Posted on Friday, January 3rd, 2014 by Russ Fischer
On the Air, the second show from Twin Peaks creators Mark Frost and David Lynch, barely registered in the public consciousness when it premiered on ABC in 1992. The show’s seven episodes are now available on YouTube, and did the rounds at the very end of last year.
There’s a reason the show had little post-broadcast life and is all but forgotten: it isn’t very good. An attempt to create a zany behind-the-scenes look at live TV comedy in the late ’50s, On the Air is a bit like David Lynch doing 30 Rock. While the show did have the input of Twin Peaks creators Frost and Lynch, it stalled quickly, sliding into repetition and stale gags. Seven episodes were shot, but only three aired.
But wait! I didn’t write this piece just to say “here’s a thing, it’ kinda sucks.” In fact the pilot, written by Frost and Lynch and directed by Lynch, is actually pretty terrific. (In 1997 it was ranked squarely in the middle of a list of the 100 best TV episodes ever made.)
Now, Twin Peaks is in the ether again. David Lynch is evidently shooting something Peaks-related next week, which is probably a web-bound promo for the complete box set we know to be coming later this year. So it’s a good time to revisit On the Air. Because whatever intentions Frost and Lynch may have had, that first episode is like one long dream sequence that reconfigures and laughs at the whole experience of creating Twin Peaks.
Watch the pilot before reading further. (This embed is sourced from one of the few legit releases of the whole show, a Japanese laserdisc that was available as an import in the mid-’90s, and features a playlist that will automatically go to the rest of the seven episodes.)
Obviously this is a show about making television created by people who had just been responsible for one of the biggest events to hit television in a decade, so it seems facile to say one is necessarily related to the other. But allusions to Twin Peaks quickly pile up, and I believe that the pilot fundamentally reflects Twin Peaks, whether Frost or Lynch had such a thing in mind at the time.
Just look at the plot: while creatives, crew, talent, and execs never quite sync up, the product of their collusion is a show that pushes the format of TV, then becomes a runaway success thanks to a current of genuine sweetness. And all the boundary-pushing stuff, all the things that look like self-conscious flourishes of Lynchian wierdness? Mistakes, from top to bottom. Totally unintentional. Is it coincidence that this came on the heels of a show famous for a dancing, backwards-talking dream dwarf, which some critics and audiences dinged for being weird for its own sake?
Created in the middle of the second season of Twin Peaks, as that show was sliding into mediocrity, On the Air highlights two actors who played some of the more forgettable characters in the Peaks canon: Ian Buchanan, who played Lucy’s dandy suitor and possible baby daddy, is Lester Guy, the pompous and all-but washed up movie star given a second chance on TV. (Twin Peaks stars such as Richard Beymer, Piper Laurie and Russ Tamblyn were former film players who got a late-career resuscitation via the show.) David L. Lander, who appeared as the irritating Tim Pinkle on Peaks, is the director only one person understands. And Miguel Ferrer, so memorable as Albert on Twin Peaks, reprises Albert’s tone and delivery, without the same script support, for the ZBC network president.
There are some other obvious nods: the ZBC network name seems like a direct parody of Twin Peaks‘ home ABC; network execs sit roped off in what could be a corner of the Black Lodge; and Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti contributes some very Peaks-esque themes, and even appears briefly as a piano player.
The two lead female characters, super-ditzy blonde star Betty (Marla Rubinoff) and Ruth, the plucky assistant played by Nancye Ferguson, are another incarnation of the “Betty and Veronica” duos that appear in several core Lynch projects. (See Sandy and Dorothy in Blue Velvet, Laura and Donna in Twin Peaks, and another Betty, paired with Rita, from Lynch’s TV series turned film Mulholland Drive.)
Ruth, the only one able to translate the director’s heavily accented speech, might be inspired by Mary Sweeney, who edited several Lynch projects (Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive) and was, broadly, his life and creative partner through the ‘90s.
In fact, everyone but Ruth is skewered in On the Air: the actors are idiots, the director is an incomprehensible nincompoop, the producer is worthless, and the network higher-ups are completely ineffectual, with no understanding of the audience. Many of the jabs are light, or loving. The two sound technicians may seem redundant, but they’re such a fun pair! Lynch and Frost seem to be poking fun at themselves as much as at network brass or difficult actors; it’s all a goofy game.
On the Air didn’t ever amount to much, as few of the other episodes live up to the pilot. There’s a degree to which the same concepts from the pilot are simply rehashed over and over. A few gags achieve a life of their own (the Mr. Peanuts episode is good) but things went stale very fast. Even there the show looks like a mini-vision of Twin Peaks; like art caught in a Black Lodge loop, endlessly imitating and commenting on itself.