Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.5: David Lynch's Twin Peaks (season 1)

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

“Pilot” Grade: A
“Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer” Grade: A
Overall Season 1 Grade: 98 (A)

Blue Velvet brought David Lynch one of the more high profile success’ of his career. Suddenly, Lynch was a superstar on the art house circuit. His ambition now spread to television as well as film. After meeting television producer Mark Frost, the two came up with a handful of fascinating ideas that never got off the ground. First, the two worked on a loose Marilyn Monroe biopic entitled Goddess, but the film’s controversial ending (Bobby Kennedy kills Marilyn) killed it. Next, the two came up with an idea for a surrealist comedy, One Saliva Bubble, in which a government project gone awry causes townspeople to switch identities. The film would ostensibly have starred Steve Martin and Martin Short, but it too fell through. The third time’s the charm, though, as Lynch and Frost came up with the idea for Twin Peaks, one of the most original TV shows of all time, paving the way for both far out television series like The X-Files and Lost and the stranger episodes of ambitious TV shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men. The show only lasted two short seasons before collapsing, but it remains one of the defining TV series of the 1990s and one of the most influential shows of all time.

Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), homecoming queen and seemingly innocent girl-next-door, has been murdered in the small Washington town of Twin Peaks. The killing sends shockwaves throughout the community- her family and friends are devastated, and even those who had seemingly little contact with her are affected. When another girl shows up on the state border the FBI sends eccentric Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) to investigate. The crime mirrors the brutal murder of another woman a year before, and it’s up to Cooper to stop the murderer from killing again. Aided by Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) and the rest of the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department, Cooper learns that the idyllic town of Twin Peaks isn’t quite what it seems.

Twin Peaks has a strong hook, made only better by the fact that the ninety-minute Pilot, “Northwest Passage” is arguably the greatest Pilot for any series ever (yes, including Lost, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Arrested Development…I’d put this above them all). Few pilots are as successful as establishing not only the tone of the series, but the vast majority of the important character relationships and environmental dynamics. Lynch and Frost have a lot of ground to cover in two hours, but they don’t waste a single moment. In the span of an hour-and-a-half, we know who everyone is, how they know each other, and how they’ll relate to each other as the series progresses.

First, there’s the law enforcement. We’ve got the hapless, loveable dope Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), whose Barney Fife-like incompetence is only outshined by his big heart (his tears after finding Laura’s body does wonders to establish who is). There’s the love of his life, Lucy (Kimmy Robertson), a well-meaning ditz who works as a receptionist at the Sheriff’s Department. There’s the far more competent Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse), who manages to establish a layer of earthy cool that will make him a well-loved supporting player as the show goes on. Finally, there’s Sheriff Truman, a salt of the earth good guy just trying to do the right thing.

Then there’s Laura’s classmates- Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), a sweet girl-next-door type in the same vein as Laura Dern in Blue Velvet, and Laura’s best friend. There’s Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), Laura’s bad boy boyfriend and the first suspect in the murder. There’s James (James Marshall), Laura’s secret lover and a sweet-natured motorcyclist. There’s Shelly, Bobby’s secret girlfriend and a high school dropout. Finally, there’s Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn), the gorgeous troublemaking sexpot who’s simultaneously the least and most mature of the bunch.

We meet the townspeople- Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re), Shelly’s abusive husband and an obvious villain (even if he’s pretty clearly a red herring). There’s Norma (Peggy Lipton), the kind hearted mother figure to Shelly/restaurant owner with a husband in prison. There’s Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill), James’ uncle and Norma’s secret lover, and his insane, drape obsessesed one-eyed wife Nadine (Wendy Robie). There’s Dr. Hayward (Warren Frost), Donna’s father and the town doctor. There’s Dr. Jacobi (Russ Tamblyn), Laura’s creepy psychiatrist. There’s Josie Packard (Joan Chen), wife of the late town pillar Andrew Packard and secret lover of Sheriff Truman; Josie’s scheming in-law Catharine (Piper Laurie) and her lovably odd husband Pete Martell (Jack Nance). There’s Maj. Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis), Bobby’s military man father who’s far more caring and less strict than he appears. There’s Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), town bigwig, untrustworthy businessman, and secret lover of Catharine. And there’s the Palmers, Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) and Leland (Ray Wise), the shattered parents of a daughter whose life has been cut short.

