Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
In my friend and colleague Keith Phipps’ “TV Club Classic” write-up of Twin Peaks’ third episode, he calls it “one of the most peculiar hours of television ever to air on a network,” and then asks the question that nearly every Twin Peaks fan was asking back in 1990: “What kind of show are we watching?”
It’s a question that still dominates any discussion of Twin Peaks. Some consider the show's first season (the two-hour pilot plus seven one-hour episodes) to be a marvelously entertaining puzzle retroactively ruined by its lack of resolution and by its bizarre second season. But there are others for whom the untethered oddity of Twin Peaks’ season two was where the show really got cooking. By and large, the two factions are divided by whether they watched Twin Peaks because they were fans of pop-surrealist filmmaker David Lynch, or because they were fans of quality television.
Myself, I was a Lynch fan when I started watching Twin Peaks in April 1990. I was a sophomore in college at the time, and I remember forcing my roommates to watch the pilot with me on the Sunday that it aired. I wouldn’t have to force them again. We all became obsessed with Twin Peaks that spring, and by the end of the first season we were getting together with our friends every week to watch the show and pick through the clues to the mystery of who murdered small-town homecoming queen Laura Palmer. And all along, I was fairly giddy at idea that so many people were hooked on a TV show suffused with the sensibility of the guy who made Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. Even my mom, hardly a devotee of art films, called me up a few weeks into the run and asked, “So what do you think that dream about the dwarf means?”
Mom was referring to that curious third episode, titled on the DVDs as “Episode Two,” because it was the second episode after the pilot, though also known in some quarters as “Zen, Or The Skill To Catch A Killer” (which is what I’m going to call it here, because it’s less confusing). In the pilot episode, directed and co-written by Lynch, the audience had been introduced to the peculiar residents of a Washington logging/resort community: town bigwig Ben Horne and his sexpot daughter Audrey; mysterious sawmill owner Josie Packard, her bumbling right-hand-man Pete Martell, and Pete’s scheming wife Catherine; rough-hewn trucker/drug dealer Leo Johnson, his abused waitress wife Shelly Johnson, and Shelly’s bad-boy lover Bobby Briggs; gas station owner Big Ed Hurley, his one-eyed weirdo wife Nadine, and his troubled nephew James; diner owner (and Ed Hurley mistress) Norma Jennings and James Hurley’s secret girlfriend Donna Hayward; creepy psychiatrist Lawrence Jacoby and roaming mystic Margaret “Log Lady” Lanterman; upright sheriff Harry S. Truman and his dizzy receptionist Lucy Moran; and lawyer Leland Palmer, his psychic wife Sarah, and their golden girl daughter Laura, who kicks Twin Peaks’ plot into motion when she turns up at the start of the pilot “dead… wrapped in plastic.”
The first hour-long Twin Peaks after the pilot foregrounds the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder, re-establishing the facts of the case while underlining how all the town’s secret affairs and backroom deals make nearly everyone a viable suspect. The episode also amps up the absurdist comedy, often to an excessive degree, though probably not enough to turn off anyone who had been bewitched and unnerved by the pilot. Early on, Twin Peaks established a specific mood, largely tied to its setting. Lynch, when describing what he was going for on the show, often cites the wind whistling through enormous trees, and flutters his fingers for emphasis. (A year before rock music was transformed by the Seattle sound, Lynch and company were already taking America deep into the Pacific Northwest.) Even at Twin Peaks’ oddest in its first season, the atmosphere was heady enough to keep calling viewers back.
It’s the third episode, “Zen,” that makes the best use of Twin Peaks’ setting, and pushes the show into previously unexplored television territory. “Zen” begins in the home of the Hornes, where the whole family has gathered for dinner—including the mentally handicapped Johnny, sporting an Indian headdress—when Uncle Jerry comes tearing in, back from Paris with a stack of his favorite sandwiches.
