Thursday, May 25, 2017

What "Twin Peaks" Did and Didn't Do

Describing the classic television series "Twin Peaks" is a challenge. There is no one way to explain what it was about, sometimes because it didn't know itself. Half way through the series there was a dramatic reveal that many consider a disastrous decision. The network pushed the show's writers and creators to disclose a major plot. By resolving a major plot point, the purpose for the series' existence was destroyed.  Loyal fans continued to watch by grasping hold of other underlying elements. The remaining viewers jumped ship and it couldn't recover enough. Even if the show gave into the network demands, the opportunities for a creative reinvention existed; but were squandered. What worked kept it forever in pop-culture consciousness. What they missed developing could have saved it from ignoble failure.

The show starts out with the discovery of a murdered girl. The whole town grieves because she was well known and loved. An eccentric FBI agent named Cooper arrives to try and solve the case.  He discovers, along with the audience, the peculiarities of residence in this sleepy Washington lumber town. Each character has quirks and flaws that set them apart from the normal cast of television programming. To put it another way, the whole town is a psychological mess even without the discovery of Laura Palmer's body. And it works brilliantly to create both tragic and comic moments at the same time. The viewer is left to decide if they want to laugh or cry. And it only got better from there until it didn't.

The beginning of the end for the series tied directly to a major end to what held the whole together. The question of who killed Laura Palmer was definitively answered.  That sent shortwaves through the viewing audience. They might have been excited to find out the answer to the biggest television secret of all time, but for many there was nowhere else to go. The appeal started and ended with the question of who killed the town's most popular girl. Many more secrets had begun to open up, but the writers didn't involve Laura Palmer as more than a passing reference. Once the show finally picked up new mythology very few continued to follow the strange paths.

What the show did right, before the big mess in the middle, was create a town that people may not have wanted to live in, but they had fun visiting. These were your strange neighbors that delighted you, confused you, worried you, scared you, and remained separate from the world around them. At the same time, they were specimens of each of our inner secrets and fears if given the permission to let loose. At the same time, they were over dramatized to form a safe distance.

At a time when formulaic television was the norm, "Twin Peaks" broke all boundaries of genre and people were ready.  There was the detective show with the hunt for Laura Palmer's killer. The town residence all acted as if they were in a prime time soap opera. Some scenes were done in a way that followed comical tropes. FBI Agent Cooper had dreams that grew more intense as the investigation progressed that introduced paranormal mysticism. Much of the story was infused with a fatalism and moral ambiguity that infused film noir sensibilities. It is a wonder the series got picked up and survived because of these ambiguities of content, but there was something for just about everyone.

Pinpointing what went wrong, as most people believe, is not hard to say.  They had all the eggs in  the Laura Palmer basket and dropped them. What they should have done was reorient the unanswered questions that still remained. The audience might have known who killed Laura Palmer, but there were more mysteries to explore around her death. Some examples include who was and were did Bob come from, why did Bob possess Laura's father, and what did the town really know about her and the murder? Add to that the mystery surrounding Agent Cooper. He seems to come from nowhere fully formed and yet never actually known. Why was he so interested in the paranormal, why was he picked for this case, and what was his life like before arriving? Some of these questions were explored in the later episodes, but too little and too late.  The first few episodes after the reveal had no direction or action, later ones over-emphasized the quirky nature of the townsfolk, and old mysteries were replaced by invented new ones.

By the time the last few episodes arguably gave new life to the series, the network had already sent out the cancel notice.  Creator David Lynch made a movie that was savaged by both critics and audiences, although it too has a loyal fan base. Most believe it didn't answer any new questions and focused backward instead of forward.  After only one and a half seasons with one movie it drifted into legend.

Despite all the bad moves and later stilted writing, the series remained an undeniable influence on television. The detective series "The Killing" and its Danish predecessor has echos of "Twin Peaks" with the premise of solving a murder each season. The near contemporary series "Northern Exposure" consists of an outsider, this time a doctor, coming to terms with small town quirky inhabitants in Alaska. It even mentions the show in one episode. The creator of "The X-Files" might have been influenced by the paranormal of the week "Kolchak: The Night Stalker," but FBI Agent Fox Mulder could have been a protege of Agent Cooper. They were both good at their work, but not really trusted because of their unique interests in mysticism and the paranormal.  No doubt many more examples could be found of shows influenced by the iconic doomed series.

For those who are into story writing, "Twin Peaks" is both admirable and a warning. Stretching outside of convention and expectation can greatly improve the chance a story will get noticed and remembered. However, not having a clear path and going too far away from the main premise can ruin its momentum. Bend all the rules, but be careful not to break them on the journey.


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