The City of Absurdity TWIN PEAKS

One Thing After Another

by Terrence Rafferty,
New Yorker, April 9, 1990
with many thanks to Keith Dawson

On the face of it, the idea of David Lynch's creating a series for television sounds like a joke. His movies, which include "Eraserhead," "The Elephant Man," and "Blue Velvet," are everything that American television isn't: adventurous, disturbing, erotic, visually exciting, and absolutely personal. What could he possibly do for the bland, corporate medium of prime-time television? And what could it do for him (other than make studio moviemaking look liberating by comparison)? Next Sunday night, April 8th, his series, "Twin Peaks," is having its premiere. The first episode, two hours long, is directed by Lynch, from a script he wrote with Mark Frost (who worked on "Hill Street Blues"), and it's miraculously good. It has both the insidious weirdness of Lynch's best movie work and the wierd insidiousness of top-of-the-line TV trash. In form, it's a multi-character, multiplot continuing narrative: a soap opera that, like "Knot's Landing," is named for its small-town locale. Lynch uses the conventions of the genre with startling ease – giving them a bit of a spin, of course, but never really violating them. He heightens all the distinctive elements of soap opera: the outre names, the cozy familiarity of the characters, and the absurd financial intrigues, the guilty secrets, the constant spying and eavesdropping, the earnest telephone conversations, the sudden outbursts of emotion, and the unscrupulous arbitrariness of the plotting. Everything that happens in "Twin Peaks" is in the normal range of TV serial drama, yet this ordinary stuff is treated with an imaginative intensity that makes it strange and new. It's as if Lynch didn't recognize any difference between the highest movie art and the lowest television craft. The story is banal, but the images grip you with as much power as anything we could see on a big screen (and the score, by Angelo Badalamenti, is lush enough to fill any theatre). Lynch hasn't just adapted himself to the peculiar qualities of the medium; he actually seems to thrive on them. This all-American surrealist takes to television like a parasite to an especially nourishing host.

In a sense, "Twin Peaks" is a smoother, less upsetting version of "Blue Velvet." Just as the series based on Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" gently purged the movie's four-letter words, blasphemous humor, and grisly medical detail, this show does without the overt shocks of "Blue Velvet": the outrageous degeneracy of the characters played by Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, the explicit voyeurism, the unnervingly intimate violence. "Twin Peaks" does not put a naked, bruised woman in our living rooms. The nude female body in the first scene of the series is wrapped, discreetly, in plastic, and is dead; it is found on a riverbank by a middle-aged fisherman. The corpse – which proves to be that of Laura Palmer, the local high school's homecoming queen – has blue lips and ratty, straggly hair. It's the deadest-looking thing you've ever seen on television – a medium that, over the years, has repeatedly demonstrated its expertise in making human beings look lifeless. We recognize this body as the device that will set a plot in motion: the jarring element in a calmly beautiful Pacific Northwest landscape, the object that will, in classic soap-opera fashion, reveal the passions seething beneath the surface of an apparently placid community, or something like that. But there's nothing mechanical about the way Lynch gets his story going. He fills this expository scene with luxurious details, delicate traces of mysteries within the mystery, hints that there may be things about Twin Peaks which will remain elusive, unexplained: we see a lovely Oriental woman (Joan Chen) gazing at herself in a mirror and humming; merging with the barely audible melody is the sound of a foghorn in the distance; the fisherman, just before he comes upon the body, mumbles, "The lonesome foghorn blows"; the light of the mountain landscape is soft and gray; the faint sounds accentuate the early-morning quiet; and every movement (including the camera's) is eerily deliberate. We'll surely find out, in some later episode, who killed Laura Palmer; but we may never learn what song the Oriental woman hummed, or what made the fisherman voice that ironic, self-conscious remark about a sound he must hear every morning – or why this idyllic setting fills us with such apprehension. Within five minutes of the opening of "Twin Peaks" we know we're in David Lynch's world – unmistakable even on the small screen, shocking and beautiful even when wrapped in a plastic shroud.

