And there’s always music in the air

David Lynch & Mark Frost’s groundbreaking weird-crime series “Twin Peaks” first aired 24 years ago this week. In commemoration, here are a few of the pieces I’ve written about the sleepy town and dreamy landscape of Twin Peaks over the years.

How “Twin Peaks” helped free television dramas from the yoke of pure plot:

In most shows, every moment must move the plot forward. In “Twin Peaks” (the show and the town), things move at a slower pace and odd digressions are not only allowed but encouraged. “Twin Peaks” embraces homey mundanity, which makes the deep horror more jarring and effective. And there are terrible horrors in that town, and deeply tangled personal tragedies, compulsions, and secrets. It is, in effect, a soap opera without the sudsy, fluffy, forgettable qualities.

Ronette PulaskiMy meditation on the moral gaps of “Twin Peaks” – the contrasts between golden girl Laura Palmer and Ronette Pulaski and how the show creates a moral loophole for the monstrous killer – contains huge, enormous, show-ruining spoilers preceded by a BIG BOLDED SPOILER ALERT, so click at your own discretion:

… but what about Ronette? Ronette Pulaski, a surviving victim of the same killer whom we first see staggering out of the wilderness across a railroad trestle, stunned and all but catatonic. In this image, she is presented to us as a girl literally from the wrong side of the tracks.

And it shows: in the lack of concern that the characters and writers (and presumably the viewers) show over Ronette’s reasons for the same behavior. Tacitly, the cops (and writers) of Twin Peaks are telling us that a child of privilege must be gravely damaged to sully herself so, but that a townie consorting with the same skeevy drug dealers, posing for smutty photos, and whoring needs no explanation.

How Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me redresses that imbalance and rebukes the television audience who witnessed the dark tale of a tormented young woman driven to death by her demons while we tittered about cherry pie and doughnuts and damn fine coffee:

The film relies upon the viewer’s familiarity with the cozy-quirky world of the TV series, but even as it employs the mythology and grammar of the show’s world, the movie viciously rejects the comforts we found in the drowsy little town of Twin Peaks.

I rethink the supposed virtues of Twin Peaks’ Sheriff Harry S. Truman:

Visiting investigator Special Agent Dale Cooper of the FBI (Kyle MacLachlan) takes to him right away, and it’s easy to see why: Harry’s welcoming and professional, quietly competent and well-respected, but completely without the posturing and rivalry Cooper faces from some local DPs when he steps into the lead on a hot case.

Harry’s appeal lies his down-home folksiness, his easy pace and unflappable manner. Even our putative hero, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, sums him up with “Harry, you’re alllll right!” But is he? Is Sheriff Truman all right? Is he a good guy? Is he the boy scout he’s presented as, upright and true?

“Twin Peaks” and a memory 20 years old, in which I reminisce on the weekly ritual of walking home my friend S, who would come over to watch the show, then get too spooked to walk through the dark streets home alone… which meant I ended up walking home alone every week:

And every week, I would leave S at her brightly lit doorstep, take a deep breath as if I could breathe in that bright light and carry it with me into the night… and then I would step into the dark to start walking home.

a man without a family

[note: This isn't pretty and polished. I'm hammering out rough ideas about True Detective, specifically examining the gender roles of the show and how they are apparently employed as a plot point. This is written after S1E6 aired, and I'm curious to see how it lines up with what we'll learn in the last two episodes airing in March. Next: the overlooked girls of the Light of the Way School.]

Detective Martin Hart of HBO’s True Detective immerses the show in his literally paternalistic view of the world. in the first few minutes of Ep1, “The Long Bright Dark,” he describes several types of cop, wrapping up with “There can be a burden in authority, in vigilance, like a father’s burden. It was too much for some men.”

Marty neatly pierces his father-in-law’s rants about The Young People Today as old-fogey self-centeredness, but hours later he’s incapable of seeing his own self-centered assurance that his wife and daughters exist only for his comfort and convenience. After cutting short their planned family day, Marty stands by and complains while Maggie makes dinner. Having finally deigned to spend some time with his wife and daughters, he’s upset to face criticism at home, “the one place where there’s supposed to be peace and calm!” Maggie retorts “Who told you that? It’s not always that way. It’s not supposed to be,” but Marty continues with staggering assurance, “It’s supposed to be what I want, it’s supposed to help me.”

For years, Marty luxuriates in the unthinking privilege of believing that his wife, his daughters, his home life all revolve around his pleasure and convenience, as well as the larger conviction that women exist to serve, or service, men. Maggie and Audrey both clearly, concisely refute that idea, but Marty never seems to take it in. He can’t hear what’s spoken to his face, and he can’t see what’s right in front of him.

Marty muses “past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.” In context, he’s talking about his partner, Rust Cohle, but ss Rust points out “People that give me advice, I reckon they’re talking to themselves.”

