Monday, January 2, 2012

Return To The Weirdest Place On Earth For An Erratic Season: Twin Peaks - Season 2!

The Good: Some wonderful characters, Some great performances, Resolution to Laura Palmer murder, Finale, DVD interviews
The Bad: No commentaries, Some of the most ridiculous plot and character twists with terrible acting!
The Basics: When Agent Cooper wakes up after being shot and given new clues in his near-death dream, he continues to pursue Laura Palmer's murderer as Twin Peaks falls apart!

After years of waiting patiently, fans of Twin Peaks were suddenly told in 2007 that the second season of the series would be released. Not only that, the entire series would be anthologized as one Definitive Gold Box set, which would offer American audiences the first opportunity to legally own the pilot episode as well. As a result, there were generally only three groups of people who would even consider purchasing the Twin Peaks - The Complete Second Season boxed set that was released: 1. People who purchased Twin Peaks - Season 1 (reviewed here!) who would absolutely refuse to rebuy the content of the first season by purchasing the later "Definitive Gold Box Edition," 2. People who did not know the second complete anthology set was going to be released by the end of the same year, and 3. People who want to have everything they can involving Twin Peaks. That last group consists of everyone who wasn't so furious that the "Definitive" edition set would not have everything that had already been released on the DVDs that they couldn't see straight! There's something terribly wrong about having something considered the gold standard of a presentation of a series and have it lacking commentary tracks that already exist (from the first season DVD boxed set) and interviews (which were included in this second season only boxed set) from key members of the cast talking about the show.

The second season boxed set of Twin Peaks includes all twenty-two episodes from the second season of the acclaimed surreal murder mystery drama series, including the double length season premiere. It is worth mentioning at the outset that the first season went out with a bang with the fate of several characters completely up in the air and it is impossible to talk about the second season in any coherent way without letting the fate of some of them be known (fear not, I would never reveal the identity of Laura Palmer's killer in a review!). And it is also worth mentioning that the second season is remarkably erratic so that while it starts high and fresh where it left off, it rapidly plummets to terrible depths before pulling itself out for a race to a nail-biter of a season (and ultimately, series) finale!

Agent Dale Cooper, shot and lying on the floor near death, despite having worn his FBI-dictated bulletproof jacket, is rescued from oblivion by the dim waiter at the Great Northern whose presence sends Cooper into a new dream realm where he sees a giant who gives him new clues to how to find Laura Palmer's killer! Once he is out of immediate danger, Cooper's thoughts turn once again to finding the killer, though the webs of intrigue continue to interrupt and thwart him from dealing with the investigation as the top priority.

As Cooper and Truman move closer and closer to the identity of Laura Palmer's killer, Audrey Horne needs to be rescued from the drug-peddling Blackie, Donna Hayward discovers Laura Palmer's secret diary in the hands of a shut in who is delivered food from Meals On Wheels, and Shelly and Bobby have to deal with a vegetative Leo, whom they deign to keep alive for the insurance money. Truman wrestles with his feelings for Josie, who begins to show signs of her guilt for her arrangement with Hank Jennings and Nadine, having woken up convinced she is in high school, abandons Big Ed. And as Cooper nears the end of the investigation that brought him to Twin Peaks, he finds himself under investigation by the FBI and the Canadian mounted police and an old adversary returning to his life to torment him with a deadly game of chess that begins to rack up bodies around Twin Peaks and leads Cooper into one of the most terrifying possible places!

The problem with season two of Twin Peaks is that it is, at best, erratic. The series had two essential plots running through the first season: the Laura Palmer murder investigation and the Packard Saw Mill conspiracy aimed at gutting the value of the property and getting it into the hands of developer Benjamin Horne who wants to make it into a resort area. Season two does not take long to wrap up the murder of Laura Palmer and the Mill plotline is almost entirely burned up in the first season finale (yes, that's tongue-in-cheek). As a result, the series exploded like a shotgun with buckshot plotlines that range from the absurd (Nadine's sudden superhuman strength and regression to high school age in her mind) to dull (as soon as Laura's murder is resolved, James Hurley takes off, only to run into a woman who tries to frame him for killing her husband). The low-key romance between Lucy and Deputy Andy is complicated by the introduction of Richard, an elitist snob who seems to have no real affection for Lucy but may be the father of her child and she contacts to try to get him to do right by her and the baby.

