Lessons from Great TV #5: Twin Peaks
Serialized drama, by its very nature, has to strike a difficult balance between climax and continuity. When you follow the same characters over the course of one or more seasons, you want the story to change and develop enough to give the audience a sense of movement and urgency, while keeping the essential elements of the show sufficiently consistent so that viewers want to come back week after week. Soap operas have perfected the art of seeming to advance while really staying in the same place for years, but primetime shows have often had trouble doing the same thing, so it’s no surprise that Twin Peaks, one of the earliest attempts to tell an ambitious serialized story on network television, fell apart in its second season. No series has ever had a stronger start—its pilot episode, directed by David Lynch, is still the best I’ve ever seen—but once it resolved its central mystery, the murder of Laura Palmer, it grew increasingly muddled and aimless. And just as the show began to recover its footing, it was canceled, leaving audiences with what is widely considered to be one of the most frustrating unresolved cliffhangers in television history.
Yet in many ways, the unplanned conclusion of Twin Peaks is more satisfying than any conventional ending possibly could have been. The last two episodes, “Miss Twin Peaks” and “Beyond Life and Death,” originally aired together on June 10, 1991, and in retrospect, they represent two alternative approaches to the problem of the series finale. “Miss Twin Peaks” is crammed with plot and action, converging on a big set piece—a kidnapping at a beauty pageant—that would have been more than enough climax for most conventional shows. Twin Peaks has something more on its mind, however, and “Beyond Life and Death,” the finale’s second hour, is tantalizingly slow and strange. Watching it, we know that this is the last chance we’ll ever have to spend time with these characters—not counting Fire Walk With Me—so there’s something delightfully perverse in Lynch’s insistence, for instance, on filming the agonizingly slow walk of an ancient bank manager across the floor in real time. It concludes with one of the most striking sequences ever broadcast on any network, as Agent Cooper finally enters the mysterious Black Lodge, and if you’ve never seen what happens to him there, you owe it to yourself to do so now. And while I wish there had been more to the story, perhaps it was best for this astonishing show to leave us with an ending that simply allowed us to wonder, or dream, what happened next.
On Monday: “Curse the man who discovered helium! Curse Pierre Jules Cesar Janssen!”