we learn that 'Bob', the apparent killer of Laura, is a spirit which can inhabit a human body and control it. The 'Bob' spirit was a familar to 'Mike', which inhabits the body of the one-armed man, in order to help Cooper track down his former familiar and stop him. The question is, though, who did 'Bob' inhabit to kill Laura.

In the next episode, we learn the truth as Leland Palmer, Laura's father, brutally kills Maddy, Laura's cousin who looks just like her (and is played by the same actress). This is an incredible sequence, brutal and far above the somewhat cosy soap-opera trappings of the series. It brings you up short and leaves you desperate to find out more.

Episode 16 sees Leland brought to justice, but 'Bob' makes him dash his brains out in the cell ... leaving him dead, and Bob still on the loose. It's a brilliant end to the 'Laura Palmer' sequence of episodes and investigation.

Episode 17 picks up three days later as Leland is cremated. Unfortunately from this point onwards, the show really loses its impetus and drifts for episodes at a time, seemingly going nowhere. The episode feels directionless and marking time. Several plots drift on - the whole Nadine regressing to a teenager one feels like they didn't know what to do with that character, and we see the start of another pointless subplot where James is chatted up by a married blonde in a bar leading to another murder conspiracy in later episodes.

The series now goes into freefall, and apparently was losing viewers all the time. Which is not really surprising as the whole show had been about 'Who Killed Laura Palmer' and once you know ... it's all over. Apparently Lynch and Frost never wanted to reveal the answer - but I feel that too would have been a big mistake, leading to the show dragging on when all people wanted were answers. In a way, this is what happened to The X-Files ... continuing way past the point that it should have provided some closure and answers as to what was happening. Ideally, Lynch and Frost should have picked up the interesting 'Bob and Mike' plot, along with the Black and White Lodges, the backwards talking midget, the giant and the ancient man, and developed that, but instead that whole element is allowed to drift, backgrounded against the more petty and human concerns of the other characters. Windom Earle, Cooper's ex-partner, comes in as a new psychopath (they didn't really need him as they already had one body-hopping psycho) and starts killing more people in inventive Doctor Phibes-esque ways.

By episode 23, Josie Packard, who had started out as a strong businesswoman trying to keep the lumber mill alive, has become a weak subserviant nothing - completely unworked for and out of character with how she started out. Again, it's like they didn't know what to do with her. She ends up being killed, while Cooper again sees dwarfs and Bob, and inexplicably, her face then screams from a wooden drawer knob beside her bed!  This point is only returned to once (when someone seems to be talking to the walls of the hotel as he thinks she is trapped in the wood there) but is never developed or explained further.

The final episode at least attempts to draw some sort of closure to some of the characters' lives. It ends with Cooper having a nightmare chase through the red-curtained rooms of the Black Lodge, being confronted by visions, and having to bargain for Annie's life (a waitress he met and fell in love with during the latter episodes). When Cooper emerges, what we see in the mirror is Bob - Cooper has been inhabited by the parasitic creature. Cooper smashes his head against the mirror ...

Overall, the show has, I think, to sadly be judged a failure. Mainly because it seems apparent that Lynch and Frost really didn't know where to go with it once the initial Laura plot had played out. However, if you just watch the first 16 episodes, and then the final episode for the closure, then it is probably one of the finest pieces of supernatural television you will experience.

I love how it blindsides you all the time, presenting apparent clues and motivations which have no bearing on anything, how everyone is wearing a mask - no-one is quite who they appear to be - and this feeds into the underlying plot about body-hopping murderous parasites from another place. Watch out for David Duchovny (from The X-Files) playing a transvestite FBI agent, singer David Bowie in a cameo role, David Warner as Thomas Eckhardt later in the show and David Lynch himself as Cooper's deaf boss. Nothing quite like that had ever been done on television to that scale before, and I doubt ever will again.

It's easy to see why Twin Peaks gripped everyone on its first transmission ... the narrative is compelling and you want to watch next week to see how it develops. It's also easy to see why it lost audiences and was eventually cancelled - too much incidental prevarication, and not enough strong control of the overall themes and plot for people to be able to continue to connect and hook into it.

Watching the Fire Walk With Me film after seeing the series is an interesting experience. The film basically fills in a lot of what we already knew from the series - it's the final days of homecoming queen Laura Palmer - a butter-wouldn't-melt perfect girl to the world, but a drug-using, sexual predator to her close friends. It seems that Leland had been abusing her for years (or was it Bob?) until he finally kills her in a disused train carriage and dumps her body in the river ... it's not a great film to watch if you don't know the series, and doesn't add much to what the series has already revealed, but it's well made and entertaining.

I must give a final note to the music and title sequence. I loved the music from the moment I first heard it, and Angelo Badalamenti's score is still superb today. It's distinctive and really adds much to the cult feel of the show. Likewise the titles, which start with a varied thrush and then show the sawblades in the lumber mill working, and then shots of the scenery around Twin Peaks, the town sign, the mountains, waterfall and river. They are totally at odds with what the show was all about, and lead you into a false sense of calm before the storms which will unfold.

I'm glad we watched the series through, and as I say, it's certainly worth doing if you're a fan of supernatural and cult television ... just be warned about the latter half!

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