Lynch and Frost do a fabulous job of creating an intricate world and fleshing it out with complicated relationships and secret alliances that could make your head spin before introducing the series protagonist, Special Agent Dale Cooper. Kyle MacLachlan has always been the best David Lynch surrogate, and this is his finest role as perhaps the greatest character Lynch ever created. Cooper is, as Mel Brooks once called Lynch, “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”. But where Blue Velvet took the MacLachlan/Lynch character and sent him through a Vertigo journey that tarnished his character, Cooper is simply a good-hearted eccentric with a big-eyed wonder of the world and a strong sense of justice. MacLachlan plays every note perfectly- Cooper is fascinated by Twin Peaks, and watching him take joy in the Douglas Fir trees, showshoe rabbits, and a damn good cup of coffee or piece of cherry pie is some of the most blissful television that ever aired.

 Yet Coop is no naïve Boy Scout- his immediate love for Twin Peaks doesn’t keep him from seeing the shadier sides of this seemingly perfect small town. Cooper can see what one character’s relationship is to the other just by studying their body language (this becomes more apparent as the series goes on), and he’s the first to connect the dots on Laura’s murder to her unhappy life. Laura works was a troubled, deeply unhappy girl with a cocaine addiction and a long series of sexual relationships with a series of men. She was clearly a sad and desperate girl, and it’s only so long before we’ll find out just how dark her secrets were.

The pilot mostly serves as a way to introduce the characters and the main thread of the show, but Lynch and frost introduce more than a few other themes and tropes that would remain central to the series. The naïve, sweet-natured romance between Donna and James mirrors that of Jeffrey and Sandy in Blue Velvet, and would remain one of the most important relationships of the first season. There’s the idea that dreams play an important part in the series from the beginning (both from Angelo Badalamenti’s dreamy synth score and several references to dreams). Battered women (Shelly, Laura, surviving victim Ronnette Pulaski) and heightened performances (Bobby, Audrey, Nadine, Sarah) are important as well.

More importantly, the episode establishes what the series would be from this point forward. Frost, a veteran from the influential police drama Hill Street Blues, no doubt was central in developing the noir/police procedural structure to the show, as well as intricate character relationships (few films get the chance to work with as many characters) and the soap opera parodying drama. Where Lynch comes in, above all else, is providing the atmosphere, mood, and look to the series. More than ever, Lynch proves that he can make normal images seem bizarrely funny (a fallen deer trophy), moving (phones), or disturbing (ceiling fans, traffic lights) just by using a close-up. His dark lighting in some of the more frightening scenes (the site of Laura’s murder, the inexplicable flickering light at a preliminary autopsy) is highly effective, as is his use of amped up sound design (Sarah’s screams after she learns of Laura’s death). It brings an uneasy mood to the pilot that the best of the series would continue.

Lynch and Frost served as terrific showrunners for season 1- even when they didn’t have much to do with the episode, their stamp permeates the rest of the season. The rest of season 1 spends time making the character relationships and secret dealings both clearer and murkier- for a long while, it looks like anyone could have killed Laura, and anyone could be harboring a secret ill will towards someone. The non-Lynch directed episodes still bear his mastery of surreal comedy (the Log Lady, who channels her traumatic psychic visions through a log she carries everywhere), carnal sexuality (Audrey and Cooper’s flirtatious relationship comes this close to becoming physical), detective work in both professional (Cooper and co.) and amateur (James, Donna, Audrey, and Laura’s identical cousin Maddy). Relationships grow complicated as Bobby and Shelly plan to kill Leo; Leo plans to kill Shelly and Bobby; Ben and Catharine plan to burn the sawmill that keeps the town going; Ben plans on double crossing Catharine with femme fatale Josie; Norma’s dangerous ex-con husband Hank makes bail and makes her love for Ed complicated; the men of Twin Peaks are revealed to have their own secret society, the Bookhouse Boys, to protect the town outside of lawful bounds. The violence becomes more serious, dreamlike visions become more palpable (Sarah’s psychic visions, for one), and characters start playing creepy mind games with each other, notably in a scene where Donna and James make up Maddy (also Sheryl Lee) to look like Laura in order to lure a man who might have killed her.