Ben and Jerry leave the house and head across the border to brothel/casino One Eyed Jacks to spend some time with the new girl there. Ben wins the right to go first, and disappears with the frightened young lady into One Eyed Jack’s plush, womb-like back rooms.
From there, the episode proceeds in fairly typical primetime soap fashion, catching up incrementally with what the various characters are up to. We see a little tedious romantic chitchat between James and Donna, and see Bobby interrupt Shelly while she’s watching the curious soap opera Invitation To Love. We see Pete give Josie what she needs to access the mill’s secret ledgers, and see Bobby and his friend Mike get hassled by Leo when they go looking for a cocaine-filled football under a tree in the dark, dark woods.
Twin Peaks is often described as arriving from out of nowhere, but its interest in illicit romance in pure Peyton Place and its deadpan freakiness isn’t that far removed from Norman Lear’s soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. What set Twin Peaks apart is what-the-hell? moments like the this one, where Nadine demonstrates superhuman strength after her husband spills grease on her cotton-ball-stuffed drape-runners…
…and sublimely sexy scenes like this one, where Audrey talks to Donna about coffee and clues and “dreamy” music, then does a little dance.
Audrey’s dance mirrors another dance toward the end of the episode: Leland Palmer, cavorting with his daughter’s photo to the strains of big-band music. But where Audrey’s dance was seductive, Leland’s is disturbing.
The most memorable scenes in “Zen” involve FBI Agent Cooper, in town to investigate the Laura Palmer murder and setting Twin Peaks abuzz with his cheery disposition and unconventional methods. Cooper dictates nearly every fleeting thought into a tape recorder for the benefit of a woman named Diane back at the home office (or perhaps just for himself), and seems genuinely delighted by the infinite varieties of human behavior, even when a person is as “lacking in some of the social niceties” as FBI forensics expert Albert Rosenfield.
Prior to Rosenfield’s arrival, Cooper uses rocks, a bottle, and a dream about Tibet to help narrow down the suspects in the Palmer case.
And at the end of the episode, he has a bizarre dream, which makes the offhand strangeness of the earlier scenes look like mere whimsy. (When the dwarf known as The Man From Another Place shudders and makes a sound like a bird’s wings flapping, it’s clear we’re in the middle of the freakiest-ever five-minute stretch of a hit primetime TV show.)
That climactic dream sequence is the signature moment in the entirety of Twin Peaks, even more than Cooper repeatedly praising the town’s superior pie and coffee. Lynch has said he came up with most of the dream while leaning against a warm car on a chilly night and free-associating. The scene made it into an early version of the Twin Peaks pilot, back when Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost thought they might wind up with a TV movie with a fixed ending rather than a series. In reviving the dream for “Zen,” Lynch signaled that the show’s central mystery wasn’t going to be solved neatly, but was instead going metaphysical, involving supernatural beings known as Bob and Mike, former partners in evil who now work against each other (similar in some ways to Jacob and The Man In Black on Lost). But “Zen” also masks Lynch’s intentions with the way it ends, as Cooper sits upright in bed and calls Sheriff Truman to say, “I know who killed Laura Palmer.”
Of course he doesn’t really know—at least not yet. The next episode of Twin Peaks opens with Cooper telling an anxious Sheriff Truman that his dream is “a code waiting to be broken… Break the code, solve the crime.” In other words, Lynch and company were settled their audience back down immediately, making it clear that this mystery would remain a mystery for the immediate future. But if that audience felt frustrated at being jerked around, they didn’t rebel right away. The Twin Peaks phenomenon stayed strong right up to its first season finale roughly a month later, and even though there was a fair amount of outrage that season one ended with multiple cliffhangers rather than revealing who killed Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks remained the pop culture conversation-piece over the summer of 1990, to the extent that even Lynch’s violent, stylized feature film Wild At Heart became a minor hit, and Agent Cooper himself, Kyle MacLachlan, was tapped to host the season première of Saturday Night Live, the day before Twin Peaks’ second season debuted.
Then the second season started and the backlash hit. Hard.
