Friday, February 11, 2011

Diane... Twin Peaks Is a Damn Fine Cup of Coffee

Twin Peaks created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Ray Wise, Mädchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook, Richard Beymer, Lara Flynn Boyle, Joan Chen, Eric Da Re, Sherilyn Fenn, Harry Goaz, Michael Horse, Piper Laurie, Don Davis, Sheryl Lee, Peggy Lipton, James Marshall, Everett McGill, Jack Nance, Kimmy Robertson, Russ Tamblyn and Kenneth Welsh.

Popularity is a subjective concept when it comes to television. There are mainstream TV shows that it seems like everyone is watching, such as Friends, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Lost and American Idol (hopefully, that'll be the only time I ever mention American Idol on this blog... except for just then, when I mentioned it a second time). Others have large viewerships, but only appeal to certain niche audiences: Star Trek for sci-fi enthusiasts, True Blood for vampire aficionados, Desperate Housewives for those who enjoy night-time soap operas, Degrassi for teenagers, Saved By the Bell for the kitsch crowd and so forth.

And then there are those that attain cult followings—comparatively small, but passionate, highly dedicated fan bases who prefer series far outside the mainstream. Shows in this category tend to struggle when it comes to maintaining sufficient ratings to remain on the air, as a lot of people will inevitably either stop watching or never bother tuning in in the first place, believing such fare to be too eccentric, too esoteric, too out there, too unapproachable or just too weird. Some examples: Beauty and the Beast, Jericho, Alien Nation, Arrested Development, Firefly, The Prisoner and Spaced.

Twin Peaks also falls into that category. Twin Peaks is that category.

When this program aired on ABC from 1990 to 1991, I was not among its viewers. I was aware of it, of course—who wasn't, given all the hype over its iconic "Who killed Laura Palmer?" storyline? I heard talk of characters called the Log Lady, the Giant, the Man From Another Place and the One-Armed Man, and I was intrigued. I read TV Guide articles making a big deal out of Agent Cooper's love of cherry pie and his search for a "damn fine cup of coffee," and I was curious. I remember hearing the phrase "The owls are not what they seem," and I was confused. And I saw photos everywhere of Lara Flynn Boyle, Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn and (particularly) Mädchen Amick, and I was male.

For whatever reason, I never tuned in. Still, I often wondered if I should have, as it sounded like a good fit for me. The series is frequently mentioned in articles about strange or cult TV programs, and I'm a major fan of Kyle MacLachlan, who (Showgirls aside) always elevates whatever projects he's working on, from Dune, Blue Velvet and The Doors to Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives and even The Flintstones (a film I'm not afraid to admit I thought was hilarious).

So when I heard about Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition, containing the entire series, the long-missing pilot episode, a European cut of that pilot, MacLachlan's Saturday Night Live Twin Peaks spoof and the special "Log Lady Intros" filmed for Bravo's 1993 rebroadcast of the series, I decided it was time for me to bite the bullet. The only thing missing was the theatrical follow-up film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which I also picked up.

My intention with Twin Peaks was to watch an episode a day and write about it in this space. Knowing its reputation, I figured a one-hour daily dose of overt weirdness would be my limit anyway. But a funny thing happened: I couldn't stop watching. Instead of blogging about Twin Peaks—indeed, instead of blogging about anything, or spending any time writing my next book, which I was supposed to have been working on—I spent pretty much every spare moment I could find devouring Twin Peaks. In only a little over a week, I'd viewed all 30 episodes and Fire Walk With Me.

To quote Keanu Reeves, "Woah."

Right from the haunting and beautiful opening theme music from Angelo Badalamenti, played over serene footage of forestland, natural wildlife and wood-mill machinery, I was hooked. (You can view that intro here, by the way. They sure had long opening credits back then, didn't they? These days, it's just the word "LOST" and the sound of an airplane taking off.)

