Friday, May 22, 2009

Favorite TV Shows: Twin Peaks

Thanks to the wonder of Netflix, I've been able to revisit some shows I haven't seen in a long while. One of the most creative, bizarre, captivating, and baffling programs ever made was Twin Peaks, which aired between 1989-1991. It was only on for two seasons, though the first season only lasted for seven episodes, including the two-hour pilot. The series immediately developed a cult following after its premiere, and its cliffhanger episode endings, cinematic visual style, and recurring images of red drapes, owls, fir trees blowing in the wind, coffee, doughnuts, and a freakishly scary grey-haired man named Bob kept viewers riveted. Though the show seemed to center around a murder investigation in the small town of Twin Peaks, Washington, the theme was more about the lives of the residents of Twin Peaks, who all seem to know each other, and yet manage to conceal all manner of secrets. Creators Mark Frost and enigmatic filmmaker David Lynch (who appears in a few episodes as near-deaf FBI supervisor Gordon Cole and who also wrote the lyrics to songs featured in the show) managed to craft a surreal world with quirky yet unforgettable characters. The show's serial nature, darkly comic humor, twisting plot, and occasionally shocking violence paved the way for many shows that followed, including Northern Exposure, Picket Fences, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The plot concerned the murder of everybody's favorite prom queen/special ed tutor/meals on wheels organizer Laura Palmer (portrayed by Sheryl Lee, stunningly beautiful even when made up to look dead) who is discovered one morning lying by a lake and wrapped in plastic. When another girl, Ronette Pulaski is found emaciated and virtually catatonic across the state line, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is called in to take the case. Cooper is squeaky-clean-cut but also prone to use unorthodox methods, following clues he sees in his dreams. In addition to his love of coffee "black as midnight on a moonless night" and doughnuts and cherry pie, Cooper constantly records tapes of his experiences to his unseen secretary Diane. (While going through a box of Laura's belongings, he begins an entry thusly: "Diane, I'm holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies...") Cooper is teamed with Sheriff Harry S. Truman ("should be easy to remember..."), a no-nonsense lawman who appreciates Cooper's skills even when not understanding his methods. During the investigation, we are introduced to the town's residents and their labyrinthine webs of secrets:

Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), Laura's father, a lawyer whose devastation at his daughter's murder causes him to dance compulsively as he loses his sanity.
Benjamine Horne (Richard Beymer of West Side Story fame), local businessman who owns the hotel, the store, and a brothel across the Canadian border where many bad things happen. Laura worked in his store, and they had more than a professional relationship.
Josie Packard (Joan Chen), a Hong Kong immigrant who owns her late husband's sawmill. She's dating the sheriff and has shady dealings with Ben Horne.
Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie), Josie's sister-in-law who hates that Josie owns her brother's sawmill. She, too, has shady dealings (and a romance) with Ben. Her husband Pete (Jack Nance) discovered Laura's body.
Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), a daddy's girl with a devious streak, she's Ben's daughter and went to school with Laura. She has a crush on Cooper and her desire to help him solve the case causes her to put herself in dangerous situations.
Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), quarterback for the football team and Laura's boyfriend. He's secretly seeing waitress Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick) whose abusive husband, trucker Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re), has been doing drugs with Laura and is a prime suspect in the murder.
James Hurley (James Marshall), Laura's secret boyfriend, rides a Harley, wears leather, and looks a lot tougher than he acts. He vows, with Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), Laura's best friend, to solve the murder and soon the two of them realize they're in love. They team up with Laura's cousin Maddy Ferguson (also Sheryl Lee), who looks like Laura but with dark hair and glasses.
Ed Hurley (Everett McGill), James's uncle, runs the gas station and is a member of the Bookhouse Boys, a secret society that acts to stop evil when the law can't. He's had a long affair with Norma (Peggy Lipton), Shelly's employer at the RR Diner, whose husband Hank (Chris Mulkey) is in prison for the "accidental" death of Josie's husband. Ed's wife Nadine (Wendy Robie) wears an eyepatch, is a classic obsessive-compulsive, has super-human strength, and her devotion to Ed keeps him from pursuing his devotion to Norma.

Got all that?

I haven't even gotten to Andy (Harry Goaz), the monumentally stupid-but-lovable sheriff's deputy who may or may not be the father of ditzy receptionist Lucy's (Kimmy Robertson) baby. Or Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn, also of WSS), the town shrink who does magic tricks, wears muli-colored glasses, and was secretly conducting therapy sessions for Laura. Or the Log Lady (Catherine Coulson), an eccentric widow who hears messages from the log that she carries around. There are also appearances by a pre-SNL Molly Shannon as a foster child case worker, a pre-X-Files David Duchovny as Dennis/Denise, a DEA officer with a penchant for cross-dressing, and the gorgeous...well, I'll get to her later. Not to mention Philip Michael Gerrard (Al Strobel), a one-armed man (yes, man--it's a tribute to The Fugitive) who channels Mike, a demonic entity who tells Cooper about Bob (Frank Silva), the aforementioned really scary guy who keeps appearing to various townspeople in visions. Mike and Bob like to recite poems, too:
"Through the darkness of futures past,
the magician longs to see
one chance out between two worlds,
Fire...walk with me"

Or this one:

"I'll catch you in my death bag
You may think I've gone insane
But I promise
I will kill again"

The series began its downfall when the network pressured Frost and Lynch to actually solve the murder. Once that was done, other plots had to be devised to keep the show going, but none of them held the magnetic appeal of Laura's murder mystery. The second season lost a lot of steam halfway through, and by the time the season ended with one of the most maddening unresolved cliffhangers in television history, Twin Peaks had already been cancelled. A shame, since in addition to the cliffhanger they had recently introduced the character of Annie (Heather Graham), Norma's sister and Cooper's newfound love interest. More Heather Graham in prime-time would have been a good thing.

