The City of Absurdity   TWIN PEAKS


by Susan Schindehette, Lissa August in Washington, D.C., John Griffiths, Kristina Johnson and Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles,
People, May14, 1990

"She's day-ud. Wrapped in plastic."
When hapless fisherman Pete Martell stumbled on the prom queen's clammy body, blue and Baggied, on the riverbank, he could not have guessed how far the shock waves would roll – not just through the fictional northwest town of Twin Peaks, but through an American TV audience that stretches about as far as the Nielsens can see.

With the most buzzed-about plot line since J.R. got plugged in a 1980 Dallas cliff-hanger, this season's video phenomenon is ABC's Twin Peaks, the sleekly sinister story of FBI special agent Dale Cooper's investigation into the murder of Laura Palmer. Of course, as the denizens of any backwater burg would know by now, Twin Peaks is also a kind of Our Town through the Looking Glass, where doughnuts, deer heads and even percolated fish portend the evil lurking beneath a small-town veneer. It's brimming with off-the-wall characters – a dwarf who shows up in a dream, the mysterious Log Lady (see page 89) – who may or may not offer clues to the homicide. And it's crammed with dialogue that's sometimes witty, sometimes opaque, sometimes both (see page 87). So not only do aficionados want to solve the murder (a solution may pop up in the season finale Wed., May 23, at 10 P.M.); they also have their hands full finding out what it all means.

Even if viewers require a freeze-frame VCR (or our Who's Who, pages 84-85) to make sense of a convoluted plot that lost its bearings long ago, Twin Peaks's probing drill bit has hit a resounding nerve. ''I was totally charmed by the idea of this small town being riddled by nasty secrets,'' says Patricia Aufderheide, an assistant professor of communications at Washington, D.C.'s American University, ''because that was my experience growing up in a small Minnesota town.''

Others see the series as a savior of TV. ''The cloying, horrid normalcy of the Cosby generation has finally fed up those of us who never bought it anyway,'' says L.A. disc jockey Boyd Britten. ''Hopefully we're going to have TV for people who like things just a little weirder.''

For the time being, at least, it would seem so. The show's stylish surrealism is centrifuged in the brain of producer-director-writer David Lynch, whose rococo past credits – Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune and Blue Velvet – may, as he insists, make Peaks look normal by comparison. ''I still don't see what the great difference is,'' Lynch has said. ''To me, it's a regular television show.''

And the Rockies are regular hills. ''It's like Peyton Place gone nuts,'' says director John (Cry-Baby) Waters, who knows a thing or two about weirdness himself. ''It's my favorite thing on TV.'' Kooky comedian Julie Brown puts it more simply: ''Any show that ends an episode with a vibrating dwarf is my kind of TV.''

In addition to its confounding plot line, the series plays like a pop ; culture Hall of Fame, resonating against everything from The Fugitive's one- armed man to Tibetan asceticism to the namesake 1944 thriller that starred Gene Tierney. ''I call the show a cultural compost heap,'' says Peaks co- creator Mark Frost, a onetime writer for Hill Street Blues. ''There are symbols and characters and expressions from all the shows we saw growing up that echo and ping down the hallways of Twin Peaks.'' Even local sheriff Harry Truman's name is a double play, conjuring up not just the former U.S. President, but also the 84-year-old man who met his end in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. In the month since the show first landed on the airwaves, an estimated 30 million viewers have gotten ensnared in Twin Peaks's sub-rosa complexity. ''I thought the dream sequence was the strangest six minutes of TV America ever saw,'' says a Philadelphia deejay who goes by the single name of Harvey. ''The big debate the callers had was how the dialogue was done.'' (In fact, the segments, which featured the dwarf and a Laura Palmer look-alike speaking eerily distorted lines, were accomplished by having actors actually speaking their lines in reverse during taping.)