I began posting little asides about my Twin Peaks experience at my Facebook page, starting with a simple comment, "Rich Handley says... Twin Peaks just might be the weirdest TV show ever made." (My friend Steve, if he's reading this, will no doubt remind me that Facebook is evil. And he's right. But in this case, I'm glad I have an account, or else this particular blog entry wouldn't exist.) Apparently, many of my Facebook "friends" are fans of Twin Peaks as well, because 54 follow-ups were posted to that first comment over a two-day span.

Amused by the strong response, I kept posting additional comments, often snarky, and people kept replying; over the course of only one week, in fact, nearly 300 comments were posted to my Twin Peaks-related commentaries, including, to my delight, several by two of my favorite writers: Swamp Thing comic scribes Nancy A. Collins and Stephen R. Bissette.

With that in mind, I decided to plagiarize myself and present below some of the observations I made on Facebook. These are not all of my comments, nor do they necessarily flow together smoothly, and they're slightly edited for space constraints (or to fix grammatical errors), but I thought it would be good to capture them here for posterity since not a week goes by that I don't consider deactivating my Facebook account. I'll try to keep them relatively spoiler-free for those who haven't yet watched the series, but a small amount of spoilage is unavoidable, so beware.

Twin Peaks just gets weirder and weirder. I'm watching season 2 now, and I'm starting to wonder if someone slipped acid—hydrofluoric acid, not LSD—into the White Russian I drank earlier today.

• Season 2 of Twin Peaks is causing me to raise my eyebrows so high that they're starting to fill in my receding hairline.

• I'm still very much enjoying it, despite my frequent desire to smack myself in the face with a two-by-four—largely due to the performance of Kyle MacLachlan, who is absolutely brilliant as Agent Cooper. His tape-recorded messages for his assistant, Diane, are hilarious ("Diane, never drink coffee that has been anywhere near a fish." "Diane, I'm holding in my hands a small box of chocolate bunnies."), and I get such a chuckle out of the sheer glee in his face as he learns the name of a local tree, enjoys country cuisine and so forth.

• Watching this series has been like riding a bicycle through a hilly countryside. The mystery of Laura's murder unfolds, and I grin at the ride ahead. James and Donna come onscreen, however, and the road's pitch increases by 60 degrees, forcing me to pedal [Ed note: I actually wrote "peddle" on Facebook, much to my chagrin, so I'm fixing it here... it's my blog, damnit, and I'll resort to historical revisionism if I want to] harder to stay with it. Switch to Cooper, Truman and Hawk, and the pitch slopes back the other way, allowing me to coast breezily and enjoy the scenery. Then Bobby, Leo and Shelly take the spotlight, and suddenly, the road banks sharply uphill again, and stays that way until Ben, Jerry and Audrey take the stage, and then it's smooth, downhill sailing and a relaxing ride. But all of a sudden, just when I'm feeling the wind at my face and the freshly paved blacktop beneath my tires, BAM, Nadine and her inane super-strength grab the camera, and the road changes so unexpectedly that I find myself sitting in a ditch on the side of the road, watching my bent and punctured bicycle tire spin awkwardly with a cacophonous creak. Luckily, right about then, the Log Lady drives by, accompanied by Leland Palmer, a pair of owls, a dancing dwarf in a red leisure suit, an angelic Dutch giant, a one-armed man, and a maniac killer with a jean jacket and unkempt hair, and I realize that I'll be OK.

• This is a series I've always wanted to watch, as I've heard a lot of great things about it. I had no idea just how WEIRD it was, though. The acting style, the direction, the dialog, the little character moments, the music, the mood... it's all so odd and surreal—jarring and awkward, while at the same time sleepy and serene—as if something out of a dream born out of a long night of burrito consumption, following the conclusion of a three-day bout of feverish insomnia.

