Like Nothing On Earth

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The body of a high school girl, wrapped in plastic, washes up on the lakeshore near a small town in the Pacific Northwest. An FBI agent teams up with the local sheriff to investigate. The victim, they discover, has been leading a secret life. So, it seems, is nearly everyone else in town.

In outline, ABC's heralded new series Twin Peaks sounds like an amalgam of familiar TV genres. A touch of true-crime docudrama, a dash of Columbo, a jot of Knots Landing. But in the darkly idiosyncratic world of director David Lynch, terms like murder mystery and soap opera don't begin to tell the tale. Twin Peaks, which debuts Sunday as a two-hour movie, is like nothing you've seen in prime time -- or on God's earth. It may be the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV.

It is also something of a miracle. Imagine: one of the world's most perversely offbeat movie directors persuades ABC to let him try a prime-time series. He shoots a pilot with virtually no interference. The network bigwigs look at the result, realize that it will probably befuddle many viewers, then decide to air it anyway. The programmers even consider -- horrors! -- showing the two-hour pilot without commercials. (Cooler heads prevail; the show will have ads, though fewer than usual.) It's enough to restore one's faith in television.

The surpassing strangeness of Twin Peaks is not easy to pinpoint. Despite a few grisly touches, the show has little to offend in terms of sex or violence. Its distinctiveness is almost purely a matter of style. The pace is slow and hypnotic, the atmosphere suffused with creepy foreboding, the emotions eerily heightened. The news of Laura Palmer's murder inspires spasms of grief in everyone from the girl's mother to the crew-cut school principal, who bursts into tears after announcing her death over the p.a. system. In other hands, this might be melodramatic; in Lynch's, it has the scalding intensity of a nightmare.

Then there are the Lynchian touches of off-kilter characters and sideshow weirdness. A woman with an eyepatch has an obsession with drapes. Visitors to a bank vault find a stuffed deer head lying on the table. "It fell down," notes a bank officer blandly. The boyish FBI agent (Kyle MacLachlan) dictates every detail of his day into a cassette recorder and gets misty-eyed over Douglas firs and snowshoe rabbits. "Know why I'm whittling?" he says to the sheriff at one point. "Because that's what you do in a town where a yellow light still means slow down, not speed up."

Twin Peaks spins out a whodunit that may or may not be solved by the end of the show's seven-week run. (For a European video version of the pilot, Lynch shot an alternate ending that seems to solve the crime. In it, the actors walk and speak their lines backward, and the film is reversed.) But the two-hour movie, which spans the 24-hour period after discovery of the body, stands superbly on its own. More than a dozen characters are introduced -- all of them connected, each dwelling in a private world -- from the widowed owner of the town sawmill (Joan Chen) to the dead girl's hopped-up boyfriend (Dana Ashbrook) to the serene sheriff (Michael Ontkean), whose name, for no particular reason, is Harry S. Truman.

Whether Twin Peaks will work as a continuing series remains to be seen. The second episode (co-written by Lynch but directed by Duwayne Dunham) shifts into more conventional gear as the murder investigation begins to unfold. At worst, Twin Peaks could turn into an aesthete's version of "Who Shot J.R. ?" At best, it will be mesmerizing.

Few filmmakers would seem less likely candidates for TV than Lynch. His first feature, Eraserhead, was a dreamlike horror story about a couple taking care of a monstrous mutant baby. Blue Velvet, his bizarre 1986 black comedy, started with a severed ear and descended into sadomasochistic horror. Trained as a painter, Lynch has written song lyrics and directed a performance piece, Industrial Symphony No. 1, featuring a midget sawing wood and dozens of baby dolls lowered from the ceiling.

At 44, Lynch has a Boy Scout's cherubic face and nice manners. His conversation is filled with wholesome jargon like "thrilling" and "cool." But eccentricities lurk just beneath the surface. He always keeps his shirt collar buttoned to the top because "I have this thing about my neck. It's just an eerie kind of feeling about my collarbone." For seven years he drank milkshakes every day at a Bob's Big Boy in Los Angeles. "I'd have coffee, sometimes six cups, along with the shake, and I'd have sugar in my coffee," he says. "By then I would be pretty jazzed up, and I'd start writing down ideas. Many, many things came out of Bob's."

Lynch, who has been divorced twice and is now involved with actress Isabella Rossellini, was born in Missoula, Mont. His father, a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture, moved the family several times around the Pacific Northwest before settling in Washington, D.C. Lynch found high school "worthless" but put up with it, then went to art school in Boston. After a brief sojourn in Austria, he moved to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

"Philadelphia, more than any filmmaker, influenced me," says Lynch. "It's the sickest, most corrupt, decaying, fear-ridden city imaginable. I was very poor and living in bad areas. I felt like I was constantly in danger. But it was so fantastic at the same time." He lived across the street from the city morgue, where he was fascinated by the empty body bags hung on pegs. "The bags had a big zipper, and they'd open the zipper and shoot water into the bags with big hoses. With the zipper open and the bags sagging on the pegs, it looked like these big smiles. I called them the smiling bags of death."

He tried filmmaking as an extension of his painting. Lynch's first work was a "film sculpture," a one-minute animated loop in which six people get sick over and over while their heads catch on fire. A painter who saw it commissioned Lynch to make another animated film. Lynch bought a camera and spent two months shooting before he realized the camera was broken. "It was one long piece of blurred film," he says. "But it was the weirdest thing; I wasn't one bit depressed."

Lynch moved to Los Angeles in 1970 and spent five years making Eraserhead. The film became a cult hit and led to his first mainstream film, The Elephant Man. Lynch's next project, the big-budget sci-fi movie Dune, was a critical and commercial disaster, but Blue Velvet brought him widespread critical / acclaim. A couple of aborted projects later (including a script for Steve Martin called One Saliva Bubble), Lynch is finishing a new film, Wild at Heart, starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern.

Lynch and his partner, former Hill Street Blues writer Mark Frost, developed Twin Peaks by drawing a map of the fictional town. "We knew where everything was, and it helped us decide what mood each place had, and what could happen there," says Lynch. "Then the characters just introduced themselves to us and walked into the story." The pilot was written in only nine days and shot in 23. Lynch was apprehensive about the restrictions of TV but found the experience satisfying. "I didn't feel we compromised, and I felt good."

Will TV audiences feel just as good about the mutant soap opera he has concocted? Frost hopes the series will reach "a coalition of people who may have been fans of Hill Street, St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting, along with people who enjoyed the nighttime soaps." ABC Entertainment chief Robert Iger admits the show will be a hard sell (especially in the time slot opposite Cheers on Thursday nights). Says he: "A lot of people have said Twin Peaks is the critic's dream. But is it the viewer's nightmare? I would hope that the answer is that it isn't."

Lynch seems confident that viewers will catch on. "These shows should cast a spell," he says. "It's sort of a nutty thing, but I feel a lot of enjoyment watching the show. It pulls me into this other world that I don't know about." Well, if he doesn't know about it, what are we outsiders to do? Nothing but sit back and succumb to the spell.