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Midgets, Giants, and Douglas-firs: Revisiting “Twin Peaks” Two Decades Later

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Twin PeaksTwenty years ago, a show on ABC called Twin Peaksredefined the possibilities of serial drama with its aching, painstaking and, unfortunately, prematurely answered question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” It also helped launch the careers of several young actors, including Lara Flynn Boyle, David Duchovny, Billy Zane, and Heather Graham.

One of the strangest productions to ever grace network television, “Twin Peaks” was basically the offspring of a soap opera and an avant-garde art film, courtesy of creators David Lynch and Mark Frost. But it was successful – at least, initially. The ABC network’s insistence that the show answer its big, audience-drawing question (“Who killed Laura Palmer?”) in the middle of the second season, at about this time in 1990, led to the writer’s harried attempts to create new, intriguing story lines after they, as Lynch so aptly put it, “killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.”

“Who killed Laura Palmer?” It was the question that had viewers coming back week to week, though “Twin Peaks” was far more than a mystery. There were elements of slapstick humor and gumshoe dopiness, which, in contrast to the many disturbed characters dealing with the death of the beloved Laura Palmer, really gave the show a kind of schizophrenic, unpredictable mood – at turns ridiculous and endearing.

Twin PeaksIn one of the most memorable scenes, a dancing midget (who is unfamiliar to the viewer and, therefore, completely random), Laura Palmer (who is supposed to be dead), and Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, who is the main protagonist), are in a red room with a black and white zig-zag patterned linoleum floor. Everything they say and every movement they make is strangely contorted and awkward, and this is because Agent Cooper is supposed to be dreaming that he is in another world. In a first viewing, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s awkward about the way the characters are talking, but it seems altered in some way. It turns out, the actors learned to make their movements and speak their lines backwards, and Lynch, who directed the episode (and considers it his best work), played the film in reverse so that the characters were understandable (kind of). Why? Well, one reason could be that this was before the CGI revolution, so special effects were still pretty rudimentary. Really though, it seems to be more of an artistic measure on the part of Lynch, who, normally a filmmaker, clearly wanted to do something unique for TV.

Presently, “Twin Peaks” is still considered by many to have been an excellent television show, and among the enthusiasts and critics of the TV universe, serves as a kind of legend, a lore – due partially to the show’s quirkiness and often dream-like sentiment, but also, and possibly more importantly, because of the way it spiraled into awfulness and lost its massive audience after revealing its biggest secret. It has become a sort of warning, a harbinger for all serial dramas to reckon, as though something should be learned from its history.

So, I wonder, twenty years later, after the successes of hit shows like “Law & Order” (which “Twin Peaks” predates by about six months), “The X-Files” and the beguiling Lost,” how does ”Twin Peaks” hold up? Is there any of the essence that captured an enormous audience in 1990?  Should we even care, when “Law & Order” solved a mystery and prosecuted a criminal every episode? When The X-Files” made a superstar out of David Duchovny? When Lost,” also a quirky, complicated show, sustained a loyal audience for six seasons, and, more importantly, concluded on its own terms?

Twin Peaks, Kyle MacLachlan & Michael OntkeanIn a lot of ways, “Twin Peaks” is extremely dated, with its theme song, “Falling,” sounding oddly reminiscent of “Take My Breath Away,” the Academy Award-winning (albeit cheesy) song from Top Gun. Still, there’s something foreboding about that music, and the images accompanying the opening credits, those of the enormous waterfall and the calm stream that follows, truly evoke a mood that sets a very particular tone for the show – one of yearning, degradation, and, of course, dreaminess. All of these are representative of the show’s complicated plot. In fact, the music of “Twin Peaks” is fantastic. Lynch’s constant collaborator, composer Angelo Badalamenti, created a score that changes moods as frequently as the show, and is an inseparable part of the overall experience of viewing it.

Similarly, Law & Order” had its very recognizable signature music (sounding like a gavel keeping time), as did “The X-Files” (with its ghostly whistling). Lost,” too, had a very distinct orchestral score that truly amplified the suspense. Perhaps shows that came subsequently to “Twin Peaks,” especially those concerned with suspense or mystery, were more apt to try and create a memorable score. Sudden shifts in mood are more easily apparent if the music also reflects the change, and “Twin Peaks” had multiple moods.

Once Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed, the shifts in mood seemed irrelevant, as though the storylines all depended on that one secret being kept. Of course, Palmer’s death is also meant to serve as a catalyst for exposure of the dark side of “Twin Peaks,” which is where Special Agent Dale Cooper comes into the picture. While investigating Palmer’s death, he uncovers drug and prostitution rings, murder and arson plots, and evil spirits who possess weak-willed humans. Unfortunately, all of these are interrelated, and when ABC forced the show’s creators to reveal the killer, the best storylines were snubbed out and replaced by less interesting threads that never really regained the show’s popularity.

So, how does ”Twin Peaks” hold up?

Watching it now, one is left with the same exact feelings as critics in the early ’90s: That the show was extremely unique and intriguing, and was great all through its first season, but suffered tremendously after revealing Laura Palmer’s killer. And perhaps that was inevitable. How long could that realistically be kept a secret? How long before the audience lost interest anyway? Perhaps revealing the killer wasn’t the mistake; attempting to continue the show afterward was where they went wrong.

Still, anyone who enjoys an engaging television show should watch “Twin Peaks,” even now, twenty years later. The Definitive Gold Box Edition is excellent. And when they feel like it has wrapped up, their big questions have been answered and they feel the show should end, they should stop watching. Just pretend that’s the end.

It doesn’t get any better from there.

Some additional notes about “Twin Peaks”:
The show was canceled in February of 1991, and for the longest time, it was impossible to get the series in its entirety. Since the pilot episode was actually filmed as a full-length feature for European release, there were issues in gaining rights to it as part of the series. The first and second seasons were released on DVD in the U.K. and Australia, but these versions were defective and had glitches that caused the discs to skip. This was around 2001. It wasn’t until 2005 that the U.S. put out the first season of ”Twin Peaks” on DVD, but even then, there was no U.S. version of the pilot episode available, which is vitally important to understanding the series. The European full-length film version of the pilot is extended and includes information revealed in subsequent episodes of the show, and therefore does not serve as a proper substitute for the originally-aired pilot. The second season was released in early 2007. Not until late 2007, when the Definitive Gold Box Edition of ”Twin Peaks” was released, did the pilot episode become available. It was included in the Gold Box Edition, along with the entire first and second season, deleted scenes, commentary, interviews, and more.

–Richard Kornak is an Assistant Editor of The Free George.

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