Friday, April 8, 2011

Spotlight: Twin Peaks Seasons 1 & 2 on Netflix Watch Instantly

Wow, I knew this was coming, but I didn't realize that Twin Peaks would be available so soon on Netflix Watch Instantly.  My girlfriend just happened to notice it in the new television listings while browsing Netflix.  When I tried to figure out when it officially appeared using InstantWatcher, I couldn't find it in their database (which is unusual).  The layout of the Twin Peaks Netflix Watch Instantly page is a bit different than other current shows, so I assume that this will be the new layout for upcoming television series.  Rather than a DVD cover image, a much larger image (pasted below) serves as a header for the page. (Perhaps someone in the comments section could let me know if they've seen this layout elsewhere.)

Twin Peaks (David Lynch, Mark Frost, USA, Seasons 1 and 2) Netflix: Kyle MacLachlan stars as eccentric FBI agent Dale Cooper in David Lynch's surreal cult classic series. When Cooper arrives in Twin Peaks to investigate the murder of teenager Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), he begins to get to know the quirky residents. Soon, many secrets concealed beneath the small town's façade of normalcy start coming to light, while Cooper finds himself searching his own soul for hidden truths. Netflix link.

Revisiting this show should be interesting, as I have not looked at it since it's original run on ABC (hard to believe that it debuted over 20 years ago, now).   I have a clear memory of watching Agent Cooper's dream at the end of episode three in 1990, and not believing what I had seen on a mainstream American television network. The last time art cinema narration techniques had been seen in a weekly series was perhaps Patrick MacGoohan's The Prisoner from the late 1960s, but that was an imported series, not something produced for an American network. Changes seemed to be afoot in the broadcast television landscape, as the networks tried to address the competition from cable as well as from the emerging Fox network (which didn't move to seven nights of programming until 1993). ABC's gamble on something so genuinely weird on a Sunday night (competing with one of Fox's few nights of programming) was considered adventurous at the time, and the series was initially a ratings success.  But at the time no one was sure how Twin Peaks would change American television, if at all.

Surely with hindsight we need to place Twin Peaks somewhere at the beginning of the renaissance of episodic television that we are currently enjoying thanks to premium cable and now even basic cable (from The Sopranos to Mad Men). While few if any shows have been as adventurous in terms of narration and style, Twin Peaks was often cited as an influence on subsequent quirky shows like Northern Exposure and much darker shows, particularly The X-Files.  A more indirect but significant influence has been seen with other mainstream feature film producers, directors and actors moving to television series development; here in particular I'm thinking of the lasting impact of Jerry Bruckheimer and his CSI franchise (with feature film actors such as William Peterson and Laurence Fishburne).  And perhaps it was Joss Whedon who finally figured out with Buffy the Vampire Slayer the right balance between popular television, cinephilia, and fan culture that seemed to elude Lynch.  What Lynch could have done with Twin Peaks had he the resources and freedoms available to premium cable series producers in the wake of The Sorpranos, Dexter, or Scorsese's Bordwalk Empire is an intriguing "what if?" to contemplate. To partially answer that question, one should remember that Mulholland Drive began as a television pilot that television executives rejected, leading him to transform it into the feature film that we know today.

That said, revisiting Twin Peaks will also remind me about how disappointing the series became after the end of season one.  What was so great about season one was that Lynch and Frost probably thought they'd never get more than eight episodes, so they went all out without ever intending to wrap up any narrative threads.  Instead, the first season thrives upon delaying narrative revelations (most obviously, who killed Laura Palmer, but also key information in all of the plot threads).  A key pleasure of the series becomes that tension between anticipation and frustration that you only get with great melodrama, and clearly Douglas Sirk is a key influence here (see my related post here).  Like with Sirk, you also get a degree of excess in terms of style, particularly in the mise-en-scene and the performances, often to the point that the excess becomes just as pleasurable as the narrative (the classic example of this is Agent Cooper's dream sequence at the end of episode three.)  In a sense, we didn't want to know who killed Laura Palmer; if we had wanted to know then we would have been yelling at the screen in frustration each week.  Instead, we wanted to share prolonged, extended moments with these characters who desperately wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer, which makes for a very different viewing strategy and experience.

Season two, in contrast, seemed to develop a more conventional "show bible" and narrative arc that both opened and closed narrative threads in ways more typical of American series television.  The question became could Lynch withhold the identity of Laura Palmer's murderer forever in an American television series, and the answer unfortunately was "no." [Is that a spoiler?  Hey it's been 20 years, you didn't know that?]  If series television depends upon the constant opening and closing of narrative enigmas, providing the satisfaction of closure while prompting new questions to keep the viewer coming back, the problem with resolving the Laura Palmer case in Twin Peaks was two-fold.  First, providing that narrative closure could never be as satisfying as the melodramatic delays that we had treasured in the first season and a half.  And second, no new enigma could be as intriguing or engaging in a way that would bring all of these characters together in such an intricate narrative structure.  Thus, after Laura's murderer is revealed, the series often seemed forced (at least that is how I remember it). 

Still, the series still provided many vivid memories for me, and I look forward to revisiting it. The first time around, I was busy on Sunday nights and had to watch it on video tape (remember VHS, anyone?).  In fact, the reason I was busy on Sunday nights was due to the production of a student soap opera for a class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (thank goodness I cannot find any episodes of Campus Affairs on the internet).  Since many of us missed the show on Sundays, we organized an informal screening of the first few episodes in a UW-Madison classroom (hey, it was class related, as research).  Somehow the word got out, and several people from outside of the class also showed up.  It was a great shared experience, and I distinctly recall that people got upset when I wanted to scan past the opening credits for the second episode, since we had already seen them once.  That's the kind of show it want to hear that Angelo Badalamenti music, and let the opening images flow; the style of the series is just as important as the narrative information from scene to scene.  I think random people showed up for that screening because even at that point, a few weeks into the first season, we realized that this was something unique and worth sharing.  Twenty years later, I'm confident that many people are excited to see that it is streaming on Netflix.

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