• Best thing about Twin Peaks: Leland Palmer—I love this guy! Worst thing about Twin Peaks: Nadine Hurley—I keep hoping she'll be the killer's next victim so I don't have to watch her anymore. Scariest thing about Twin Peaks: Bob—CREEPY! Weirdest thing about Twin Peaks: Agent Cooper's visions of giants and dwarves—WTF? End result of Twin Peaks: Half my brain has dissolved after only 12 episodes.

• The Log Lady... I may not get her in the slightest, especially her nonsensical intros to each episode, but I really like her wise, cryptic, "I'm not really crazy even though I carry around a piece of wood as though it were a baby" approach.

• I'd tune in religiously for a show just featuring Cooper, Truman, Hawk, Ed and Albert tracking down Bob every week, beginning and ending with a tape recording for Diane, with appearances by Leland, Lucy, Ben and Jerry [Ed Note: Ha! I just noticed, while typing that, that these brothers are named after the popular ice-cream vendors.] for comic relief, and the Log Lady to confuse the hell out of me. Those characters are pure gold. Everyone else could be removed from the series and I probably wouldn't even notice.

• Wow... so Laura Palmer's murder gets solved and the case is closed... and then Twin Peaks almost immediately ceases to be interesting. It's like I'm watching a completely different show. Me no likee. Laura's murder is solved in episode 16, which means halfway through the series, I was still really enjoying it. And then... the bottom drops out. Leland's off the show, Lucy's boyfriend Dick is insanely uninteresting, Truman has gone from being a great sidekick to a cardboard cutout... What the HECK happened?

• Who the heck thought it would be a good idea to have Nadine go back to high school? Putting aside the illegality and immorality of a 35-year-old woman being enrolled at a high school... it's a stupid, nonsensical idea. What's more, having Ed go along with it kills HIS character as well. And that's a shame, as I really liked him until now.

• Is the James/Evelyn Marsh storyline going to in ANY way ever connect to what's going on in Twin Peaks? [Ed note: No. It didn't.] I keep wondering why this storyline is even happening, as it seems entirely peripheral (not to mention tedious).

• Don Davis rocks. [Ed note: He basically plays the same character he played on Stargate SG-1 (General Hammond), but with a supernatural angle. As my friend Patrick Drake brilliantly put it, "Don Davis didn't have to steal every scene he was in, the scenes recognized and acknowledged that he was their rightful owner."]

• Ray Wise's Leland Palmer is the best character on the show, and so far, it hasn't recovered from his loss... I love how he jumps without preamble from ballroom dancing to manic crying and back to dancing. Mesmerizing!

• Someone please tell me that a mass murderer will soon come into that town—perhaps one of the owls, even—and slaughter Donna, James, Nadine, Josie and Evelyn Marsh. If I have to endure those pointless characters for the final eight episodes, I may have no choice but to grab the Log Lady's log and bash myself repeatedly in the face. Thanks.

• I became addicted to the show over the past week, and did no work whatsoever on my third book because I had to get my next fix. But now, I feel like someone replaced my fix with baking soda.

• I live for scenes involving interactions between Sheriff Truman and Albert Rosenfeld, the cynical FBI agent. Every time I see the name Miguell Ferrer in the opening credits, I get all giddy, thinking, "Ha! Albert! I wonder if he and Truman will hit each other or hug today." Albert's "I love you, Sheriff Truman" speech is a highlight of the series.

• The good news? That chewing gum I like is going to come back into style.

• I watched the Twin Peaks finale this morning. That just might have contained the single creepiest, scariest TV moment I've ever seen [Ed note: Actually, come to think of it, that title would have to go to the window-tapping scene in Salem's Lot, followed by Tim Curry's "They all float down here, Georgie" speech in It. But the Twin Peaks scene I'm about to describe comes damn close.]. I may have nightmares now. I can't stop replaying it in my head... The scene of Laura in the Black Lodge, running at Cooper, all crazy-eyed and screaming... holy crap. I can't un-see that. When she starts screeching and runs at the camera, I could feel my pulse triple, and when it was all over, I hit pause, blurted out "Holy shit!" and had to catch my breath before continuing.

