David Foster Wallace once came up with this academic definition of the Lynchian: “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” Twin Peaks, the famously David Lynch-created series that ran in ABC primetime in 1990 and 1991, gave American television its first strong shot of the Lynchian. Though the director who had earlier offered up Eraserhead and Blue Velvet would spend most of his creative energy later that decade on cinema — the Twin Peaks movie Fire Walk with Me, the twitchy neo-noir Lost Highway, and the seemingly heartwarming but deceptively grim The Straight Story — he followed up Twin Peaks by making more TV shows, expressing varying degrees of the Lynchian, and meeting with varying degrees of acclaim. These include the documentary series American Chronicles, the retro sitcom On the Air (which Wallace describes as “mercifully ablated”), and the more highly appreciated (if even lesser-known) HBO miniseries Hotel Room, all of whose three episodes you can watch above. Lynch directed, and Barry Gifford (collaborator on Lost Highway and Wild at Heart) wrote, the first and third episodes; the second comes directed by James Signorelli and written by Bright Lights, Big City author Jay McInerney.
“For a millennium the space for the hotel room existed – undefined,” pronounces Lynch at the top of each chapter. “Mankind captured it and gave it shape and passed through. And sometimes when passing through, they found themselves brushing up against the secret names of truth.” All of Hotel Room‘s episodes play out in one such space in particular, number 603 of New York City’s Railroad Hotel. Each visits it in a different era, though, in typically Lynchian fashion, the hotel’s ageless maid and bellboy exist outside of time. The first story, set in 1969, finds 603 occupied by a prostitute, her hapless john Moe (played by Harry Dean Stanton), and a shady fellow who knows a bit too much about Moe’s past. The second, featuring Griffin Dunne and Mariska Hargitay, tells the then-present day tale of three fashionable young ladies and how they deal with one’s unstoppably amorous fiancée. The most enclosed and haunting of these chamber pieces happens during a blackout in 1936 wherein 603′s occupants, a couple played by Crispin Glover and Alicia Witt, make their way through a psychologically harrowing confrontation with the death of their son. While little in Hotel Room qualifies as “very macabre,” per se, the series still reflects a distinctive vision of America as a flat and colloquial yet crisply formal interplay of light and dark — one I can only call Lynchian.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.