In order to accommodate all the characters, some of the better ones are brought down - Benjamin Horne goes crazy for several episodes and becomes obsessed with recreating Civil War battles in his office - and some of the ones that remain are given the bum treatment (Bobby suddenly becomes a somewhat ridiculous executive assistant to Benjamin). It is only when the series begins to focus on the return of Windham Earl, Cooper's psychotic ex-partner, and his quest to find the great evil in the forests of Twin Peaks and the way all of the other stories begin to converge around that the second season pulls itself out of the rut of ridiculous, boring and just shamefully bad that it plummets into as a result of the plot freefall following the resolution to the first major case.

What makes Twin Peaks unique and interesting and worth watching is that it relies on an intriguing combination of brilliant detective work based on logic and intelligence and a healthy appreciation and use of the supernatural. So, for example, Dale receives most of the clues to find Laura's killer in dreams he has, which he then interprets information from and applies to the real world. Thwarting Windham Earl's terrorizing of Twin Peaks involves a lethal literal chess match combined with the quest to find the White Lodge and the Black Lodge, places of concentrated good and evil that do not physically exist in our reality, from which many of the dreams Cooper had seem to originate.

In order to fill out twenty-two episodes and get to the final resting place of the season (and the series), though, there is a lot of space to fill and some of the plotlines just feel like filler. When Major Briggs disappears in the woods while Cooper is investigating a second murder, it seems random and over-the-top supernatural. But it comes to fit neatly into the overall story being told with Windham Earl's obsessive plot to find the Black Lodge. But plots like the Nadine returning to high school and choosing Mike over Big Ed and especially the forced conflict between James and Donna and his subsequent fleeing of Twin Peaks go nowhere. As well, something is begun where three characters - independent of one another - have a shaking hand accompanied by eerie music, but that goes nowhere.

But with all the plots, decent and shaky, what remains is a series that has some of the most interesting and unique characters in television history. While there is a massive cast and character list, for the purpose of the second season, the essential characters include:

FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper - A brilliant detective often guided by an understanding that the mind is receptive to clues from outside the spheres of normal reality. Having survived being shot - only one bullet actually pierced him - Cooper begins to track the three clues given to him by the giant to find the killer of Laura Palmer. He soon finds himself relieved of duty and facing suspension on drug smuggling charges, charges he works to prove himself innocent of and become brushed aside when Windham Earl arrives near Twin Peaks and begins a reign of torment and bloodshed in his quest to get revenge on Cooper,

Sheriff Harry S. Truman - Relieved to find Cooper alive, Truman risks everything to help him rescue Audrey Horne from One-Eyed Jacks, even as he finds his relationship with Josie complicated by her involvement in the mill fire. Truman becomes the truest friend to Cooper and the two rely on one another more and more as the investigations turn dangerous,

Benjamin Horne - As the Laura Palmer murder investigation reaches its peak, he finds himself one of the prime suspects when Audrey outs him as having had an affair with Laura. He degenerates into a non-dangerous form of crazy and fancies himself a civil war general (for the South) when he is robbed of all potential to make the Ghostwood Estate project into a reality,

Audrey Horne - Having found a clever way to avoid sleeping with her father as a worker at One-Eyed Jacks, she soon uncovers vital clues to Laura's murder, but her identity becomes known to Blackie and she is captured by the drug cartel pushing in Twin Peaks. She begins to look past Cooper for love and finds an intriguing new man who impresses her,

Donna Hayward - Determined as ever to find Laura's murderer and distressed over her perception that James has feelings for Maddy, she follows an anonymous tip to a shut in horticulturist who possesses Laura's secret diary,

James Hurley - Still in love with Donna, he finds himself confused by Maddy and flees Twin Peaks into the arms of another woman entirely,

Maddy - Laura's cousin, she soon finds herself tormented by visions of Bob, the same twisted man Sarah Palmer believes killed Laura,

Leland Palmer - Having vindicated Laura through murdering Jaques, his hair turns white and he takes a spin as a lounge singer before returning to his lawyerly ways as a friend and asset to Benjamin,

Pete Martel - Deals with losing Catharine in the fire and becomes a great asset to Cooper when it is revealed that he is a brilliant chess player,

and Windham Earl - The deranged master of disguise who comes to Twin Peaks with one thought on his mind; revenge on Agent Cooper, who once fell in love with his wife! He begins a series of killings and captures that lead him and Cooper to the edge of madness, the end of the world and into a nightmarish realm that neither might survive!

