You know, maybe Twin Peaks wasn’t such a good idea after all. Oh sure, cocreators David Lynch and Mark Frost got one terrific season of head-scratchingly surreal television out of it, but since then, Peaks’ freaky influence has pushed pop culture further downhill. This season alone it has already inspired the feature-film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch’s nasty bore in which Laura Palmer goes topless before she becomes lifeless. And on television we now have Picket Fences, a new series from former L.A. Law executive producer David E. Kelley. With Fences, Kelley has created the first family drama that seems inspired by Peaks-like quirks and eccentricities.
Last week’s initial peek between the white wooden slats of Picket Fences revealed the little community of Rome, Wis., where law is enforced by Sheriff Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt) and medicine is practiced by the town doctor, Jill Brock (Kathy Baker). They’re a husband-and-wife team of caregivers, worldly middle-agers who value the old-fashioned influences of small-town life on their three children, 16-year-old Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs), 11-year-old Matthew (Justin Shenkarow), and 8-year-old Zack (Adam Wylie).
Picket Fences is thus full of raucous family breakfasts, grade-school show-and-tell sessions, and amateur productions of The Wizard of Oz, with good ol’ Sheriff Jimmy all gussied up as a Munchkin. It is as if Kelley, after all those years of setting Armani suits in complex motion on L.A. Law, suddenly yearned for the simple life.
But Kelley also knows that these days family drama doesn’t draw viewers anymore — just look at the quick cancellations in recent years of shows such as A Year in the Life and Sons and Daughters, as well as a hanging-by-its-nails survivor, Life Goes On. So in the post-Peaks era, Fences turns family drama into a sun-bright nightmare, in which the Tin Man in that Wizard of Oz production drops dead in his metal costume, a victim of poisoning. And when a housewife wants to end it all in this quiet burg, she sets the timer on her dishwasher, crawls inside, and shuts the door — who knew the pot-scrubber cycle could turn this kitchen appliance into a suicide machine?
This week’s episode begins with a schoolroom session in which a little girl brings in for discussion a severed hand in a jar she found lying in her neighborhood bushes. This leads the sheriff to suspect that a notorious criminal known as the Green Bay Chopper, who hacks off the right hand of each of his victims, has invaded his little bit of Wisconsin paradise.
But the bloody presence of death and dismemberment in both editions of this series’ first two weeks kinda makes you stop and think: Why did the family Brock ever believe Rome was such a nifty place, anyway? Still, it’s obvious that Kelley intends for us to be shocked by the abrupt introduction of violence into this tranquil setting, but if we don’t get the message, you can count on one of the sheriff’s deputies, Officer Maxine Stewart (Lauren Holly from The Antagonists), to spell it out. When the Tin Man keeled over a week ago, she murmured, ”Murder has come to Rome, Wisconsin!” This week, eager to catch the Chopper before he gets his mitts on another mitt, Maxine says to a colleague, ”Come on we live in a tiny town, how often do we get to track down a serial kidnapper?” The way things are going, Maxine, I figure another one’s bound to pop up, oh, around the time of your show’s first sweeps period.
Like Twin Peaks, Picket Fences wants to comfort us with cruelness: Hey, look, all you TV viewers stuck in high-crime cities, this show says, it’s really no better in idyllic small towns, either. The grass is greener but the rot still pervades.
The cast helps. Smiling gamely through the rot are Skerritt and Baker — loose, charming actors who generate real warmth in their nuzzly domestic scenes. The three kids, however, come off as unlikable brats, with Combs’ Kimberly a particularly imperious, obnoxious adolescent. Maybe some week her mom will lock Kimberly in the dishwasher for a quick rinse.
When Fences stays in the Brock home, though, the show at least has its own rhythm and a fresh slant on family life. Once Jimmy leaves for the police station, however, the series turns into a Peaks freak show. His receptionist, Ginny (Zelda Rubinstein), is a tiny woman who speaks in grave tones with what we’re supposed to think is oracular wisdom: Um, why should we? We’re not given this character’s history, background, or motivation.
Then, too, creator Kelley delights in playing drama for laughs, as when another of Jimmy’s officers, played by Costas Mandylor, says he wants to interrogate some of the Chopper’s previous victims, and Kelley cuts to a police waiting room full of men with absurdly exaggerated Captain Hook-like hooks attached to their right arms. This would be rudely funny if only it weren’t so quaintly, Peaksily predictable.
Picket Fences clearly aims to be a kinder, gentler Peaks, but the goosey, paradoxical mood for which it strives — heartwarming creepiness — is, at this point, more of a turnoff than a turn-on. C