Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.9: David Lynch's On The Air

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.

Grade: 57 (B-)

Twin Peaks is Lynch’s most famous foray into television, but it’s hardly the only one. A year after the end of Twin Peaks, Lynch and Peaks co-creator Mark Frost created the offbeat sitcom On the Air. It’s easy to see why the show didn’t last very long- it’s a deeply strange and uneven show without the strong hook of Twin Peaks, and it never really found its groove. But it’s nonetheless an important work in Lynch’s career and his only completed work that sees him exploring all-out comedy.

On the Air follows the cast and crew of The Lester Guy Show, a 1950s series starring washed-up prima donna movie star Lester Guy (Ian Buchanan, who played Dick Tremayne on Twin Peaks). Lester spends much of his time scheming against Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff), an ingénue whose unbelievable stupidity and genuine sweetness lucks her into stardom. Lester also deals with the cynical, consistently angry Network President Buddy Budwaller (Miguel “Albert Rosenfield” Ferrer), hapless producer Dwight McGonigle (Marvin Kaplan), near incomprehensible Eastern European director Valdja Gochktch (David Lander), and a show where nothing goes right, ever.

On the Air’s pilot is the only episode directed by Lynch, and it establishes both the best and worst moments of the show. On one hand, Ian Buchanan’s effete dandy act fits better here than it did on Twin Peaks, Nancye Ferguson is incredibly winning as the Ruth Trueworhty, an eternally perky production assistant who’s the only one patient enough to deal with Betty and the only one who can understand the director’s accent, and Miguel Ferrer is terrific as always. On the other hand, most of the gags are far too broad, Valdja’s “wacky European” act gets old fast, and Betty’s dimwitted ingénue act is laid on a bit thick (I would have loved to find out she was actually a genius).

This is an aggressively wacky show, and the fact that almost every episode repeats the same jokes over and over again to diminishing effect doesn’t help. There are some memorably surreal gags, like a pair of Siamese twins referred to as “The Hurry-Up Twins” because they’re constantly trying to get people to hurry up or Blinky (Jonathan Demme regular Tracey Walter), a sound technician who suffers from a disorder that makes him see 25.62 times more than everyone else (his POV is cluttered by crude animated images), but they too are repeated in every episode. Worse, each episode more or less has the same structure: an episode of The Lester Guy Show rehearses, something goes wrong that turns it into a train wreck, and then something comes together and the show continues to be an unlikely hit. It’s clear that this wasn’t a show that was going to last, and it’s enough to make one wonder whether or not Lynch and Frost’s proposed surreal comedy One Saliva Bubble would have been grounded enough to work.

That said, this flawed show is a deeply ingratiating program, in part because it’s just so much fun to watch each show go so very, very wrong. Whether it’s because Lester is incapacitated and Betty leads America in a song and dance or it’s an episode where everyone sings the theme to a puppet named Mr. Peanuts  in a gesture that moves even the eternally grouchy Miguel Ferrer character, there’s nothing else quite like this show. Lynch’s fascination with the 1950s era fits well with this farce of early television programs, and its conception recalls a mix between the satirical and flat-out farcical sides of Billy Wilder with a dash of Fellini’s eccentrics for flavor. It’s what would happen if a lunatic surrealist got hold of 30 Rock and set it in the 1950s. More importantly, it’s Lynch’s first work that takes an active interest in showbiz and filmed entertainment, something that he would explore more confidently in films such as Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., and Inland Empire. 

All seven episodes of On the Air are available on YouTube. Give it a look.

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