This Mayberry, this Peyton Place, this Lumberton, this Grover's Corners, this Morgan Creek, this Never Land, this Eden. This Twin Peaks. Will it be all things to all people? Certainly not. But for the adventurous explorer in the normally tame wilds of television, "Twin Peaks" is just this side of a godsend.
How to describe it -- ABC's new limited-run prime-time serialized drama? In the second episode of "Twin Peaks," airing Thursday, a teenage girl named Donna says to her mother, "It's like I'm having the most beautiful dream and the most terrible nightmare all at once." Exactly.
Tonight, at 9 on Channel 7, ABC finally unveils the two-hour "Twin Peaks" premiere, which opens with a montage of lumber-mill machinery that is sensual and mock-erotic and dreamy in ways that clearly identify it as the work of director David Lynch, who wrote the premiere with coproducer Mark Frost. And a supple wonder they have wrought.
A captivating blend of the existential and the pulpy, the surreal and the neo-real, the grim and the farcical, "Twin Peaks" is new age music for the eyes, a show that careens off the wall and out into left field and yet supplies some of the basic satisfactions we humans have demanded of our storytellers since we first wriggled out of primordial goop.
Set in a fictitious Washington state town near the Canadian border, "Twin Peaks" has obvious similarities to Lynch's much-praised, much-discussed movie "Blue Velvet." Twin Peaks, like Lynch's Lumberton, is a mill town, and one where a chilly indefinable evil lurks beneath a thin veneer of near normalcy. Here too the plot is set in motion by a murder, though this time an entire body, not just a severed ear, is discovered.
But the overt sexual kinkiness of "Blue Velvet" is gone, this being television, and replaced with a mordant whimsicality that can keep you delightedly off balance and hopelessly intrigued.
Kyle MacLachlan, who starred in "Blue Velvet," heads the cast here too, though he doesn't materialize until the second half-hour. He plays special agent Dale Cooper of the FBI, called in to investigate the murder when a second near-victim wanders dazedly over a state line. The two-hour premiere covers the 24 hours after the body is found.
Cooper is forever dictating memos into a pocket tape recorder to an unseen associate named Diane, as in, "Diane, I'm holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies," uttered as he peruses evidence. MacLachlan has a trancey, starry-eyed look that can make the most mundane lines backhandedly funny, as when Cooper rhapsodizes about the aroma of the Douglas firs or the savory charms of a piece of pie.
Slowly he makes the acquaintance of those who knew and may have killed Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen who appears to have fallen in with a definitively bad crowd. The murder may or may not have something to do with the fact that a local businessman is trying to interest visiting Norwegian investors in a big development project that seems to depend on the financial collapse of the Packard Mill, now in the hands of its founder's Chinese widow.
But even generic plot details don't seem trite as reinterpreted here, helped along by such pungent examples of local color as a sheriff's deputy (Harry Goaz) who sobs uncontrollably at the sight of the body or the grimness of the scene of the crime.
The clues trickle tantalizingly out: half of a gold heart locket that appears to have more than two halves; a motorcycle reflected in the pupil of the murder victim on a home video; a letter "R" dug out from under her fingernail in a morgue whose fluorescent lights flicker nervously. On one level, you can get fairly immersed in the mystery. On another, you can luxuriate in texture and imagery very rare for television. All this is abetted by Ron Garcia's cinematography and Angelo Badalamenti's ominous music.
An unwieldy number of characters is somehow made wieldy under Lynch's methodical direction, and among the actors are virtually no drearily familiar TV faces. Joan Chen is stunning in every sense as Packard's widow, Michael Ontkean is stalwart yet pixilated as Sheriff Harry S. Truman. Piper Laurie sputters charismatically as conniving Catherine Martell, Peggy Lipton gives new meaning to "aging gracefully" as waitress Norma Jennings, and Grace Zabriskie cries you a river as the very bereaved mother of the murder victim.
In Twin Peaks, even grief can become a bit silly.
Russ Tamblyn, still twinkly after all these years, has a good time as Dr. Lawrence Jacoby, a psychiatrist with a fondness for ghastly neckties, and Lara Flynn Boyle makes Donna Hayward an intriguing tease. As Bobby, Laura's one-time boyfriend, Dana Ashbrook is deftly menacing, even when drunkenly auto-surfing on the hood of a car.
Eric Da Rae, as village Neanderthal Leo Johnson, has one of the most colorful lines of dialogue in the premiere, jealously berating his wife Shelly (Madchen Amick) with, "If I ever see two different brands of cigarettes in this house again, I'm gonna snap your neck like a twig." At a town meeting, MacLachlan asks Ontkean for background on the locals: "Who's the glad-handing dandy?"
That is followed by this exchange, already slightly famous: "Who's the lady with the log?" "We call her the Log Lady."
Some of the dialogue may get a tad too colorful. In Thursday night's installment, Richard Beymer as the ruthless developer tells his daughter, "If you ever pull another stunt like that, you are going to be scrubbing bidets in a Bulgarian convent!" Later, Bobby's father tells his son, "To have his path made clear is the ambition of every human being in our beclouded and tempestuous existence" as he slaps a cigarette out of the surly kid's mouth.
Lynch has indicated that not all the portents and clues he plants will be resolved. In an existential whodunit, one may in fact never learn who did it. This will rankle some viewers, and the specter of narrative cheating arises. But vagueness is in its way refreshing next to the pat, over-explained nature of most TV entertainments.
Pauline Kael wrote that the hero of "Blue Velvet" lived "in an indefinite mythic present that feels like the past." Lynch has achieved that same otherworldly aura here, and "Twin Peaks" disorients you in ways that small-screen productions seldom attempt. It's a pleasurable sensation, the floor dropping out and leaving one dangling. Somehow through the murkiness, you may feel you are seeing with amplified clarity.
As prankish and facetious as it sometimes is, "Twin Peaks" trafficks in troubling themes. Lynch may seem a poet of darkness, a child of the night, but in a curious, circuitous way, he and his little television program do a fairly marvelous thing: They cast their own new light on the richness of existence.
"Twin Peaks" is both a proud and daffy moment in the history of television.