Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Twin Peaks

Special Agent Dale Cooper
Twin Peaks is one of the greatest Television series ever made. For a while it was also one of the most popular until the increasingly stylized storytelling and network-management meddling alienated the masses. I think the series is best understood as a dream about communities and the way individuals struggle within them to deal with darkness encroaching from without and within. Like a dream (itself a common trope within the story), the characters and places are drawn with such vibrancy that they come close to charactiture. In fact, I had to actually turn the saturation levels on my TV down when watching the series on DVD recently!

The basic plot revolves around the murder of a high school prom-queen-type in a rural Washington town near the Canadian border. Due to the connection between this murder and others as well as the limited resources of local law enforcement, FBI agent Dale Cooper is sent to investigate. Almost immediately we begin to discover that underneath a nostalgically sweet and wholesome American town are dark, dark secrets. As the series goes on paranormal aspects of this struggle between light and dark are revealed. The storytelling becomes increasingly poetic and cosmic in scale. The allegorical character of the story becomes somewhat murkier and obscured in the last episodes, but I'm still quite moved by the poignant moments Frost and Lynch were able to create in the midst of all the abstraction.

These are similar themes as those developed in some of David Lynch's movies, especially the earlier Blue Velvet and later Molholland Drive. Dreams inside dreams that often drift from meditating on one poignant moment to another. Yet the total effect in a film like Blue Velvet is stunning. Molholland Drive was a bit harder to achieve satisfaction from, but rewards investigation with a later "a-ha" moment. I only "got" that movie after reading an article online that translated Lynch-into-English, but I'm glad I did.

One of the reasons Twin Peaks had such a cultish following was the compelling quirkiness of the world and characters they created. Dale Cooper is a loveable odd-ball--unquestionably competent yet also weird. I think he foreshadows some other geek-heroes of pop-culture by several years. Watching the series again for the first time in many years, I recall that I've actually modeled some of Cooper's mannerisms--like the way he gives an over-earnest thumbs-up sign.

Incidentally, shows like Lost have Twin Peaks DNA. The creators of Lost often refer to Twin Peaks. I remember reading one article about their conviction that Twin Peaks really ran into trouble because it revealed the answer to the central mystery ("Who killed Laura Palmer") too soon. That turned out to be a ratings ploy by the network that backfired. The creative team behind Lost has apparently used this as argument to win greater freedom from network control!

But besides the fact that they are both intricate, serialized mysteries, with cultish-following, there are important similarities, too. Note the large, ensemble casts, exotic setting, and the encroachment supernatural elements. But whereas the spiritual temperature of Twin Peaks was set by the cool, dark and foreboding woods, the temperature of Lost is set by the alternating feelings of orientation/disorientation felt by character and audience alike. Lost is about being, well, "Lost." Twin Peaks was about confronting darkness and how that encounter changes us. It's telling that the certainty felt by the John Locke character from Lost (often referred to as "faith" within the show's dialog) is rare in that series. But in Twin Peaks almost all the characters are oriented to place and themselves at all times--indeed, many give touching soliloquies about their highest aspirations and beliefs. Perhaps this difference says something about our changing spiritual climate, the grand and extraverted aspirations and vision of the early 90's replaced with the fear and isolation of the end of this decade.

One feels that every character in Lost, even the coupled ones, are profoundly lonely. In Twin Peaks many characters are brokenhearted, but there are also many examples of deep love and friendship (between Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman, for example). Another compelling love is between Cooper and Annie Blackburn (played remarkably well by Heather Graham). In the Twin Peaks universe, real connections between people are indeed possible, and may offer the only possible response to the existential darkness that creeps into each episode as the sun goes down and the shadows lengthen (each episode takes place over one day). I think it was this vision of the moral universe that I found most compelling when I saw the show for the first time in junior-high and high-school. I enjoy Lost, but it doesn't resonate for me like the coffee-and-pine world of Twin Peaks. At the end of the day Lost leaves me feeling selfish and isolated, whereas Twin Peaks made we want to hug a tree or talk to a log or compliment someone for their coffee and pie.


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