Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dancing Dwarfs and Damn Fine Coffee... Twin Peaks' 20th Anniversary

"A path is formed by laying one stone at a time."

On April 8th, 1990, a television show so bizarre and quirky was broadcast that quite frankly no one expected to last more than a few episodes. What it ended up being was one of the greatest cult-tv shows of my generation...

Twin Peaks, the brain child of the equally as bizarre and quirky David Lynch, told the story of the ill-fated homecoming queen Laura Palmer's (Sheryl Lee) horrible murder and the pursuit to discover her killer. You know what they say about it not being about the destination, but the journey - well, truer words could not be spoken about the extraordinarily trippy, atmospheric mind-fuck of a show that was Twin Peaks.

So to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the start of probably my 'most-missed favorite television show' (with the X-Files running a tight second), I present - in random order - my top twenty reasons Twin Peaks was a phenom.

1) Music. First off I have to give serious props to Angelo Badalamenti for providing some of the most atmospheric, moody music I have ever heard. It set the tone for the entire series, Not only do I still listen to the soundtracks for both the tv show and the movie (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), but I have yet to find anything that drops me right back into a certain time period of my life as quickly as the strains of those opening credits. My personal favorites are actually on the movie soundtrack. I love the main theme from Fire Walk With Me- its jazzy, melancholy refrains just resonate through my very soul. Yes I love it that much.
And 'The Pink Room' just makes me want to have dirty, kinky sex in the sleazy back room of some disreputable pool hall somewhere. (I hope I don't take too much flak for that comment.)

2) Atmosphere. Now here's a word I apologize for using too often (and not just for Twin Peaks) and I'll admit that openly. But you want to know the meaning of the word when it is used for entertainment purposes, look no further. Twin Peaks was soaked with it. So many things come to mind when describing the ambience of the show, but one of my favorite examples is the lonely stop lights dangling from wires across the empty roads in the darkness, changing from red to green and back - you immediate sense that something is Also seen in large quantities is the wind blowing through those iconic pine trees. The woods surrounding the Twin Peaks area abound with mystery and dread. Those things, combined with the aforementioned music, set the stage for the deviant and unorthodox weirdness to come.

3) Eccentric characters. If I truly need to elaborate on this, then you've never (ever) seen the show. Starting with Agent Dale Cooper (the all kinds of awesome Kyle MacLachlan) and working down through the entire cast, I don't think there was one character that didn't have some sort of hang up or eccentricity going on. When you combine a dancing dwarf; a freakishly strong, one-eyed, drapery-obsessed housewife; a cross-dressing DEA agent; an agoraphobic horticulturist; a clue-dropping mystical giant; and a malicious spirit named BOB - what else can you have but a recipe for the bizarre? I mean, seriously. And yes, that is David Duchovny in drag.

4) Damn good coffee....and hot! And don't even get me started on the cherry pie. And any man worth their salt would be happy to sit at the counter at the Double-R Diner and chat with owner Norma (Peggy Lipton) or poor, abused housewife Shelly (Mädchen Amick). The amount of coffee consumed on this show is staggering. With or without sweets, the coffee factor here astounds. Someone is always gulping down a cup of joe. Agent Cooper was all but mystified by the coffee served up with a smile, and he let everyone know it - repeatedly.

5) Water Cooler factor. Twin Peaks was a "water cooler" show in the truest sense of the word. Discussions about the list of possible suspects in Laura Palmer's death, along with raves and rants about the bevy of eclectic characters and the general weirdness that ensued were the cat's meow at the time. Its ratings for the tv-movie pilot were outstanding, and subsequent shows drew viewers away from hugely popular shows like Cheers... at first. Ratings soon dropped a bit, but the show developed a cult following that continues to this day. I truly believe that if Twin Peaks debuted on a station like HBO, Showtime, or even FX today, with the allowances that premium cable stations have in the way of language, sex and general adult content - the show would be a massive hit in every sense of the word. And more fornication, debauchery, cussing, and violence? Yes, please. Especially when someone like David Lynch is behind the creation.

