Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ON THE AIR (1992) HOTEL ROOM (1993)

The Score: 8 out 10

David Lynch and Mark Frost gained considerable credibility during the early runaway success of Twin Peaks (1990-91), leading the network to explore ideas for another program. Lynch and Frost co-wrote a pilot for an experimental sitcom focusing on the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of a 50's TV variety show that broadcasts episodes live, a common practice in that era of television. Enchanted by the humor and possibilities for the show, ABC green lit the project and ordered 7 half-hour episodes to test the viability of On the Air (1992).

ON THE AIR (1992)
On the Air (1992) is a Short-Lived Sitcom by David Lynch and Mark Frost
As Twin Peaks declined in the ratings, the network lowered their expectations for On the Air until it was essentially dead on arrival. Hoping to capture comedic lightning in a bottle, Lynch constructed this charming sitcom around a proven core group of character actors. David Lynch formed his dream team around Twin Peaks veterans Miguel Ferrer (Special Agent Rosenfield), Ian Buchanan (Dick Tremain), and David Lander (sleazy health insurance defrauder and future pine weasel activist Tim Pinkle). 
Ian Buchanan Plays Struggling Film Actor Lester Guy, Who Decides to Star
in "The Lester Guy Show" in an Attempt to Buoy Up His Sinking Career
The creation of a brilliant, dark murder-mystery/nighttime soap opera set in the fictional Washingtonian town of Twin Peaks was a gamble that paid off, making Lynch one of the best known directors in America and secured his reputation as an artistic genius. If people thought making Twin Peaks (1990-91) was a strange move for David Lynch after the critical and financial success of Blue Velvet (1986), then those same people must have scratched their heads when Lynch prepared to shoot On the Air (1992).
When the Head of the Network Mr. Zoblotnick is Angry, We Know It
At a time when other filmmakers would retreat back to the comfort of film, Lynch branched out with this quaint 50's styled sitcom instead. On the Air mixes classic slapstick with Lynch's unique brand of absurdist humor, which stood in contrast to Twin Peaks' mixture of drama, comedy, and horror. Rather than simply introduce elements of 50's style into another contemporary piece as he frequently does in his other projects, in On the Air Lynch transports us back to the 50's era itself. On the Air is a comforting change of pace for Lynch as we explore a simpler and more innocent time in America. Here Lynch displays more angles to his sense of humor than we normally see in his more dramatic work.
On the Air (1992) is hardly what anyone was expecting next from creators Twin Peaks. This short-lived TV sitcom at first glance might seem dissimilar enough from the rest of Lynch's body of work that some could be tempted to skip over it during an analysis of Lynch's career, but that would be a mistake. A recurring late 50's and early 60's American motif can be found in nearly all of Lynch's work, and yet On the Air is his only project set during the period. And to quote Agent Cooper: "When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry, we must always pay strict attention."
In a recent interview with Gareth Grundy, David Lynch was asked what TV shows he has enjoyed watching recently. Lynch responded: "I love Mad Men, and I've actually met Don Draper and Peggy Olson. I like everything about it – the writing, the directing, the acting. It's its own great world, with great characters. Every show should be that."
Mad Men (2007-Present) is David Lynch's Favorite Current TV Program
Whatever his reasons, David Lynch always has been drawn to this period of American history in his art. Rather than speculate about the reasons why, we will instead showcase a few relevant 50's-60's themed images and video clips from Lynch's projects:

Eraserhead (1976) - Everything is Fine

Blue Velvet (1986) - Opening Sequence

Jeff Asks Sandy Hop on Down with Him to the Malt Shop in His Red Convertible - Blue Velvet (1986)
As Mentioned in Our Article for Wild at Heart (1990),
Lula was Loosely Patterned After Marilyn Monroe and
Sailor After Elvis Presley
At Times, Twin Peaks Practically Feels Like a Late 50's Period Piece in Spite
of Being Set in the Year 1989
These Sweaters and Skirts Carry a Vintage 50's Feel
Even the Concept of the Homecoming Queen Carries with it a 50's Vibe
Mike and Bobby Feel Like Teenage Punks from the 50's Rather than the 80's
Audrey's Last Outfit in Twin Peaks (1991) Takes Us Back to a Simpler Time
On the Air (1992) is Actually Set in the 50's for the First Time in Lynch's Work
Pictured: Betty Extemporizing with an Impromptu Live Musical Number
Patricia Arquette and Balthazar Getty Get 50's Romantic in Lost Highway (1997)
Mulholland Dr. (2001) Features Memorable Audition Scenes Revolving Around a Late 50's Period Piece
16 Reasons