On school campuses, kids who ought to be studying for finals are instead camped out at Thursday-night viewing parties. In Denver, 200 fans turn out for a viewing party at the local Deadbeat Lounge, and spend the post-show wee hours drinking ''Blue Velvets'' and watching Eraserhead on a 30-foot video screen. Even the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol have become Peaks territory. During one recent pre-press conference issues briefing, says senatorial assistant press secretary Deborah Brunton, ''the subject of Twin Peaks came up. We started analyzing the dream sequence while the press corps all waited.'' Still, the Most Loyal Fan title may belong to 23-year-old Mila Roschwalb, who, waking up groggily after a tonsillectomy one Thursday in a Maryland hospital, turned to her mother and croaked, ''Did I miss Twin Peaks?''

Not even Lynch's inner circle is immune to the mania. At L.A.'s Home Plate Bar, as many as 80 of the show's cast, crew and friends have gathered for Thursday-night viewings. Two weeks ago, there was nothing but silence as actors Michael Horse (Deputy ''Hawk'') and Kimmy Robertson (Lucy Moran) watched the plot unfold. Then, as Agent Cooper makes an inquiry about Twin Peaks real estate, Charlotte Stewart (Mrs. Briggs) broke the tension. ''Oooh!'' she squealed, clapping her hands together, ''Agent Cooper's moving to Twin Peaks!''

Just tracking Peaks's slippery story line is enough to confound even fanatic viewers; the plot contains more herring than the North Atlantic. Some diehards have successfully uncovered a 113-minute European version that incorporated an 18-minute dream sequence and, purportedly, the true identity of Laura's killer. ''I sent out a systemwide computer message here that I had a synopsis and that I knew who killed Laura Palmer,'' says Washington Post film critic Hal Hinson. ''I copied it and put it out for everyone. They were all snapped up immediately.'' Too bad. According to Mark Frost, the foreign version was whipped up to meet a contractual obligation and has no bearing on what U.S. viewers will eventually see.

Others may have to make do with Agent Dale Cooper's Tibet-inspired intuitive techniques – dreams or throwing rocks at targets that might pinpoint the murderer – which, according to one expert, may actually not be as loony as they appear. ''It sounds weird, but there really were people who thought about cases in their sleep,'' says former special agent Herb Clough, a 30-year FBI veteran. ''The facts in your subconscious really would all fit together.''

While viewers try to plumb Peaks's depths, studio executives are using Cooper-style methods to decipher the Nielsens. So far, the huge 33 share for the pilot has fallen off to 18, but ABC Entertainment president Robert A. Iger professes not to worry. ''Even if it loses a little steam,'' he says, ''it's still a wave.'' That may portend a fall renewal.

In the meantime, the deepening plot leaves room for a lot of creative conjecture from Peakies. Cast members' lips are sealed, but Frost promises that, whether or not the series is renewed, viewers will ''feel satisfied'' about its resolution. In the end, the best prognostication comes from actor Dennis Hopper, who played a nitrous oxide-sniffing psychopath in Lynch's Blue Velvet. The real responsibility for bumping off Laura Palmer, says Hopper, falls on one man: David Lynch. It seems that he, like Twin Peaks, is a real killer.


Have you had a damn good cup of coffee lately? If so, then you, like Agent Dale Cooper, have been slipping into ''Peakspeak.'' Herewith some of the more memorable – or is that deathless? – dialogue from Twin Peaks's early episodes. What does it all mean? Ah, only the dwarf in the dream knows . . .


''My air sacs have never felt so good.'' – Ben Horne quoting a Norwegian businessman visiting Twin Peaks

''Good day for a picnic.'' – James Hurley to Donna Hayward at school before the announcement of Laura's death

''Diane, I'm holding in my hand a box of small chocolate bunnies.'' – Cooper, dictating to his secretary


''Old habits die hard. Just about as hard as I want those eggs.'' – Cooper to waitress

''Do your palms ever itch?'' – Audrey Horne to Cooper

''I'm no pea-brained chambermaid looking for a tumble in a broom closet.'' – Catherine Martell to Benjamin Horne

''Don't drink that coffee. There was a fish in the percolator.'' – Pete Martell, to Cooper and Truman

''If you ever pull a stunt like that again, you'll be scrubbing bidets in a Bulgarian convent.'' – Benjamin Horne to daughter Audrey

