What makes a show great?
A cliché response to this question is often something like; “a great show is one where you feel immersed in the action.” That’s a very generic response and for me that’s not a good enough answer. If it’s simply a matter of immersion why do we watch TV shows at all? Most of us are pretty immersed in our own lives, our own problems, our own drama, but we don’t tend to think that’s all that great. Maybe that immersion has to do with the fact that what we are watching is very different from our own reality (or reality in general as with Twin Peaks). With entertainment in general I find myself getting immersed in sporting events when there’s a team or an athlete I support, however I’m likely to end up disappointed if that team or athlete losses. You know that may happen and that’s part of the fun of watching sports but you don’t want that feeling when watching a TV drama. If you feel disappointed or let down with a show you simply won’t watch the next episode.
So what makes Twin Peaks so interesting? For me Twin Peaks straddles a line between immersion and misdirection in a truly unique way (the TwinPeaksian way). The beautiful yet haunting late 80’s early 90’s ambient synth theme music playing in the background juxtaposed against industrial scenes of a saw being manufactured, the pending tragic announcement of Laura’s death is immediately preceded by a fat guy doing a wave dance, Ronnette Polansky walking across a bridge near death (presumed tortured and raped) is followed by the introduction of Agent Cooper discussing his cherry pie and gawking at the trees. There are dozens of examples like this from The Pilot alone. Once you find yourself getting deeply immersed in the emotions/characters involved there’s this immediate release of tension, this pullback, or what I call misdirection (maybe someone can come up with a better word). It’s something very difficult to pull off unless the entire show, characters, storytelling, etc support it (in my opinion the main reason why the film falls so flat).
Take the small town of Twin Peaks as an example. The town is five miles south of the Canadian border but as viewer (or as a part of the town) the border seems invisible. It would be easy to just walk through the woods and have no idea whether you were in Canada or America. And what state are we in exactly? Unless you have a really sharp eye you wouldn’t know. During the town hall meeting we see a Washington state flag in the background hanging limp (and I think the limp part is intentional). For the longest time when I watched the show I was convinced the setting was Montana J. The point I’m trying to make here is it doesn’t matter what state Twin Peaks is located in. This is not a small Washington border town in America as we know it… This is Twin Peaks where regular logic need not apply.
And within Twin Peaks we shouldn’t be expecting the normal cast of characters or drama that you would typically find in a small border town…and boy we don’t. Sheriff Truman is the one guy (at least for most of the Pilot) who seems to fit the bill of a small town Sheriff (aka playing the expected role). However, as the episode progresses we realize that he may be the most clueless of everyone as to the “reality” of this town and what’s happened with Laura Palmer. He’s the one guy who seems genuinely surprised about Laura’s death, he’s convinced she wouldn’t be into cocaine, and on the whole seems to be the only sane individual in the town. However, at the end of the episode we see he’s romantically linked with Josie Packard, who clearly has some skeletons in her closet (mysteries surrounding) and yet it’s as if he naively thinks that she could never be using him (and this is the Sheriff of the town). For most of the characters we find our expectations constantly being flipped on their heads. An FBI agent whittling a whistle on a stakeout, the suck up (Donna) making out with a biker wanted for murder, Big Ed getting his ass (more appropriately kidney) beat by a guy half his size, etc. etc.
As the series progresses these blog posts will mostly focus on character development and how the series seems to flip the normal model on its head. But with The Pilot I’m left with a feeling that Twin Peaks just isn’t a normal place with normal people. When the mystery starts to get “real” there’s always a moment (unfitting soundtrack, strange cut) that pulls away and that’s when you start to realize there’s clearly something more going on below the surface. This isn’t just a mystery about who killed Laura Palmer it’s the mystery of Twin Peaks as a whole, and the puzzle for the viewer is to figure out how they’re connected.