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Whedon Week: Two TV Series That Weren’t: Serenity and Mulholland Drive

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer


The networks axed Firefly and Mulholland Drive before they could find life. What might they have been like in the long run?

ImageI’ve never seen the pilot to Twin Peaks.

Even though it’s one of my favorite shows ever, Twin Peaks is one of those programs I inhaled on video – VHS, of course, seeing as how they’ve yet to release its second season on DVD in the states. The only version of the pilot episode I’ve seen is a truncated version with a different ending that Lynch and company shot to make the pilot work as a movie, no doubt so they would have something to release in case ABC didn’t pick up the pilot. The Twin Peaks pilot-as-movie thingy works fine; it’s still much cooler than most movie thrillers out there. Furthermore, in Mulholland Drive, we got to see one of those rejected-TV-pilots-as-full-length-narrative onscreen without ever having seen the complete series to go with it, and like the abruptly ending non-pilot to Peaks, Mulholland Drive works fine as a movie, but I wonder what would have become of Robert Forster’s character, or the two guys in the Denny’s with the creepy homeless guy out back had Lynch been given a full TV series to work with. True, as a network series, we wouldn’t have received the mind-blowing lesbian sex scene, but just think how satisfying it would have been to go through, say, 30 or 32 episodes – well into the second season – before having Lynch reveal to us that the whole Nancy Drew/Hollywood starlet sequence was a pipe dream of Naomi Watts’ pissed-off lesbian character. Then we would have had the rest of season two to sort through that narrative wreckage before the season two finale, which would no doubt feature the second appearance of the Cowboy to deal with Justin Theroux, who by the end of the second season would be quite ready to fire his leading lady. And then in season three, would Lynch shuffle his deck of characters again? What would have happened?

So, no surprise here: I’m a huge Firefly fan, and I miss the series.

Serenity is an astounding success on every level: It works as a movie for psychotic browncoats and novices alike. It expands and enriches the already delectable Firefly universe (or “verse” in psychotic browncoat parlance). It answers a bunch of key questions raised in the series while raising still others. It has some deeply satisfying moments and some typically Whedonesque soap-opera cruelty. It sets up the franchise for a movie trilogy or – dare I dream – a return of the series.

But we all know that the material covered in Serenity – just as the material covered in Mulholland Drive – would have been more than enough for at least two or three seasons worth of great TV.

Incidentally, episodic television has enjoyed a great coming-of-age in the last decade or so. I’m far from the first geekazoid pundit to note this, but with the advent if Buffy the Vampire Slayer and HBO (that wonderful juggernaut of good original programming), TV has raised the bar extremely high. It’s opened up creative avenues for great talents whose work would probably get fucked up in the big movie studio machine – like, say, Joss Whedon’s did with his film version of Buffy and his script of Alien Resurrection. Whedon found a worthy home on TV, and while it’s a terrible shame that the fuckbrains at Fox didn’t get Firefly, it’s an even bigger shame that from here on out, the only new Firefly footage we’re going to get is going to be onscreen.

(If we even get that. Boxofficemojo reports that Serenity opened at number two with about 10 million – lukewarm at best. Hopefully word-of-mouth will expand its appeal.)

Having said all this, let me emphasize that despite their similarities, Serenity is a far more successful movie than Mulholland Drive. I don’t mean to compare their artistic merits – Whedon and Lynch don’t have much in common besides an affection for goodheartedness – but Serenity works better as a full-length narrative because that’s what Whedon wrote it to be. Lynch clearly got screwed by ABC, and he slapped an ending onto Mulholland Drive.

Just imagine how much cooler both of these projects would have been, though, as TV series. For the sake of argument, let’s imagine a parallel universe where Firefly is well into its third season on a Fox that never canceled it, and where Mulholland Drive found a home on the eminent Home Box Office. (Yes, yes, I’m putting it on HBO so we can retain the hot lesbian sex. Sue me.)

