Twin Peaks: Funny Ha-Ha or Funny Peculiar
It didn’t take long for the new season of Twin Peaks to get downright disturbing. (LINK) Dark Dale Cooper is the first creepy presence that fans of the show encounter. New character Sam Colby, who is tasked with monitoring the mysterious glass box, gets distracted by his girlfriend Tracey. Suddenly, that seemingly innocuous structure unleashes a humanoid spectre that violently attacks and then kills them both. Such malevolence is par for the course in the world that David Lynch and Mark Frost first created more than 25 years ago.
Twin Peaks, however, has also embraced comedy, especially the kind that one was never sure was supposed to be funny. Even the quirkiest bits of the third season are laced with a kind of unease. In episode 1 (“My log has a message for you”), when Marjorie Green notices a terrible smell emanating from her neighbor Ruth Davenport’s apartment and then mentions to police that she hasn’t seen the woman for three days, the viewer expects the worst. Yet hilarity ensues when Marjorie’s poor memory results in a delayed examination of the room. Is Ruth merely out of town, as Marjorie proposes? Is the smell just a bag of rotten garbage?
Two cops walk carefully into Ruth’s bedroom where everything appears normal until they notice her decaying face, complete with a massive hole in the left eye socket, tucked under the covers. Pulling back the blanket reveals that it’s actually Ruth’s decapitated head placed next to the headless torso of a middle-aged man. One of the police officers quips, in a moment of black humor, “Uh oh.” Uh oh, indeed.
With the exception of the first 15 minutes of episode 3 (“Call for help”), in which Dale Cooper and the mysterious glass box play a prominent, if enigmatic role, much of the run time is crammed full with curious and humorous antics, mostly focused on the non-Cooper character Dougie Jones (also played by Kyle MacLachlan). Fan responses to this episode, particularly the extended sequence at the casino – in which Cooper/Dougie manages to win thousands of dollars at a casino thanks to the guidance of a flickering light – ranged from confusion to delight.
Still, episodes 4 (“…brings back some memories”) and 5 (“Case files”) seem to be the ones that have tested the patience of even the most diehard fans. First, there was the introduction of Dougie’s wife Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and the slowly dawning realization that this stunted, stuttering version of Cooper was not all that different from the Dougie that everyone already knew. Waiting for Cooper to suddenly break out of his Dougie shell became an excruciating exercise in tolerance and amusement. Then there was the protracted silliness of Lucy and Andy’s son Wally, an odd caricature of Marlon Brando circa The Wild One.
Yet there is still shocking, inexplicable violence in Twin Peaks (and by extension, Buckhorn, South Dakota and New York, New York). For example, Richard Horne (Eamon Farrell) sexually assaults a woman at the Bang Bang Bar and later strikes and kills a small boy with his truck. The end of episode 5, when Dark Cooper causes a protracted electrical disturbance at the Yankton Federal Penitentiary, is as peculiar as it is frightening.
For some fans, these blasts of the bizarre are not enough to sustain their interest; perhaps they remember the frustration of suffering through Season 2’s subplots, which focused on Nadine the cheerleader and Civil War Ben Horne. Yet Twin Peaks is not now, nor has it ever been pure horror. Despite the presence of BOB, who serves as a kind of supernatural serial killer, Twin Peaks is not Crystal Lake or Haddonfield. Even though evil spirits have possessed various characters and aliens have played a prominent (if cryptic) role, the show doesn’t dwell in the Catholic terrors of The Exorcist or the extraterrestrial horrors of the Alien franchise.
In terms of real-life horror being scarier than fiction, perhaps nothing has been more terrifying than episode 8 (“Gotta light?”) and the combination of the aftermath of a mushroom cloud and Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” Rather than just showing us the long-shot view of a bomb blast in the distance, Lynch and Frost take the audience directly inside the cloud of pure evil energy, and connect it, however indirectly, to the entity known as BOB.
In the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, Lynch and Frost displayed a skill for slowly revealing the putrid underbelly of a picturesque and seemingly normal small American town. Yet they also showed how suddenly violence can erupt from the most mundane situations. In doing so, they primed the audience for settling into a near-constant state of dread, a kind of static environment from which either humor or hell could break loose and wreak havoc at any time.
Isn’t this the way that real-life horror manifests? Rarely is it the sustained fear engendered by the constant onslaught of slaughter, but the lurking suspicion that something dreadful is just around the most normal-seeming corner. Whether that dread will pay off with something more horrific is not the point; it’s the constant tension between dark humor and darker wickedness that makes Twin Peaks so scary.