When word leaked out earlier this year that David Lynch was making his return to television with a new ABC series called Mulholland Drive, it was cause for jubilation among those who never quite got over that strange Northwestern town with the dancing dwarf and the damn fine cup of coffee, Twin Peaks. The most innovative and haunting TV program of the 90’s, Peaks burned brightly for a few short months, as millions of viewers tuned in to catch the latest piece of the show’s central puzzle, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" Once the mystery was solved however, Lynch seemed to lose interest, disappearing from the show for long stretches and leaving it in the hands of more conventional television talent. By the time he returned to take viewers on one last trip through the red curtain, it was too late. The audience was already gone.
Would Lynch learn from the mistakes of the past and devote his creative energies fully to the new series? Would lightning strike twice, with Mulholland Drive equaling the phenomenon of the earlier show? When ABC’s fall line-up was announced, the answers to these questions were nowhere to be found. After funding the pilot episode, the network chose to pass on the series. Instead, according to the September 6th issue of the New Yorker, the pilot will air later this season as a stand-alone movie-of-the-week. Embittered, Lynch has vowed never to work in television again.
The increasing irrelevance of the networks has been thrown into sharp, painful relief by the success of such cable originals as HBO’s Larry Sanders Show and The Sopranos, which racked up more Emmy nominations than any other show this year. Here was an opportunity for ABC to get back in the game, and they blew it. Word has it they were thrown by Lynch’s dreamy pacing and oddball tangents (the director was forced to trim his two-hour-plus cut down to less than ninety commercial-friendly minutes). Perhaps the participation of Ron Howard’s Imagine Television led them to expect a more mainstream, family-friendly Lynch (his new G-rated Disney feature The Straight Story is reportedly just that). Whatever the case, it appears that this ride down Mulholland Drive will be a short one indeed.
And that’s a real shame because a viewing of the pilot reveals the potential for a unique and unsettling oasis amid a wasteland of Friends and Party of Five clones. Lynch has assembled much of his regular team (composer Angelo Badalamenti, production designer Jack Fisk, editor — and Lynch’s significant other — Mary Sweeney) to create a moody, engrossing opening chapter of feature film quality. While hardly groundbreaking territory for Lynch, it nevertheless stands head and shoulders above almost anything else on network television today.
The show opens with a jolt: A black Cadillac pulls over to the side of the titular street in the Hollywood Hills. Inside, two men order a dark-haired woman (Laura Harring) out of the car at gunpoint. A pair of cars loaded with joyriding teenagers come screaming around the blind curve ahead. One of them slams into the Caddy, killing both men and leaving the woman to wander the streets of Los Angeles in an amnesiac daze.
The woman — who takes the name Rita from a movie poster for Gilda , starring Rita Hayworth — finds refuge in an apparently vacated apartment. She is startled by the arrival of Betty (Naomi Watts), a wholesome midwestern blonde who has come to L.A. seeking fame and fortune. Together, the two attempt to solve the mystery of Rita’s true identity (not to mention the pile of cash and odd-shaped key in her purse).
The third major character is Adam (Justin Theroux), a petulant movie director who throws a fit when asked to "entertain suggestions" (Where does Lynch get his ideas?). Of these three rather colorless leads, Theroux makes the biggest impression, though Watts shows signs of darker impulses beneath her cornpone veneer. As is often the case in Lynchville, some of the more interesting characters lurk on the fringes, including Robert Forster and Brent Briscoe as a pair of LAPD detectives so deadpan they make Joe Friday look like Jim Carrey.
Dopplegangers and questions of identity are familiar touchstones in the work of David Lynch, and Mulholland Drive is no exception. Here it is the city itself that seems haunted by a shadowy double — the restless ghosts of Hollywood past. This is a vacuum-packed Los Angeles; there’s not a traffic jam or hazy skyline to be found. Cool earth tones are the order of the day; oak-paneled rooms, woodgrain conference tables and creamy wall-length draperies abound. Shades of brown are so omnipresent that the occasional flash of color — a blue key, ruby-red lips or the pink paint Adam pours all over his wife’s jewelry when he discovers her infidelity — stands out vividly in contrast.
Obsessive followers of the Twin Peaks chronicles will have a field day picking out Lynch’s recurring motifs. Michael J. Anderson, the disturbing, backwards-speaking "Man From Another Place" returns — or at least his head does, perched atop an improbably large, paralyzed body — as the equally enigmatic Mr. Roque, a studio mogul whose offices recall nothing so much as a reconfiguration of Peaks‘ hellish waiting room, the Black Lodge. The Cowboy is an ethereal presence akin to the previous series’ Giant, and his arrivals are likewise signaled by flickering electricity and cryptic epigrams ("You will see me one more time if you do good. You will see me two more times if you do bad.") Even the trademark Peaks coffee humor is back, in the form of a menacing Mob figure with very particular espresso needs.
Mulholland Drive, however, maintains an ever-tightening, claustrophobic grip that all but eliminates the slack quirkiness that too often plagued the earlier show. An early scene of inadvertently escalating violence builds with queasily comic horror. And when Adam first locks eyes with Betty while auditioning actresses lip-synching to old girl-group hits like "16 Reasons", it’s a delirious shot of pop culture kitsch bliss.
While nothing in the Mulholland Drive pilot matches the emotional wallop of the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body wrapped in plastic, the director has achieved a consistent tone of enveloping dread that suffuses even the most banal of scenes. Lynch’s sixth sense is one of impending doom, and nobody does it better. The final kicker before the end credits roll is one of those hair-raising moments of near revelation that made Twin Peaks the number one water cooler topic back in 1990. Unfortunately, this is one cliffhanger even Special Agent Dale Cooper couldn’t resolve.