5) Let's talk David Lynch. Yes, he's beyond bizarre. Sure, he's done some really crazy shit. But isn't that why we love him? I mean, take Blue Velvet for an example. That uber-surreal piece of film noir was one wacked-out movie, to say the least. And Lynch has made it a habit to highlight the seedier side of small town America in so many of his projects that you can't help but wonder just where those ideas come from or if he suffered a strange and/or distressing childhood. (If one actually does delve into his past, it appears he grew up perfectly normal.) His use of dream-like segments and uncommon imagery are imitated but never quite up to par. And hey, wasn't his portrayal of Regional Chief Cole in the series an absolute hoot? Practically deaf, he pretty much shouted every line he had.

6) Dream sequences. How weird were they? Really, really, really weird. Strange abstract zig-zag carpeting. Red curtained rooms. Dancing dwarfs who speak in some sort of queer gibberish. Giants who warn about owls. Greek statues and funeral home lighting. Agent Cooper -twenty-five years into the future. Laura, back from the dead and also speaking said gibberish... Just WFT was going on here?

7) Double lives. So many of the characters in TP lived secret lives. Of course, the most obvious choice was Laura Palmer. On the outside, a homecoming queen, good friend, and model daughter. But her sordid underbelly eventually shone through, belying her squeaky-clean exterior. She practically slept with the whole of the Twin Peaks male community, and perhaps swung both ways on more than one occasion. But others in town were equally as deceptive. While Bobby was sleeping with Laura, he also pursued (and caught) Shelly - who was married to Leo, a local drug-dealer posing as a truck driver, who in turn engaged in BDSM with Laura. What comes around goes around, in more ways than one.
Everyone was screwing someone other than who they were supposed to be having sex with. Norma was secretly sleeping with high school sweetheart Ed - who was unhappily married to drapery nut Nadine. Ed & Nadine's nephew James (James Marshall) was another undisclosed boyfriend of Laura's, who after her death started dating her best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) but then secretly crushed on Laura's look-alike cousin Maddy. Confused yet?
The list goes on. And on.

8) On that same note: A few specifics on Laura's secret life. Not only was Laura the doorknob of Twin Peaks, but she was a raging cocaine addict, a child abuse victim, and sometimes worked at a brothel casino across the border in Canada.
A book (penned by Lynch's daughter) tied in with the tv show and movie, entitled The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. And you can bet your sweet ass I ran out and got that piece of significant literary triumph pretty much the day it was released. It even had a "special" page that Laura listed all the initials of all the people she slept with. I spent way too much time trying to figure out what names all those initials were linked to. Pathetic, I know. But let's just say this. Laura was, simply put - a wanton tart with zero scruples.

9) One-Eyed Jacks. Deep in the woods across the Canadian border and owned by prominent businessman Benjamin Horne, One-Eyed Jacks was supposedly a casino but was actually a house of ill repute and a site for illegal drug trade. Girls were 'hired' at Horne's legit department store and then transferred to the cat house to work, dressing in outfits that resembled, appropriately enough, playing cards. Talk about upping the ante.
At one point, Horne's precocious daughter Audrey nearly sleeps with her father when she discovers what is going on there and goes undercover to infiltrate.

10) Red Herrings. So much means nothing in the world of Twin Peaks. And a lot of nothing means everything. Things you think really and truly are connected to the mystery of Twin Peaks and the murder of Laura Palmer have positively no bearing whatsoever on the case. And if you blink and miss something minute, it will be another three episodes before you figure out you should have been paying attention a little closer. Then something will be thrown in to divert all your attention and you're completely and utterly bewildered yet again. (Kind of like watching LOST these days!)

When you're asking yourself for the thirteenth time just what the hell that horse has to do with anything, reconsider whether it means anything at all. Perhaps you're thinking too much.
Then again...maybe it means everything...

11) Trademarks. Besides the obvious cherry pie and superior coffee, TP was known for quite a few other hallmarks. Most especially the regular episode-opening theme with its iconic scenes. The waterfall, the logging industry and saw mill, the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Equally as important was the homecoming queen photo of Laura Palmer seen at the end of every show as the credits roll. It was a reminder of how Laura was seen as such an innocent until you got to know her real story better. An even more affecting picture of Laura is the one of her lifeless body wrapped in plastic and discarded like a bag of trash.

12) Quirkiness. This would be the longest paragraph in the history of blogging if I were to elaborate on the quirkiness that IS Twin Peaks. The conspicuous donut fetish revealed in the pilot episode at the police station. While we're talking food - the cherry pie Agent Cooper would give his left testicle for. The damn fine coffee. Bizarro near-deaf agent Cole. Eye-patched Nadine fussing obsessively over curtains. The Log Lady. Leland Palmer's kooky dancing and singing. Laura's 'psychic' mother's rantings. The freaky giant who mutters incoherent words of wisdom. The backwards speaking dwarf with a penchant for finger snapping and fancy footwork. The infamous one-armed man.
And no, that's not all.