What happened? Well, that’s a question as confounding and important to understanding Twin Peaks as “What kind of show are we watching?” It’s not like the show changed its style or approach considerably; it’s more like the audience seemed to lose its taste for it. Lynch and Frost were away for large portions of the second season, but the parts of the show that turned people off the most—the mysticism, the multiple dream sequences, the exceedingly dry attempts at humor—were also the most Lynch-like. Mainly, many fans seemed upset by the creators’ reluctance to reveal, once and for all, who killed Laura Palmer. In David Hofstede’s book What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events In Television History, the author writes:
[Frost and Lynch responded] that the series was never supposed to be about Laura Palmer, and that the media fixated on that story while ignoring their overall “vision.” A ridiculous argument. You introduce a murder victim in the first scene, you follow that up with a detective, suspects, clues and an investigation, but it’s not a murder mystery?
In December of 1990, Twin Peaks finally solved its first big mystery, though in a way so oblique that it struck a lot of the dwindling audience as essentially meaningless. Myself, I’d quit watching early in the second season, for a number of reasons. In the spring, my roommates and I loved Twin Peaks so much that we recorded an answering machine message that aped the backwards-speech of The Man From Another Place. By the fall, we were all busy with new classes, and I had a part-time job that took up a lot of my spare time. Also, frankly, after Wild At Heart, I was a little over-Lynched. I liked Wild At Heart at the time—and it held up well for me when I took another look at it recently—but that movie is so much more of an unfiltered shot of Lynch that it makes Twin Peaks look like a trifle. (“Lynch Lite,” if you will.)
In fact I was so burned out on the whole Twin Peaks experience that I didn’t even bother to see the prequel movie Fire Walk With Me when it was released in 1992. I finally watched it for the first time earlier this year, and while it was better than I’d heard, it was so psychologically squishy and aggressively off-putting that it made me wonder how Twin Peaks ever became a phenomenon in the first place. So a day or two after watching Fire Walk With Me, I took another look at the Twin Peaks pilot movie, which I hadn’t seen in 20 years. And it all made sense again.
It’s astonishing how effective the Twin Peaks pilot is, even now. When I interviewed Miguel Ferrer (a.k.a. Agent Rosenfield) last year, he said that when he got his first Twin Peaks script in the mail, he didn’t understand it at all, until the producers showed him the pilot, at which point everything made sense. Cinematographer Ron Garcia has said that even while shooting the pilot, he didn’t know what Lynch was going for, until he saw the whole movie cut together, with music. Angelo Badalamenti’s score played a huge role in defining Twin Peaks’ tone—at once retro and, yes, “dreamy”—and Julee Cruise’s cooing, indistinct vocals sounded au courant in an era where acts like Enya, Hugo Largo, and Cocteau Twins were bubbling up from the underground. In 1990, before the simultaneous indie-film and alt-rock booms livened popular culture up considerably, the mainstream was at a fairly low creative ebb, and because of that Twin Peaks’ mix of small-town scandal, creeping nightmarishness and screwball humor seemed especially sophisticated and vital—so much so that even the average TV viewer couldn’t deny it. Harley Peyton, who became one of Twin Peaks’ producers in its second season, recalls watching the pilot at a party and thinking, “What just happened to TV?”
Lynch is always quick to credit Frost for Twin Peaks’ success. Frost’s pre-1990 résumé is littered with credits like The Six Million Dollar Man and The Equalizer, while in recent years he’s worked on projects like the Fantastic Four movies and the Disney golf movie The Greatest Game Ever Played. Hardly Lynchian fare, to be sure. But Frost’s more conventional sensibility may have helped make Twin Peaks so inviting to so many. The show has such a rich environment and such a full cast of characters that it’s easy to get happily lost in its world. And in the early going at least, Lynch and Frost kept the surreal elements and the soap opera/mystery elements in the proper proportion, so that a wide range of people could enjoy the show for different reasons.
