Reviews of Twin Peaks (1990) and related work
Twin Peaks (1990)
A blonde prom queen, Laura Palmer, has been murdered in her quiet home town in Washington, USA, 1989. Similarities with a previous case elsewhere prompt the FBI to send Dale Cooper, eccentric and saintly but forceful special agent. He delves into the mystery, changing the town and letting it change him. Appearances deceive.
Mystery with increasingly pervasive surreal and supernatural elements. I assume the basic authorial intent was to create a false impression of a whodunnit and then purposely undermine it. The heart-shaped necklaces in the first episode are a classic whodunnit token, while Sarah Palmer’s powerful emotional reaction to Laura’s death provides the emotional impetus of the investigation, as if it were going to proceed in the usual linear fashion with a corresponding emotional release as order is restored. True to this superficial form, the show is full of improbably beautiful people, which isn’t typical for Lynch. As an exercise in surrealism, the resolution is deferred, subverted and finally pushed out of reach for the 25-year hiatus.
Whether viewed as a drama or a mystery, the show runs too long and fails because it doesn’t come together: By design, it isn’t epic in the technical sense. Taking care of Leo, Donna’s femme fatale act, the treatment of Nadine’s derangement, James’ adventures away from Donna and the ties to Hong Kong are among the most annoying weaknesses. These borrow from soap opera which, at the time of production, was the primary genre on American television that serialized its plots instead of resetting for each new episode. Hence the show-within-a-show, “Invitation to Love”. Supposedly, much of the weaker stuff was written by people other than Lynch after the network forced the original creators to resolve the murder mystery.
Twin Peaks’s expansion of serialization from melodrama to include weird mystery helped pave the way for later multi-season dramatic-epic series, “appointment television”, and thence the rise of VOD over broadcast and the end of television proper. It is an interesting exercise, but the reason for its success in America is its disingenuousness. A big part of the audience followed it to see the whodunnit aspect of it resolved, which is why the network required a resolution. The cheat Lynch and Frost had intended was hardly necessary for changing US television. For example, Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) introduced a cautious serialization in science fiction on Japanese TV, which grew more elaborate in Fang of the Sun Dougram (1981) etc., and eventually became a strong norm.
The supernatural premises are not interesting in and of themselves. In Twin Peaks, evil exists and for its own sake, which destroys the purported message about human nature and is even less interesting than the insane villain in the naturalistic but otherwise similar, more concentrated Blue Velvet (1986). Quirky characters and the gradual uncovering of relationships and histories over the rising noise floor are the primary reward. Good music too.
References here: Star Trek (1966), “Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted” (1990), Hotel Room (1993), Wild Palms (1993), Riget (1994), Lost (2004), Gravity Falls (2012), Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2016).
‣ Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
David Lynch (director).
The story of Laura’s last days, of the murder preceding hers, of disappearing FBI Agents and to some extent of Dale Cooper sensing something.
Grittier and more explicit than the series. Donna is cast differently and better. This version gets educationally close to a few of the “demons” and actually features Annie trying to do something about the end of the TV series. Some individual scenes are good, but it adds very little. As it turns out, that was intentional.
‣ Twin Peaks (2017)
David Lynch (director).
Seen in 2017.
Perhaps around 2013, Agent Cooper’s evil double with Bob buys time for himself by detouring the main instance’s return from the Black Lodge into a second copy called Dougie Jones. When the main instance finally gets out by sticking a fork in an electrical socket, Lucy Brennan shoots the evil double and a marginal English superhero destroys the black ball of Bob that is pulled out by sooty woodsmen. In the culmination of FBI project Blue Rose, which succeeded Major Garland Briggs’ real Project Blue Book in 1975, Cooper momentarily retroactively averts the murder of Laura Palmer, a force created by the Fireman in a steampunk castle in response to the creation of Bob, itself a response to the first nuclear test.
Closer both to art film and The X-Files (1993). While mixing low comedy, heartwarming pastoral, procedural, insurance-company office drama, supernatural horror and surreal fantasy, mistakes are made. There are minor inconsistencies between cuts. The director is clearly not bothered by the wooden acting and unconvincing special effects work, revelling in them at length. There are small contradictions of previously established facts, and ugly workarounds like replacing Sheriff Truman with a separate Truman instead of recasting as was done in Fire Walk with Me. Some facts, like co-creator Mark Frost appearing as journalist Cyril Pons, a name alluding to gag character Solar Pons, poke holes in the illusion that the creators are trying to tell a story.
