Friday, February 10, 2012

What I've Been Watching: Twin Peaks

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any commentary about film or television here. Toward the end of changing that, it seems worthwhile to point out that I recently finished watching the entire run of Twin Peaks. It was wonderfully compelling, in large part because of the skillful blend of soap-operatic, don’t-miss-an-episode plotlines, potentially revelatory themes, and wonderfully artistic imagery. Despite an almost perfect pilot movie, a thoroughly satisfying season and a half, and a finale that was the most eye-poppingly surreal bit of television I’ve seen since the last episode of The Prisoner, Twin Peaks has also allowed me to experience, twenty years after the fact, one of the most rapidly disappointing declines in television history.

I am assuredly not going to be saying anything that hasn’t been said a million times since 1991, but it is stunning how clearly season two of Twin Peaks demonstrates the destructive potential of television networks. If any controlling interest in work of fiction has ever made a more glaring error in judgment than ABC did in insisting upon a solution to the Laura Palmer murder, let me know about it. I cannot fathom how anyone could have thought that that would be a good idea, when even the most casual observer should have recognized that that was what held the show together, that without unresolved questions about the slain prom queen the show didn’t really exist.

If they’d wanted to resolve the storyline out of some sense of duty to their audience, I suppose I can understand that, especially if they were confident enough in the rest of the series to expect it to maintain its appeal on its various other merits. From what I understand, though, the network never had much faith in the show, even when the public was obsessed with it. Of course, the ratings at the end of the first season and the beginning of the second should have made it clear that the accountants and executives didn’t know what they were talking about, and they should have thus been motivated to stay the hell out of the way.

I can begin to understand insisting on the resolution to the initial A storyline, but how in God’s name could anyone see value in ending it mid-season? I started viewing the show in almost complete ignorance as to what to expect, and I certainly didn’t realize that the murder would be solved when it was. Even so, the revelation was extremely powerful for me, and I was quite disappointed in myself for not determining who the killer was ahead of time. But upon viewing that extremely early climax and knowing how many episodes were still left, I assumed that what I had watched was just the beginning of the end, and that the rest of the season would entail the characters pursuing a killer whose identity the audience now knew. I also assumed that they would continue to piece together layers of the mystery, tying the minor storylines into narrative of Laura Palmer’s death.

It’s not that the latter half of season two is bad, but when neither of those things happened, and when the primary driver of the plot was wrapped up very quickly and neatly, I was utterly disoriented. I imagine that the majority of fans of the show, like me, had to force themselves past that point just to see what happened next. Once I came to terms with the fact that the bottom fell out of the show, I rediscovered its appeal from a completely different standpoint. But even though it remained good television, what could hurt a series more than several episodes of the audience collectively wondering why they were suddenly watching an altogether different show.

Because of the catastrophic effect of ABC’s insistence on something that was about as obviously bad as bad ideas come, it’s a terrible disappointment that Twin Peaks didn’t constitute a breaking point in the tradition of interference by moneyed interests in art and media. But unfortunately that was just a particular high water mark in a still-ongoing history of networks and studies derailing promising projects and preventing good stories from becoming great.

Twin Peaks was still great, but it could have been great for so much longer. Oh, there were other problems with the post-resolution portion of the show, too. The recovery period might have been quicker and smoother if it weren’t for the fact that even minor storylines were dropped and new ones with new characters had to be unexpectedly introduced in large part, based on what I’ve read, because Kyle McLaughlin was unabashedly shitting where he ate. Nevertheless, all of this built through the development of a beautifully complex mythology to a final episode that kept my mind constantly racing to keep up with a parade of nightmarish riddles.

And that final episode was intellectually gratifying but emotionally devastating. David Lynch and Mark Frost had apparently arranged to put multiple characters in peril in hopes of generating demand for continuation to a third season. This also was something I didn’t know going into it, so I, and presumably many of those who watched it when it was on television, was expecting a closed ending. But when I read the final scenes that way I came away from the show grappling with the implication that there are dire personal consequences for trying to do good in a world that possesses precious little hope.

I heard whispers that the film, Fire Walk With Me might provide some resolution to the oppressively bleak ending of the show, but it didn’t. It tauntingly hinted at the possibility of a resolution, but it didn’t follow through with it, so I get the impression that David Lynch just enjoys screwing with his audience for kicks. That said, I’d be happy to be screwed with again. Hopefully I am part of an ongoing growth of retrospective interest in Twin Peaks. If so, I honestly think Lynch should revisit the town, since Twin Peaks has the unique distinction of having specifically placed one early scene twenty-five years in the series’ future. That’s right around the corner, underneath the sycamores, behind the red curtain.

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