I have a big blind spot when it comes to TV. Well, a couple. I’ve never actually seen an episode of The Brady Bunch, for example. But at this point, there’s probably not a lot to gain from that. However, the one I’m trying to correct is that I’ve never seen Twin Peaks.
I was fourteen when it premiered, and there’s not a lot that would have put it on my teenage radar. By which I mean that Wolverine wasn’t in it. This was during the phase when I read TV Guide cover to cover every week, but I didn’t have control of the TV. I read a lot about the show after it premiered, but this was 1990 and there wasn’t any way to go back and catch the episodes you missed. And as interesting as it might have sounded, it was shedding viewers every week. That led me to believe that it probably wasn’t good. I was young.
About that – Twin Peaks premiered with 34 million viewers. Nobody does that now – nobody even gets close. At the time, most people didn’t have cable and you could probably name every channel that did exist. Most of them just showed syndicated or extreme special interest programming. You had four networks and that’s what you watched. Amazingly, 34 million was only enough to get it seventh place for the week. (Married…. with Children was number one, and that’s the world we used to live in.) By the fourth episode, Peaks had lost half of its viewers. That’s still enough to be a hit today, but it was a disaster at the time. For the most part, it just kept dropping for two seasons with the occasional spike here and there.
I should not also that even though I’ve never seen an episode, I do have a little bit of experience. Just from being alive in the nineties, I know who killed Laura Palmer. I know about the Log Lady and Diane and “damn fine cup of coffee”. I even know some more in-depth stuff because I read a bunch of issues of the Wrapped in Plastic fanzine back when I worked at a comic book store. Yes, I read articles about a show I’d never seen. I also saw the Fire Walk with Me movie in the theater because I liked a girl and she wanted to see it.
The main reason I’ve never gone back to the show even as I’m more and more immersed in TV is that people seem to agree that the second season was pretty bad. And that season is 22 of the 30 episodes, so that’s not a good ratio. Also, after a couple of years as a film nerd, I came to dislike David Lynch’s work. I still like Blue Velvet and I enjoy Wild at Heart even though I don’t think it’s good. But his later work is largely incomprehensible and weird for the sake of weird. Just tell a story, you know?
I’m going to spend the summer watching Twin Peaks and reporting back – I’ll do reviews of blocks of three or four episodes every week or so, and we can all take this journey together. I’m not going to get into speculation because I already know how it turns out – I’m not watching the show with any level of engagement with the mystery. So with all that said, it’s time for my thoughts on the pilot.
Pilot – The thing that jumps out at me is that this pilot is 1990 as hell. In some cases, it’s hard to tell whether things are deliberately awkward, accidentally awkward, or just the way TV was in 1990. By comparison, Homicide: Life on the Street premiered a year later and it doesn’t look like dated at all. That’s partly because Homicide pioneered the hand-held camera style that came in vogue much later, and partly because it was a show about police detectives who weren’t especially fashionable. Richard Belzer and Andre Braugher are wearing the same outfits on TV now as they were then. (I love Homicide so much.) But Twin Peaks is awash in man perms and little elements that just scream “1990”.
That makes it a little hard to judge, because Lynch often aims to be off-putting but it’s not immediately clear what’s deliberately so and what’s an artifact of its time. And then there are things like the occasionally distracting score, which I definitely remember as being a nineties thing.
The other thing that jumps out is the high school characters. They could not possibly look older. In modern TV, a lot of times you’ll see high schoolers who are highly sexualized and thus seem older (and are maybe played by thirty-year-olds). But these students all look like they should have kids in high school. It’s weird to see them in class, when they’re clearly just there to pick their son up for the swim meet. I was actually in high school at the time, and I know what we looked like. Like kids!
And some of the performances are… not good. I’m thinking of Bobby and Mike specifically. Especially Bobby. I don’t know if it’s a directorial choice or what, but it’s like they’re appearing in West Side Story and playing to the back of the auditorium. Bobby got on my nerves immediately and stayed there.
That said, there was also some really great acting. I’m not sure what the deal is with some of the characters, but Sherilyn Fenn’s Audrey is fantastic. I’m liking Madchen Amick as Shelly, too. And he’s not a guy who comes up a lot when people talk Twin Peaks, but Michael Ontkean is really great as (sigh) Sheriff Harry S. Truman. He does a lot of nice, subtle things that balance the weirdness really well. Whenever somebody goes big in a scene, he’s there to keep it grounded. Harry’s the freaking hero of this show, man.
Also? 1990 Ray Wise looks disconcertingly like Phil Hartman.
I liked the deliberate pace of the pilot – unsurprising, since they had 94 minutes to play with. A lot of the attempts at humor just land with a thud, but I genuinely thought that secretary Lucy overexplaining things was really funny. I feel like, even with the extended length, there are a lot of characters who are ill-served by the first episode. Everything with the mill feels disconnected from the rest of the show, for example. I was much less interested in the middle-aged high school students than in the adults, but the pilot really kind of parks on the young people.
Agent Cooper is not at all what I expected. I sort of conflate him with Fox Mulder in my mind and so I assumed it was a similar performance. I had him as the normal guy who enters the strange town, sort of like Northern Exposure (a show I was obsessed with at the time). Nope. Cooper’s weird. His second line is a glorious misquote of W.C. Fields. His interactions are strange – he asks people to repeat themselves or disagrees but then just restates what they said as his own opinion. Cooper’s a weird dude, and much more entertaining for it.
The mystery is compelling – serialized shows were pretty uncommon in 1990, and I think the fact that there are no answers at the end of the episode helped build an audience. Well, it actually lost a huge audience, but you know what I mean. It’s why the people who stuck with it cared.
TV was just on the edge of getting better in 1990. The Simpsons had just started, Seinfeld was about to blow up. Homicide and NYPD Blue were only a little ways off. I think there was an audience for things that were new and different, and since the networks were the only option, they experimented with innovation. And since Twin Peaks was so different, it was something for its audience to obsess over. I get why it was such a big deal.
However, I wasn’t impressed with the deliberate weirdness. Coming in 25 years later, Twin Peaks almost feels like an ultra-tame version of The Heart, She Holler. That’s how you do weird for the sake of weird! But some of that is just the fact that my time and money went into fruitless viewings of Lost Highway and Inland Empires and I’m bitter. There were things I liked, to be sure. And if I were watching this in 1990, I would have been so into the mystery. But in 2015 the thing that locked me in to keep up this project was one single scene. When the police find Leland Palmer to tell him about his daughter’s murder, he’s on the phone with his wife, and that’s how she finds out. Ray Wise and Grace Zabrisikie are fantastic in this scene and it’s a new take on something we’ve seen a million times before. It’s the emotion in this scene that got me interested in seeing more of Twin Peaks, so much moreso than any letters under fingernails or women with logs.
It’s a shame that I can’t separate the actual show from everything else, because I can see where so much of what I love was derived from Twin Peaks. I think it made serialized television possible and I can’t see, say, LOST existing without it. Heck, I’d be willing to bet that Homicide got the green light, at least in part, because there was an unsolved murder in the first episode that ran through the season. The Adena Watson case has little to do with Laura Palmer, but it’s probably close enough for a network executive. Without Twin Peaks setting an example for a heavily serialized series, a lot of what I love about TV just wouldn’t have happened.
Next week: More episodes! Watch along with me! Or don’t. I can’t make these choices for you.