The Best New TV Series You Will Never See
Edward Margulies' Showbiz Confidential Columns, September 14, 1999
After reading in The New Yorker and Movieline about writer-director David Lynch getting the unexpected news that ABC wasn't going to pick up his TV series Mulholland Drive, I got my hands on a tape of the pilot. And? In this tiresome era of Friends knockoffs, Mulholland Drive would have been the best new show of the season challenging, mysterious, brilliant. It seems a crime that the network has failed to see the potential of the very thing they asked for, an unusual, stylized nighttime soap about Hollywood hopefuls, which finds Lynch at the top of his game.
Lynch's earlier series Twin Peaks influenced everything from Northern Exposure to The X-Files to this season's Now and Again, and there's no telling how Mulholland Drive might have changed the face of television. The show does for Los Angeles what Twin Peaks did for small-town life turns it upside down. Lynch makes the familiar showbiz settings as ominous as a Martian landscape, and peoples them with discontented, disconnected characters who could be human or alien (or both). Although the pace is slow, even hypnotic, before you know it all the seemingly random story lines converge as L.A. dwellers pass one another like cars gridlocked on a freeway at rush hour.
Mulholland Drive was to have revolved around four players an actress (Naomi Watts), a director (Justin Theroux), a screenwriter (Scott Coffey), and a beautiful amnesiac (Laura Herring) all living in an apartment complex (run by former MGM tapper Ann Miller). Since Lynch is the anti-Aaron Spelling, the apartment house ought to have been called Hellrose Place. In the pilot, Lynch's L.A. is awash in professional hitmen, two of whom in the opening sequence bungle the offing of Herring when they are involved in a sudden car crash. With thousands of dollars stuffed in her evening bag, the dazed Herring walks shakily into Hollywood, where she soon teams up with the show's most improbable character, a corn-fed, ambitious ingenue who, while waiting for her big break in Hollywood, likes to play Nancy Drew, girl detective. Game Naomi Watts does what she can with this part, but I wish we could see the intended series to discover how her character would develop (more about this in a minute).
Into this mix come subplots like one where Justin Theroux who is sensational in the part plays a movie director who finds his wife cheating on him with the pool guy (Billy Ray Cyrus!), even as Mafia gangsters shut down production on his feature film. The baddies want Theroux to recast the female lead with their chosen tootsie (Australian dish Melissa George) or they will ruin him, as a spectral thug named Cowboy (producer Monte Montgomery) makes plain.
In another story line, trigger-happy charmer Mark Pellegrino steals every scene he's in. In one audacious black comedy sequence, Pellegrino shoots a pal, only to discover that the bullet went through the wall and into the fat lady next door. After he kills her, he also has to off a curious janitor, and finally memorably shoots the janitor's vacuum. Violent, yes, but hilarious too. Scenes like this one would have put Mulholland Drive on the map overnight: argued about, debated over, watched.
Lynch's deliberate, tranquil pacing suggests a drug-induced dream state, which particularly favors several of the performers who underplay their parts: standouts include Robert Forster as a seen-it-all cop, Scott Coffey as a housebound writer, Laura Herring as the novocained mystery gal, and Katharine Towne as a lovelorn production assistant. In the pilot's most unexpected turnabout, Naomi Watts' sunny character must audition by reading from a script with a fading has-been (Chad Everett!). You expect the worst, but then Watts suddenly turns carnal, finding the sexual undercurrent in her banal dialogue, and scorches the screen. It's all part of Lynch's observation that L.A. is a city where everyone acts, all the time.
Why isn't Mulholland Drive on ABC's fall schedule? One answer: The network wouldn't know a great pilot if it bit them on the ass. I've heard ABC may run the pilot as a movie of the week, which would be insane. The pilot is entirely open-ended, and no number of reshoots or tacked-on endings could ever close up all the Pandora's boxes Lynch has pried open here. Fox was interested in acquiring the show to turn it into a multipart miniseries, but I hear that plan died during money negotiations. Wherefore art thou, Showtime? Whither HBO? Come on, guys, grab this gem, air it as a weekly series, and watch the Emmys pour in.
LYNCH MOB: When I wrote up the pilot for David Lynch's Mulholland Drive the other day, space did not permit me to mention everything I grooved to like the scene where director Justin Theroux pulls a Jack Nicholson, using a golf club to destroy an automobile belonging to his Mafia enemies.
Or the scene where sultry brunette amnesiac Laura Herring adopts the name "Rita" from a poster for Gilda, despite the fact that next to her perky blonde new pal Naomi Watts whose character is named "Betty" she might more accurately be called "Veronica" (and I don't mean Ms. Lake).
Or the scene where Theroux gets revenge on his adulterous wife by submerging her valuable jewels into a can of paint a touch only Lynch, himself a painter, could have dreamed up.
Or the scene where Theroux auditions beauties for the leading role in his period movie musical, which appears to be The Connie Stevens Story: It's Lynch's droll little jest that having people lip-synch their way through someone else's recording of "Sixteen Reasons" is as valid a call of their potential talent as anything else.
As you can see, I can't get Mulholland Drive out of my head and I can't help wishing there were some way to help realize it as a series. Several readers asked whether there was anything they could do to help, and indeed there is something of a grassroots campaign afoot to "save" Mulholland Drive. A visit to Mike Dunn's definitive David Lynch site (www.mikedunn.com/lynch/) uncovers these suggestions: "If you'd like to see ABC air Mulholland Drive, e-mail ABC Audience Relations at email@example.com and politely ask them to. Or you can contact them by phone: Audience Information Department at 212-456-7477 or ABC General at 212-456-7777. You can reach them via snail mail at: ABC, Inc., Audience Information, 77 West 66th St., 11th Floor, New York, NY 10023." Simpler still, you can sign Owen Wolfe's online petition at: members.aol.com/elementguy/mulholland.html. I understand Owen's list will be distributed to several networks that could theoretically pick up the show.
It can't hurt, and it could help.
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© Mike Hartmann