Twin Peaks Review: The Complete Series

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<i>Twin Peaks</i> Review: The Complete Series

With the recent announcement of a new season of Twin Peaks headed our way in 2016, we figured it was a good time to relive the magic. Consider this, also, our response to all of those ‘What’s a Twin Peaks?’ tweets that went out yesterday. One of our top eight show of the 1990s, at the very least, the reboot of David Lynch’s classic will introduce the series to the contemporary crowd, with their iPhone 6s and lack of critical 90s pop culture knowledge.

Without further ado, here’s our five-part review of the entire Twin Peaks series.

I. The Pilot

Despite the recent blu-ray release of Twin Peaks, dubbed “The Entire Mystery,” the television show and movie remain strangely fragmented affairs, made in different years by different people and with wildly differing end results. The first Twin Peaks project, the feature-length (94 minutes) pilot, was shot in 1989 on location in areas of Washington near Seattle. David Lynch and Mark Frost worked together on the prompting of their mutual agent, though it was only after their feature film ideas fell through that they ended up pitching a TV series to ABC. In their 20-minute pitch meeting, Lynch and Frost detailed their radical new ideas for a prime-time soap opera, combining traditional elements of that genre with those of a police investigation. More than that, they rode on sheer atmosphere, as Lynch stressed abstract concepts like the dread of wind passing through the trees and the image of a girl found dead wrapped in plastic. Given the combination of Lynch’s recent success with the somewhat similar Blue Velvet and Mark Frost’s experience on Hill Street Blues and The Six Million Dollar Man, it was no surprise that ABC gave the pair a $1.8 million budget to go shoot their idea.

There’s a certain seriousness to the pilot, especially the first half, that’s a bit out of character for the show that followed. The proximity to Laura Palmer’s death is the primary cause of this, but for a long time there’s little sign of the strange humor that characterized Twin Peaks just as much as its looming dread. A lot of this comes from one of its other oddities: the star appearance of Kyle MacLachlan about 35 minutes into the show. Structurally, the pilot refuses to be categorized as a television series. The refusal to connect its cast, or to offer the audience any sort of compass with which to tell what direction Twin Peaks was headed, went against conventional wisdom. When Dale Cooper finds letters under the nails of a deceased girl, and the moment when the barking of teenage boys turning into subhuman howls showed that whatever else Twin Peaks was interested in, it wasn’t just about solving a murder.

II. Season One

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As the first proper episode of Twin Peaks begins, we have Dale Cooper sitting in his hotel room, speaking to “Diane” on his tape recorder, and talking about how “damn fine” the local coffee is. However, something has changed: Cooper wonders aloud about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, rather than the murder of Laura Palmer, signaling a sea-change for the show.

That isn’t to say that the first season of Twin Peaks isn’t centered on Laura Palmer, or that it’s not as thematically concerned with death, evil, and violence against women as what came before, but this is now leavened by humor and diffused by a growing network of side stories. Already, Twin Peaks is a soap opera. There’s hardly any character without at least one extra love interest, and these triangles only become more complicated as things move forward. This isn’t a bad thing, though, as throughout the first season all of these stories are also tangled up with Laura, whose presence haunts the show in more ways than one with the arrival of Maddy, her identical cousin (also played by Sheryl Lee).

Violence against women is ubiquitous in this season, and every subplot concerns the possibility of its return, most overtly with the introduction of Shelley and her abusive husband, Leo. Laura and Ronnette’s tragedies were the first, but the intimation is that, with or without BOB’s assistance, the Twin Peaks area is infected with an angry misogyny that’s just waiting to kill any of the female citizens. Even within the dullest side plots, it’s the constant threat of violence that keeps the quirks in check. The oddities never feel unnecessary here, or forced. Rather, it’s matter-of-fact, the surface rippling that signals us to the beast below. This lack of subtlety is often what’s so jarring about the show’s content. In the world of Twin Peaks, an obvious doubling of a dead girl or a character breaking down into tears while dancing in public aren’t just odd, they’re necessary—symptoms of a town and world gone awry.