One thing that stands out about the show is its music. Angelo Badalamenti created a memorable and unique soundscape for Twin Peaks, a mixture of new wave synthesizers and smooth jazz with some rockabilly inflections. The theme song, with its ominous throbbing bass line, won a Grammy, and the soundtrack CD sold surprisingly well. Four songs, with Lynch's lyrics sung by Julee Cruise (who appears in a few episodes singing at the Roadhouse) were sung on the show: "Falling," essentially the theme song with words, "The Nightingale," "Into the Night," a genuinely creepy tune with a good "gotcha" moment thrown in, and "Rockin' Back Inside My Heart," which was used in the second season and was not included on the CD.

Sadly, aside from a few non-filmed projects like Cooper's tapes to Diane and Laura Palmer's Secret Diary (written by Lynch's daughter Jennifer), the only thing left for Peaks fans is the film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which was a critical and commercial failure, partly because it did little to resolve the disappointing ending to season two. Perhaps with the current trend of "rebooting" old shows (because apparently the creative community is afraid to get too creative these days) maybe we'll see a Twin Peaks revival that will provide desperate fans with some closure. Or at least explain what the appearance of that white horse was supposed to mean.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Go Boldly

I have been a fan of "Star Trek" for a very long time. I still remember one night when I was very young, and my dad let me stay up to watch the show with him when it came on at 10 pm. The episode was "The Doomsday Machine," one of the best episodes of the original series. Unfortunately, recent Trek productions have been underwhelming. The last film, Star Trek: Nemesis had some great moments, but simply didn't have a cohesive enough story to hold up to the best of the franchise. (I'd say it's probably the weakest of the franchise's "even-numbered" films; the tenth in the series.) And the last official piece of Trek film was the final episode of the Enterprise series, and I will only use up enough space here to say that it had to be one of the worst final episodes of any television series...ever. Trek had been under the control of one production team since the early 90's, and they had clearly run out of steam.

So I was excited to hear about the new film, simply titled Star Trek, being produced and directed by JJ Abrams. Abrams produced "Alias," which I have never seen, as well as two shows I enjoy a lot, "Fringe" and "Lost." Abrams also helmed Mission: Impossible III which I thought was excellent. The exciting trailer that popped up when I went to see Quantum of Solace a few months ago made me a lot more excited--this film looked good.

Tonight I was fortunate to get to an "early" showing in a nearby IMAX theater. Sparkling reviews, mass marketing, and more excellent previews really had me hoping that my hopes weren't too high for this film.

They weren't. Star Trek is outstanding.

I won't go over the fine details of the plot, though like all the best Trek films this one does involve some time travel which allows classic Trek stalwart Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to get in on the action. Zachary Quinto does an admirable job as the younger Spock--he's nowhere near as creepy as he is on "Heroes" and he looks strikingly similar to the Spock we know and love. The only major difference is Quinto's raspy voice, which sounds quite different from the resonant baritone that Nimoy had in 1966. Chris Pine really shines as the young Kirk, evoking the ego and overconfidence we expect but in no way does he evoke the cringe-worthy William...Shatner......
deliverythateveryonemakesfunof. The top trio is rounded out by Karl Urban (totally unlike his portrayal of Eomer in The Lord of the Rings) as Dr. McCoy, and there are times I suspect he may really be channeling the late DeForest Kelley. More important than reminding us of the previous actors, these men have a real chemistry together, something that can't be acheived just through dialogue, costumes, and special effects.

The rest of the cast is also excellent: Zoe Saldana is a strikingly attractive Uhura (I can't complain about this film's resurrection of the mini-skirt uniforms) who holds her own with the volatile Kirk as well as showing some surprisingly touching moments with Spock. (She banishes once and for all the notion that Uhura was good for little more than "opening hailing frequencies" 14 times an episode. Which really happened once.) Anton Yelchin turns Chekov into something more than the novelty Russian-who-can't-pronounce-V's, though it is a little strange to hear a real Russian accent from the character. Simon Pegg is a scene-stealer as the really-Scottish Scotty. He doesn't show up until the film is half-over and yet manages to make every scene his. John Cho gets a good quick action sequence as Sulu, fighting Romulans with what appears to be a nifty retractable katana. Venerable elders Bruce Greenwood (Captain Pike) and Ben Cross (Sarek) provide a strong anchor for the younger cast members. Indeed, it's great to finally see Christopher Pike in a non-"Cage/Menagerie" story.