Marty has become that bad thing, a man without a family. His wife manages to break the cycle of adultery, forgiveness, and reconciliation that has kept her trapped in their marriage by herself transgressing, and so egregiously that Marty cannot overlook or forgive it. She breaks off from him, and given Audrey and Maisey’s hostility and distance toward Marty in their teen years, and their later invisibility, it seems unlikely that they have much relationship with their insensitive, condescending, absent, neglectful father.

He does concede sorrowfully that “the solution to my whole life – that woman, those kids – was right under my nose, and I was watching everything else,” but Marty doesn’t seem to have internalized that harsh truth. Like most of the truths Marty hears about himself, it runs right off his back, even when he’s the one uttering it. Even after his wife forces an irreconcilable split, Marty comfortably invokes family – lumped in with “routine,” especially the busywork of running his own PI and security business – as a sustaining force keeping him active and engaged rather than an enterprise worthy of his attention and nurturing love.

Given his bedrock belief that women exist as accessories and ancillaries to their men, it’s no surprise that Marty also tries to prevent his young girlfriend Lisa from sleeping with other men, even if he has to frighten her into chastity. When we first see Marty visit her apartment, he breaks confidence about the ongoing investigation, urging Lisa to stay home, to stop going to bars and on dates, lest she be murdered like Dora Kelly Lange.

Lisa doesn’t seem fazed by her lover comparing her modest outings to the hazards brooked by a truck-stop sex worker with a handful of drug habits and several criminal acquaintances. She points out that Marty’s trying to have his cake and eat it by keeping her cloistered and waiting for him without making any commitment to her. Marty counters “What good is cake if you can’t eat it?”

Jan, the proprietor of the bunny ranch, immediately pegs Marty as a man keen to control women’s sexual agency. When he spouts outrage at the presence of an underaged sex worker on the ranch, she characterizes his indignation as “holy bullshit” that’s based not on the young woman’s sexual victimization but on her audacity in using sex to make money and control her own destiny rather than performing it as a favor owed to men. “Girls walk this Earth all the time screwing for free. Now, why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand the thought? I’ll tell you. It’s ’cause suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.”

Marty’s speech to the two young men caught in a car with his daughter Audrey suggests there’s truth in Jan’s assessment. Just before delivering a brutal beating, Marty taunts them from outside the jail cell, concluding “A man’s game charges a man’s price.” He’s explicitly posing sex – even with his underaged daughter – as a sport for men, and with a price exacted by men.

His logic twists around in a self-serving loop: when he spends his nights getting drunk and banging his girlfriends, he rationalizes it as a necessary release that a police officer, tasked with terrible duties and witness to unspeakable horrors, must take release and catharsis where he finds it “or where it finds you. I mean, in the end, it’s for the good of the family.”

Marty explicitly compares his duties as a lawman to his responsibilities as a father, and it’s no stretch at all to imagine that this includes a responsibility to provide release for those in authority and to cover it up for the good of society, the larger family of humankind.

Rust Cohle’s view of the same question is bleaker. As he tells his drug-supplier, the “Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I could do terrible things to people with impunity.”

Marty Hart’s taxonomy of police is brief and vivid: “We all fit a certain category – the bully, the charmer, the, uh, surrogate dad, the man possessed by ungovernable rage, the brain.” From the first moments, I was convinced that the end of Marty’s list described himself and his partner: the man possessed of ungovernable rages and the brain. We’ve since seen Marty’s furies given free rein, and seen Rust’s homespun nihilism and seemingly meticulous attention spin its web around suspects and interrogators alike. Next, I hope to outline the ways in which both Marty’s passions and Rust’s obsessive study both overlook the crucial points of their shared case.

made for each other

I turn on the TV. The actor onscreen is turned away from the camera, so we glimpse the merest flicker of face: the line of a jaw, the edge of nose. Instantly, we both blurt out “Is that The Gersh?”

That’s right:

A) We have a household nickname for Gina Gershon.

B) We can both recognize her in a split second, even when she’s got her back to the camera.

It’s nice we found each other.

OBEY


After years of watching television exclusively on DVD, we’ve recently had cable hooked up (for The Fella’s exciting new freelancing gig at The A.V. Club’s TV Club).

Two thoughts:

1. Suddenly swimming in this surge of commercials, all squawking about my weight candy bars my hair burgers my credit online shopping my bowels my skin fast easy loans my sex drive antiacids my kitchen floor the power of cheeeeeeeeeese, has stirred in me the desire to rewatch 1988′s They Live.

2. Conveniently, They Live is on one channel or another once a day.

Either he REALLY gets me or he’s just plain stopped listening

The Fella and I sit watching “Community.” Vaughn breaks into his Annie’s Song*.

The Fella: Didn’t Barry Manilow actually have an “Annie’s Song”?
Elsa: Wasn’t it John Denver?
TF: Oh, sure!
E: But I don’t know how it goes.
TF: I think it’s the “you fill up…” [He trails off, obviously reluctant to give us both the earworm.]
E: Ah. “Like a thing in a thingee.”
TF: Yup.
E: Like a blank in a blanket.
TF: Uh-huh.
E: Like a frog in a bucket.
TF: Exactly.

