"It's like I'm having a beautiful dream and a terrible nightmare all at once."—Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle)
Once upon a time, a beautiful princess, the prom queen of her school, was savagely murdered and thrown in a river. Her name was Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). A heroic knight, an agent of the FBI, came to town to bring her killer to justice. His name was Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).
But in spite of the fact that the coffee was hot and strong and the cherry pie exceptionally tasty, the town turned out to be a dark and scary place. The people lied, betrayed one another, and frequently tried to kill each other. One woman talked to a piece of wood; another transformed into a doorknob. Evil spirits roamed the land; flying saucers roamed the sky. And the princess turned out to be a drug-addicted prostitute.
But at least there were plenty of doughnuts for everybody.
As much of a mystery as its own plot, the debate over which is the "real" Twin Peaks has raged far longer than the show's brief run a decade ago. Some fans credit David Lynch as the driving force behind the show, crediting the pilot and the first season's scant seven episodes (only one of which Lynch directed) as the only legitimate part of the series. This group tends to focus on the show's innovative visual style and psychosexual symbolism. A few fans even throw in Lynch's disturbing farewell, Fire Walk With Me. Other fans recognize Mark Frost's hand in the show's genre-bending and soap-opera complexity. This group includes the show's second season (at least the first half—nearly everyone agrees that the show began to unravel toward its end) as part of the canon.
Of course, these are the fans. The general television audience, even now, remains rather ambivalent about the legacy of Twin Peaks. Certainly, shows like The X-Files, which borrowed its themes and mood, and Homicide, which pushed its visual style to the limits, may not have been allowed to expand creatively if Twin Peaks had not led the way. But audiences tuning in to the show in 1990 found the show an unsettling experience.
What puzzled most viewers during the original run of the series was its approach to the detective genre. Their expectation that it would adhere to the rules (which we discussed all the way back in my Deep Focus column on the Detective Film) was unexpectedly thrown out (except in the European movie release of the pilot, where Lynch tacked on an abrupt ending that really does not answer much of anything, some of which was recycled for episode 2's dream sequence). The mystery of Laura Palmer's murder would not be solved in any sense until the middle of the second season, and even then, only in a fashion that opened up more questions. Instead, Lynch and Frost offered an exploration of the detective story's rules no less subversive than a late-period Hitchcock film.
In any traditional detective narrative, there are always a few clues that do not fit, which we call "red herrings," and they must logically be accounted for before the story can achieve closure. Twin Peaks defers closure as long as possible, as an extension of television's tacit rule that a series must never wrap up its loose threads (deferring romantic closure for sitcom couples, resurrecting dead characters in soap operas). All clues on Twin Peaks become red herrings, ultimately, as the mystery twists along multiple narrative lines.
Another rule of the detective genre dictates that the victim be an innocent, opening the narrative to its necessary quest for justice. If the victim deserves punishment, then the detective has no cause—the narrative stops in its tracks as justice has already been rendered. But in Twin Peaks, the repeated image of an angelic Laura Palmer, seemingly innocent victim of some dastardly deed ("wrapped in plastic," as if an ironic attempt to preserve her), is progressively peeled away over the course of the series to reveal a creature capable of crimes as foul as any character in the story. Thus, Cooper's quest becomes increasingly problematic: can justice be rendered when it is not clear whether Laura is guilty herself? Even worse, in Twin Peaks's film noir world, everybody appears guilty of something—it is only a matter of time until we discover what that might be.
This puzzle might be solvable, if the detective could remain on stable ground and sort through the clues (which we already know are unsortable) to discover who is really innocent or guilty (which we already know is impossible) in order to make an objective judgment. The traditional detective story requires a traditional detective to offer masterful perspective. Agent Dale Cooper, played with obvious delight by Kyle MacLachlan, shows all the hallmarks of a developing case of schizophrenia.
But if all that were not enough to sustain the series, Lynch and Frost layer their detective story with a re-evaluation of soap opera conventions in the strangest merger of television genres since Dark Shadows rediscovered the correlation between horror and soap opera in their common gothic origins. Indeed, Twin Peaks has all the clichés of soapdom: powerful figures fighting for dominance, constant romantic reconfigurations, blackmail and hidden secrets, and more directionless subplots than you can shake a log at. But Lynch and Frost take the series beyond merely recycling these clichés for their own sake, or even as parody (which judging from the show's quirky sense of humor, they were): Twin Peaks explores the class implications of soap opera. In the traditional soap world, the social elite (doctors, wealthy patriarchs, powerful capitalists) vie for dominance, as a reflection of the double desire of the audience to both empathize with the powerful (to live in their world) and to see them humbled by petty conflict (a projection of class revenge).