The bad guy is Nero (Eric Bana), a Romulan with some strong resentment issues and a vendetta against old Spock that sets the story in motion. The special effects are top-notch--one marvels at the imploding planet, not the cool CGI that is making it happen. The script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman keeps things moving along nicely, and the expected character lines ("I'm a doctor, not a....") are thrown in as unobtrusively as possible. This film is a wonderful tribute to a beloved piece of American pop culture. It is a testament to Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future. (The recently-departed Majel Barrett Roddenberry again plays the computer voice and the film is dedicated to the couple.) But more than that, it is a whole lot of fun. I walked out with the same feeling that accompanied The Wrath of Khan after the well-meaning-but-slow Motion Picture and the triumphant Undiscovered Country after the silly Final Frontier: this is the one we've been waiting for.

You don't have to be a Trekker (that's the preferred term!) to enjoy Star Trek. You very likely will be one after it's over.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Don't Be a Hater

I've come to the conclusion that very often, we really don't understand the true meaning of the words we use. Specifically, "love" and "hate." We use the same word to describe our devotion to God, parents, spouse, children, friends, and country that we use to describe our fascination with a television show or a flavor of ice cream. We will use the same term of derision for an opposing sports team that we do for terrorists, Hitler, and "people who talk at the theater." (Sorry, I couldn't resist invoking the words of Shepherd Book from Firefly.) I believe that, on occasion, this causes us to lose proper perspective on some issues.

For instance, back in November California voters had the opportunity to vote for or against Proposition 8 on the ballot, which was an amendment stating that marriage would only be recognized as the union of one man and one woman. Opponents of the bill urged voters to "vote no on Proposition H8," because it's generally easier to gain support for your side if you can convince the moderate people that your opponents are hateful people. Granted, the proposition had outlined no legal penalties for anyone, threatened no one with violence, specified no person as being of a lower class, but if you supported it for any reason then you were labeled as hateful. More recently, we have had large gobs of evidence that certain celebrity bloggers have more openly hateful attitudes to Christian beauty pageant contestants than vice versa, but that really isn't what I wanted to write about.

In recent days, Congress has been debating federal hate crime legislation. The idea behind "hate crime" is that people who are convicted of a crime receive greater penalties if they are shown to have a strong prejudice of some sort against the victim. The focal point for this legislation is the late Matthew Shephard, a gay college student who was found beaten to death on the side of a road. The two perpetrators were caught, convicted, and are serving what hopefully will be the rest of their lives behind bars. Many supporters of hate crime laws point to this case as a strong reason why hate crimes deserve attention. Largely ignored is the fact that the perpetrators were both strung out on methamphetamines and likely would have assaulted anyone they came across to get money for more drugs. (The killers have admitted this.)

Here's my problem with hate crime laws, and it has nothing to do with Matthew Shephard. Like I said, I believe his killers deserve a lifetime of jailtime, at the very least. But would the hate crime proponents feel the same way if the killers were gay, and Shephard wasn't? What if he had been black? What if he had been a white man attacked by two black men? What if it were Christian-on-Muslim murder? Or atheist-on-Christian? Or Star Wars fans on Star Trek? My point is that any type of murder or assault is a hate crime, because the action is hateful. Are we going to impose greater penalties for a person's supposed bias when he/she commits a crime?

Well, alright, we already do, sort of. That's why there is a distinction between first-, second-, and third-degree murder and manslaughter. They take into account clear evidence of malice and intent. Our legal system recognizes the difference between a crime of passion and the well-planned bombing of Oklahoma City's federal building. But we reach into dangerous territory when we presume to read the mind of a criminal to find particular biases that we want to punish. Is it dangerous because dangerous criminals shouldn't have the book thrown at them? No. It's dangerous because our legal system is founded on the principle of equal protection under the law. That means that the killer of a skinhead, the killer of a gay man, the killer of an abortion clinic doctor, and the killer of an eight-year-old girl all deserve the same conviction. Those victims deserve the same amount of justice. When we begin to punish a killer more because his victim is gay, or black, or...different...we aren't far away from beginning to enforce the thoughtcrime that George Orwell envisioned in 1984. When we create a special class of citizen that deserves more legal protection than "normal" people, we invite abuse. We invite Perez Hilton to say whatever he wants--and potentially to make whatever threats he wants--about Carrie Prejean, because his beliefs are special, and hers aren't. In an attempt to compensate a class of people, we tacitly encourage the abuse of another class. Our whole system of social and political discourse begins to crumble, because now, if you disagree, then someone will decide that you also hate. And that allows us to view our fellow principled objectors not as misguided, but as a threat.

In the end, we open the door to create an environment where hating becomes easier, not harder. The whole purpose of the First Amendment is to ensure that thoughts and opinions cannot be criminalized, only actions. The Nazis weren't convicted at Nuremburg because they hated Jews; they were convicted because of what they did to Jews. When we punish opinions, and not actions, we begin to create a society that inherently stifles free thought, debate, and expression. And that hurts us all. Hurting an entire society with a legal opinion...maybe that could be a hate crime.