Thursday, August 30, 2018

Miscellaneous Musings

August 30, 2018

On Something That Should Have Been Left For Dead

I have a confession to make.

During my senior year of high school, I was asked to attend a school event called the Boat Dance with a rather attractive and charming young lady named Sara. I had known Sara for just a short time – under a month, if memory serves – but I liked her a great deal and was thrilled at the possibility of holding her arm as we stared off into the starry night from the top deck of a cruise ship. Even so, I hesitated in acquiescing to her request, for despite my being a horny, love-struck teenager, I was also something else, and this something momentarily clouded my judgment. When I voiced my vacillating thoughts to Sara and the reasons for them, she smiled. “Don’t worry,” she assured me. “I’ll tape it.”

Yes, that’s right. In my youthful stupidity, I almost missed out on spending a romantic evening sailing around the San Francisco Bay on account of a television show. But in my defense, it was not any ordinary TV show. This was a milestone in television – at least that’s what reviews were saying at the time. It merged the grandeur of independent moviemaking with the storytelling potential of episodic television and was the creation and brainchild of a cinematic genius, one not afraid to play with the audience’s notion of time, truth, good, evil, and coffee. This was Twin Peaks, and for a season and a half, it was a wonder to behold.

The show lasted two seasons, and by the end of its run, it had exhausted much of the good will that it had fought so hard to earn in the first place. It creators had moved on to other projects, and the writers had taken its characters down one ludicrous rabbit-hole after another. There was James’s film noir-inspired adventure with the wronged wife of a wealthy man, Nadine’s re-admittance into high school after an accident made her think she was a teenager, Ben Horn’s quest to win the Civil War for the South, Andy and Dick’s investigation into whether little Nikki murdered his parents, and the list doesn’t stop there. Only the introduction of Windom Earle saved the latter half of the second season from being the stuff that critics write about when they need an example of a sophomore slump.

And it didn’t really end. Sure, there was not to be a third season – not yet at least – but it’s characters were left in a permanent state of crisis. There were bomb blasts, life-threatening injuries, an untimely recollection, and most important of all, the final image of the reflection of Bob staring back at Cooper, all the while Cooper maniacally laughed at his own feigned concern for his comatose girlfriend, Annie. And that was it. From that point on, Twin Peaks would be remember as starting and ending with a bang, the middle being an uneven mix of fascinating mysticism and head-scratching mediocrity. It was telling that my buddy Ethan, who watched the show as religiously as I did, waxed poetic about the complexity of the Windom Earle storyline, while rarely having a positive thing to say about anything else.

The heart of the show was Special Agent Dale Cooper, superbly played by Kyle MacLachlan. The character was a peculiar one. He found joy in small moments and was able to see that the good in the sleepy, yet violent town he took residence in far outweighed the bad. He dealt with temptations like Audrey Horn maturely, yet in a way that acknowledged the difficulty he had making choices that denied him the comfort that others had in their lives. And he brought to the town a belief in the mystical, in the ability of truth to guide rocks hurled in the direction of suspect’s pictures and in the prophetic nature of dreams. One of the great joys every week was watching what this character would do next.

It is never easy to revisit a TV series years after its cancellation. In the case of Twin Peaks, it had to have been even harder. Several cast members had passed away in the interim, some careers had faded, and one key actor in particular had retired and could not be coaxed out of retirement. But David Lynch felt passionate about bringing the show back, and Showtime threw their support behind the project. Soon, after a bit of drama supposedly over salaries and the number of episodes, Twin Peaks made its triumphant return.

For more than a year, I avoided reading about the new season. Initially, it did not air in Taiwan, and since I’m not in the practice of downloading, I played a game of keep-away – keep away from all related articles, keep away from all Twin Peaks forums, keep away from any wrap-ups and reactions. I made it my mission to know almost nothing about the show’s revival until a time came when I had eighteen hours to spare. And such a time finally arrived. With my daughter visiting her grandparents and time off between terms, I put in disc one; in just under 36 hours I had completed the series.

And what a mixed bag it is.

The series has at its core a rather flimsy and convenient premise. Bob, a figure of utter evil bent on bringing destruction to everything he comes in contact with, was only supposed to be out of the Black Lodge for twenty-five years. Why 25? Well, according to the script, it’s because Laura Palmer mentioned something about seeing Cooper again in that amount of time, but it’s hard to believe that that was the intent of the line back in 1992. Never mind, though. Soon Cooper is on his way out in order to send Bob back where he belongs. He can do this though a third Cooper, a clone of the doppelganger, meaning that there’s a Cooper in the Black Lodge, and a Cooper who had carried his lust for mayhem to the physical world, and a Cooper employed by an insurance company in Las Vegas. Mercifully, two of these Cooper’s merge, thus sparing the audience further mental whiplash.