As the season comes to an end, we’re left with one woman nearly burned to death, and the threat of incest looming in another’s horizon. It’s easy to see how these stories loop back to Laura Palmer’s death, even as the route from there to this point is strange beyond recognition. Then Dale Cooper is shot, ending the season on a cliffhanger that’s both very real, even as it’s a commentary on soap operas and serialization as a form of storytelling. This episode essentially begs the audience and, more importantly, the network, to keep the show around for another season so we can see what will happen. The ending, like the show itself, manages to have it both ways, and the sheer audacity of both the writing and the directing (though, unfortunately, not always the acting) helps to pull off this feat.

Part III: Season Two, Episodes 1-7

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Twin Peaks has a reputation for having stayed a strong show, all the way up through when Laura Palmer’s killer is revealed, in the seventh episode of the second season. In truth, the cracks begin to show long before then. The second season begins with a double-length episode directed by Lynch, and while the directing is unsurprisingly great, plotting and pacing are another matter entirely. That’s only natural, given how many cliffhangers and huge events closed out last season, but with its agonizingly slow opening Lynch wants to tell us that we’re not going to keep up that fevered pace. At the end of the first season, everything came together in the best possible way for a networks-based show. Each story also still circled Laura Palmer, though, and there were, in fact, three separate investigations into her death going on (all of which seemed to be getting somewhere). Right away these hopes are dashed.

What the second season leaves us with, instead, are the less interesting stories of the mill, the hotel, Super Nadine, and a pregnancy scandal. Twin Peaks always wanted to infuse soap operas with real pathos, but these plots rarely rise above the realm of pure soap, and threaten to make the world’s mythology banal. This isn’t a bad run of episodes, but unlike the first season, it’s creaky and filled with just as much dead air as it is excitement. It’s the part of Twin Peaks that turns one of its most well-developed and well-acted characters, Audrey Horn, into a mere plot device; while that is, in some sense, the thematic point, it doesn’t make for compelling television.

While signs of the show’s approaching decline are readily available, it’s still compelling stuff, because Laura Palmer’s mystery remains central to the show. Lynch returns for his penultimate directorial work on Twin Peaks in the seventh episode, and this in and of itself is likely why these episodes are so fondly remembered. One of his strongest episodes, “Lonely Souls” finally reveals Laura’s killer in a shocking sequence that would be camp if it weren’t so horrifying. The mystical scenes in the Roadhouse and the Palmer home are haunting, beautiful and dreamlike. It’s a tour de force that adds depth rather than quirk to Twin Peaks, doubling and renewing the show’s commitment to exploring violence against women. It’s a last hurrah for what made the show special.

Part IV: Season Two—Episodes 8-22

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There’s a reason why True Detective ends after its central mystery of the Yellow King is unveiled. While Twin Peaks isn’t titled “the mystery of Laura Palmer’s Murder” (because Lynch and Frost had ambitions of doing other groundbreaking things with the show’s structure), it might as well have been. Everyone else in the city is essentially important only in relation to their proximity to the murder. Once this threat is removed, Twin Peaks is left with the quirks, but little else. To fill this hole, the show’s creators (whoever they might have been at this moment) filled it with guest appearances and go-nowhere stories. The real problem, however, was where exactly the story was supposed to go. Although a new threat arrives in the form of Windom Earle, his presence feels both contrived and comparatively neutered, due to Earle’s predilection for unbearably terrible disguises.

In the latter episodes of the second season Frost was busy working on pre-production for his feature film Storyville while Lynch was off doing… well, it’s hard to guess exactly except to say that it wasn’t running Twin Peaks. In any case, neither of them seemed to be fully interested in the show, while at the same time the story that was going to be the central feature after Leland’s death—a romance between Dale Cooper and Audrey Horne—was removed due to an off-camera romance between Kyle MacLachlan and a jealous Lara Flynn Boyle. With no plan for the future and both of its creators no longer directly involved with the show, Twin Peaks got bad.

It’s impossible to pinpoint Twin Peaks’ worst storyline, because there are so many contenders. Super Nadine gets into a relationship with Mike. Ben Horne believes he’s a Civil War general. Josie gets turned into the knob on a drawer through some rather embarrassingly dated CGI. My personal favorite is James riding around on his motorcycle until he reaches another town, then abruptly leaving the show entirely.

