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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Review: TWIN PEAKS

I loved Twin Peaks during its original broadcast run (1990-91), but somehow I managed to miss the final few episodes. Not because I was busy, but because the show tended to disappear from the TV listings for weeks at a stretch, and with the drumbeat of impending cancellation booming ever louder, I finally assumed the show was dead and gone before it really was.

I revisited the show about a decade later, watching the deluxe DVD release of Season 1’s seven episodes, followed by DVD-Rs of Season 2, which if memory serves were furnished by a guy who had a copy of a Japanese laserdisc release. Somehow I still remained ignorant of those last several episodes. Apparently I gave up on it after the resolution of its central “Who killed Laura Palmer?” narrative, and never got to the end.

I returned to the show this spring, and was delighted to discover those final few episodes, which were not only fresh to me but among the series’ very best. I had been curious to see how well the show would hold up, twenty-plus years after its debut. Well, it holds up well— very well— though there are a few things I liked less this time around, and a few things I liked more.

During the original run, I felt that the whole Laura Palmer mystery was terrific, but that the show sagged badly afterward until it picked up steam again with a new narrative concerning the sociopathic Windom Earle. I felt pretty much the same way this time around. But in spite of that lull, this is one of the greatest shows of all time.

Ahh, if only….

If only creator/producers David Lynch and Mark Frost had had more time to plot the show’s basic trajectory. ABC insisted that they resolve the Laura Palmer mystery, and Lynch didn’t want to. Frost was ambivalent. ABC didn’t own the show, but it got its way. I’ve always felt that the show needed to resolve the mystery— I knew people who were watching it simply to see whodunit, and the last thing Twin Peaks needed was a coyly protracted, irritatingly ever-expanding mystery, a la Lost. Fortunately for viewers, the character who did kill her is played by the best actor in the cast, and the resolution to the mystery is one of the show’s most memorable sequences.

But Lynch and Frost seemed bewildered about where to go from there, and what follows are quite a few episodes dedicated to characters who aren’t very interesting. They had been interesting, back when we thought maybe they killed Laura Palmer. But no more. I believed back in 1991 (and still do) that it was a new story about one character’s awkward involvement with a boring femme fatale that doomed the whole show.

Most of its audience fled about that time, and would never know or care, but Twin Peaks rebounded as strongly as any show ever has. After that mid-season lull, it gets vastly more interesting in its final episodes, though once again the secondary storylines are weaker than the primary narrative about Windom Earle.

If only ABC had had more faith in the show. The network brass was all smiles during the glow of Peaksmania, but once the show’s novelty value wore off and the ratings fell, ABC got skittish. Twin Peaks was moved to the Saturday night programming ghetto, a sure kiss of death for a show whose core audience had a young demographic. Just as fatally, it proceeded only in fits and starts. The resolution of the Laura Palmer story aired on December 1, 1990. After two more new episodes, no more were seen until January 12 and 19, 1991. There were three more in February and then the show was put on hiatus with hideously low ratings. In retrospect, I think that’s when I understood that the show was off the air forever, but four more episodes appeared on Thursdays between March 28 to April 18. Much later, the final two episodes were aired, on Monday, June 10. No wonder I never saw them. I never heard about them.

In its heyday, Twin Peaks was celebrated for certain characteristics— mainly the quirky David Lynch specialties, like the midget in the red suit dancing across the zig-zag-patterned carpet. I remember a great deal of attention was paid to the quantity of coffee and cherry pie consumed on the show, but in fact doughnuts are the staple of the local diet. They’re everywhere, sometimes arranged by director Lynch in appealing visual designs.

Seeing the show now, I’m less impressed with his trademark dreamlike interludes. Maybe that’s just because there are so many of them that they seem almost conventional after a while. Frankly I think there are too many of them— as a practical consideration, they tend to muddy the storyline and interrupt the flow of things. The viewer already has his hands full trying to remember the difference between Jean Renault and Jacques Renault, or figuring out a motive for why Agent Cooper got shot in the Season 1 cliffhanger, to begin pondering the meaning of a hallucinatory vision of a white horse in somebody’s living room.

I’m not wishing that Twin Peaks was less complex, but for a show that can wander a long way down a narrative blind alley, it can suddenly stuff you with details and clues faster than you can digest them. But that’s okay. You have to take Twin Peaks on its own terms. If you demand that it conform to television conventions, you’ll be very frustrated with it very quickly. And that’ll be your limitation, not the show’s.

