As you watch the castaways of "Lost" (10 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC) grapple with the island's various enigmas, you almost detect a parallel struggle of the show's creators to keep the show's third season from getting stranded as well. I suspect they view "Twin Peaks" as both an inspiration and an example of what not to do.
Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, "Twin Peaks'" second and final season comes out on DVD on Tuesday, April 3, and revisiting the show reminds you just how far ahead of its time it was. If "Twin Peaks" aired now, fans would fire up the Internet with speculation about "The Black Lodge," just like "Losties" argue about the nature of "The Hatch" and its sinister numbers.
Both shows demonstrate an innate dilemma in series television: They hooked viewers with intriguing mysteries, but in drawing their plotlines over weeks, months and years, they diluted the tension while trying their viewers' patience.
Often-groundbreaking shows look tame a few years late, but if anything, "Twin Peaks" seems even weirder than when ABC broadcast the show's 29 episodes in 1990-1991. At the time, Lynch was riding high on the indie-film successes of Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990). Turning to TV, in "Twin Peaks" he crafted a characteristically surreal vision of Americana in the Pacific Northwestern town of Twin Peaks, where the Norman Rockwell-worthy huckleberry pies and Douglas firs barely concealed a snake pit of depraved behavior. Today's heavyweight TV dramas such as "Lost" emulate the vocabulary of cinema, but "Twin Peaks" frequently sustains an unnerving flatness of composition and emotion like no show before or since. Not that it doesn't make room for visual flourishes. In one of the rare DVD extras, director Todd Holland talks about opening an episode with a howling, Jungian cave that turned out to be a hugely magnified pinhole on an acoustic tile in a prison interrogation room.
Kyle MacLachlan's witty central performance as FBI agent Dale Cooper – part Buddhist, part Boy Scout – would be perfect if you had to cast the lead of a show called "CSI: Mayberry." But most of the roles present narrow variations on the archetypes of any small-town soap opera, and you can feel the effort of the writers and actors to keep them interesting as the second season marches on. Likewise, the show's instigating crime – the grisly murder of troubled high school beauty Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) – turns into a maddeningly protracted whodunit.
"Lost" boasts some big advantages over "Twin Peaks," including high ratings (at least in its first season) and a more complex, richly acted cast of characters. The groundbreaking gimmick of including a pre-plane-crash subplot of each episode is showing its strain, but can still pay off, particularly on the slam-drunk March 21 installment featuring the past and present of Terry O'Quinn's "man of faith" John Locke. But the device also impedes the momentum of the show's arc, and it's enormously frustrating to wait for straight answers about the island's monsters, miracles and amoral others.
Even when "Lost" makes missteps (such as the way it writes out compelling characters), you can feel the creators doing their damnedest to keep the show interesting while trying to avoid writing themselves into a corner. "Twin Peaks" was different. You can't shake the impression that Lynch and Frost were mostly interested in mood, not story, and had no clue how to keep the program going after resolving the Laura Palmer story. The final episode ends on a cliffhanger that, however consistent with its themes of corruption on innocence, amounts to a huge "screw you" to anyone who cared about the show as a show.
Still, it's fun to watch the "Twin Peaks" season two DVD and rediscover quirky characters such as the Log Lady (who utters koan-like introductions to each episode on disc) and portentous lines such as, "The owls are not what they seem." Despite its short life, "Twin Peaks" influenced numerous other shows, including "Northern Exposure," "Picket Fences" and "Eerie, Indiana," that played it much safer than Lynch and Frost. But in building narrative labyrinths to entice the TV audience, "Twin Peaks" proved it's all too easy to get ... lost.
Twin Peaks: The Second Season. Paramount Home Entertainment. Available Tues., April 3 ($61.99).
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