• "How's Annie?!? How's Annie?!? Hahahaha! How's Annie?!? How's Annie?!?" {{{{shudder}}}}

• Well, I've watched Fire Walk With Me... and I think this film fails on a very basic level: Cohesion. The only way to enjoy it, or even to remotely understand it, is to first see the entire TV series. Anyone viewing it in theaters without first watching the series would have had NO clue whatsoever what was going on at any point in the film, or who characters like Harold or Mike the One-Armed Man or the Log Lady were, due to a near-complete lack of exposition. It's no wonder the film tanked so badly. But even for someone who HAS just watched the entire TV series, the film still comes off as nonsensical and disjointed. What a disappointment.

THE FINAL VERDICT: Unfortunately, the above comments take a negative turn at times. That's because the series does as well—though I'm happy to report that I really dig the finale. After the fiascos that were the Lost and Battlestar Galactica finales, it's nice to see a series ending that I can thoroughly enjoy (even if I don't entirely understand it). Although my love for Twin Peaks waxed and waned over the past week, depending on the particular storyline and character being spotlighted, one thing remained consistently true: I was eminently entertained. Even when the series frustrated the hell out of me, it kept me watching.

It's a damn fine cup of coffee, Diane—I highly recommend tasting it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Quantum Leap, Season 1: Putting the "Cheese" in "Swiss Cheese Memory"

Created by: Donald Bellisario
Starring Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell
Season 1 episodes written by: Donald Bellisario, Deborah Pratt, John Hill, Deborah Arakelian, Paul Brown, Scott Shepard and Tom Blomquist

Enjoying classic television on DVD is something best planned out ahead of time. Watching too many intense, downbeat shows in a row can be depressing, whereas too much time spent watching goofy, cornball humor can make a brain feel like its wading through a swimming pool full of half-frozen maple syrup. Therefore, having recently plowed through the entire runs of such context-heavy shows as Lost, the Battlestar Galactica remake, Babylon 5 and the complete mind-screw that is Twin Peaks, I've switched over to something more lighthearted and fun.

To that end, I'm currently watching a classic science-fiction series that aired on NBC from 1989 to 1993. It told the tale of scientist Sam Beckett, who, theorizing that one could time-travel within his own lifetime, stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey was Al, an observer from his own time, who appeared in the form of a hologram that only Sam could see and hear. And so, Dr. Beckett found himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap... would be the leap home.

Yep, you guessed it: I've been watching Bonanza.

Just kidding. Obviously, it's Quantum Leap.

Watching Quantum Leap in 2011 is a bit like visiting an extended relative who's a bit out of touch with modern-day customs, who tends to wear embarrassingly outdated clothing and hairstyles, and who sometimes makes too many corny jokes that he seems to find a lot funnier than you do—but whom you have a great fondness for nonetheless, and whom you always enjoy visiting... for finite periods of time.

Created by Donald Bellisario, known for his work on Magnum, P.I., Airwolf, JAG, NCIS, Tales of the Gold Monkey and the original Galactica, Quantum Leap is a show that I have a great fondness for, and that I've often considered re-watching. In the early 1990s, I watched the series in syndication over and over again, though I'm unsure if I actually saw every episode, given that for some reason, I never watched any first-run episodes—despite the fact that the series was still on the air while I was obsessively watching the repeats. Go figure.

So now, two decades later, I'm finally enjoying the entire series on DVD in chronological order. But as I popped in the pilot episode, "Genesis," I worried that I might not still enjoy it. The late '80s and early '90s were not exactly a golden age for television. This was the same period, after all, that produced The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Who's the Boss? and other painfully corny sitcoms. Would I find myself groaning loudly at the dated '80s sensibilities? Would I roll my eyes at the predictable plots and telegraphed conclusions? Would I frequently face-palm at the larger-than-life, Hollywood-ized depictions of past eras?

