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Peak Hours (Parts 1 & 2)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on September 10, 2017 by Tom Steward

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Any belated revival of a TV show will inevitably fail to recapture the essence of their original. Insurmountable anachronisms, missing or surrogate cast and creative personnel and a return to a radically altered television landscape compound, leaving such enterprises feeling like a stilted ventriloquist act of the first run. With Twin Peaks: The Return, creators David Lynch and Mark Frost have made a virtue of this uncanny disconnect between original and revival.

The limited series event (a fashionable moniker for “miniseries” or “special”) is themed and styled around anachronism. Deputy Andy and receptionist Lucy’s adult son Wally confusingly models his life on the film characters of Marlon Brando; Lucy herself is acutely afraid of cellular phones, a technology that became ubiquitous in the intervening decades (and one that, incidentally, was advertised early on by Kyle MacLachlan playing Agent Cooper). Beloved characters like Cooper and The One-Armed Man claim not to be able to distinguish between future and past, and we jump around in time about as much as we do geographical space and existential realm, and as fluidly.

Deceased or unavailable actors (or, in David Bowie’s case, both) are not an issue but instead are woven into the fabric of the storytelling. Michael Ontkean declined to reprise the role of Sherriff Truman and, in a nod to the series’ daytime serial muse, Robert Forster takes his place as Harry’s brother…Sherriff Truman. The reverse is also true. An actor whose character was killed off previously returns in an almost identical role. Phillip Jeffries (Bowie channelling Jerry Lee) is back, but with a new voice and recast as a shadowy steam kettle. The Return is as estranged from television in 2017 as Twin Peaks was to the medium in 1990 but to achieve that effect, the latter has to be pathologically dissimilar from the former.

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For starters, The Return immediately spurned its eponymous location, forsaking Twin Peaks for other rural backwaters like Buckhorn, South Dakota, and small communities including The Fat Trout trailer park last seen in feature spin-off Fire Walk with Me. Iconic cities such as New York and Las Vegas also feature, and we even venture into Latin America for a few seconds, though don’t ask me why. This kind of mobility is commonly found in and used to justify sequels (Babe: Pig in the City, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles) and such a negotiation with the commercial is by no means above David Lynch’s avant-garde take on pop art. But the pan-American canvas and urbanization of the revival indicate that it is more rooted in social reality than its predecessor, even if the approach taken to the material is about as far from social realism as it’s possible to be.

Secondly, sound. The perpetual underscoring has been scrapped in favour of long silences punctuated by atonal soundscapes with a few sonic callbacks to the original when canonical characters appear. Ironically, the new sound design serves to highlight the presence of music in the show even more prominently than before, which I didn’t think possible. This is capped by a “concert series” approach to musicality, in which alternative bands and performers appear in the last few minutes of each episode behind the credits, with the faintest of story justification as acts playing The Roadhouse. The ability to completely overhaul the sound design yet have it perform the same function it always did is a testament to how familiar yet strange The Return really is.

As I suggested earlier, the uneasy mixture of reassurance and disparity is usually a by-product of aiming for the tone of the original and misfiring. Here it is cultivated. Kyle MacLachlan returns as Dale Cooper, but a Dale Cooper possessed by evil ghost Bob, and alter-ego Dougie Jones, himself split between a lovable compulsive and sleepy new-born simpleton. Tiki-fetishist Dr. Jacobi has become Twin Peaks’ version of Alex Jones and Audrey Horne is so unrecognisable from the thrill-seeking bad girl we used to know, she (and Lynch/Frost) barely knows what to do. Characters are not permitted to appear the way they were, until they have gone through a seemingly endless series of alternative permutations.

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The Lynch-directed episodes of Twin Peaks were groundbreaking in retarding story development to draw out select scenes until they were protracted beyond credulity. That goes for the entirety of The Return. The show is slower than wax. This slow television is yet another example of how the follow-up has one foot in the original and another in an alternate dimension of art.

How slow is Twin Peaks: The Return? Well, it takes Audrey Horne two episodes to leave her house. The scenes involving the FBI play more like table reads than final cuts, with David Lynch as Director Gordon Cole regulating the snail-pace delivery onscreen as well as off. The cast is populated by a variety of mutes and monosyllabics and the most basic of actions take an eternity to complete. In fact, one could easily write the series off as an experiment to take the most circuitous route to the simplest outcome in each scenario.

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Lynch had certainly played with this kind of pacing before in Twin Peaks, most notably in the opening scene of season two in which the cliffhanger of Cooper’s shooting is suspended in time as a doddering room service waiter attempts to deliver a glass of milk to the mortally wounded agent. The (first) series finale, which leads into The Return in a way other Twin Peaks episodes do not, consolidated the idea that this was about Lynch’s speed as director and elevated the early talking picture staginess to auteur style. We’ve seen this bloom into a mark of Lynch’s filmmaking in his cinema of the past two decades, with both Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire exercises in unnecessary elaboration. Indeed, Mulholland Drive began life as a television pilot, which makes one wonder how much The Return would have resembled a Mulholland Drive TV series.

We can think of pacing in The Return as the natural evolution of Lynch’s languorous directorial style, culminating in a project with an eighteen-hour run-time. But context is everything and it’s hard to discount the importance of having Showtime as a partner in this respect. When Twin Peaks aired on ABC, it wasn’t a typical network show but it pandered to the network viewers’ diet of serial melodrama, sitcom and police procedural just enough to get away with some of Lynch’s more left-field ideas, like his slow-motion storytelling. Now the cornerstone of a premium cable channel’s output, The Return gets its artistic license from the baggage of quality television the franchise comes with, a Sunday-night drama that is designed to out-experiment the competition. In this ecology, it’s easy to see that Lynch’s loosening of narrative could be a real commodity. It makes rivals for the quality TV crown Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead (as well as anything else on the network) seem positively pedestrian by comparison.

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For any viewer used to the clip of television narration, Lynch/Frost’s pacing decisions must seem perverse. To devotees of Twin Peaks (Twinsies? Peak Audiences?), it borders on sacrilege. Despite its avant-garde overtones, the original was largely driven by story. Multiple, labyrinthine plotlines layered each episode and built successively until they were unfathomably complicated and entangled, while the overarching narrative became multi-dimensional, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. The diminished pace of The Return means that there’s barely enough time for a cursory drop-in with each of the recurring characters, and that could be a problem for long-time viewers. The premature cancellation of Twin Peaks at the end of season two resulted in cliffhangers across the board, many (if not all) of which audiences expected to be addressed in the revival. With the exception of a few notable concessions, like Norma and Ed getting the ending they always deserved, the threads are left hanging and in some cases clouded with even more ambiguity.

For the most part, Twin Peaks: The Return unfolds with a sluggishness one expects from a video installation in an art gallery. Whereas the vast majority of TV shows use their generous quota of screen minutes to create the most expansive stories possible, Lynch and Frost have turned that tendency in on itself and focused in with minute detail on a set of small, self-repeating incidents. Were it not so artfully done, it would simply be tedious. In fact, it dangles over the precipice of tedium more times than I can possibly count. But, like his fellow art cinema auteur Lars Von Trier, Lynch knows exactly the right moment to add a jolt of (often comic) energy that will reel the audience back into engagement.

Part 15

I’ve resisted using the word “leisurely” to describe the pacing of The Return because there is nothing about the absences that is remotely enjoyable. The lingering silence and portraits in pausing are where the most disturbing aspects of the program coagulate. When nothing happens, there is no greater sense of fear and dread.

 

 

 

 

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