Sometimes, a Formica Table is Just a Formica Table

Last year, _Psych_ did a fantastic tribute to _Twin Peaks_ to mark the cult classic’s 20th anniversary.  Starting off as a huge hit and the topic of discussion around the country, it quickly plummeted in the ratings and was abruptly cancelled after a total of 30 episodes, but David Lynch’s groundbreaking series literally changed television.  Several series quickly came along to imitate some aspect or another of what made _Twin Peaks_ revolutionary.  Shows like _Northern Exposure_ and _Picket Fences_ played on the whole “quirky small town” motif.  _The X-Files_ picked up on the idea of paranormal mystery, unorthodox FBI agents and an overarching mystery (David Duchovony played a DEA agent on TP) . _Homicide_ picked up on the idea of bringing critically acclaimed film directors to TV and having an overarching story.  Many cable series of the past 20 years have owed a great deal to _Twin Peaks_, as have more recent (and more popular) paranormal mysteries like _Fringe_ and _Lost_.  Samantha Mulder, Adena Watson and Trudy Monk are all the younger cousins of Laura Palmer.  And perhaps its greatest claim to fame is how, for a short lived TV series, it introduced a number of then-young actors and actresses who went on to successful careers in TV and/or movies.

While the series has only made a few appearances over the years in reruns in the land of 500 channels, it has been very successful in the world of DVD and online streaming, and I’ve been watching it on Netflix this past few weeks.

David Lynch and Mark Frost hoped to use television to explore both artistic and social themes that interested them in a way that film was too limited to deal with, and they felt that the genres of mystery and soap opera were best suited to dealing with those themes.

Starting with the iconic image of a dead girl found wrapped in plastic along a riverbank, they captivated the country with a murder mystery that was supposed to symbolize “mystery” in the philosophical or theological sense: apocalypse, the continuously unveiling mystery of human existence.   While an untimely death triggers questions of “how” and “why” and “whodunit,” the deeper question is really, “What comes next?”  Indeed, at least two characters, the recluse Harold Smith and the villain Windom Earle, say that death is the great mystery, and that the dead are lucky because they get the answer to the greatest mystery of all.  We on earth will never get the answer to that mystery, and the series’ untimely cancellation is a fitting end to that theme.

While the cosmology of _Twin Peaks_ is decidedly New Age and shows more overt favor to Buddhist and Native American worldviews, it is still more easily compatible with Christianity than similar efforts.  Interestingly, where most TV shows (cf. _Little House on the Prairie_, _The Andy Griffith Show_) claiming to represent “small town America” avoid denominational questions and have most of the characters practicing some vague Protestantism (satirized on _The Simpsons_ as the “Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism”), the residents of fictional Twin Peaks, WA, are apparently mostly Catholics (or very high church Protestants): many homes (most notably that of good guy Major Briggs) have crucifixes on the walls, the minister wears a collar and vestments, and Norma Jennings’ sister Annie comes back to town having left the convent.  Of course, it would still be nice to have a TV show or movie where Christianity is honored for more than just being one of many paths to “spiritual enlightenment” or getting it right about the Devil.

In any case, the creators never intended to solve the murder of Laura Palmer.  They funded the pilot as a standalone movie, released in Europe, and added some extra footage that resolved the mystery at the end of that film version, however abruptly.  An incident where a set worker named Frank Silva got trapped on set, and another incident where Silva’s image got accidentally caught on screen in a mirror, both inspired Lynch to create a character around Silva.  So, in the original film version of the pilot, Silva is “Bob,” a random hospital maintenance worker who turns out to be a serial killer, who lives above a convenience store with a one armed man named “Mike.”  This footage is reworked in the TV version as Agent Cooper’s infamous dream at the end of the second episode.  In the series, “Bob” and “Mike” are “inhabiting spirits,” but the series ended before anything further could be developed, and different interpretations have been floated: are they demons?  Are they spirits of dead killers from the past?  Reincarnated?  Aliens?  Many of the shows’ creators admitted that they made stuff up as they went, and that was perfectly in line with Lynch’s idea of ever-folding mystery.  Indeed, had _Twin Peaks_ survived, it might have been much like what _The X-Files_ became: a potentially straightforward fictional mythology unnecessarily complicated by the need to keep resolving *and* keep unraveling.

Many viewers grew impatient with how long it was taking to resolve the Palmer killing.  ABC demanded that they wrap it up.  In real life, the majority of murders are either solved in “the first 48” or else can take years.  On television, viewers are used to getting the resolutions to murder mysteries in a week or two.  So on a series that would taken on many decidedly surreal and absurd aspects, the narrative “dragging out” of the Laura Palmer mystery was actually a realistic aspect.  The pilot aired on April 8, 1990.  The killer was revealed to audiences on December 1, 1990.  On the show, Laura Palmer’s body was found on February 24, 1989.  Her killer is identified and arrested on March 11, 1989.  Ironically, in some ways this is unrealistically fast.