Even at that though, no one expected Twin Peaks to take off the way it did. ABC promoted the show very cleverly, with ads that read, “If you miss it tonight, you won’t know what everyone’s talking about tomorrow.” But even after the cast started showing up on magazine covers and talk shows, and Twin Peaks started getting parodied by Sesame Street and The Simpsons, neither the network nor the producers seemed exactly sure what they had, or how to make the most it. Hofstede cites Brandon Tartikoff’s memoir, where the legendary TV exec says, “Lynch and Frost were like weekend fisherman, who when they tossed their lines into the water, hooked Jaws. But they couldn’t hold on to that big a fish.”
And so we come back to that first big question: What kind of show is this? What kind of show should it be? An entertaining mystery-soap with elements of surrealism and subversion? Or a show so surreal and subversive that it chases the audience away and gets canceled? On the “Gold Box” DVD set, there’s a special feature about the show’s rabid fans, and when asked to talk about what they loved about Twin Peaks, those fans return over and over to the idea that the show was “unlike anything else on TV.” But is that a good enough reason to like something?
Not everyone was into Twin Peaks in the spring of 1990, and for those skeptics, the show’s ultimate crash was a vindication. For all those who complain about the creators of Lost “making it up as they go along,” at least Lost has shown consistency in its broad outline, even if the details sometimes seem to change on the fly. Twin Peaks really was an episode-to-episode creation, by design. Even now, watching “Zen,” it’s hard to get too excited by the clues Agent Cooper finds, knowing that Lynch and Frost themselves didn’t really have any idea at the time what they meant. They were much more interested in exploring where they could go with an ever-evolving story than they were in coming up with definitive answers.
Lynch has said that solving the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder—even in the hazy way they did it—“killed the golden goose” and made the show both less popular and, for him, less fun to make. On the other hand, not solving the murder would’ve shown contempt for that part of the audience who got hooked by the mystery. It also would’ve been completely in keeping with Lynch’s aesthetic, which frequently expresses contempt for artforms and their audiences. Lynch is an artist who works in cinema, not a cineaste per se. He’s the kind of filmmaker who's boasted about never going to the movies, and doesn't appear to be much of a TV buff. (In a conversation with Mädchen Amick on the “Gold Box,” Lynch says, “Now tell me about Baywatch. What is that?”) Twin Peaks has a lot in common with the florid melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Mark Robson, but Lynch only draws on those influences sporadically, and mixes them in with the flatness of a primetime soap, more by necessity than choice. He clearly doesn’t know enough about how television works to use the medium to its best advantage at all times. Watching a Twin Peaks episode like “Zen,” it’s surprising how dry and normal a lot of it looks in retrospect, even when the dialogue is bizarre and the characters are flipping out.
A lot of what Twin Peaks tried to do has been appropriated and repurposed by other shows over the years. Sometimes badly (see: Happy Town), but often well. Northern Exposure, Picket Fences, Desperate Housewives, Lost… they all learned significant lessons from Twin Peaks’ rise and fall, and have kept Lynch and Frost’s eccentric communities, scandalous mysteries, and mind-bending weirdness in play, albeit in a more audience-friendly context.
Still, there’s something poignant about the moment in “Zen” where the dwarf tells Cooper, “That gum you like is going to come back in style.” The fleeting success of Twin Peaks was like The Man From Another Place’s prophecy coming true: For a while, pop culture was all about Lynch’s kind of gum. And watching “Zen,” it’s hard not to wish that Lynch and Frost had been more prepared for Twin Peaks to be a smash, and had found a way to concede a little more to the mass audience—just enough to allow Lynch the space to keep parading his vivid American nightmares and creepy artificiality in front of millions, week-to-week. Because there’s still something appealingly feverish and gripping about the storytelling style of “Zen,” and the way it feels like it could keep digging forever, deeper and deeper. It’s all just clues leading to more clues. Wrapped in plastic.
Note: Comments about Twin Peaks taken from the special features of the “Gold Box” DVD set, except where noted.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Mystery Science Theater 3000, “City Limits.”