Twin Peaks: Soap opera, classic myth The Hero Quest

September 30, 1990|By David Zurawik and Christina Stoehr | David Zurawik and Christina Stoehr,David Zurawik is The Sun's television critic. Christina Stoehr teaches writing and criticism at Southern Methodist University.

Actor Kyle MacLachlan said it's simple.

After having been asked a dozen different ways why he thinks viewers are so fascinated with FBI Agent Dale Cooper, the character he plays on "Twin Peaks," Mr. MacLachlan said, "He's this guy in this black suit with his hair slicked back, and it's fun to see what he's going to become obsessed with next -- coffee, cherry pie, Douglas firs. . . . Mainly, though, he's the hero on this quest." The Hero Quest.

Actress Sheryl Lee said it was simple for her, too, once she understood what Director David Lynch was saying.

Ms. Lee was asked what kind of coaching Mr. Lynch gave her prior to the filming of the scene that featured her character, Laura Palmer, with Cooper and a disco-dancing dwarf. That scene -- presented as a Cooper dream sequence -- was the most-talked-about prime-time television moment of last season.

"David said it's all dreams, symbols and dreams," Lee said. "That's what he kept telling us before we started filming. . . . It was the language of symbols and dreams. . . . It didn't have to make perfect sense. It had its own logic." A deeper logic.

Heroes, quests, symbols and dreams.

This is the language of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Claude Levi-Strauss. This is not the standard language of discussions -- about prime-time television soap operas. And "Twin Peaks" -- on one level at least -- is nothing but a prime-time television soap opera.

Yet "Twin Peaks" is also clearly more. The return of "Twin Peaks" -- tonight at 9 on WJZ-TV (Channel 13) -- has been one of the most eagerly awaited events of the new season.

"Twin Peaks" stories have been appearing all week. "Twin Peaks" viewing parties are scheduled for tonight. "Twin Peaks" contests -- like the one being offered in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter with beer and munchies from Eddie's for the viewing party of whomever correctly identifies Laura Palmer's killer -- are being held in towns and cities all over the country.

Pocket Books last week published "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer." Simon & Schuster this week published an audiocassette of Mr. Cooper's tape-recorder dictation to the mysterious Diane ("Diane, a small town is not unlike a river: lots of hidden currents and eddies, each holding its own secrets. . . . I'm holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies.") It's "Twin Peaks" as a popular culture phenomenon.

But what does that mean? We often use the word "phenomenon" to avoid serious analysis; weuse it a lot in talking about television. "America's Funniest Home Videos" is a phenomenon. "The Simpsons" is phenomenally successful. And we let it go at that. Why? Because we all know television does not warrant real, serious discussion. Discussing it seriously and with passion would be, well, embarrassing. It's not like literature or even French film.

So what if people who really believe that they don't have an hour to spend with other members of their family will block out and protect the hours of 9 to 11 tonight with a religious fervor so that they can spend it with Agent Cooper? So what if people who are paid $100 an hour for their professional expertise will spend most of their first working hours tomorrow morning discussing tonight's "Twin Peaks" show with other $100-an-hour colleagues trying to figure out who killed Ms. Palmer? So what if many of us will dream in our most private world of sleep tonight about what Mr. Lynch showed us collectively on the small screen? So what? Television isn't really important enough to warrant serious discussion. We all know that.

If this were the 19th century and we were talking about literature, you could call what follows a manifesto or maybe an apologia. But it's the 20th century and it's a discussion of television, so simply call it a promise that watching certain television shows is not something about which intelligent and thoughtful people have to be ashamed.

There are television shows that connect with us in deep and profound ways, and watching them is a richly rewarding experience. Watching such shows can be as rewarding on some levels as reading Homer's "The Odyssey," Bernard Malamud's "The Natural" or Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove." "Twin Peaks" is one of those shows mainly because Dale Cooper is a hero just like Odysseus, Roy Hobbs or Gus McCrae.

The long line of heroes on a quest (James Joyce called the structure of that journey the monomyth because of its universality) extends not just through literature, but also into film and television. Feature film characters Shane and Luke Skywalker were classic heroes. Television's Richard Kimble, of "The Fugitive," was also a member of the corps.

From Homer in ancient Greece to David Lynch in the Hollywood of the '90s, it is essentially the same timeless journey that's being chronicled. What changes is the pilgrim's haircut and style of clothing, not the path he or she must trod.

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