If you are one to regularly frequent Film Twitter, chances are you've noticed that everyone and their mother is clamoring to see the upcoming revival series of one of the most subversive, idiosyncratic, and brilliant programs to have ever aired on television. It was a show that was famously helmed by one of the world's greatest living auteur filmmakers. A show that featured a myriad of indelible characters, supernatural plotlines, and some damn fine coffee. And, most cruelly, a show that was cancelled after a brief stint of only two seasons, leaving the fates of many of its beloved characters hanging in the balance, and snatching any sense of closure away from its audience forever. Or so we thought.
If you are not a regular over at Film Twitter, I am, of course, referring to David Lynch's Twin Peaks, a show that has evolved from cult status into a worldwide pop-cultural phenomenon, consistently enamored by legions of television enthusiasts and cinephiles all over the globe. And therein lies the magic behind Twin Peaks: it is perhaps the only property to singlehandedly transcend the “Film vs. Television” debate, capable of unifying even the staunchest of purists from both sides. Running from 1990 to 1991, Twin Peaks was met with glowing praise and audience fervor, but was summarily cancelled by the end of its second season. A follow-up film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, did little to tide fans over and remains as divisive as ever. That the show has been resurrected for a new season consisting of 18 episodes, all directed by Lynch himself, is nothing short of remarkable.
With the impending release of these new episodes, many have taken it upon themselves to binge-watch the original run of Twin Peaks as a refresher for the upcoming series. Ordinarily, I would be right there with them, but I’ve figured life is simply too short to endure Ben Horne’s Civil War reenactments, James’ insufferable soap opera tangent, and whatever the hell Billy Zane was doing all over again. Don’t get me wrong, I love Twin Peaks, but a little of its madness goes a long way, and the central mystery behind the show, “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”, was not a sustainable subject for 30 episodes. Instead, I opted to watch another television series, one I had never seen before, and one that also happened to be helmed by a world-(in?)famous auteur filmmaker. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom:
Released in 1994 and known in its native Denmark as Riget, The Kingdom’s opening immediately establishes its patently bizarre mythos through these haunting, sepia-toned images: eons ago, there existed an ancient marshland, enshrouded in a perpetual fog from the steam of the bleachers’ continuous cleaning. “The Kingdom” would become an advanced hospital that was built upon on these marshes, and legend has it that the gateway to the realm of the dead will soon be open once again. The prologue then immediately segues into the show’s opening credits, a comically fast-paced sendoff of other medical drama openings (i.e., ER), wherein our ensemble is rapidly introduced in desaturated images and lightning-fast editing, all over incessant incantations of the word “KINGDOM!” It’s an opening that is so pitch perfect I instantly knew I was in good hands.
Our ostensible lead in The Kingdom is Dr. Stig Helmer (an excellent Ernst-Hugo Jaregard), a Swedish neurosurgeon and recent transplant to The Kingdom Hospital. Helmer is a complete bastard; brusque in manner and filled with absolute contempt for every single doctor, patient, or staff he has to work with. Each morning, he carefully removes the hubcaps off of his car as to not have them pilfered by the “Danish scum” (local schoolchildren) that run rampant the streets. Helmer frequently asserts his authority and supremacy over his co-workers, but is hit with a serious reality check when one of his recent operations has left a young girl in a vegetative state. Helmer’s senior staff is also planning on initiating a policy known as “Operation Morning Air” (complete with a cute campaign sticker) to better improve transparency and communication in the hospital. No easy feat for a man content with loathing every living being that crosses his path.
The Kingdom Hospital soon becomes host to a series of strange occurrences. Every night, a ghostly ambulance with no drivers or patients arrives at the building’s front doors, only to vanish as quickly as it appeared. An elderly woman habitually checks herself into the hospital with non-existent conditions to hold séances and investigate the death of a young girl from nearly a century earlier, whom she can hear hiding amongst the walls. A young medical student falls in love for an older doctor, going so far as to leave a severed head of a patient in his likeness in her locker to win over her affection (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well). A pathologist elects to have a cancerous liver transplanted into his body for further research. A neurosurgeon becomes impregnated with a rapidly-growing baby, the resulting delivery of which leads to one of the most shocking images I’ve ever seen, in either television or film. To top this all off, the machinations within the hospital walls are routinely analyzed by a pair of young dishwashers, each afflicted with Down Syndrome, who act as a pseudo-Greek chorus.
Just when things couldn’t possibly get any stranger, Master of Ceremonies Lars von Trier, enfant terrible himself, appears at the conclusion of each episode decked out in a bow tie tuxedo and wry smile to offer a short recap and teaser for the insanity to come. The first episode of The Kingdom is a relatively sedate affair, working more as a means of effectively introducing the characters and their various plights, without anything too “extraordinary” occurring in the way of plot. Von Trier openly acknowledges this, and promises that he will be “turning the heat up” in subsequent episodes (Spoiler alert: he’s right). Von Trier signs off each episode with the promise that “the good” (makes a cross with his fingers) and “the evil” (makes devil horns with his fingers) will cross paths again.
There were plans for a third season of The Kingdom, but these were scrapped after the death of much of its principal cast, including Jaregard, leaving the show cancelled after two seasons, much like Twin Peaks, except here with no chance of revival. Even without a proper ending, the series remains a fascinating and hugely entertaining piece in von Trier’s oeuvre, bridging the gap between his early, European work with his later, English-language efforts. If you’re itching to have more Twin Peaks in your life, why not give The Kingdom a spin?