Sunday, 29 January 2012

Twin Peaks twenty years on

Alarmingly, it's more than 20 years since David Lynch's acclaimed foray from the big screen onto television, Twin Peaks. Until then, the latter was easily the more conventional of the two media, down, in part, to its generally broader audiences and its significantly greater content restrictions. But Lynch clearly failed to read the memo that explained all of this when he created his Pacific Northwest-set surrealist-horror-comedy-drama.

Instead, he blended conventional elements - such as murder mystery and folksy Americana - with those less familiar to television audiences - such as dream interpretation and supernatural horror. And all, unpredictably, to great success, both critically and commercially. While it didn't attain quite the hold on popular imagination of, say, Who shot J.R.?, the murder of Laura Palmer became a massive mainstream phenomenon. And even after Twin Peaks ignominiously left television screens in 1991 (only to further disappoint cinema screens in 1992), its themes and style cast a long shadow over subsequent television series. For example, Northern Exposure amped up its quirky folksy elements, while The X-Files both played on its horrific aspects and even borrowed its central motif of a heroic, if unconventional, FBI agent.

After watching the more recent - and certainly more limp - series Carnivàle, which both plays on similar supernatural aspects and even borrows the Man from Another Place, we reflected on how, even now, Twin Peaks is still leaving its mark. Which led, seamlessly, to a glaringly obvious birthday present purchase when C's birthday rolled around last year. So, though it has remained emblematic in our memories over the past 20 years, does Twin Peaks stand up to a second viewing?

The short answer is "yes". Though I've praised it above, going in I was concerned that its then-originality might since have translated to now-overfamiliarity, and that its unusual blend of genres would now seem positively stale given that a whole slew of subsequent shows have followed in its wake. But - with a few caveats - I think we both really enjoyed our second visit [*] to Twin Peaks, and I reckon that it still holds up despite the years.

In part, this is simply because there's never been anything quite like it since. As already mentioned, lots of subsequent series have adopted elements from it, but none - at least, none I've seen - have tried to be quite so ambitiously off-the-wall. Another aspect that still stands out for me is how expansive the cast is and how well-drawn the characters are. Sure, quirkiness is definitely valued above realism, but the principal characters - of which there really is no shortage - are pretty well fleshed out, and all are given time in the limelight. Even sporadic characters like Gordon and, especially, Albert are given enough screen-time to be discernibly more than scenery.

And one shouldn't underplay the central mystery. Though this apparently wasn't quite resolved in quite the way that Lynch and his co-writer Mark Frost originally intended - which is to say not resolved - it's still a satisfying tale. Which is a surprising thing for me to say given that it hinges on the show's strongly supernatural elements - not usually my favoured way to resolve, well, anything. The series does slip a bit coupling this storyline to that of Windom Earle, but I think it gets there by the end - well, what passes for "the end".

One thing I'd sort-of forgotten about, but which seemed much more noticeable on this repeat viewing, is how prevalent and effective the music is. For a TV series, especially one from two decades ago, it's got a great soundtrack, one that wouldn't be out of place in a film. Which, given Lynch's background, isn't too much of a surprise I suppose, but its presence does make the corresponding absence in successor series quite noticeable. It'll definitely be getting rotated back into my iPod listening.

All that said, there are a few places where I think Twin Peaks sags a bit. These were issues even back when the series was originally aired, but - being less "culturally experienced" - I just didn't register them then. For instance, it does, at times, run some fairly incompatible material back-to-back. So we have serious scenes concerning murder juxtaposed with broad (and sometimes flat) comedy scenes with the likes of Andy and Lucy. This comes across as tone-deaf and it tends to weaken the series' darker themes. A lesser flaw is a related juggling of "serious" characters with comic relief ones - which tends to work up to the point where they intersect in scenes. A case in point are the husband-and-wife characters of Pete and Catherine Martell, where the former uncomfortably straddles comic scenes with most characters but serious ones with his wife.

A more serious problem is the obvious one that the series was axed with a stack of plotlines left dangling on cliffhangers. There's no getting passed this, but it's still infuriating - even 20 years on - that we never get to find out the fates of any number of characters imperilled at the close of Season 2. Obviously, the plan was that the series would be picked up for a third season, but Lynch et al. put so many eggs in that basket that one can't help but be let down by the slew of incomplete storylines. More recent series, perhaps cognisant of Twin Peaks' fate (and what it might mean for DVD sales), tend not to leave quite so much at stake when a season ends. Of course, Lynch didn't do himself any favours by singularly failing to make the most of his cinematic follow-up, Fire Walk With Me, pick up the slack. But I'm going to overlook that - though we've got that to watch down the line if we can face it.

Anyhow, once again, it seems possible to "go back" to a classic, and have it still hold up. I am now left slightly deflated by the fact that, 20 years on, Twin Peaks is clearly never going to have a proper ending, but it's still a ride I'd definitely recommend.

Dscf0757[*] As it happens, we had something of an earlier second visit, technically to the setting rather than the series, back in 2002. After attending a conference in Victoria, we spent three weeks driving around Washington and Oregon, arriving in Snoqualmie for what we thought would be a quick tour of the pop cultural sights. But the area was so nice that we wound up spending three or four days in the vicinity. Among other sights, we visited the Salish Lodge - pictured left - which stands in for the Great Northern Hotel in Twin Peaks, and the town of Roslyn which stands in for Northern Exposure's setting, Cicely. Needless to say, there are a considerable number of photographs over at Flickr.

No comments: