When we heard back in 1989 that David Lynch had a TV series coming out, we wondered what it would be like. Most of us had caught up with Lynch's Blue Velvet, an edgy thriller that in no way could have been presented on network TV in 1990. The pilot episode for Twin Peaks took our heads off. Lynch and his co-producer and writer Mark Frost made all the 'unpresentable' content into subtext positioned just offscreen, that let us fill in all the unsavory / fascinating details for ourselves. The TV show is twice as interesting as Lynch's feature Wild at Heart, made partly at the same time. Going more explicit with gross-out details only leads to diminishing returns in interest. Exploding heads? Already seen that.
Twin Peaks looks nothing like a TV movie. The cinematography is lush, the people attractive. The town of Twin Peaks is a dream place, except perhaps for those trucks rumbling through at all hours of the day and night. Lynch's very selective style and attention to graphic detail transfers well to the small screen. The town is a revisit of Lumberton of Blue Velvet, and the rich high school setting has an out-of-time quality, harking back to the '50s with the girls in their Archie-like sweaters and uniform-like plaid skirts. They say that Frost and Lynch were inspired by, of all things, 1957's Peyton Place. If director Mark Robson could get away with incest, they ought to be able to go farther.
Twin Peaks examines the High School Tragedy Syndrome with such intensity, you'll surely be reminded of your own high school experiences. The central mystery raises the question of who killed the homecoming queen Laura Palmer, the most beautiful and admired girl in school. The series showed more of Lynch's goofy sense of humor, which mostly boils down to deflating hipsterism with literal talk and disarmingly square attitudes. Most everybody is eccentric, or has made a major life adjustment to the eccentricity of somebody else. Kyle MacLachlan's FBI agent is an agreeable eccentric who relates to people with an aggressive non-ironic literalism. At first all the chatter about Damn Fine Coffee sounds like a demented put-on, with sober pronouncements alternating with overstated enthusiasm. It's part of Lynch's world but it's also rather nostalgic... wouldn't it be nice to go back to a day when people said what they meant, where simple exchanges didn't have to be reinterpreted through hidden signals and attitudes?
The high school kids are to a degree typed in retro ways -- the jock, the black-jacketed thug, the misunderstood biker -- but they're all allowed a degree of sensitivity, even those that are dealing in drugs and heading in out-of-control directions. Laura Palmer begins as a mystery wrapped in plastic and sent down the river. Even her girlfriends don't know the whole story about her -- the nice girl Donna Hayward, and the mischievous sex kitten Audrey Horne. Some of the key actors give truly brave performances. Ray Wise is of course a standout, while Grace Zabriskie turns the thankless role of a grieving mother into a showcase.
Lynch pitches different tones for different groups of characters. The attitude at the police station is borderline comic, with the goofy receptionist Lucy and dumb deputy Andy balancing the efficient Hawk and the charismatic Sheriff Harry. At the juvenile crime end of the story, the teen drug dealers rub shoulders with various lowlifes and creeps. Over at the lumber mill, a real estate power struggle brings more interesting characters tangential into the central storyline. Even the pilot has scores of speaking parts, for characters that seem to exist on the periphery: Laura is part of a meals-on-wheels program, and she tutors a developmentally challenged adult. Could Laura have been tangled up in a power play between land developers and the mill owner? Going even further, Audrey Horne's obnoxious developer father is also connected to a secret brothel just across the border in Canada. [Is this a joke on the image of Canada?]
Look at any new series today, and the casts are trimmed so tight that, in a murder mystery, ANY superfluous speaking role introduced in act one is likely to be a 'surprise' main suspect by act three. Twin Peaks has such a big cast it could support a dozen spin-off ideas. The main characters have friends and co-workers, and some of them have friends. The peripheral eccentrics are just as interesting as the main characters. Garage man Ed Hurley is grievously henpecked by his curtain-hanging wife Nadine; but he has a warm romance on the side with waitress Norma. The log lady is a creation seemingly out of one of Lynch's art-student short subjects, always good for a screwy quote or two. If we're going to assign points for 'creating a world,' Twin Peaks earns high marks.
Lynch's idea going in was to never solve the central mystery, only add to it. He envisioned a show that would forever uncover new mysteries, leaving people in doubt, as happens in real life. Twin Peaks was never a good show for people that like everything to add up. Besides, the show teases us with possible hidden agendas. Lynch adds a level of supernatural weirdness that often eases the show into horror film territory. Some people have mysterious visions and see frightening hallucinations. Others are borderline psychotic, especially in the Palmer household. The pragmatic Agent Cooper, contradicts himself by also being a spiritualist freak. He has premonitions that flood forward in bizarre dreams with (what else) a small person in a crazy room in another dimension. We get a few Dune- like dissolve montages, but also surreal situations, in which people move and talk backwards. Cooper relates to Laura Palmer in a Laura- inflected haunting from beyond the grave. More than one person is receiving psychic messages as to the identity of Laura's killer.
Like all nearly perfect things, Twin Peaks didn't maintain its balancing act forever. The magic spell was sustained through the first season and a few installments of the second, even though David Lynch's attention was diverted by other projects. And the show was remarkably consistent from director to director, especially in visual terms - the shots alternate huge close-up details with wide shots a little wider than they need to be. But nothing ever looks like mundane coverage.
The original broadcast lost me not long into the second season, when the feeling of an integrated mystery was diluted by the introduction of too many uninteresting sidebars and characters. And as soon as that happened, the eccentric playing began to look like bad acting, and the lop-sided pacing seemed less inspired than intentionally frustrating. The concern that the mystery might boil down to a demonic cult was a good tease for season one, but it would have been disastrous had it gone that route 100%. What worked well is the feeling that the relationships between the characters was developing into a complex web that would reward us with even more interesting revelations. But when season two introduced elements like a boring flying saucer tease, we could tell that the spark was gone. The miracle was that the tightrope act worked so well as long as it did.
Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me certainly satisfied fanatic Lynch fans, the auteurists so into his vision that they believe he can do no wrong. Although the theatrical feature follow up has some very good things going for it, it was scorned by the same critics that cheered the TV show. With some glaring substitutions, most of the cast returned for this prequel to the series, which answers some questions about the communal mystery. It spells out what happened to the previous victim in a different town, and then documents the last seven days of passion and horror in the short life of our troubled heroine. On one hand the show is a triumph for actress Sheryl Lee, who puts everything she has into a really tough part. Laura Palmer is a brazen libertine but also an abused innocent; she loves a lot of people but is compelled to be false to all of them. When she goes wild, it's partly the effect of the cocaine but mostly an explosion of a life force betrayed from within her own family. She's on a self-destructive course yet is not a suicidal loser. Unlike some ill-fated lost women, we don't give up on her, even though we know she's already lost.
Yet Fire Walk with Me is almost by definition unsatisfying. Many scenes featuring familiar characters from the TV show were either minimized or cut out, with new parts added for a few star personages. The 'larger community' image is lacking, the humorous elements are mostly dropped, and what we do see sometimes seems random, or poorly played (most of the content with the Agent Cooper substitute provided by Chris Isaak). We instead get a straight telling of Laura Palmer's drugs 'n' sex death spiral. Laura engages in a lot of crazy, oversexed activity, and even allows her best friend Donna to be pulled into some of it. But even with its theatrical 'R' rating, Fire Walk seems tame in comparison to what the TV series had suggested, without actually showing us. When we first see the 'other' victim Ronette Pulaski staggering like a zombie on a railway bridge, she has hideous scratches on her legs. Nothing like that is shown in Fire Walk's sex torture scene. Lynch has no intention of 'walking the walk,' for which we should be grateful, but the farthest he goes is some topless dancing scene in a bar, and some implied sex under the table in a side booth. At one point Laura is primed and ready for a sex-for-pay situation with two other women, but content in that direction wouldn't show up until Lynch's Mulholland Dr..
In short, the series encouraged us to imagine our own extreme perversions and crimes. Fire Walk tries to literalize it all, and then avoids showing anything. Although we see specifically what happened to Laura, we were always concerned about much more - our desire as audience-voyeurs was to see closure for a baker's dozen of compelling sidebar dramas, none of which ever came near to resolution. I have a feeling that when we see Lynch's 2017 continuation, we'll just get more of the same narrative diffusion - Lynch seems diametrically opposed to conventional endings.
CBS and Paramount's Blu-ray of Twin Peaks: The Original Series, Fire Walk with Me & The Missing Pieces is a big nine-disc set containing 29 original episodes plus two cuts of the pilot, plus Fire Walk with Me. It's not a reissue under different title of the 2014 disc set Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, which is still available. This set has one fewer disc. The video contents have been redistributed, with presumably fewer extras. The older box includes a fancier disc-holding interior, with color artwork, etc.
As it was all remastered in HD a few years back, the TV show looks far better than what we saw in 1990 and 1991. Frank Byers' cinematography makes the to-die-for main actresses seem to glow, and the rainy Washington location looks crisp and cool...love those mountains in the mist. The series appears to have been filmed so that a widescreen scan could be extracted from the flat image, but even on a big video screen I have no objection to the slightly empty lower extreme of the frame. And this is how it always was, anyway. For the record, the widescreen feature film is tighter on close-ups, yet still goes extra wide in wide shots, often leaving empty space top and bottom as well.
Besides its contingent of episodes, each disc has separate extras, which altogether amount to additional hours of content. We're given episode previews and recaps, 'log lady intros,' image galleries, promotional videos, deleted scenes, and a several long-form docus that include David Lynch input. The final Fire Walk with Me feature disc has the 'missing pieces' extra with 90 minutes of deleted scenes fully finished, in fine condition. Here's where we see material with series actors, that were cut out of the show before release... if interpolated into the feature the running time would approach four hours.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Twin Peaks The Original Series, Fire Walk with Me & The Missing Pieces Blu-ray