First question: Can this be happening?
Second question: Can this be happening on television?
Answers: Yes and yes.
That's because ABC has become the closest thing the United States has to Channel Four Television, the enterprising British network that regards TV as a laboratory with foaming-over beakers and test tubes, not as a rest home for tired ideas.
The latest and best evidence of that is the two-hour pilot for "Twin Peaks," which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday (on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) in advance of the regular season premiere at 9 p.m. Thursday. "Twin Peaks" is a soap opera like no other soap opera, TV like no other TV.
While fat, first-place NBC counts its profits and creaky, third-place CBS counts its aches and pains, viewers should be counting their blessings as second-place ABC continues to move crisply forward with some of the boldest programs to be found on American TV.
ABC's record of encouraging programs that offer a true alternative--love them or leave them--speaks for itself.
It was ABC that gave that bizarre Channel Four creation "Max Headroom" a shot in prime time. It was ABC that gave life to the wondrous "thirtysomething" and "The Wonder Years." It was ABC that, like Dr. Frankenstein, created those electroded mutants "Roseanne" and "America's Funniest Home Videos." It is ABC that recently unfurled that superior law series "Equal Justice" and that Wednesday launched a daring comedy called "The Marshall Chronicles."
And it is ABC that, against all conventional logic, is brazenly bringing forth "Twin Peaks" with a seven-episode commitment beyond the pilot.
The executive producers of "Twin Peaks" are Mark Frost and David Lynch, the film director whose credits range from that exemplary work "The Elephant Man" to the stunningly incomprehensible "Dune." But it's the much-acclaimed film Lynch is now most famous for--the stylishly dark, foreboding, mysterious and satirical "Blue Velvet"--that comes closest to being the forebear of "Twin Peaks," whose pilot he directed and co-wrote with Frost.
A fictional lumber town in the Pacific Northwest near Canada, Twin Peaks appears to be routinely minding its business when the plastic-wrapped body of high school homecoming queen Laura Palmer washes ashore at a lake.
Once again, Lynch proves himself the master of the unlikely. Just as the discovery of a human ear was the catalyst for freakiness in "Blue Velvet," so does the discovery of Laura's body uncork a plethora of horrors and strangeness in "Twin Peaks."
Soon Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) and FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) are deep into a homicide investigation that rubs away the town's thin sheen of respectability to reveal its simply awful secrets of greed, corruption, violence and--most definitely--illicit sex.
"Twin Peaks" teeters on the very edge of exquisite absurdity. Its genius is that it plays both on the level of subtly ludicrous melodrama and on the level of a baffling whodunit, as most lines of dialogue appear to contain a hidden meaning, most faces a dark secret.
There are faces aplenty, almost too many characters to keep track of initially, three of them played by actors (Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer and Peggy Lipton) rarely seen on the screen these days. Meanwhile, Joan Chen, who was the drug-addicted empress in "The Last Emperor," plays the local mill owner, who it turns out was taking English lessons from the dead Laura.
Most of the characters in the first two episodes are, well, different. An FBI agent inexplicably adrift in an obscure murder case, agent Cooper continually dictates his thoughts into a tape recorder, speaking to someone named Diane. Poor Truman is frustrated by one of his deputies, who can't stop sobbing. A woman with a black eye patch keeps ordering her husband to hang drapes. And another woman carries around a log. When Cooper asks her a question concerning the investigation, she replies, "Ask the log."
Very, very weird, and very, very funny.
While he and Truman examine Laura's body, Cooper says to the morgue attendant: "Would you leave us, please?"
"Jim," the attendant replies, blurting out his name for no discernible reason other than perhaps he thought that Cooper was addressing him as "Please."
That's the way it goes here. "Twin Peaks" is executed with such a straight face, and in such a grim, brooding environment that it sometimes takes a couple of beats before you realize someone here is having a lot of fun.
Ignoring the prime-time rule mandating frequent exclamation points to keep the viewer from becoming bored and switching channels, "Twin Peaks" dribbles out at a pace that demands patience (the opening credits alone last longer than many programs), and its characters often move like zombies.
With Angelo Badalamenti's portentous music as a constant ominous undertone, Lynch moves his camera slowly and stealthily, as if a burglar tiptoeing through someone's home. He plays games, lingering on obscure objects and creating the impression that they hold special meaning. He hones in on an electric ceiling fan in the home of the murdered girl, for example, and for no apparent reason, pauses there for a few seconds.
Hmmmmmm. A most interesting piece of television, and another creative feather in ABC's cap. What does it all mean? Ask the log.