Anyway, seeing it again made me appreciate the contribution of Mark Frost. While I wouldn’t diminish David Lynch’s contributions, Frost seems to have been better at keeping the show’s different elements in balance. For a purely Lynchian view of Twin Peaks, you need look no further than his 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which certainly has its strengths but is relentlessly, overwhelmingly dreary and cold. Most of the TV cast returned for the film (only to end up on the cutting room floor, in many cases), but somehow they have no chemistry with each other anymore. The lighter side of the show is gone. No humor, no warmth. The narrative is a somber tour through Laura Palmer’s last days, a story that had already been told in the series, which conveyed it implicitly and to greater effect.

Frost had next to no input on the film, whereas he worked very closely on the series, writing a third of its episodes himself. The series has the right ratio of quirky characters to conventional characters, the right balance between tragedy and humor, the right balance between conflict and romance. There are more memorable and fascinating vignettes in Twin Peaks‘ thirty episodes than there are in nearly any other show ever made.

In singling out Frost for praise, I don’t mean to imply that Lynch doesn’t deserve his own accolades. He does. He directed six episodes personally, and they’re absolutely the best of the series. Pacing is a little uneven but they have the best visual appeal (he’s terrific with a wide-angle lens) and the performances are perfectly natural, proving that the unfortunate detachment of Fire Walk With Me was a deliberate creative decision rather than an inability to make the material appealing. Lynch’s episodes feel like short films rather than TV shows.

Knowing that Twin Peaks was almost certainly doomed, Lynch and Frost ended Season 2 with a startling cliffhanger anyway. Even more startling, three or four key characters are apparently killed in that last episode. Needless to say, I’d love to know what Lynch and Frost had in mind for the storyline in Season 3, but maybe it’s best that a show so permeated with mystery rest peacefully enshrouded by one more of them. And anyway, Mark Frost says he doesn’t remember.

Good night, Bambi Sickafoose… wherever you are.

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Posted by on June 17, 2012 in 1990s Shows

 

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My Television Diary: 6/10/12

The Rifleman (2:29, “Shotgun Man”), April 12, 1960

I’ve been on a film noir kick lately. I love the style— the shadows, the darkness, the suspense of wondering when the hero’s impending doom will finally come crashing down on him. But as usual for me nowadays, I’d rather get my fix from a tidy 25-minute TV episode than from a movie that pads the same basic story out to three times that length. And I’d rather find something new than watch the same handful of movie classics over and over. But TV noir isn’t as easy to find.

Director Joseph H. Lewis of Gun Crazy fame did a lot of television work, particularly on The Rifleman. He made more than four dozen episodes (nearly a third of the show’s total), and he deserves a lot of credit for making it stand out from all the other TV westerns. Complementing Lewis’ shadow-heavy visual style, and Herschel Burke Gilbert’s somber music, is a recurring theme of impending death. Our rifle-slinging hero Lucas McCain is a magnet for violent, grimly obsessive gunmen itching for death— ostensibly McCain’s death, but in many cases you have to wonder if these guys even care deep down who dies, as long as somebody does.

The “Shotgun Man” of this episode is a half-blind old ex-convict, newly sprung from the pen. His only ambition now is to kill McCain, and he means to do it with a powerful shotgun that never leaves his hand. Whereas McCain’s modified Winchester fires repeatedly with speed and precision, the Shotgun Man’s weapon blows a cannonball-sized hole in anything he shoots at, including chameleon-eyed barfly Jack Elam.

In short, McCain’s Bang! is outclassed by Shotgun’s BLAMM!!!, but our Rifleman has more going for him than just a weapon. Among other qualities, he’s got right on his side. Plus, it’s his show. Shotgun came to town looking for death. He finds it.

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M Squad (1:05, “Face of Evil), October 18, 1957

Death is also busy in Chicago— very busy— and that’s why there’s an M Squad, an elite crime-fighting team of which only one member ever matters. That’s Lt. Frank Ballinger, a police detective played by the young and remarkably lanky Lee Marvin.

M Squad is more reliably noir than just about any other show, and if Dragnet‘s Sgt. Joe Friday had been conceived by Mickey Spillane, he’d be Frank Ballinger. He’s a laconic, street-wise, chain-smoking, fedora-wearing gumshoe in the classic pulp fiction tradition. He gets shot occasionally, and roughs up a suspect when he needs to, but he always gets the job done.

