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‘Twin Peaks’ gets its due at last

Special to The Times

For a series so widely acknowledged as a television landmark, David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” has received conspicuously shoddy treatment on the home-video front. The eight-episode first season was released in 2001 without the pilot; the second (and final) season arrived on DVD only last spring after extensive delays.

Now, finally, comes the edition fans have long been waiting for: a “definitive gold box” set, out Tuesday, that contains both seasons (all 29 episodes), the two-hour pilot (both the American and European versions) and abundant extras, including deleted scenes and four new documentaries. (All that’s missing is “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” the torrid 1992 prequel.)

An unlikely, perhaps unrepeatable phenomenon, “Twin Peaks” went from national sensation to ratings pariah in just over a year. (The final episode aired in June 1991, 14 months after the pilot.) Lynch’s singular sensibility made the show an object of instant fan ardor, but for the general public -- and certainly for the network, ABC -- it soon proved alienating. “Twin Peaks,” in other words, was a cult item that somehow found a mass audience and almost immediately suffered the consequences.

In its most basic outline, the show is a traditional whodunit, with a horrific central crime -- the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a homecoming queen whose extracurricular activities were on the seamy side -- and a charmingly eccentric crime-solver, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). But in its every detail, from Cooper’s reliance on dream-based Jungian techniques to the decidedly high ratio of local eccentrics in this bucolic Pacific Northwest logging town, “Twin Peaks” is pure and surprisingly unadulterated Lynch.

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While the characters and their quirks were strange, it was the less tangible stuff -- the moods and emotions the show stirred -- that in the context of prime time seemed even more unnerving: the panicky surge of hormones that envelops every teenage interaction, the grief-struck delirium of Laura’s parents (played with intensity by Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie), the bottomless terror lurking just beneath everyday banalities.

The point of contention was how quickly to solve the murder. Lynch and his co-creator, Mark Frost, wanted to prolong the mystery, but the network, citing viewer fatigue, grew impatient with the show’s slowly developing cosmology and its penchant for offbeat tangents.

And so Lynch solved the case in unforgettable fashion -- in Episode 14, a quarter of the way into Season 2. Laura’s father, Leland, possessed by a stringy-haired incarnation of evil known as Bob (Frank Silva), kills his daughter’s lookalike cousin, Maddy (also played by Lee), just as he’d killed his own daughter. It’s hard to imagine how Lynch got away with such a brutal act on network TV. Like the other episodes Lynch directed himself, this one is a marvel of sustained atmosphere. As Bob takes over Leland, a pall descends on the town. Most of the characters gather at the local tavern, some weeping uncontrollably as a wispy chanteuse (Julee Cruise) croons a disembodied love song.

This episode was the show’s high point and also its death knell. Lynch and his team of writers and directors were clearly thrown off balance (and for part of the second season Lynch was also off making his Elvis- and Oz-inflected road movie “Wild at Heart”). After a few lackluster post-revelation episodes, “Twin Peaks” regained its composure, finding a new adversary for Agent Cooper in the form of his vindictive ex-partner, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). But by then the series was, commercially speaking, a terminal case -- repeatedly bounced around the schedule by ABC, even stranded at one point in a Saturday-night wasteland.

But even in its last gasp “Twin Peaks” broke the rules. The brilliant finale, a byzantine and often terrifying mood piece as boldly avant-garde as anything Lynch has ever made, is, in its way, a deeply satisfying act of revenge. Having been forced to get to the bottom of his central mystery ahead of schedule, Lynch took his leave from the world of serial television with a defiant nonending, plunging further into his characters’ haunted unconscious and posing many more questions than he answered.


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