David Lynch often flirts with the 50's, creating in the process beautiful and comforting dreamworlds that occasionally bely the hidden depths of pain and darkness that teem and bubble just under the surface. Lynch frequently juxtaposes the innocence of that era with the harsh realities his characters have to face in the modern world. This recurring theme is one fascinating aspect of Lynch's work, but we encourage you to take note and consider what else he could be expressing through this stylistic choice.
A Group of Fictional TV Network Executives Watch the Unfolding Spectacle
Without a Sense of Humor, an Example of Art Imitating Life
In all honesty, we understand why On the Air (1992) was cancelled. The show adopts a very quaint 50's style of humor that many in the early 90's probably did not expect from David Lynch. And honestly, On the Air did tend to meander more than it probably should have, particularly in later episodes. Unfortunately, the series fell into some of the same traps that the second half of Twin Peaks fell into earlier. On the Air was actually a better repository for this style of humor, though, and we wonder if the expectations for a series following in the heels of Twin Peaks had been a little lower, then maybe the series would have been given a little more time to find more solid footing with itself and its audience.
Lester Guy's Live Commercial for a Dog Food Sponsor Goes Horribly Awry
David Lynch's 23 minute pilot episode is exceptionally funny for those patient enough to sit through some slow patches as the episode slowly builds toward the most hilarious crescendo found in any Lynch project. And while the other episodes are still entertaining, they drift a little too much for their own good, especially for the tastes of a contemporary mainstream TV audience in the early 90's. But we look forward to the day when this forgotten classic is presented on DVD or Blu-Ray in the U.S., so we will longer need to resort to antiquated VHS cassette tapes to watch it.
The pilot for On the Air (1992) works especially well when viewed as a standalone short film by Lynch, even if it requires a little patience on a first viewing. You will not regret sticking through with the pilot to its comedic conclusion. Its portrayal of an eccentric and harmless group of entertainers is charming and the series light-hearted tone makes this a rare Lynch project appropriate for the whole family to enjoy together.

We originally intended to devote this week's article to On the Air (1992) and create a separate article next week for Lynch's Hotel Room (1993), but we decided to merge our analysis of both shows into one article. We do not feel there is enough here to justify two separate articles, especially when you consider that the combined running time of all the episodes directed by David Lynch directed barely match the length of a standard-length feature film. Therefore, we next present a brief analysis of Lynch's shortest-lived TV project, the HBO original series Hotel Room.