Well, I've watched the first eight-episode season over the past several weeks (nine, if you count the pilot as two episodes, as it's presented in syndicated form), and I'm torn. Do I still love the show? Yes. But were my worries justified? As it happens... also yes.

There's something about Quantum Leap that is very endearing. It could be the amazing chemistry between lead actors Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, that is still as visible now as it was 20 years ago. It could be the tongue-in-cheek approach to Al's tacky 1999 fashion sense, with his brightly colored ties, clashing pant and shirt designs, flamboyant vests and always-present cigar. It could be the series' fish-out-of-water, Connecticut-Yankee-in-King-Arthur's-Court premise, with Sam never quite fitting into the lifestyles and eras of his hosts. It could be Sam's occasional brushes with famous historical figures. It could be the abundant use of humor in Al's over-sexed gawking at every woman in sight (and many others not in sight), and in the awkward situations in which Sam often finds himself. Or, heck, it could be the never-ending string of beautiful, Al-gawked women with whom on-again-off-again-prude Sam gets to fraternize in the bodies of other men.

I pick choice (f): All of the above.

But the unfortunate truth is... the show is sadly dated. The 1980s sensibilities ARE corny. The plots ARE predictable, and the conclusions telegraphed. And the past DOES often seem like a typical larger-than-life Hollywood production.

In "Genesis," Sam finds himself in the body of U.S. Air Force pilot Tom Stratton, in the year 1956, after his time-travel experiment goes wrong, causing him to become lost in the past with a fractured recollection (or "Swiss cheese memory," as Al often calls it) of his own pre-leaping life; and then baseball player Tim Fox, circa 1968. The introductions of Sam and, later, Al are fascinating to watch all these years later, but one thing I'd forgotten is how tedious Sam's narrations were in the very beginning. The writers and actors had yet to find their footing at this point, and so his inner thoughts are at times awkward. What's more, neither Stratton nor Fox have lives that are all that interesting, making the two-part pilot somewhat lackluster. Still, the potential for something great is clearly there, in spades.

Luckily, the writing improves over the remainder of the season, as Sam becomes sleazy 1972 English professor Gerald Bryant and meets Donna Eleese (Sam's future wife, as we'd learn in a later episode, portrayed by an astonishingly beautiful young Teri Hatcher), and inadvertently exposes the Watergate scandal; Kid Cody, a boxer in 1974 whose contract had been purchased by nuns looking to raise money for their church (not one of the series' high points); "Doc" Young, a veterinarian on a ranch in 1956, in whose form Sam would help young Buddy Holly write the lyrics to his hit song, "Peggy Sue"; gangsters Frankie La Palma and Don Geno Frascotti (a rare double-leap, during which Sam causes the North East Blackout of 1965, leaving 30 million people without electricity); Jesse Tyler, a black man facing racism in 1955 while serving as the chauffeur of an elderly Southern woman (basically, Quantum Leap's version of Driving Miss Daisy); Cam Wilson, a dorky teenager in 1961 with an abused sister and a crappy car (during which Sam teaches a very young Michael Jackson to do the Moonwalk); and Nick Allen, a Humphrey Bogart lookalike working as a gumshoe detective in 1953 (a violation of the show's premise that Sam—born in 1954—could only travel within his own lifetime... but, hey, he got to make out with Babylon 5's Claudia Christian, so I doubt he minded the bad physics).

Quantum Leap does, ultimately, stand the test of time, in that it's still fun to watch. But whereas I was able to breeze through my rewatches of Lost, Galactica, Babylon 5 and Twin Peaks without coming up for air, I find that the same is not true for Quantum Leap, which I've been viewing at a much more leisurely pace—an episode here and there, as I have time. Much more than that, and I find that my eyebrows end up threatening to roll right off the side of my head. It's partly for that reason, in fact, that my momentum on this blog came to a grinding halt after only three entries—the thought of having to write about Quantum Leap on a daily basis made me cringe.

Or, as Sam would say: Oh, boy...