Diane, unseen in the original, is featured as yet another of Cooper’s love interests, none of which ever made sense to me except as soap opera parody. Dr. Jacoby, the earliest gag character seen in the original, returns as a parody of Alex Jones and the like, almost entirely disconnected from his past and the narrative except that he indirectly helps resolve the problem of Ed and Nadine’s unhappy marriage, unchanged for 25 years. Thankfully, Wisdom Earle is absent, but his Tibetan mysticism returns in force with multiple references to the concept of a tulpa, a favourite of lazy solipsist fantasy writers roughly since Blavatsky and her gang chose Tibet as the nominal source of their mysticist bullshit (because, at the time, Egypt had become too familiar and the more literate Japan etc. were too complex and less amenable to fantasy). Truckers remain a scourge of humanity for some reason, but the Roadhouse books excellent musical acts with their ill-gotten gains. Lynch’s own musical partner, Chrysta Bell, plays one of the few inexplicably sexy new characters, while I am grateful that a lot of the original actors are allowed to look their age.
When I heard of the 2017 Stephen Paddock shooting in Las Vegas, I thought of Lynch’s version of Vegas, with its pits of terror marking a sunny comedic surface. That case was quickly handed to the FBI. The apparent wholesomeness of the original series is not gone, just buried beneath the greater and more varied gruesomeness of Fire Walk with Me. Almost all of the original sincerity is gone. There is no equivalent to Sarah Palmer’s anguish in the pilot, no such raw emotional impetus, nothing to work against detached and ironic viewing. Indeed, the primary tone is Dougie Jones’s complete detachment.
Cooper’s “odyssey” as Jones, and the non-reaction of almost everybody around him, kept my interest up while the cast kept expanding and the mysteries were recontextualized as something out of a drunken Delta Green campaign. In line with the tulpa motif, Monica Bellucci as herself says to Lynch’s Cole in an episode 14 dream, “We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives inside the dream.” With these words, Lynch and Frost open themselves up to the ultimate cop-out. The final episode suggests nothing else. The mysteries of Twin Peaks are no deeper or more meaningful than Lost (2004). They never were, although I am impressed by the creators’ ability to deliver on Laura Palmer’s promise that “I’ll see you again in 25 years” in part by allowing the original work to change the landscape of television.
There are several reasons why I like the version of Dougie Jones that dominates the show. For one thing, it is a gleeful waste of MacLachlan’s acting skills, running very much against the general tendency to inject every minute of television with emotion and telos. This is part of the show’s liberating disregard for the same stale conventions that make 12 Monkeys (2015) shit compared to the original Twelve Monkeys (1995). Thankfully, this disregard does not extend to the worst of the French New Wave’s contempt for craft.
Janey-E’s frustrated and bickering yet tireless piloting of Dougie’s life is a refreshing contrast to the fundamentally toxic relationships elsewhere in the series: Nadine nagging Big Ed in the original, Doris nagging the new Truman, FBI Agent Headley nagging Wilson, numerous men assaulting and abusing women. Janey-E is so stuck in the rut of caring for her irresponsible imbecile husband that, unlike prostitute Jade, she can’t even tell that he has been replaced with something even more broken and useless. Instead she endures, becoming hopeful and loving only partly through Mike’s interference to aid the hapless Cooper-as-Dougie.
Janey-E’s partial blindness and self-sacrifice are not credible but they don’t make her ridiculous. Such traits are celebrated in Ordet (1955), but not here. Unlike the Brennans’ stupidity, they don’t seem intended to make the audience laugh, although I often did. Janey-E remains quite confident and competent throughout. Her realization that Dougie is gone, when it finally comes, is the first touching indication that Cooper is over-confident. I feel that her character expresses an intuitive notion of goodness better than Laura Palmer or the town of Twin Peaks ever did, and in a more novel way. The relationship between fast-food lovers and assassins Chantal and Hutch has a version of the same vibe, like a strain of twisted iyashikei amid all the grueling trauma. It’s much better than the original, comparatively crude moral dualism, or the chaos of Inland Empire (2006).
Janey-E’s bizarre life is both more humorous to me than the disability humour of the Brennans and more satisfying than a quick awakening and RR Diner serving of coffee and cherry pie would have been. I expected the writers to avoid that trite conclusion and closure for the plot and characters, as indeed they did in this 18-hour clarification of the original intent. I don’t particularly care whether “‘Laura’” screams in the end because she’s waking up to her terrible life out of a fantasy of rescue, or whether the lights go out in her house because Cooper-as-Richard—having come into contact with the natural dark side of his personality following the double’s death, as per the desolate sex scene with Diane and the diner fight—realizes his hubris in thinking he could be a time-travelling paladin and is lost again. Such possibilities are, at best, a tool of audience meditation, not plot.