Similarly, many of the aspects the show considered quirky or “unrealistic” or bizarre are quite mundane, just alien to our sensibilities of what a television show should involve.  Many of the “strange” personalities we encounter in _Twin Peaks_ are strange for a TV show but very similar to people we know in our own lives.  In one scene in the season 2 premiere, Agent Cooper and Sherriff Truman go to question a patient in the hospital, and Sheriff Truman fumbles with an adjustable stool that won’t work–the kind of thing that happens to all of us on a daily basis but never happens to TV characters.  The hospital food is oddly colored baby food, which may not be realistic of how hospital food *is* but of how it is often perceived.  Characters go to the bathroom.  Even strange dreams are something we all experience, and we talk about, and we try to derive meaning in our lives from what we see in our dreams.  Yet we just find it strange to see a TV show where characters have strange dreams, talk about them, and try to derive meaning from them.

In the creators’ original vision for the series, Laura Palmer’s many connections to the various residents of the town, with their various secret lives, would lead the police to numerous crimes.  As they sought out the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer, they would uncover various crimes and arrest various bad guys, much as _The X-Files_ would later alternate its “monster of the week” and “mythology” episodes.

For all the articles and websites, critics’ theories and fans’ theories, people often miss the mark entirely because the truth is so plain as day.

A few weeks ago, when I started my review of the series, what struck me was the inherent critique of evidence.   Agent Cooper, the FBI profiler who relies on Tibetan meditation, is skeptical of Dr. Jacoby, the Psychiatrist, calling Jacoby’s craft (which ought to be Cooper’s) “mumbo jumbo.”  One of the reasons that viewers found the Palmer case frustrating was that the kind of straight up circumstantial evidence that would lead to an arrest in a real life murder case or even in the average mystery story, was constantly undermined (as parodied in a _Saturday Night Live_ sketch when Kyle Machlachlan “hosted” in September 1990: Sheriff Truman comes to Agent Cooper with a video tape of Leo Johnson killing Laura Palmer, and Cooper refuses to accept it).  FBI forensics specialist Albert Rosenfield gives a minute analysis of all the fibers found at the scene, but while the physical evidence allows them to recreate the events of Laura Palmer’s last night, and to determine how she was killed, it tells them nothing of the killer.  Physical evidence pointing to particular killers is undermined by their unshakable alibis for related crimes.   At a  time when DNA evidence was just coming into common use, but when blood typing was the accepted method for discerning such matters, the police in this fictional murder were stymied  by a murder where the victim had had intercourse with multiple men on the day before she died and where the victim’s body was covered in blood from multiple individuals.  Testimony is equally untrustworthy, as so many of the town’s residence are living lies, yet certain people with seemingly bizarre stories and visions and oracles are accepted implicitly.  All of this goes to challenge our concepts of evidence and build on the whole point of how life is ultimately a mystery that we try to solve.

When we look at the ineffability of it all, and how, as I noted, most of what is considered “strange” about _Twin Peaks_ is only really strange because we don’t expect to see such ordinary life in a TV show, we really get to the point.  I came across a website with a lot of quotations from the creators, and in many of the quotations  from David Lynch, he talks about how the “point” is not the plot but the experience.  Just as T. S. Eliot said poetry is about painting a picture with words, creating a unique experience, Lynch argues that film does the same thing, and he challenges plot in order to emphasize experience.  _Twin Peaks_ is about coffee and pie, beautiful women and beautiful trees, warm family dinners and romantic interludes.  That’s what draws people in, and that’s what they’re supposed to get out of it: the feeling. I was formulating these thoughts and came across this article which gets to the same point: Lynch is often regarded as a surrealist, but he is also a Formalist (like Eliot), though particularly a Formalist of the Russian school.  In one of the dream sequences in the prequel movie, _Fire Walk With Me_, the Dwarf points to a table and says to Agent Cooper, “This is a formica table.  Green is its color.”

Sometimes, a formica table is just a formica table.  It doesn’t have to mean anything else, but we want to it mean something, and we want our fiction to “mean” something other than what it is.  This is the author’s frustration with the critic.  In the first dream sequence of the televised version, which, as I noted above, was constructed from material used in the European theatrical version of the pilot, “Mike,” the One Armed Man, says, “We lived among the people.  I think you say convenience store?  We lived above it.  I mean it like it is. . . . Like it sounds.”  Of course, where that footage was originally used, it was completely literal.  In the show’s context, though, spoken in a dream, it addresses that theme of formalism.

Most of the “codes” in Agent Cooper’s dreams are fairly straightforward.  Laura Palmer says in one dream, “Sometimes, my arms bend back,” and the next day they learn that Laura’s arms were tied behind her back.  In our own lives, the things in our dreams which sometimes seem the strangest and most memorable are, when we start to think, very clearly representations of what we experienced the day before.  In _Twin Peaks_, dreams are premonitions, sorting in code what one is going to experience in the next day or two, rather than what one has experienced in previous days.

And that, too, challenges our need for evidence and our need for explanations.

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One response to “Sometimes, a Formica Table is Just a Formica Table

  1. Pingback: The Lewis Crusade

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