The Score: 8.5 out of 10

If On the Air (1992) was David Lynch's I Love Lucy (1951-57), then Hotel Room (1993) would be his Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62). David Lynch's next foray into television took an interesting turn as he developed an original anthology series at HBO. For those unfamiliar with the format of an anthology TV series, the episodes are disconnected from one another in terms of narrative and characters, with only a similar tone uniting all their narratives.
Anthology series frequently have a host or narrator who introduces each episode to the audience and then reinforces the episode's point of view with some playful commentary at the episode's conclusion. Alfred Hitchcock did this for his pulp murder- mystery anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62). Rod Serling did it for The Twilight Zone (1959-64). The "voice controlling our television" introduced The Outer Limits (1963-65) with the same opening sequence from week to week. And the macabre muppet "Crypt Keeper" hosted HBO's successful horror anthology Tales from the Crypt (1989-96).
Barry Gifford Wrote the First and Third Episodes of Hotel Room
Of all these anthology series, David Lynch opted to go with an opening similar to the Outer Limits, a simple one-time recording that explains the central conceit of the show with no further introductions or retrospective narration before or after the episodes. Although this opening sequence is a beautiful montage of stock footage of hotels being constructed over the decades, and the opening narration is beautifully poetic in a way only Lynch can capture, we were still a little disappointed to not see David Lynch acting as a more tangible host. Lynch would certainly be a fun personality to spend time with before and after each episode, giving us a chance to absorb more of the episodes' stories in the process.
Tricks Stars Harry Dean Stanton, Glenne Headley, and Freddie Jones
Not familiar with the reasons for Hotel Room's abrupt cancellation, we will only offer the possibility that perhaps two concurrent anthology series under the same roof might have been one series too many. Tales from the Crypt was already in its fifth season on HBO when David Lynch's Hotel Room came along on the same station. And since Hotel Room was created around the conceit of all episodes taking place completely within the confines of a single hotel room and the adjoining hallway leading to the elevator, we imagine the HBO executives considered the broader canvas and the proven track record of Tales from the Crypt as an advantage. But that is pure speculation on our part.
Tricks is a Passable Film Noir Story, but is Not as Intriguing as Blackout
Perhaps the format of Hotel Room seemed a little claustrophobic for potential guest writers and directors, although we should note that Hotel Room's stories could take place during any time period from the hotel's creation in the early twentieth century to modern days. And in a Lynchian twist, all the hotel staff would remain exactly the same and at the same age from episode to episode, regardless of the year in which the story takes place. But in spite of the interesting stories that could have resulted from this format, we can understand how HBO could consider these constraints a little too tight compared to Crypt.
Each Episode Takes Place within the Room and the Above Hallway
And in all honesty, the first two episodes of Hotel Room were not very entertaining. They feel a little stifling and do not feel ready for prime time. I assume the series was cancelled based on these two episodes, because the third episode Blackout was directed by David Lynch and is a tour d'force of elegant dialogue-driven storytelling. Blackout is a fine example of David Lynch's skills as a director and has an extended running time, matching the length of the previous two episodes combined.
We See Elements Here Echoing David Lynch's Eraserhead (1976)
 and its Influence on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980) Elevator Hallway
Whatever the reason for Hotel Room's cancellation, we are disappointed more episodes were not filmed. The series and its unique narrative constraints could have showcased the talents of many up-and-coming writers, directors, and actors with minimal expense to HBO. But the important thing is that we at least have one more classic Lynch short in the episode Blackout, by far the best of the three episodes and the only one we strongly recommend watching.
Eraserhead (1976) Elevator Hallway
Blackout is the only episode of Hotel Room (1993) where David Lynch's influence can be powerfully felt from beginning to end. We finally get a real taste of Lynch's trademark use of haunting atmospheric sound effects and feel Angelo Badalamenti's score is well matched to the story. Blackout is a beautiful experience and no Lynch fan should miss it.
Alicia Witt as St. Alia of the Knife, the Younger Sister of Paul Atreides, Shortly After Avenging Their Father's Death on the Baron Harkonnen and Dispatching a Wounded Sardaukar Trooper on Her Way Back to Paul
David Lynch Specifically Wrote the Memorable Character "Gersten Hayward"
for Alicia Witt to Play in Twin Peaks Episode 8
Crispin Glover and Alicia Roanne Witt are Amazing as a Grieving Couple
Grasping for Hope in a Dark Time
Blackout features David Lynch veteran actors Crispin Glover (Dell from Wild at Heart) and Alicia Roanne Witt (Alia from Dune and Gersten Hayward from Twin Peaks). Glover and Witt play a married couple visiting New York City to acquire the services of a renowned psychologist. The young couple recently suffered the loss of a child and the wife has developed a severe guilt complex in response to the tragedy, and her condition is now spiraling out of control.
Crispin Glover and Alicia Witt Both Deliver Incredible Performances in Roles
the Likes of Which They Rarely Get a Chance to Play
David Lynch plays on the concept of human perceptions, creating a physical environment that mimics the characters' internal struggles. Set during the historical New York City blackout of 1936, Lynch creates a moody atmosphere rivaling the intensity of The Elephant Man (1980) but with remarkable restraint and naturalism. The only downside is that most Lynch fans have not had the opportunity to watch it, since like On the Air the series is only available in the U.S. on VHS cassette tape. Surely what amounts to Lynch's best short film to date deserves better treatment.
Filmmakers Normally Have Difficulty Making an Extended Conversation Between Two People Engaging, But Here David Lynch Outdoes Himself with a Powerful Story and Pitch-Perfect Acting
The episode could have easily descended into standard melodrama or gone wrong in any number of other ways, but David Lynch weaves together all the filmic elements here into a beautiful narrative tapestry that would be impossible for a less capable filmmaker to reproduce. Blackout is a surprisingly subtle and delicate viewing experience and offers a beautiful glimpse of what the medium of television is capable of achieving in the hands of a master filmmaker.
David Lynch Provides a Powerful Catharsis at the Conclusion of the Blackout
Hotel Room (1993) lasted only three episodes, a disappointingly short run for an anthology series. And whatever your opinion of the first two episodes might be, we imagine most would agree Blackout is a fine example of David Lynch's dramatic work and merits a wider audience than it has now. Unfortunately, the scope of its audience will be limited until the U.S. releases a copy of Hotel Room on Blu-Ray, DVD, or some form of video on demand.
A Region 2 (U.K.) DVD Proving the U.S. Needs to Step Up its Game
Although David Lynch worked on paintings and other artistic pursuits after Hotel Room (1993), he would not make another TV project or feature film until he began production on his beautifully bizarre Lost Highway (1997). Next week we will take a close look at this peculiar story of attraction, jealousy, murder, and lost identity in this sucker punch to the cinematic solar plexus. Lynch co-wrote the screenplay with Barry Gifford, with whom he had collaborated on the screenplays for Wild at Heart (1990) and two of the three episodes of Hotel Room (1993). Like Wild at Heart before it, Lost Highway contains many graphic scenes compared to most of Lynch's other films, so exercise viewing discretion.
Lost Highway Trailer

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