In Twin Peaks, we do follow subplots set in traditional soap territory (particularly the conflicts among the crew of the Great Northern and the Packard Sawmill), but we also move across class lines to the proletarian denizens of the Double-R Diner, the lives of those on the proverbial other side of the tracks (like Shelly and Leo). In between, the bourgeois Palmer family finds itself traumatized by Laura's indiscretions across these class boundaries (typified by her sexual and drug crimes—a "good girl gone bad"). The show's subversive approach to class conventions is embellished by hints of ethnicity (Lynch and Frost's use of the Chinese Josie Packard (Joan Chen), rather than the usual black/white ethnic divisions usually seen on network television), as well as the usual extremes of gender found in the soap opera (especially roles for women) pushed to hysterical limits.
More than simply an academic exercise in postmodern parody, Twin Peaks is held together by David Lynch's sense of atmosphere. This is one of the most sumptuous television series ever presented, with a dreamlike beauty that offers deceptive comfort. Like the ear in the field in Blue Velvet or the image of a man and his tractor on an endless highway in The Straight Story, Lynch's mise en scene presents a comfortable vista marked by the unexpected break. Although Lynch did not direct more than a handful of episodes of the series himself, the style remains pretty much consistent throughout, thanks to regular director of photography Frank Byers and helped considerably by the laconic music of Angelo Badalamenti. Oddly, Badalamenti's use of a music library built up throughout the series, rather than individual scores for each episode, forced producers to reuse familiar music cues and leitmotifs, lending an eerie air of familiarity no matter what bizarre set of events might be taking place.
Artisan's four-disc set of the complete first season is presented in its original stereo mix, or with the option of 5.1 or DTS soundtracks (but no subtitles, unfortunately). Due to rights problems with the pilot, Artisan presents only the first seven episodes of the series proper (Fire Walk With Me is also currently available on DVD), along with a synopsis on the insert of the story so far. Trying to sum up the plot threads is really a futile exercise here, as would summarizing the plots of the individual episodes. Each episode is offered with an optional "Log Lady" introduction (cryptic appearances by Catherine Coulson filmed for the show's run on Bravo) and "white rabbit" style script notes, which detail deleted scenes or alternate dialogue.
Episode One: Each episode is introduced on its commentary track by Michael J. Anderson, the "Man from Another Place" from the mysterious Red Room in Cooper's dreams. The first episode is discussed by director Duwayne Dunham, who notes the pathological character of the series (especially Dale Cooper's idiosyncratic nature). He describes Lynch's visual style, quite accurately, as "framed pictures.
Episode Two: Speak of the devil, David Lynch directed the second episode of the series, which features Cooper's notorious Red Room dream, source of the show's second season "Lodge" mythology and the crucial theme of doubling throughout Twin Peaks. Because of Lynch's characteristic reticence, the commentary here is handled by Frank Byers, the show's director of photography. He comments on the series' use of non-traditional techniques (at least for television), like wide lenses and complex lighting arrangements. Although Byers is more technical than most of the other commentaries, he does remark on the show's influences (mostly Touch Of Evil), as does Dunham on his track.
Episode Three: The real influences behind the show are evident in this episode, featuring the introduction of Laura's doppelganger cousin Madeline (Sheryl Lee), one-armed man "Mike" Gerard (Al Strobel), and the Hardy Boys take-off "Bookhouse Boys." Also seen here is the soap opera parody "Invitation to Love," whose turgid romantic overkill seemed to oddly parallel the "real" events in Twin Peaks. All this suggests aspect to the show's "postmodern" character: its ability to acknowledge its sources. The Madeline subplot steps right out of Otto Preminger's Laura; the one-armed man from The Fugitive. The Laura/Donna/James triangle should remind us of Psycho. Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) later wears a playing-card outfit reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate. Most of the commentary tracks do not note the intertextual references. Indeed, the one by Tina Rathborne that accompanies this episode spends more time discussing the show's gender politics and comparing the "intimacy" of the first season with the "fishbowl" climate of the second.
Episode Four: Director Tim Hunter and writer Robert Engels join forces on this commentary track, where the contributions of co-creator Mark Frost are stressed. Much of the genre parody (and Hunter and Engels add Andy Griffith and Wild Wild West to the pile) came from Frost. The two also discuss the impact of Twin Peaks on later television shows: a fit topic as Hunter later went on to contribute to Homicide.
Episode Five: Director Lesli Linka Glatter comments on her work here, mostly enjoying the proceedings and offering few new insights. She seems particularly interested in the show's "mysterious" and erotic mood.