The job this time is to catch a serial killer who’s been roaming one particular neighborhood on sweltering summer nights, killing one woman after another. The husband of one victim looked up at the window and saw the killer, but can only describe what he saw as a “face of evil.” The hunt is on— and it’s a good one, with red herrings and a surprise ending.

I can’t tell you too much more about the episode without giving it all away, but any fan of hard-boiled detective action should enjoy it. On top of everything else, I loved it for the array of character actors, including Werner Klemperer, Madge Blake, Barney Phillips and even Russell Thorson from radio’s I Love a Mystery. Besides, it’s always fun to watch how Lee Marvin moves in these M Squads. His suit disguises how skinny he was in those days, and when he walks his arms swing and sway, like a slack marionette.

If you’ve read the Amazon reviews for the pricy DVD set of the complete M Squad, you know that the image quality leaves something to be desired. The quality varies from episode to episode, and they’ve all been transferred from 16mm prints, since apparently the original 35mm elements are now lost. Somehow these episodes are consistently light on contrast, including this one. (The framegrabs here have been Photoshopped to fix the contrast.) M Squad is such a good show that I recommend it to anyone, but if you’re picky about image quality, you’ll need to be forgiving.

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Gang Busters (2:xx, “The Red Dress”), late 1952

Together again— and for the last time— are Tom Neal and Ann Savage, stars of the landmark noir Detour (1945). I’d like to think that this casting was more than accidental, but it doesn’t seem likely; both were well on their way down the career ladder at this point.

Anyway, Gang Busters was just about the perfect show for them to appear in. Unlike most crime shows of the ’50s, this one is all about the crooks— the police only appear near the end, as faceless, nameless instruments of justice. Until then, crime runs wild. While Gang Busters had been a long-running success on radio, the TV version reminds me more of the carnage-crazy crime comic books of the early 1950s. It’s all about tough guys and rebels who live by their own rules, making lots of easy money by taking it from suckers and chumps, letting the bullets fly where they may. (And then they get killed, or sent to San Quentin.)

Gang Busters appeared throughout most of 1952 in Dragnet‘s time slot, alternating with Jack Webb’s show. Ratings were high, but the show disappeared near the end of the year, and now nobody seems to know why. Maybe NBC was taking heat for the show’s ill-concealed glamorization of crime, or maybe creator Phillips H. Lord was proving too costly or difficult to deal with. Your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, this is a great episode, though the payoff is a little less than the build-up had promised. Tom Neal walks out of prison and into the arms of his moll (Savage), who’s kept their criminal gang together while he was in stir. She’s got big plans for new heists— and for a romantic future with him. But he’s lost that lovin’ feelin’, and things don’t end well for either of them.

Like the radio version, TV’s Gang Busters always concluded with a “be on the lookout for” announcement about a real-life crook on the loose. Oddly, the choice for this episode is Theodore Cole, an Alcatraz inmate who in 1937 escaped from one of the island’s workshops, reached the cold, current-swept waters of San Francisco Bay and was never again seen in this world.

It might be on YouTube or somewhere, but this episode can be found, in nice shape, on Alpha Video’s Gang Busters Volume 3.

 
 

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Review: ADAM-12, Season 2

As far as I can tell, the Adam-12 Fan Club consists of me and me alone. It’s generally regarded as Dragnet‘s red-headed stepchild— a lightweight, superficial cop show. I think it’s better than that, but it does have its limitations. As usual with vintage television, you’ll enjoy it to the extent that you can overlook the limitations and just let it entertain you.

Adam-12‘s reason for being was to portray the daily life of Los Angeles patrolmen, as realistically as possible. Of course, realistic cop shows are everywhere today, but in the 1960s there was no such thing. You had a farce like Car 54, Where Are You? on the one hand, and the invincible supercops of State Trooper and Highway Patrol on the other.

This is the city.

It was a long time before Jack Webb’s pilot was picked up. But when the show hit the air on NBC in September 1968 (during one of America’s recurring backlashes against violence on the tube), it quickly transformed the genre. Police detectives and private detectives would continue to dominate the dial, but every street-level, punk-chasing, sirens-blaring cop show to follow— The Rookies, Police Story, SWAT and the rest— owed a debt to Adam-12.