What’s worse, Twin Peaks begins re-writing its characters to fit these terrible stories. When it began, the show functioned as a puzzle, and all of these characters’ personalities were pieces that needed to fit together just right in order for Cooper and the audience to find out who killed Laura Palmer. Once this story concludes, everyone changes. Ben Horne is no longer an evil corporate hotel owner; now he cares only for nature. His daughter is no longer a sultry femme fatale, she’s now an almost personality-free good girl committed to her father’s business.

Despite this fact, quite a few of the latter episodes are good enough to keep watching. While still liable to go into annoying digressions about Andy’s sperm, the show does eventually get interesting again, which is almost a pity. Frost and Lynch returned to Twin Peaks and managed to dig their way out of a very deep pit. Death, drama, and a compelling world returned with them, particularly in the final episode. Their collaboration simultaneously resolved nearly all of the show’s other storylines, while setting up a handful of cliffhangers. It’s the scenes inside the red room, though, that steal the show, as Lynch threw out the script entirely and improvised a sequence that makes most nightmares seem tame. Once again, it’s material that, in the hands of almost anyone else (including the many other directors who tried their luck at similar material along Twin Peaks’ bumpy ride), would have been laughable. Instead, its dream-logic manages to both make no sense and neatly tie together all of the show’s mythology and themes at the same time. For those unwilling to stick through the lesser episodes, it’s still worth skipping to the finale, as it remains unlike almost anything else ever filmed.

Part V: Fire Walk with Me

Barely a month after Twin Peaks was officially canceled, David Lynch announced plans to create a Twin Peaks movie. Fire Walk with Me was turned around in just a year, but fans were apprehensive, due to Lynch’s decision to make the movie a prequel rather than a sequel. This was, it turns out, only the first of many ways Lynch planned on subverting his own television series, and Fire ended up yet one more mirroring in a series that made doubling one of its key motifs.

Fire takes an almost perverse glee in disregarding everything that was beloved about the television series. This begins with the movie’s 35-minute prologue, in which a new pair of FBI investigators takes on the case of Teresa Banks in a city that in no way resembles Twin Peaks. Where Gordon is affable and gregarious, his replacement is silent and moody. Where Twin Peaks’ law enforcement is friendly and committed, Deer Meadows’ is surly and corrupt. These reversals are an early signal that, aside from the idiotic appearance of sour-faced Lil, this movie’s tone will have little to do with the show that came before it.

The essential question of the Twin Peaks is “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Fire asks the linked, but far more uncomfortable question, “Who was Laura Palmer?” And although we know many details about her life, the people she consorted with and her problems with drug use, it’s striking how hollow she is even by the end of the television show. She remains a cypher, whereas in Fire all of her contradictions are embodied.

Despite the abounding presence of the “quirky” ghosts, demons and whatever else lurks in the Black Lodge, there isn’t a note of humor. As Twin Peaks became goofier and less substantive, the movie rectifies this problem through unremitting grimness. The story is no longer told peripherally, through characters mediating our experience of drugs, sex, and violence with their investigations. Instead, Fire tackles these problems head on.

Fire gives a realism to the story of incest and rape that was always at the heart of Twin Peaks, although the show was never willing to delve into it. The television version of Leland/BOB was split into two entities, which made this incest effectively safe. BOB was the one committing these crimes and he was a supernatural entity—the fact of what was really happening never needed to be confronted. Fire removes that, not only by being explicit about what occurred, but also by showing us that Leland/BOB were always both father and rapist. The doubling is removed, and what results is the portrait of a girl’s nightmarish life and the monster who tormented her. While Lynch shot enough material that the original cut of Fire was roughly five hours, it’s difficult to imagine putting the rest of the town and its goofy characters back into a story this bleak. Lynch never seemed to regret their removal, and I suspect it’s because he realized that when Andy and Nadine were put side-by-side with this violence, the resulting tonal shifts were impossible to make work.

Given everything it did to alienate fans of the show, it’s little surprise Fire flopped. Much of the movie is more difficult to watch than a Michael Haneke picture, but also much weirder. However, it’s also more honest than the television series, which couched its explorations of violence in crowd-pleasing humor. Fire ends up being the Black Lodge to Twin Peaks’ White, a world in which even spiritual rescue results in death.

The movie will never be as beloved as the television show, but that’s because it’s not attempting to draw in an audience. Instead, it’s a much needed corrective on many of the show’s ethical missteps (or at least shortcuts), and an absolutely essential part of the entire Twin Peaks experience.

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