The City of Absurdity TWIN PEAKS


Wipe that look off your face--it's only innovation

by Joyce Millman,
San Francisco Examiner, November 18, 1990

On its Nov. 10 episode, ABC's "Twin Peaks" finally revealed who killed Laura Palmer and at 11 o'clock that night, you could almost hear viewers across America joining in a collective, "Huh?"

In case you missed it (or deliberately avoided it), the episode pegged Laura's overacting father Leland Palmer as the killer; he apparently beat his fast-living teen-queen daughter to death in an incestuous rage. Except that at the time of the murder, Leland seemed to be possessed by an evil spirit known as "Bob," who's visible to the clairvoyant and the damned as a leering guy with long, stringy gray hair. At the end of the episode, Leland/Bob was about to finish off Laura's look-alike cousin Maddie.

But there was a small bit of confusion. Earlier in the show, the One-Armed Man, who is probably both clairvoyant and damned and who first tipped off Agent Cooper (clairvoyant, but probably only darned) about the existence of Bob, seemed to finger sleazy wheeler-dealer Ben Horne as Laura's demonic killer.

However, since the One-Armed Man warned Cooper in a previous episode that Bob "needs a human host" to survive, it's possible Bob could jump from person to person. Considering that Cooper has already been in telepathic contact with extra-terrestrials, a supernatural Bob wouldn't be too far-fetched.

If this is too complicated, go rent the movie "The Hidden" which stars Kyle "Agent Cooper" MacLachlan as an extra-terrestrial good-guy detective who comes to Earth in pursuit of an evil being who inhabits the bodies of dying humans. The similarities between "The Hidden" and "Twin Peaks" only begin there.

Anyway, back to those post-revelation cries of disappointment. Well, what did you expect--some neat "Who Shot J.R."-style wrap-up? Haven't you learned by now that "Twin Peaks" isn't "Dallas"?

That even some "Peaks" diehards were confused and frustrated by the episode's lack of closure only proves how accustomed we are to TV conventions, how enormous the obstacles are for shows that seek to break free from familiar formulas.

"Twin Peaks" is a constantly evolving show, one that refuses to lay all its cards on the table at once. One week it's a comedy; the next week it could be a sci-fi thriller or a soap spoof or a dark, disturbing vision of obsession.

The only thing you can count on is that creators David Lynch and Mark Frost and their team of writers and directors will continue communicating pertinent information in startling, original new ways; this season's long opening scene of the bullet-riddled Cooper trying to get help from an ancient, oblivious bellboy, for instance, was a weirdly effective depiction of the slow, spacey way a person might feel as they teeter on the edge of consciousness.

"Twin Peaks" has floundered, felt draggy and flat, only when it has forced itself into the standard, plot-advancing serial-drama pattern of buildup and climax. At its best, "Twin Peaks" attempts to duplicate the pattern of real life, where problems don't get solved on cue, where people make the same mistakes over and over again.

"Twin Peaks" is to the traditional TV drama what African juju or mbaqanga music is to rock 'n' roll--it meanders in many circles at once, instead of following tension with release. It's polyrhythmic television.

But that all-buildup-no-wrap-up strategy appears to be one of the reasons for the growing "Twin Peaks" backlash among viewers. Another reason could be media overkill (thanks for getting this far through yet another "Twin Peaks" article). A lot of it is almost certainly a natural consequence of our infotainment-overloaded culture's frighteningly accelerated fad-to-trash-heap process.

Whatever the reasons, the anger generated by "Twin Peaks" is unusual and fascinating. After this season's opener failed to spell out Laura's killer (it subtly informed us that "Bob" did it), cafe and watercooler discussions about the show were filled with talk of "betrayal" and "feeling jerked around."

Why get so angry? TV is virtually free entertainment, compared to the investment of time, money, and energy it takes to go out to a movie. Yet "Twin Peaks" has provoked more heated response than anything on the big screen this year. (The obsessive interest of the show's faithful is just as intense as the anger of ex-fans.)

Maybe the explanation is this: TV is a piece of furniture that usually triggers viewer passivity, numbs you out; it's not supposed to excite you, disturb you or (gasp) surprise you. Even a classy, intelligently crafted show like "L.A. Law" sticks within traditional boundaries. "Twin Peaks" is a delightful rarity--a show that refuses to be predictable.

If "Twin Peaks" escapes cancellation (it's rated 77th so far this season), it will have proven how provocative TV can be if the networks are willing to take a chance.

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© Mike Hartmann