''I just know I'm going to get lost in those woods again tonight.'' – Laura Palmer


''We had those Vikings by the horns. What happened?'' – Jerry Horne, after the Norwegian businessmen departed

''Damn good coffee. And hot!'' – Cooper

''I had subconsciously gained knowledge of a deductive technique involving mind-body coordination operating hand in hand with the deepest levels of intuition.'' – Cooper, awakening from a dream about Tibet


''I've got one man too many in my life, and I'm married to him.'' – Shelly Johnson

''This must be where pies go when they die.'' – Cooper


Catherine Coulson is a little stumped. She doesn't comprehend the fascination with her Twin Peaks character. So what if she's never seen without a piece of wood, or that she's been known to chat with the timber in her arms? ''I don't see her as being unusual,'' declares Coulson. ''A log is such a solid thing to carry.''

Coulson, 44, plays David Lynch's oddest cameo character by far, the mysterious Log Lady, an off-kilter Twin Peaks denizen named for the hunk of ponderosa pine she forever cradles. Two early, fleeting Log Lady appearances – mischievously flipping off the lights at the town meeting in the pilot, then insisting to Sheriff Truman and Agent Cooper in the first episode that the log ''knows'' who killed Laura Palmer – stoked a minicult and made the mystical widow of a woodsman killed in a fire the subject of wide conjecture. (Her mystique branches out a bit this week, when Cooper interrogates the lady – and the log.)

Coulson's sudden fame is as curious as her character, since she's the only cast member who is not a professional actor. She normally works as a camera operator, having abandoned her theatrical calling long ago. But not before planting the seedlings for the Log Lady. In 1972, playing a bit part in Eraserhead (she portrayed the title character's neighbor), Coulson somehow inspired director Lynch: ''He said, 'When you put on your glasses, I just saw a log in your arms. Someday I'll do a series and you'll play a girl with a log.' ''

Despite the burning curiosity she has aroused, the Los Angeles-based Coulson isn't ''quitting my day job.'' For now, she and husband Marc Sirinsky, a writer, are trying to cope with the demands of her TV fame. Even their 3-year- old daughter, Zoey, has gotten into the act, asking, ''Mommy, if you're the Log Lady, can I be the Log Girl?''


Snoqualmie, Wash., Police Chief Don Isley, the real-life counterpart of Twin Peaks Sheriff Harry S. Truman, is thinking about putting a bucket of rocks next to his desk. If they don't help him in cracking cases, as they do Special Agent Cooper, they might get rid of the pack of reporters who've been camping in his office since the show began. Says Isley, who fell asleep watching the two-hour pilot: ''Twin Peaks is a big topic in town.''

It is indeed, and most people in Snoqualmie, where the show is filmed, admit to being puzzled or offended by it. The truth is, the real Snoqualmie (pop. 1,500) is closer to Lake Wobegon than Peyton Place. There hasn't been a juicy crime here in recent memory. The townsfolk say they tune in to Twin Peaks to watch familiar landmarks flicker by. The show's murder scene took place in Snoqualmie's graveyard, and each episode begins with a shot of the magnificent Snoqualmie Falls. Also famous, at least locally, are the pies served up at the Mar-T Cafe just down the road in North Bend. They've taken on celebrity status since agent Cooper started drooling into his tape recorder over the cherry & variety. ''It embarrasses me to death,'' says baker Garnet Cross, 72. ''I've been making the pies all my life, and now I'm afraid I'll do something wrong.''

Big Edd Larson, owner of Big Edd's Family Dining, seems to have no such anxieties. He alone among the local merchants has tried to capitalize on the Twin Peaks mania. ''Twin Peaks burger, $2.85,'' reads the banner outside his restaurant. Yet Edd, who also coaches a Little League team, says he's too busy to watch Twins Peaks regularly. That doesn't stop him from participating in what's becoming a national pastime: speculating on who killed Laura Palmer. ''I tell everyone I know,'' says Big Edd. ''But I don't.''

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© Mike Hartmann