Friday, March 21, 2008

What Went Wrong with "Twin Peaks?"

The generally-accepted story about the decline of "Twin Peaks" is that David Lynch went off to work on "Wild at Heart," leaving the show without any ultimate direction during the second season. Now, over fifteen years after I last watched the show, I find myself wondering if there was really any hope to begin with.

The second season starts off well. Lynch was still involved at the time and the episodes he directed -- not surprisingly the most pivotal ones -- still stand out as distinctly "Twin Peaks-ish."

But the show's tone was significantly affected by the revelation of the long-standing mystery: "Who killed Laura Palmer?" When we finally found out (and got over the shock)...well, what else was there to care about?

I'm over halfway through re-watching season two and I've seen the show slide into a self-made mess. Part of the problem is the vacuum left by the resolution of the central mystery, which the writers tried to fill with a sudden surge of new storylines and characters. Another part of the problem is that, in the process of resolving the "Laura Palmer" storyline, they'd altered (or outright killed) many of the programme's most notable characters.

So, while slowly leading into the season two "Windom Earle" theme, we were left with conflicts that were either blood-curdlingly silly (Nadine's mental regression and anything involving Little Nicky) or utterly banal (The Endless Angst of James and Donna in a World Without Pity).

There were still highpoints -- Agent Cooper's drug charges and the wonderful "Shelly-Bobby-Leo" scenes in particular -- but everything else was just a bunch of "Windom Earle is capable of things you'd never imagine" dialogue and more of Josie's terrible acting.

I'll come right out and say it: I think season two, by the halfway point, had become Bad TV. It lacked consistency, the characters had (mostly) become cardboard cut-outs, and any attempts at "Lynchian" touches had become forced and embarassing. In their desire to provide the audience with a few resolutions, they'd turned the whole "Bob" mythology into a boring battle between Good and Evil (and Owls). Sigh.

I do remember, however, that the final episode -- the only other one directed by David Lynch -- was a brutal, beautiful tour-de-force. I look forward to that, but I'm really tired of the start/stop music cues, and I don't anticipate the number of times I'll need to see James on the verge of tough-guy tears.

(David Foster Wallace, in his behind-the-scenes essay about David Lynch and the making of "Lost Highway," had this to say about season two of "Twin Peaks":
...Lynch is way better at deepening and complicating mysteries than he is at wrapping them up. And the series' second season showed that he was aware of this and that it was making him really nervous... Part of the reason I actually preferred Twin Peaks's second season to its first was the fascinating spectacle of watching a narrative structure disintegrate and a narrative artist freeze up and try to shuck and jive when the plot reached a point where his own weaknesses as an artist were going to be exposed...
It should be remembered that Lynch wasn't the only writer for the series, but I imagine he had most of the responsibility for the Laura Palmer resolutions at least).


Kimber said...

Did you ever see "Fire Walk with Me?" My Mother was a rabid Twin Peaks fan and actually took my sister and I to see the film...brothel scenes and all!

Adam Thornton said...

That was one nasty film!

I really like "Fire Walk With Me," actually, as a representation of what Twin Peaks could have been if it wasn't on TV.

Unfortunately it spoils the TV show for neophytes who assume that it should be watched first.

The final five minutes are absolute, heart-crushing brilliance.