It’s all fantastic stuff, particularly in the Frost-directed season finale, which tosses in every cliffhanger possible: characters are killed, wounded, or otherwise put in harm’s way without immediate resolution, Laura’s murder is still unsolved, and Cooper is shot by an unknown assailant. But great as the rest of the season is, the only episode to top the pilot for sheer ingenuity and fascination is the second non-pilot episode, dubbed “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”. Here, Lynch takes an already unique, moody series and takes in on a trip through increasingly surreal territory. In a time where much of middle America hadn’t caught up with the surrealist’s work, they had a chance to watch one strange damn episode of television and think to themselves, “What in the world am I watching?”

The episode introduces a number of new characters, most notably Ben’s eccentric brother Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) and Coop’s cynical colleague Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer, who deserved his own spinoff), whose contempt for small towns and simple people puts him in polar opposite to Cooper. Things get darker as Bobby’s involvement in Leo’s drug trade is revealed (an episode or two before the character is humanized when we learn Laura forced him into it) and we’re first introduced to One-Eyed Jacks, the brothel across the Canadian border owned by Ben Horne. The sexuality becomes more carnal and explicit as Ben disappears into a door surrounded by pink, vaginal curtains at One-Eyed Jacks, not to mention when the stunning Audrey Horne does a dance to some of Angelo Badalamenti’s dreamy music. It’s another polarized world, contrasted by the sweet, innocent romance between James and Donna. Then again, the entirety of Twin Peaks is a polarized world, split between the idyllic surface and the twisted nightmare underneath, and Audrey’s dance finds another contrast as Leland, Laura’s devastated father, starts dancing uncontrollably in order to cope with his grief.

More notably, though, Lynch brings his own brand of surrealism to the show, to both comedic and dramatic effect. The opening scene shows the Horne brothers, Ben and Jerry (ha!), pigging out on brie-and-butter sandwiches on baguettes (which, by the way, I’ve tried, and it’s incredible). It’s the first quirky touch of humor in a particularly quirky episode. Cooper introduces the concept of subconscious detective work to Truman and company, who are more than a little puzzled. The scene, like many Lynch sequences, is best experienced rather than explained, so here’s the clip. Cooper, the ultimate Lynch surrogate, believes that dreams have the power to clarify reality. Cooper is a strange, all American, Zen Buddhist version of Sherlock Holmes to Truman’s more grounded Dr. Watson, and few sequences show this dynamic as well. His methods may be strange, but he’s working on a completely different level than everyone else, and all one can do is sit back and take the ride.

That’s the best advice when it comes to any moment in Lynch’s filmography, and it certainly the describes Cooper’s episode-ending dream sequence. We meet three supernatural characters- Mike (Al Strobel), a one-armed man and former murderer who recites the famously creepy “fire, walk with me” poem; Bob (Frank Silva), Mike’s former partner in killing, who promised after before Mike shot and killed him that he would kill again; and The Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson), a strange dwarf who talks backwards and dances uncontrollably. These characters are strange enough by themselves, but Lynch introduces them with a frightening series of images- strobe lights, Cooper in weird make-up (“old age” make-up that’s not very good, though it lends another surreal air to the proceedings), and a bizarrely designed Red Room where The Man from Another Place lives with what seems to be the ghost of Laura Palmer.

It’s an unnerving, deeply strange moment in television history. It would be explained more concretely in the ensuing episodes, and the strange pronouncements of The Man From Another Place and Laura turned out to be clever hints for both Cooper and the audience as to what was going on, but it works even better as a standalone moment of Lynchian strangeness. There was nothing quite like this on television at the time, and try as other (often strong) shows might, it could never quite be duplicated.

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