13) The Log Lady. Claiming some kind of psychic powers from caressing touching the mysterious log, the Log Lady (a.k.a. Margaret Lanterman) attempts to garner information concerning Laura Palmer's death through the spirit world and the connection she claims to it. More a peculiarity than a visionary, she made recurrent appearances in the series, always in order to further the plot by handing out cryptic advice and insinuations. Her eccentricity of carrying the small log around with her made her more the brunt of jokes rather than the clairvoyant she proposed to be. On the Definitive Gold Box DVD (yes, I own it), Lynch gives us the choice of hearing a short little "log lady" speech before each episode. Which of course, in the spirit of the series, makes positively no sense whatsoever.

14) Sheriff Harry S. Truman. Yeah, I crushed on the dude big time.
Sharing a name with our 33rd president, he is one of the first people Agent Dale Cooper meets when he arrives in Twin Peaks. He is in charge of the murder investigation locally, but quickly comes to realize he is in over his head and seems relieved to have Cooper's help.
While he seems completely above board and by-the-books, Truman is actually one of the Bookhouse Boys, essentially a vigilante group of citizens that includes several lawmen and whose goal is to try to cope with and overthrow the evil they sense surrounding the town.
Though the consummate "good-guy" character, Sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean) also had a standing love affair going on with Josie Packard, who turns out to have a few secrets of her own.

15) The Women of Twin Peaks. If anything, the female stars of Twin Peaks were a good reason for any hot-blooded male to stick around. Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, Mädchen Amick (all at left), Sheryl Lee, Peggy Lipton, Joan Chen, Alicia Witt, Moira Kelly, Heather Graham...

Between them, they had so many issues (sexual promiscuity, child abuse, incest, rape, spousal abuse, drug addiction, murder, scheming, lying, cheating, prostitution, dark pasts...) they were more like soap stars. But more fun to watch.

16) Fire Walk With Me. Yeah, I know. Not exactly a stellar example of a sequel (or prequel, whichever camp you may be from) - but it did try to render some clarifications of what exactly happened within the series. What it really ended up doing was adding to the confusion.
It starts with the investigation of the murder of Teresa Banks (the girl who was killed in the tv series prior to Laura). When the trail runs cold, Agent Cooper (MacLachlan, reprising his role to a lesser extent here) seems to know the murderer will kill again. We delve a little deeper into Leland Palmer's weird obsession with his daughter and her lovers, and Laura has a new BFF (same character, though Donna is now played by the strangely annoying Moira Kelly instead of Laura Flynn Boyle). There are more trademark bizarre dreams that lead in varying directions to help the story along (or confuse us more, as the case may be) and we are privy to some of Laura's sexual escapades, and Donna gets in on the action as well.

And of course, we have full disclosure about just what did happen in that slimy train car and what BOB had to do with it. A distorted, self-indulgent mess is what we got instead of an even somewhat lucid explanation to all the craziness. That being said, I still like it. Maybe it was just getting to spend time with all the characters again.

17) Leland Palmer. Stop here, I mean RIGHT HERE if you don't want a doozy of a spoiler. If you haven't seen the series and are even contemplating giving it a go, just stop here. But if you've gotten this far reading this, I can only assume you're a fan and are already aware of the outcome. Fans of the show waiting an extraordinarily long time to be rewarded with the identity of the killer.

The fact that Laura's father (Ray Wise) ended up as the murderer wasn't as much shocking as it was a relief. The story had drug on and opened up so many veins that the regular confusion of the show had morphed into near-annoyance. Leland always was a weird bird. From the scene at Laura's funeral where he actually threw himself into Laura's knew it was going to go downhill for him. Suffering a nervous breakdown, he is never quite "okay" throughout the course of the series. Finding out that he'd done all those awful things to Laura (at the time of her death and during the course of her life in general) just made me feel all icky.