Episode Six: Director Caleb Deschanel and writer Harley Peyton follow up on Hunter and Engel's assessments of the contributions of Lynch and Frost. They note Lynch's tendency toward impulsiveness and instinct, balanced by Frost's meticulous sense of structure. They also have fun pointing out the plot holes (like Audrey smoking while hiding in a closet) that lend to the surreal feel of the series.
Episode Seven: Production designer Richard Hoover fills in the gaps on the series' art direction on the commentary for this Mark Frost-directed episode. Hoover, remarking again on Lynch's "painterly" style, talks about the use of color and texture (especially the importance of wood) to suggest the idea of hidden life within ordinary objects. Indeed, Lynch probably has the best sense of any current director of the tension within a natural landscape since Antonioni.
Supplement Section: Most of the remaining supplements in this Artisan package are grouped on Disc Four (along with Episode Seven), in a section enigmatically called "Tibet," although interview "Easter eggs" accompany each individual episode. These supplements are strange, and I have heard some complaints about their seemingly amateurish nature. For instance, an interview with Mark Frost by members of the fanzine "Wrapped in Plastic" claims to have been originally taped in August, then "recreated" in late September after a dispute over the copyright of a poster shown during the interview (is this really a joke about the rights dispute over the pilot film?). The result shows the two interviewers, post-September 11 (they conspicuously refer to it before "calling" Frost) pretending to talk to Mark Frost, who responds from back in August. The result comes across as a subversive parody of the traditional DVD interview. Indeed, all the supplements play with our expectations of what constitutes DVD extras.
Although DVD is a fairly new medium, supplements have fallen into a familiar pattern. Few studios have tried experimenting with the nature of these supplements or commenting on their rigid sense of structure. I can only think of a handful of examples: the "white rabbit" feature from The Matrix and its ability to break continuity (although now that has become a cliché!), the Shakespeare subtitle track on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the "in-character" commentary tracks for This is Spinal Tap, Buckaroo Banzai, Blood Simple, and (oddly enough) Fantasia 2000's "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment. But these are few and far between. The bad lighting, misframed shots, seemingly incongruous comments in the Twin Peaks interviews—these are all a strategy to play with our expectations in the same way the show itself did. While some of the "Wrapped in Plastic" crew's aesthetic decisions may fall flat (like the short parody film "Specter's Rock"), they are certainly well within the spirit of the show to experiment.
Other supplements include a lesson from Michael J. Anderson on how to "speak the voices in David Lynch's head," by learning to speak backwards in front of an obvious green-screen effect. A 20-minute collection of interviews entitled "An Introduction to David Lynch" offers comments by actors like Catherine Coulson and Miguel Ferrer and episode directors like Duwayne Dunham—although they really do not reveal very much in depth about Lynch's technique. Lynch builds his films around the images rather than the narrative, images mostly drawn from dreams and inspiration. Often, he asks actors to perform without a sense of the overall plan of the work (although others have noted that he is a stickler for the script and does not encourage improvisation). For instance, Michael Anderson recalls how his Red Room scenes were described by Lynch as "having no context," which you can imagine would unhinge any actor. Such an intuitive style seems to place most of his collaborators at a disadvantage, unable to explain the "cryptic" (as Kyle MacLachlan puts it) nature of his work. The best they can really do here is tell funny anecdotes about life on the set.
A nine-minute interview with the owner of the Mar-T Diner (source of the show's Double-R Diner) gives us some insight into Lynch's friendly working manner, mostly on Fire Walk With Me. And there is a lot of talk about pie. A "Directory" features essays on many of the major characters from the first season, with biographies and filmographies of the actors, and video "postcard" interviews with random life observations (Sheryl Lee talks about her spiritual journey to Africa, Al Strobel tells a long story about the car accident that cost him his arm, and so on). The directory is non-linear in structure (follow the connections between characters to discover the wealth of names), which is likely to keep you busy for a while, assuming you do not find this sort of thing frustrating. Of course, if you are easily frustrated, you probably are better off avoiding Twin Peaks altogether. In general, although these supplements lack any direct appearance by David Lynch, who prefers to let his surreal films speak for themselves (and minimal appearances by Frost), this is a pretty solid set of extras that still leaves plenty of room for viewers to participate in the game of interpretation.
And that participation, after all, really is the secret behind Twin Peaks effectiveness as a series. A casual viewer can watch it, skim over the more extreme weirdness, and see the show as a twisted soap-opera, with black humor and the requisite scares. Those interested in something deeper can track the show's intertextual references, complicated mythology, and occasionally haphazard symbolism.
The owls called and told me to bake you all a lovely pie. You are all free to have some. The pie is full of secrets. You may all go now.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Tracks for Each Episode
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