Serenity follows a strong three-act structure. No surprise there. But a decent chunk of its first act is exposition. No great sin, and Whedon dispenses with it in quick and lively fashion, spreading it out over an interactive class session in his future dystopia and throughout a long, one-shot scene where he introduces all but two of Firefly’s regulars and sets up the movie’s first set piece, a bank heist that gets interrupted by the marauding cannibal-rapist-wacko reavers.

There’s the finale for season one, folks. Inara and Book leave the crew, Mal and the others go on a few more adventures, and by season’s end, the Serenity crew are in the same dire financial straits as they were in the pilot, which forces them to knock over a well-protected bank that’s closely associated with the uber-utopio-fascists of the Alliance. End season one with this cliffhanger: They’re trapped in the bank with reavers at the gates.

As for Mulholland Drive: The Series, I personally hope that parallel-universe Lynch would continue to probe the mixing-and-missing identities madness he so expertly explores in the Mulholland Drive film as well as its cinematic counterpart, the toweringly kick-ass Lost Highway. Now, Mulholland Drive isn’t as obtuse as Highway; the second half, though still kooky, is pretty clearly the “real” world, while the first half is Naomi Watt’s jilted-lover fantasy. The best I can make of Highway is that Robert Blake’s nameless creepozoid is some kind of all-powerful, all-perverted dispenser of justice who decides to keep poor Fred Madison and Peter Dayton in an endless time loop for who knows what reason. Lost Highway is nightmare made real; Mulholland Drive is wish-fulfillment made real … only to collapse under the truth of despair and heartbreak.

And speaking of parallel-universe Lynch: In Twin Peaks, Lynch took the chance to make real and concrete one of his grandest creations, the bizarre, red-curtained netherworld where agent Cooper remains trapped at series’ end. Lynch took one of he greatest chances a purveyor of horror can take: he made his horror real, and he gave it a name, The Black Lodge (and its benevolent counterpart, the White Lodge, though we didn’t see much of it). Lynch even had the military get involved in the search for the Black Lodge, and in taking such a turn for the Mulder, Lynch risked losing the mystery surrounding this crazy place.

But he didn’t. Somehow, he didn’t, and the finale of Twin Peaks remains one of the proudest moments in all of cinema. (I’ll get to two more proud moments in cinema history in a moment, one in Twin Peaks and one in Serenity.) I humbly submit to Mr. Parallel Universe David Lynch, wherever he is, that he should take Mulholland Drive in the same X-Files-y direction and challenge his characters with an actual breakdown of the barriers between parallel universes.

 

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Yeah, yeah – I know. You think I’m an idiot. You think that inserting a sci-fi plotline, no matter how elegantly played, would sully the otherwise trippy experience of a Mulholland Drive TV series.

Well, consider this: What if Naomi Watts’ angry, jilted, butch lesbian character actually, literally slipped into the Nancy Drew fantasy world? What if the angry lesbian actually met a Rita/Camilla Rhodes who was attracted to her? Or what if she met her bouncy-bubblegum-blonde Nancy Drew counterpart?

I rest my case, and further submit that Michael J. Anderson’s man-behind-the-mike character could act as a benevolent agent pitted against Monty Mongomery’s hokey-as-hell-on-earth Cowboy. Maybe Lynch could even slip in a back-door return to the Twin Peaks narrative. Could you imagine if the Evil-Bob-possessed Coop reemerged in season three of Mulholland Drive and forced sheriff Truman to travel to Los Angeles to team up with agent Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer) to not only stop Evil Bob/Coop, not only rescue the good Coop from the Black Lodge, but also to realign the universes?

Do you think Naomi Watts’ jilted lover would willingly leave the Nancy Drew fantasy universe and return to being sad and alone? Can you imagine a black-hearted alliance between her and Evil Bob/Coop to forever jumble reality?

(Let’s take a few breaths so we can all stop salivating over the idea of a return to Twin Peaks under any circumstances.)

I promised earlier that I would recount two of the proudest moments in the history of cinema. Here they are:

 

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Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.

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