18) The Black Lodge. Basically a mystical portal to another dimension, the Black Lodge harbors within it the Red Room that Agent Cooper has so many of his significant and clue-cluttered dreams in. Surrounded by a mysterious forest, much has been made of how to gain entry to the Black Lodge, but suffice to to say it is all very cryptic and bewildering. Time can stand still, hallways go nowhere, and the people within it speak a garbled language not unlike playing a Zeppelin record backwards. Red curtains are the norm, riddles are rampant, strange characters are abundant, and all is definitely not as it seems.

Within the random cast of crazies such as the One-Armed Man and The Man From Another Place (aka the dwarf from the red room) running amok at the lodge, you never can tell what's real or what's imaginary.
In contrast, there is a White Lodge that supposedly is the opposite of the evil that the Black Lodge represents.

19) BOB. This guy is the stuff of legends. A malevolent entity, he possesses people in order to commit horrific acts, such as rape and murder. Bob provided a great deal of the truly frightening aspects of the show. Laura had been visited by Bob (Frank Silva) on too many occasions to count, and some of the scenes in her bedroom with Bob appearing are just downright creepy. As an audience, there was no way we weren't being led to believe that Bob was somehow most likely responsible for the death of Laura.
Creepy dude, dammit.

20) Agent Dale Cooper. In this case I did save the best for last. I truly believe that Kyle MacLachlan's portrayal of the strangely unconventional FBI agent made the show what it was. Always a consummate performer, he added layer after quirky layer to the character. Just when you thought you had him figured out, he'd pull a fast one and do a complete 180. Which is what made the character so complex, for someone who seemed so outwardly simple. His visions and dreams that kept the story rolling along at a pleasant pace were sometimes so outlandish and ridiculous that you could only laugh and play along. After all, it would all make sense in the end, right?


Basically what I'm saying here is that I miss Twin Peaks. I loved it when it was on, much to the chagrin of my husband, who just couldn't get past the dancing dwarf. I wish I were still psyching up for weekly episodes, and suppose my DVDs will have to suffice. But for its thirty episodes and one semi-tolerable film, I am eternally grateful.

It is a series that changed the face of television and was a great slice of Americana - moody, innovative, important, and sometimes quite amusing.
And if you'd like a slice of that pie - click here.

Okay, now if you'll excuse me I've got my eye on the pie.
Cherry pie, that is.

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


Will Errickson said...

This is a fantastic piece. And your first point is correct: the music! I hear it and also suddenly feel transported back in time. Honestly I have not seen the series since it was on, and am kind of afraid to watch it again as it is such a great, perfect memory.

J.D. said...

Awesome post on this great show! You've pretty much listed all the things that made it so memorable and why it still continues to fascinate people.

I know some fans of the show hated the film but I really love FWWM and feel that it might be Lynch's best film after BLUE VELVET. He really went for it and showed what he could do with the show freed from the constraints of TV.

I've also posted a celebration of the show and linked your post to it.

Edward Copeland said...

I felt the horse was probably the one Ben Horne gave Laura as a gift when she was a child that she wrote about in her diary. Then again, it could be symbolism for the drugs Leland had been giving Sarah.

C.L. Hadden said...

Will: Thanks for your kind words! And I seriously think the show may not have been as successful without Badalamenti's fabulous moody score. It'd be like JAWS without John Williams.

J.D: I read your Twin Peaks post as well - many thanks for the link back! Seems there are quite a few Peaks fanatics out there, glad to see the love being spread!

Edward: I just discovered your site and read your comprehensive ode to TP - really stellar!
And your thoughts on the horse- it does seem right about it being symbolic of the horse Laura got from Ben...but who really knows? :)

Jay Clarke said...

Awesome, that was quite the rundown.

I'm with J.D, I adore FWWM. I thought it was the perfect companion piece to the show.

iZombie said...

E-M-O-O-S-E-W-A ask the midget...

cornug said...

I missed watching this series when I lived in the US, but I had friends in Seattle, my brother when visiting me in Baltimore headed to Seattle because he loved the series so much. I remembered that people loved it, and when I saw it in my library here in France I figured I would find out why. It is amazing to me that it caught on as it did - it is so out of the ordinary and it is even amazing it managed to get shown on t.v. n'est pas? But I think it caught the imagination of a sort of young American at the time and part of its fascination was that your parents would never understand which kind of summed up life. I think it is kind of t.v. version of James Joyce - D. Lynch was having all sorts of fun with private jokes and his amazing imagination - and I am sure everything meant something to him, or someone and what you get is what you get!!!!!

T. Cornu