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Sunday, October 7, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Twin Peaks -- The Hero Quest

Baltimore Sun

AS 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,'' 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. Lee was asked what kind of coaching 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'' has been one of the most eagerly awaited events of the new season.

``Twin Peaks'' stories appeared all week. ``Twin Peaks'' viewing parties were scheduled. ``Twin Peaks'' contests were held in towns and cities all over the country.

Pocket Books last month published ``The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer.'' Simon & Schuster unveiled an audio cassette of Cooper's taped 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; we use 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 hours time 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 Monday morning discussing the last ``Twin Peaks'' show? So what if many of us will dream in our most private world of sleep about what 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 is 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.

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

SEPARATION-initiation-return. That's the structure of the monomyth. That's the path Agent Cooper is moving on. The hero leaves his world (separation), sets off on a journey, encounters great challenges and temptations on the journey (initiation), is often wounded and ultimately triumphs. In Western versions of the myth, he returns to the community he initially left.

Think back to our first sighting of Dale Cooper. It came about a half hour into the two-hour pilot for ``Twin Peaks'' last spring. Laura Palmer's body had been found. Another young woman, who had been raped, wandered down from some abandoned railroad cars and was discovered by a worker. The natural order of Twin Peaks had been destroyed. The residents needed help.

That's where Agent Cooper entered. His entry into ``Twin Peaks'' in a car was initially photographed with long shots in such a way as to remind viewers of the entry Shane made on horseback at the start of ``Shane,'' a film about another hero who restored order to a troubled community. It is the kind of reference to heroes and other characters in films and books that Lynch regularly make by their own admission. In terms of monomyth, it was separation, Cooper leaving his world of FBI headquarters.

There is also initiation (temptation). Remember when Cooper came back to his room at the Great Northern Hotel and found Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) in his bed?

More initiation (battles and wounding): Remember the ending of last season when Cooper opened his hotel room door for room service and was shot three times in the stomach? The wounding of the hero in this manner is classic stuff. From the dozens of versions of the Fisher King Myth to Roy Hobbs in ``The Natural'' (taking the bullet in the side from the woman in black), the notion of the wounded hero and the cycle of death and rebirth is central. It turned out that Cooper survives the shooting because he was wearing a bullet-proof vest (armor in Homer's time).

EVEN the famous disco-dancing-dwarf scene, which everyone called ``bizarre'' but couldn't stop talking about, is ``Hero Quest 101.'' Just when the hero is most confused or lost on his journey, in myth and folklore, he regularly wanders into an elf or dwarf or talking animal (Waldo, the bird?) in a forest, who gives him a cryptic message. Often he doesn't know whether the message will help him find his way or lead to more confusion. This is precisely what happened in that scene, as Agent Cooper seemed most lost on his search for the killer.

Is it all filtered through a post-modern sensibility where a kind of amused irony over Cooper's kinks mingles with respect for him as hero? Sure. But that's haircut and style of clothing. What's important is the journey, with its elements of separation-initiation-return.

Ultimately, it does not matter whether the inclusion of such elements are intentional or not, conscious or unconscious on the part of the authors. Nor does it matter whether we, in the audience, consciously recognize them or not.

We recognize them in our bones as a metaphor for the journey each of us makes through this world from cradle to grave. And we are moved to tears, laughter, awe, anger and resolve by how the hero handles them.

So when you start to feel that pleasant tingle of anticipation at the first strains of Angelo Badalamenti's eerie musical score, don't think of it as a guilty, cheap or weird pleasure. It is the same pleasure other people felt in earlier times when the troubadours started to tune their lyres to sing of knights-errant and great quests.

``Twin Peaks'' is essentially Cooper's tale. And Cooper's tale is saga in the television age - black suit, slicked-back hair, coffee, cherry pie, Douglas firs and all.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun's television critic; Christina Stoehr teaches writing and criticism at Southern Methodist University.

(Copyright 1990, The Baltimore Sun. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service)

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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