*which is nowhere to be found online, so here’s Troy and Abed mimicking Jeff.

“The Wire,” again and again

For this week’s VideoReport, I’m suggesting “The Wire,” even if you’ve seen it before… and especially if you’ve seen it twice through.

Watching David Simon’s deservedly legendary HBO series “The Wire” for the first time is a bit like learning to swim: you’re thrown into the complicated worlds of Baltimore’s overtaxed Homicide division, a special unit developed to study drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s syndicate, and the many members of the syndicate itself. It’s a sprawling cast of characters with dozens of interweaving story lines and realistically complicated relationships, spread out through several separate but intersecting subcultures. The closest we get to a traditional first-episode dramatis personae is a police photo board putting names to faces — but only of a handful of the gang’s street-level soldiers.

Rewatching the first episode last night, I suddenly looked at the elapsed time and thought “We’re more than eight minutes in and we’ve learned one person’s name — the corpse lying in the street” — who never comes up again in the entire series.

After the spoon-feeding that most dramas do to keep viewers up to speed, this reserve is a bit jolting, but “The Wire” demands your attention and then utterly, completely rewards you for it.

That’s the first time through. The second time through, you know the characters and the story arcs. The second viewing, like the second reading of a great novel, allows you to fully immerse yourself in the characters’ arcs. This time, you know who they are, where they came from, and — devastatingly, in many cases — where they’re going.

Now that you’re not struggling to follow the complex stories, the show’s greater theme of institutional decay becomes strikingly clear at every turn, even in the first few episodes. The D.A.’s office with its staggering stacks of paperwork on every desk, lining the walls, and precariously propped on office chairs: that’s not just set-dressing for an overworked office but a symbol of a legal system smothering under its own weight.

The parallels between cops and robbers become strikingly clear. When a hand-to-hand drug dealer commands a crowd of waiting junkies “You all know what this is! Up against the wall!,” it’s not hard to imagine why he chose those precise words. When a surveillance van drives off having given up on finding the dealers’ stash, the camera shifts to the van of the rival criminal crew (as yet unnamed, of course) who watched longer and smarter than the cops.

Again, like a great novel, the third time through, even greater resonances and symbols emerge. To pick just one example, let’s look at Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk. At first, Herc seems as dumb and as dangerous as an untrained and neglected dog, but as the series develops, he is the very embodiment of the institutional decay and socio-political resentment that obstructs true and meaningful changes.

Lazy, abusive, shiftless, untrustworthy, and almost hopelessly naive, Herc nonetheless believes his initial stagnation in the ranks is the consequence of affirmative action or favoritism, not of his own woefully poor police work. Herc routinely and offhandedly refers to his whiteness as a mark of some obscure authority: with his (black) partner in a pointless argument about which of them is Batman and which is Robin; with a citizen while phonebanking for a (black) mayoral candidate; when griping about instructions given to him by more adept and experienced (black) fellow detective Kima Greggs. His simmering racial resentment only fuels his apathy for police work; Herc cuts more and more corners as the show proceeds.

But, dumb and destructive as he is, Herc is a constant unwitting catalyst, both for his colleagues and for those outside the police force. [SPOILERS] It’s astounding how many major events in the universe of “The Wire” are precipitated by some fool thing Herc says or does*. To list just a few: Prez beating a teenager, the identification of the elusive Avon Barksdale, linking the dock workers to the drug trade, Carver’s life-altering introduction to Major Colvin, the dissolution of Hamsterdam (and the end of Bunny Colvin’s largely productive police career), the release of Marlo Stansfield, and — most heartbreakingly — innocent Randy Wagstaff loosing his stable home and enduring daily beatings as a snitch. Herc is like a force of nature, a tornado, moving heedlessly through the landscape with destruction trailing behind him, blissfully unaware of the miseries he visits upon those in his wake.

Perhaps the answer to the riddle of both Herc’s destructive nature and his personal success lies in his utter lack of integrity. Most of the characters on the series, cops and criminals both, struggle to align their personal morality with the strictures of their institutions. As Omar points out so poignantly, “A man got to have a code.” All the players recognize that their wins and losses occur within those strictures, that they are, in some greater sense, a consequence of the system. “The game is the game.” Even when Bodie concedes that “the game is rigged, man” that he’ll do “what I have to,” he adds a principled caveat: “just don’t ask me to live on my knees.”

But Herc has no code, no guiding principle, no sense of a greater system, no passion or ambition other than bettering his own circumstances. Herc will live on his knees if it means living comfortably. We see him switch alliances, insincerely fawning over different leaders, over and over: from unit to unit, commander to commander, candidate to candidate, even switching from cops to robbers by taking a job with Levy (the lawyer representing Barksdale, thus working against his former units’ interests), and finally (though briefly) betraying Levy to his former partner only to accept Levy’s fraternal embrace at the end. Levy’s no fool; despite his words, he probably knows that Herc is no one’s mishpocha. Herc’s only loyalty is to Herc.

*For more on Herc’s centrality to the events of the series, read The Life and Times of Fuzzy Dunlop.