In “David Lynch Keeps His Head” (uncut version here), David Foster Wallace’s Premiere magazine report from the set of Lost Highway, Wallace rattles off the “entertainments David Lynch has created and/or directed” including “Eraserhead (1978), The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), two televised seasons of Twin Peaks (1990-92), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and the mercifully ablated TV show On the Air (1992).” (To ablate, a verb Wallace uses again in the article in reference to a severed head, means “to remove or dissipate by melting, vaporization, erosion, etc.”) Even Lynch die-hards may never have caught a glimpse of On the Air, which Wallace later describes as “bottomlessly horrid” and “euthanatized by ABC after six very long-seeming weeks.” Clearly the author of Infinite Jest, despite greatly respecting Lynch’s unprecedentedly surreal primetime drama Twin Peaks (its first season, at least) and crediting Blue Velvet with revealing to him the very possibilities of art, couldn’t stomach this show. Now you can watch all seven episodes of On the Air on Youtube, three of which aired in the United States, and judge for yourself.
The series, which debuted and ended in the summer of 1992, takes place in 1957, peering behind the scenes at the fictional Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company, producers of the hapless variety program The Lester Guy Show. Lester Guy himself, an alcoholic silver-screen leading man who rose to fame by staying out of the Second World War, spends most episodes vying for popular supremacy against his cast’s blonde ingenue Betty Hudson, who may remind you of an even simpler version of Sandy Williams, the Laura Dern character in Blue Velvet. The series appeared as the second collaboration between Lynch and Mark Frost, co-creator of Twin Peaks, which brought their signature sensibility of intense vividness and vaguely haunting unreality to the detective genre. On the Air brings it to the classic goofball sitcom. Watch the first episode (ranked as #57 on TV Guide‘s “100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time” list) and, to experience either the utter genius or the utter trainwreck, you’ll want to watch the following six. “There was a lot of laughter on the set,” remembers Ian Buchanan, who played Lester Guy. “Maybe we were too happy. Everybody I knew on successful shows was miserable.”
(日本人 Lynch-heads, take note: each episode includes Japanese subtitles.)
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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.