There's something different about the documentaries you'll be seeing on "American Chronicles" (Saturday at 9:30 on Fox), something provocative, offbeat, something that pushes the limits of what we think of as television documentaries.
So perhaps it's not surprising, then, to learn that "American Chronicles" is from David Lynch and Mark Frost, producers of "Twin Peaks," which airs immediately afterward on ABC.
For one thing, Mark Frost thinks the word "documentaries" doesn't even fit this series exactly.
"There's so much information and journalism on television," said Frost. "We have too much to absorb." It's apparent that he's out to achieve something else. No on-the-road stories in the avuncular Charles Kuralt style for Frost and Lynch; no slice-of-life, let-the-cameras-roll films in the style of Frederick Wiseman.
Maybe "impressions" would be a better word. Certainly it fits the first entry, "Farewell to the Flesh," a look at the bacchanalia of Mardi Gras narrated by Richard Dreyfuss.
In New Orleans, Fat Tuesday is marked with the balls and parades and the royalty that remind the city of its origins under the French crown. But New Orleans has Creole roots as well, and an eerie mysticism -- voodoo? black magic? -- that lurks just beneath the gaiety. It's this that fascinates Frost.
"That's very much a part of the fabric of the life down there," said Frost. "I love the place. I've always been interested in what passes for, what we call religion, what other cultures call their spiritual life. The Christian perspective is that it's black magic and voodoo and evil, but they were practiced widely in their heyday. I see them as the same way of getting inside yourself."
But in New Orleans, after the excesses of fun and debauchery, after the sins of the flesh, the faithful come back for spiritual salvation. On Ash Wednesday, we see priests in purple vestments tracing crosses onto the foreheads of some very, very tired parishioners.
Frost said he was not brought up with religion and feels no allegiance to any. "I wasn't overwhelmed by dogma," he said, "and that sort of freed me up to look at things differently."
One of those things was satanic cults, which turned up in Frost's first theatrical script, "The Believers" (1987), directed by John Schlesinger. The movie stars Martin Sheen as a widower who takes his son to New York City and becomes involved with a cult that practices the sacrifice of children.
Movie reviewer Leonard Maltin called it "a gripping, genuinely frighting story ... an atmospheric thriller about voodoo in modern New York ... that knows how to manipulate its audience but shows no mercy either: a boy sees his mother electrocuted in the very first scene."
Frost's partner, Lynch, has a bizarre streak as well, having written and produced the strange film "Blue Velvet" (1986) and this season's "Wild at Heart."
Frost recognized shadows of a netherworld in New Orleans, a city that novelist Anne Rice too uses for her richly evocative "Vampire" bestsellers. Not surprisingly, Frost knows the books and mentions that Rice lives in New Orleans.
Frost's "Storyville," a film marking his debut as a theatrical director, is also set in New Orleans. He described the movie as "a thriller with political overtones. ... In fact, that's what brought me to New Orleans." Filming on "Storyville" is due to begin next spring.
This week, careful viewers of "American Chronicles" will see John Goodman ("Roseanne") pulling on his costume and Dennis Quaid ("The Big Easy") as the King of Bacchus. What they may not see, in the final version, is the array of exposed bottoms and tops so gleefully displayed to cameraman Van Carlson and which Frost said may have to be deleted before airtime.
In the next 12 installments, "American Chronicles" continues its trek around the United States with looks at Manhattan, a Miss Texas Beauty Pageant in San Antonio, a 25th high school reunion in Elmhurst, Ill., a Hell's Angels convention in Sturgis, S.D., Americans' obsession with cars, and profiles of sports heroes such as Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky.
"The thing about the show is that it's going to be a different kind of experience and I hope we can maintain the kind of visual show we have in the first installment," said Frost. "The key is really in keeping the visuals continuing."
For that, he credited Carlson, who has filmed the first three episodes, and film editor/associate producer Bob Jenkis.
Frost, born in New York City to a father who was stage manager for the renowned "Playhouse 90" and "Philco Playhouse," moved to Los Angeles at 6 and to Minneapolis at 13, when his father joined the University of Minnesota theater department faculty.
After his junior year at Carnegie Tech, when he met Charles Haid ("He had come to direct a show and he and I hit it off really well"), Frost decided to try for a place in the writers' community in Los Angeles. Although 10 years younger, he became part of the Carnegie Tech cadre started by Steven Bochco, Bruce Weiss, Haid and Barbara Bosson.
At Universal, Frost began writing for "Lucas Tanner" (NBC, September 1974-August '75), "Sunshine" (NBC, March-June 1975), and "The Six Million Dollar Man" (ABC, January 1974-March 1978). He won a Writers Guild Award and an Emmy nomination during his three years as a writer, story editor and executive story editor on Bochco's "Hill Street Blues."
Frost met Lynch in 1986 when they were teamed to write and direct "Goddess," about the last month of the life of Marilyn Monroe, a never-aired production done at United Artists and over which Frost said they have no control; and a science-fiction comedy, "One Saliva Bubble," which Frost wrote and Lynch was going to direct, but which is also as yet unproduced.
Frost is also scripting the film "Good Morning, Chicago," a sequel to "Good Morning, Vietnam," and awaiting star Robin Williams's availability. Chicago, too, is a city Frost likes: His first play, "The Nuclear Family," was staged there at the St. Nicholas Theatre while he was literary associate at the Guthrie Theatre of the University of Minnesota and playwright-in-residence at the Midwestern Playwright's Lab.
Meanwhile, said Frost, he and Lynch are riding the wave of interest created by their offbeat series "Twin Peaks," which raked in 14 Emmy nominations and will begin a new season on ABC after the reruns have finished.
So how is it that the work of Frost and Lynch, arguably the hottest duo in the business just now, came to turn up on Fox as well as ABC this season?
"I wanted to use the opportunities that had been presented to us, that had come to us from 'Twin Peaks,' but I also did not want to overwhelm us with work," said Frost candidly.
As executive producers, the two will oversee producers and staffers with backgrounds in documentary work. They include supervising producer Gary H. Grossman, who Frost said served "Entertainment Tonight" in the same role.
Too, Frost said he sees the Fox entry as "sort of a lead-in to 'Twin Peaks.'"
Fox stations may not see it that way, of course. After all, to get a double dose of Lynch/Frost, viewers out there in Televisionland will have to switch that dial.