Film and TV

Summer TV Club: Twin Peaks "Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer"

When we decided to watch Twin Peaks based on the numerous suggestions from you, Jef thought we should check out the seminal episode that proved to the world that this show was not going to be yet another Hill Street Blues, "Zen or the Skill to Catch a Killer." If you have never watched an episode of Twin Peaks, I am afraid to say that this is going to be totally lost on you, but it may spark your interest in the show.

I personally haven't watched the series since it originally aired in 1990. At the time, I was fairly young, and probably had no idea of the level of surrealism and downright absurdity that encompassed the show, but I did love it and I did rock an "I killed Laura Palmer" T-shirt, which is perfectly acceptable for a little kid to wear to elementary school.

To brief you on the show, which was created by wacky auteur David Lynch, Twin Peaks is a fictional town in Washington that is rocked when the homecoming queen, Laura Palmer, is found murdered, her body wrapped in plastic. Because another girl was also found as a part of the crime over state lines, the FBI is called in, specifically Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan. This murder sets off a chain of events and gives insights into all of the bizarre, shady business of this tiny town. And there you go.

ABBY: Let's get right into how weird this show is. Not sure about you guys, but I didn't quite remember just how nutty it was. Obviously, it's typical Lynch, but do you think this show could even be possible in 2013?

PETE: Not only do I think it's possible, I think it'd seem passé. This far removed from the Bush (I) Administration, it's easy to forget how freaky Twin Peaks was when it first aired, but it inspired -- directly or indirectly -- everything from The X-Files to Lost. For a network TV show (and this was long before HBO or AMC were making significant original programming), the level of surrealism, horror and absurdity was unprecedented.

Today it would be slotted after reruns of Sons of Anarchy on FX.

JEF: Pete's right. Ninety percent of all non-Snooki, non-pregnant teen television wouldn't exist without Twin Peaks. It didn't just raise the bar on what you could put on network TV, it kicked the bar of the... I don't know what you call the pole thingies, but those.

And it works so well, I think, because the rest of it is so wonderfully awkward and corny. Lynch created both a bizarre nightmare realm and an über-American and polite caricature of the small town. That's what makes the line between them so black and white.

ABBY: Kyle MacLachlan's character recalls an old dream, that if he throws rocks at a bottle while saying the names of potential killers, whomever's name he says when he knocks the bottle down and breaks it, will give them a clue. What? This scene is about ten minutes long and everyone just goes along with it.

PETE: This was pre-9/11. It was a simpler time.

Cooper was a hard act to follow, TV law enforcement character-wise. Cops to this point were either steely-eyed crusaders or bemused-yet-competent devil-may-care types. I'm not sure if Sheriff Truman et al. followed along because of Cooper's jurisdictional authority or because they were a bunch of rubes (though Truman's subsequent dressing down/beating of Agent Rosenfield sort of negates the latter).

One thing, though (and I didn't notice this until rewatching the episode); when Cooper finally does break the bottle, he assumes it's in relation to the name "Leo Johnson," when in reality it was because they were just discussing One Eyed Jack's, where Laura Palmer worked.

JEF: Wow, this is like the fifth time I've watched that scene and never caught that!

ABBY: That makes sense. This show is filled with wonky characters, like what the fuck is the deal with the eye-patch lady and her quietest curtain rod. Who is your favorite character and why?

PETE: The hardest part of doing these is not just going into Wikipedia and following every stupid plot threat until it's 3 a.m. If I remember right, Nadine lost her eye to Big Ed in a hunting accident. It's the source of his searing guilt. Or something.

Favorite character? Agent Cooper is the easy answer. I also remember liking Deputy Hawk, and of course Audrey Horne.

JEF: Later on my favorite character is Albert because he turns around and openly declares his love of Sheriff Truman in a weirdly passionate but completely platonic way. Really, my answer is, "Any character that is not James or Donna." He looks like a human frog, and every second Donna is on screen is like watching that weird high school phase every teenager goes through where they try and change their name.

ABBY: Audrey is definitely my favorite and I do recall as a kid wanting to be just like her, except not crazy. I forgot how hot Sherilyn Fenn was, but so weird, not sexy weird, just weird. She is a terrible dancer.

PETE: YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH. It isn't her fault the Double R had the weirdest jukebox in the Pacific Northwest.

JEF: Tell me, Koenig, how can you be a television critic and hate television?

PETE: Oh man, Sherilyn Fenn. I think I still have the Rolling Stone issue with her, Mädchen Amick and Lara Flynn Boyle on the cover (it was the "College Issue!" I was in college!). But I'm sure I got rid of her issue of Playboy some time after I was married. Yep. Completely sure.

ABBY: My take on Sherilyn Fenn and you two dudes is sure to be slightly different. Speaking of overly made-up chicks, at the heart of this show is "who killed Laura Palmer?" Do you think the show was successful at making you want to know who killed her and why, or do the sub-characters' tangled plots detract from the main story?

PETE: Twin Peaks had the same problem as any similar show, like Murder One or The Killing, only it had it first: namely, maintaining audience interest beyond the initial hook. Lynch caved in to ABC and "solved" Laura's murder in the middle of season two, and ratings cratered, because the gimmickry that had been supplementing the main narrative now had to stand on its own.

JEF: Lynch never intended the murder to be solved. ABC made him, and frankly, after it was, he lost interest in the show. That's why season 2 is, to put it mildly, unorganized.

ABBY: Log lady, and go.....!

PETE: I'm pretty sure the testimony of botanical life forms is inadmissible in a court of law, so telling an FBI agent, "My log saw something that night" probably won't lead to many successful convictions.

JEF: The Log Lady is superior to Jesus in every way, and if she had a call in the show, I would never watch anything else.

ABBY: Okay, in terms of the closing dream sequence, this did not lead me to believe that Agent Cooper would wake up and say, "I got it!" but he's cut from a different cloth. How did you guys break down what the dream sequence was all about?

PETE: Without knowing any of the mythology of that room, which would be revealed later in the series, I think the only realistic interpretation was to take another bong hit. Back then, you'd read about people who would watch and re-watch these episodes exhaustively in an attempt to pick up clues, and "Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer" was the ep that kicked this into high gear. Hell, Twin Peaks was the first TV series I actually learned to program a VCR for.

Anything for my beloved Sherilyn.

JEF: Well, I watched it with my wife, who actually owns a Laura Palmer costume, so I had the whole thing explained to me in real time. I think of the dream sequence as the perfect Lynchian moment because it's not about what it means, it's about how it makes you feel. He throws the lines and colors and sequences up at you not necessarily to tell a story, but to orchestrate a progression of emotions. It makes sense to Cooper, and once we journey further down the path, it will make sense to us. This is a show of mysteries, not answers. That's why it's brilliant.

Next week we watch Magnum PI Season Three "Did You See the Sunrise?" It's a two-parter! Watch with us.

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Abby Koenig
Contact: Abby Koenig