There are others, but many of them are distracting or as annoying as some of the plots. Series creator David Lynch appears in several episodes as Gordon, Cooper's boss. What makes his character absolutely irritating is his inability to hear (anyone but Shelly) and his constant shouting at everyone present in a ridiculous and over-the-top comedic way. Fans of The X-Files (reviewed here!) will thrill at David Duchovny's short arc as a cross-dressing narcotics officer sent to investigate Dale and his presence is almost as distracting as the late entrance of Heather Graham and appearance of Billy Zane who both are brought in as part of a late push to emphasize new relationships. Don't get me wrong, I loved Heather Graham in Boogie Nights and Billy Zane in Orlando (reviewed here!) but their appearances suddenly bring a sense of Hollywood beautiful people to the very real world of Twin Peaks and it feels intrusive and obvious - the characters they play and who they end up with is troublingly obvious.

Despite the many ridiculous character convolutions and supposed twists that define season two's characters, the acting remains as top notch as the scripts afford. So while some of the performers, most notably Lara Flynn Boyle's portrayal of Donna gone bad by a change in stride and having her smoke, make obvious - if unexplained - character leaps and deal with them as best they can as actors, many of them fall short of doing anything remarkable. I was pretty constantly rooting for Big Ed and Norma, but when the opportunity comes, Everett McGill illustrates no real passion in his performance for Peggy Lipton's Norma. This guts the emotional intensity of his character arc.

But most of the young and more mature cast works surprisingly well together. Dana Ashbrook and Don Davis play off one another beautifully in a way that makes for a surprisingly complex and real father/son relationship portrayal. Similarly, Ashbrook and Madchen Amick play off one another well in the increasingly complex relationship between Bobby and Shelly.

But three performers rock the show and make it worth watching, no matter how bad the series gets. They are Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Truman, recurring guest star Kenneth Welsh as Windham Earl and Kyle McLachlan as Dale Cooper. Ontkean is given the opportunity to show some real range when he must portray Truman as the skeptic turning to appreciate the supernatural. He also gives a great performance as Truman broken when the romance between Truman and Josie goes sour. He is convincing angry, good-natured, or running into the bathroom to vomit after a night of heavy drinking!

Kenneth Welsh clearly defines Windham Earl and while the character is put into many ridiculous places where Welsh is required to adorn himself with the most obvious disguises, Welsh does well in the role. When Earl dresses up to get close to his victims, he establishes very real personas for his alternates and Welsh does an amazing job of portraying that with his ability to modulate his body language and voice. And he plays creepy remarkably well!

But much of the responsibility for the series falls to Kyle McLachlan, who plays Dale Cooper. McLachlan quickly re-establishes the efficient and quirky Cooper at the outset of the second season, then progresses him well through the character changes. Just when the part seems like it might be getting stale, the series finale rushes up and McLachlan is given one of the most complex acting tasks to portray and he knocks it out of the park! He's brilliant and the boxed set is worth the price of to see him act alone!

As far as DVD extras go, the season two boxed set is a little thin, though it contains a series of interviews with cast and production workers that is not replicated elsewhere (grr!). There are no commentary tracks and ultimately, given the extensive nature of the bonus features on the "Definitive Gold Box" edition, I'd opt for that instead of this set. Ultimately, I decided to recommend this set, but it comes with caveats. Buy this set if you're never going to buy the Definitive Gold Box edition (reviewed here!), which I'd understand because if one already has season one, that's seven episodes of duplication by buying the bigger boxed set! But for those who love Twin Peaks, have seen it and want to add it to their permanent collection, avoid this set and go for the big boxed set. The erratic quality of the second season is somewhat muted in the presence of the great pilot, wonderful first season and all the bonus features there.

And anyone who loves a good supernatural murder mystery will love Twin Peaks and want to add it to their collection. And despite the quality roller coaster that season two represents, it's still a damn fine show and it was worth the wait.

For more information on the specific episodes in this boxed set, please check out my reviews of the episodes at:
Episodes 8 – 9
Episodes 10 - 14
Episodes 15 - 19
Episodes 20 - 24
Episodes 25 - 29


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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