The plot certainly has potential, and one can easily see the seeds of a tension-filled series, one replete with cat-and-mouse chases and fascinating interactions between the real world and the Black Lodge. Alas, Lynch elected to go in another direction: to have Cooper become an unholy amalgamation of every simple-minded character ever put on camera. This would normally be bad enough, yet Lynch compounds the error by making him akin to a new baby seeing the world for the first time. He babbles, repeats the last few words he hears, and responds to pleasure with the kind of wide smile that one sees on the face of a boy getting his first bicycle on his birthday. And here’s the truly bizarre part. No one around Cooper reacts realistically. They just accept his new personality as something brought on by too much stress. Fortunately, as he goes about his daily routine, he also brings people joy and restores meaning to their lives, a la Forrest Gump. Mind you, he does these things in lieu of pursing his double for more than twelve episodes. Gone are all the wonderful scenes of Cooper discovering clues and building connections through quirky methods. Instead, we get him imitating a statue, yelling hello over and over again in a casino, and reaching for shiny objects that people have pinned onto their shirts.

When Cooper is finally back to his old self - which isn’t until late into the season - the show begins to resemble one of those Chris Carter X-Files finales in which a year’s worth of events transpire within a single episode. Key characters arrive late in the series just so they can be there to do something in the end; important information is conveniently revealed or recalled at just the right moment; and there are far too many inconsequential subplots. Also worth griping about is the amount of screen time given to the live acts performing at the Road House, a place that is now so packed that you’d think the whole town was there. And then there’s the shows obsession with making Laura Palmer more than she should be. In one episode, her face appears in the mushroom clouds of an atomic bomb blast in 1945, and it is clear that Lynch intends her to be a figure of truly great importance, and not just for the residents of Twin Peaks. Yet Laura Palmer was the victim of the evil in the town; she was a symbol of what happens when a world goes mad and parents start taking their eye off the ball. She was never a divine figure with immense cosmic significance, yet there Lynch is in the season finale subtly making her a more important figure than either the evil Cooper or anyone trying to capture him. In fact, the final episode is devoted entirely to Cooper’s efforts to find her, thus rendering almost everything that preceded it rather pointless.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note the inconsistencies between where Season Two ended and Season Three picks up. When we left the characters after Season Two, Cooper was in love with Annie and Major Garland Briggs was recovering after being kidnapped and drugged by Windom Earle. In Season Three, Annie is nowhere to be found. In fact, if we believe what we see in Season Three, Cooper was in love with someone else the whole time he was courting Annie. We’re also asked to believe that an entire subplot involving Cooper, Agent Cole, and the Major occurred off-screen at some point before the arrival of Windom Earle. Even after watching the series, I couldn’t make heads or tails of this timeline.

I would be remiss if I closed this without mentioning some of the season’s positive aspects. While the show has too many side stories, it does an adequate job of tying up some of the original show’s loose ends. There’s a warm resolution to Ed and Nadine’s storyline, an interesting exploration of the new Ben Horn, and a few surprising results of relationships explored in the first two seasons. The show is also buttressed by a number of strong performances, from Lynch as Deputy Director Gordon Cole and Miguel Ferrer as Albert, to Robert Forster as Sheriff Frank Truman, and the late Catherine Coulson as the Log Lady. As always, though, this season of Twin Peaks lives and dies on the performance of Kyle MacLachlan, and he doesn’t disappoint. He creates distinct characters for each Cooper, for each one has its individual manners of speaking and walking. MacLachlan is never less than a revelation, and he absolutely deserves his Emmy nomination for Best Actor.

Is it incongruous to say that while not entirely recommending the series? Perhaps, but I suspect that real fans of Twin Peaks will admire the third season of Twin Peaks a little more than they like it. It’s appealing to the eye, well directed, and well-acted, and yet something is missing. It walks when it should run, looks to the side when its gaze ought to be straight ahead, and goes for laughs when it would have been wiser to go for the gut. Twin Peaks should cast a spell on us; it should delight us, wow us, shock us with its brutality, break our hearts with its tragedy, and restore our faith in humanity. It can’t do this with a protagonist that takes fourteen episodes to start the chase.

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