And he holds us there, right up to the final blackout. He introduces a slew of characters, establishes their tangled relationships, shows us the terrain, scatters clues to the murder, revs up a fleet of subplots, hints at an appropriate number of dark secrets and obscure motivations, throws in plenty of goofy jokes – and does it all seamlessly. He varies the tone, sometimes radically, but he never breaks the odd, hushed mood, which is as overpowering and immutable as the neutral sky. Although terrible things happen, or seem about to, in Twin Peaks, it has the air of an enchanted place, a fairy-tale woodland. As ominous as it is, we don't really want to run away from it – we want to remain enveloped in this dreadful forest, to learn how to see in the complex darkness.

Besides, the show is tremendous fun. Soon after the discovery of the body, Lynch goes to a bizarrely funny scene in which an associate of the victim's father is making a business presentation, trying to persuade a roomful of visiting Norwegians to buy Twin Peaks' resort lodge; all the dumb jokes and excruciating cliches that come out of his mouth ("Health and industry go hand in hand") linger in the air for a few seconds while they wait for the simultaneous translation, and the effect is hilarious. The investigating authorities here include a deputy sheriff who always bursts into tears at crime scenes, an young sheriff whose name is Harry S. Truman, and an F.B.I. agent (played by Kyle McLachlan, of "Blue Velvet"), who's entirely on his own wavelength. Agent Cooper is a glittery-eyed Boy Scout type who chatters constantly into a microcassette recorder; he records not only important facts about the case but also the details of that days' lunch, the qualities he looks for in a motel – all kinds of mundane trivia. He loves to know the names of things: Douglas firs, snowshoe rabbits. His mercurial alternation of ferocious concentration on the investigation and equally intense absorption in pure irrelevancies makes for some wild, original comedy. It also expresses the spirit of the whole enterprise: in "Twin Peaks" even the tiniest things matter, and there are moments when the sheer unfamiliarity of what we're seeing hits us in peculiar ways – when a sombre, frightening scene produces a sudden access of delight.

For all the digressions and lush atmosphere and unpredictable laughs, though, "Twin Peaks" does a sensational job of storytelling. It has extraordinary momentum – you can't wait for the next episode. (The series will continue on the Thursday following the premiere, with Lynch and Frost, as executive producers, supervising the remaining episodes. Seven hour-long installments are scheduled; the show could return in the fall as a weekly series.) But it almost doesn't matter whether the rest of the series is any good. Even with the narrative unfinished, these first two hours are thoroughly satisfying. Stories just go on and on anyway, until someone says the hell with it and stops them. There's a great freedom, if you know how to use it, in the one-thing-after-another arbitrariness of open-ended forms like soap opera. The early surrealists loved the nonsensical, interminable inventiveness of pulp serials (like the books and silent movies about the arch-criminal Fantomas). David Lynch's sensibility works the same way: he just wants to show us one astonishing thing after another, and quit when his time's up. Looked at as a surrealist work, the chunk of "Twin Peaks" that's on view this coming Sunday is no more unresolved than Bunuel's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," in which the characters, after a bunch of ludicrous and dreamlike adventures, are last seen striding purposefully down a deserted country road. They could be going anywhere; if Bunuel had turned the movie into a TV series – some sort of demented, absurdist "Route 66" – we'd find out where, but we don't really need to. Works like Bunuel's and Lynch's derive their force – even their narrative force – from the swift movement of the artist's mind, a strong current of ideas and imaginative energy. Lynch's talent flows freely in "Twin Peaks," and carries us into unmapped territory. It's an exhilarating ride, at once scary and mysteriously tranquil, like the children's nighttime journey down the river in "The Night of the Hunter." Lynch sets us drifting through a vivid dream of American life, and wakes us, two hours later, with the message that all dreams (and all soap operas) imply: "To Be Continued."

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© Mike Hartmann