Ironically, my only beef with Adam-12 is that it isn’t realistic enough. Not in its first two or three seasons, anyway. Like its sister show (the color Dragnet revival), there’s an over-reliance on Webb’s old friends from radio days and familiar TV character actors (Virginia Gregg and Myron Healey pop up in half a dozen roles over the years; Raymond Mayo, seven). Interior sets look like sets, brightly and evenly lit.

This is Universal City.

Worse, with production based on the Universal lot, standing sets were frequently used in place of actual location work. Again and again in the early seasons, you see city sets that look a whole lot more like old Brooklyn than Bell Gardens, with generic buildings bearing placards reading HOTEL or CAFE. Similarly, there are standing residential sets that look like leftovers from the days of Deanna Durbin— huge stately houses on large lots, surrounded by lush trees thirty feet tall. That’s not Nixon-era L.A.

Of course, there’s authentic location work too, and it’s great. I just wish there was more of it. Happily, with each passing season Adam-12 got better and better, more realistic and more honest.

I’ve heard complaints about the acting of the leads, Martin Milner (Officer Pete Malloy) and Kent McCord (Officer Jim Reed). I don’t get it. To me the acting is just fine, and Milner’s is particularly good. His style is restrained, natural. It’s not a role that calls for arm-waving theatrics and thundering monologues, and Milner plays it just right. You get a sense sometimes that Malloy’s been on the job so long that he’s on the verge of burnout, as if there’s a deep weariness held in check by pure dedication.

There’s something else I want to say about this show. It’s never boring. Ever. It hardly has a chance to be, since it only runs half an hour, and Malloy and Reed typically handle three or four events in every show. And those are always unpredictable. It might be an armed robbery in progress, a drunk wandering around in traffic, or anything in between. Whenever I watch Adam-12, I’m regularly startled by the closing credits rolling when it seems like the show only started ten minutes ago.

Adam-12 may not have been the last of the network thirty-minute dramas, but it was certainly the last one anybody remembers. A lot of its familiarity comes from its post-network years of syndication, though. Just as Webb’s other 1970s stalwart, Emergency!, was doomed to a low profile because of stiff competition from the All in the Family juggernaut, Adam-12 was thrown to the wolves in its last years, sentenced to the worst timeslots in NBC’s schedule. It faced the hit Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in the 1973/74 season, and Happy Days in 1974/75. (So enthralled with Happy Days was I at the time that I was later shocked to discover that Adam-12 had still been on the air that season.)

Shout Factory! did an excellent job with its DVD release of Season 2 (which originally aired September 1969-May 1970). The episodes are complete, with superb color and sound, so apparently someone’s been taking care of the negatives all these years. Several episodes have optional commentary tracks recorded by actual LAPD veterans of the era, and they’re worth listening to. (The vets give the show high marks for accuracy, but stress that cops today sometimes handle things very differently than the way Malloy and Reed did, thanks to better training and a general legacy of LAPD trial and error.)

One of the series’ most memorable episodes (not necessarily great, but memorable) was aired this season, “A Sound Like Thunder.” It’s a very off-beat entry, in which Reed, Malloy and their significant others hit the road on their day off, and end up in a ghost town overrun by heavily-armed, kill-crazy bikers. Other WTF moments this season include Malloy and Reed entering a suburban apartment and finding an unleashed lion inside, and a domestic dispute call that results in the guys being tossed around by hulking ex-wrestler Mike Mazurki— Reed is sent flying into a grand piano and Malloy is thrown against a wall before dazedly crashing onto a collapsing coffee table. (Milner does the scene without a stuntman and his reward is having his head visibly bounce off the un-collapsing frame of the table.)

There are a lot of solid episodes here. My favorites included “Pig is a Three-Letter Word,” in which the arrest of black suspects nearly results in a street riot; “Baby,” in which Reed’s wife is about to give birth, but the non-stop pressures of the job keep him from even completing a phone call to the hospital; and “Good Cop: Handle with Care,” in which photographers for an underground newspaper follow Malloy and Reed around, loudly accusing them of police brutality.

Adam-12 was never much for guest stars— which is just as well— but making appearances this season are a post-Munsters Butch Patrick and a pre-Partridge Family David Cassidy, and an assortment of character actors I’m always glad to see, including Ellen Corby, J. Pat O’Malley and Burt Mustin.

The later seasons are better, but Season 2 is well worth a look.

 

 

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2012 in 1960s Shows, 1970s Shows

 

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