BY BRIAN COMFORT
Department of History
It seems that Netflix, amidst its fairly high-profile PR blunders, is trying hard to predict its future and sees that future, not surprisingly, in streaming on-line content. This means re-negotiating with content providers and, since it is a business, Netflix is looking for the most amount of content at the least amount of cost. Makes sense, of course, but this means that it is increasingly abandoning movies in favor of buying up the rights to TV shows, which are apparently cheaper.
This is no doubt a bummer for those of us who like movies and have come to rely on Netflix as a primary source for movies (as a grad student in the throes of comps and the father of a small child, thinking about actually going to see a movie in a movie theater is a cruel sort of mockery). But there are some silver linings, and the brightest is that the full run of Twin Peaks is now available online.
For those of you who don’t know, Twin Peaks is the best TV show ever. This is coming from someone who admittedly doesn’t watch a ton of TV, but nothing I’ve seen on the small box comes close.
It only ran two seasons, one of which was really a half season, in 1990-1991 on ABC before it was canceled. Created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, the show’s initial premise is the murder of the seemingly All-American girl Laura Palmer in the seemingly idyllic tiny Pacific Northwest town of Twin Peaks. But this is David Lynch, so seemingly means something much more.
Eccentric FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (wonderfully captured by a pre-Showgirls Kyle MacLachlan) comes in to investigate the murder and Twin Peaks is revealed to be both an idyllic place and a strange borderland between good and the demented evil that lurks in the woods. Laura Palmer is not quite the girl next door. Agent Cooper narrows the list of suspects by employing the “Tibetan Method” – throwing rocks at bottles when a suspect’s name is announced with the closer the rock is to smashing the bottle indicating the likeliness of a suspect’s guilt. The Log Lady, who is never seen without her, you guessed it, log, gives important clues. A midget who speaks backwards also gives important evidence to Agent Cooper in a surreal place called the Red Room. A giant reveals the killer to Cooper in a dream.
The show is funny, quirky, scary, strange, and ultimately incredibly moving. It plays with multiple genres including soap operas, cop shows, horror, melodrama, and western, both employing conventions and turning those conventions inside out. Lynch’s most recent effort before this was Blue Velvet, where he explored the dreamy suburban town and the nightmares it hid underneath the surface. The opening scene where a man, Kyle MacLachlan’s character’s father as it turns out, keels over with a heart attack while watering his precisely manicured lawn and then the camera dives down into the picturesque lawn itself to reveal the festering insects underneath impeccably sets the tone.
Twin Peaks picks this up but with a whole host of other elements thrown in, the most important of which, I think, is humor. Twin Peaks is really funny. The sheriff’s deputy Andy cries at crime scenes because he is so moved by the violence and the sadness. Cooper’s idiosyncrasies—his love of coffee and cherry pie–are running gags. Pete Martell puts a fish in the coffee maker.
In large part because of this humor and the show’s foregrounding of eccentrics, critics have cast Twin Peaks as an ironic take on the false appearances of suburbia. But this misses the mark. Lynch himself has said, and I paraphrase because I am under deadline and don’t have time to look up the actual quote, that with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks he was not trying to be ironic; rather, he saw both the goodness and the horror in this suburban ideal and that the two were inextricably bound together. I agree: Lynch transcends irony in Twin Peaks.
Aaron Lecklider, an American studies scholar, has used the term post-ironic to note an aesthetic and cultural turn away from irony in recent years. Irony tends to poke fun at the gap between appearances and reality, and in so doing offers a detachment from false appearances for the reader/viewer. Lecklider writes, “Where the ironist exploits appearances to discredit reality, the post-ironist assumes the gravity of appearances and uses their transparency to develop political commitments in a world ruled by appearances.” Irony encourages detachment and distance, and thus undercuts some of its own power. Post-irony recognizes the importance of appearances while also recognizing the gap between appearance and reality. It chooses to take appearances seriously, and thus to engender commitment and attachment.
Twin Peaks achieves this. The crying cop, initially the butt of the joke, ultimately reminds of the real human tragedy in brutal crime, a tragedy often masked by the stoic demeanor of traditional TV cops. The eccentric figure of Laura Palmer’s father, whose hair turns suddenly gray one night and who is prone to break out into song and dance at inappropriate times, seems comical until his song and dance evolve into tears of anguish over the loss of his daughter. The power of Twin Peaks lies in forging our connection to these characters even though we know they live in a world of false appearances, jaded realities and contradiction. We feel their tragedies and successes ever more strongly because they are bred from real, if fantastic, places.
I am reminded of the Ray Carver short story “A Small, Good Thing.” A woman orders a birthday cake from a lonely baker for her son’s birthday and shortly thereafter the son is hit by a car and put in a coma. She and her husband obviously forget about the birthday cake, but the baker, who has no idea what happened to the kid, starts making harassing phone calls to them about not picking up their cake. Eventually the mother and father confront the baker after their son has died. The baker is initially haughty and combative, but when their ordeal is revealed, he offers them something to eat: “Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this,” he says. In a world dominated by misfires and misunderstandings, small human connections are more important than ever. We make these types of connections in this type of atmosphere constantly in Twin Peaks, and that’s why it is such an appealing place.
But as Hunter S. Thompson said about his sidekick Lazlo, Twin Peaks was too weird to live. After an initial spasm of unimagined popularity—Time magazine even featured Laura Palmer on its cover with the question “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” speaks to the intense interest the first season had generated–regular forays into Red Rooms with backwards-talking midgets, story lines about alien conspiracies, a lady carrying a log everywhere all proved too much for mainstream tastes and the show was canceled as its second season came to a close. Lynch was at least given some time to put an exclamation point on the series and came up with an ending that still generates controversy among fans of the show. The second part of Dr. Thompson’s remark about Lazlo is that he was also too rare to die. With Twin Peaks, stick it in your queue and see for yourself.
Other contenders for best show ever
I’ve only seen a handful of episodes of The Wire and The Sopranos, and therefore maybe can’t comment on these, but will say that they operated under an entirely different and perhaps unequal circumstances because they aired on HBO and thus had a much more liberating set of rules by which they could play. Twin Peaks was on network TV at a time when it was becoming fragmented but by no means to the extent it is today and thus it had to adhere to a more restrictive set of parameters. This may be unfair but aesthetic products are historically contingent, and Twin Peaks to me did more with what it had to work with than either of these subsequent shows have, in my limited opinion.
I thought Lost sucked because it took what could have been an interesting premise and populated it with relatively one-dimensional characters such that any pay-offs offered by the plot were wasted on unspectacular characters.
The X-Files was great—even if you don’t buy into the conspiracy theories and the alien storylines, the writing was fantastic and every time the show seemed to be taking itself too seriously, it offered up an episode that completely skewered itself. But it went on too long and suffered from some late run simplicity. One of the subtle strengths of The X-Files was the latent sexual tension between Mulder and Scully throughout the first six or seven seasons of the show that was always present but rarely commented upon and never acted upon. When the show’s producers caved to the temptation to follow that story line, it became much more mundane. I think this was really driven home when Mulder was cast to the sidelines –for me and many others he was the main attraction of the early years of the show—and Robert Patrick came on as Scully’s partner and the show actually got better.
Millennium, also developed by Chris Carter, was, like Twin Peaks, an excellent exploration of good and evil, yet it was nowhere near as dynamic as Twin Peaks or even The X-Files at its best. Mad Men and Breaking Bad are similarly excellent, but they too operate in a different universe. Deadwood I should watch more of. That to me seems to be about it for competitors.
What do you think?