Welcome to Twin Peaks, Population 5,1201
David Lynch loves using working-class families as denizens of an existential suburban sideshow. All the banality, the filial riffs, the high school crushes and sneaking out of windows, lush green lawns and sapiential trees looming over two-story houses. Nowhere is this more evident than his iconic network television series “Twin Peaks,” co-created with Mark Frost (whose novel “The List of Seven” is actually quite fun and self-aware). The show has pervaded public consciousness to an extent not permitted of most pop-culture phenomena, and its success is, when you stop and think about it, inexplicable. It’s a cult show whose appeal should be fairly limited — a surreal soap opera with shades of horror, helmed by an American surrealist par excellence.
Lynch has a legion of devoted followers (this writer included), but you won’t find so many casual pop-culture consumers riffing on “Lost Highway,” or fawning over the sound design of “Eraserhead,” or meditating upon the psycho-sexual bonds between “Persona” and “Mulholland Drive.” So why has “Twin Peaks” endured for over 24 years? How has its not only survived, but thrived in a post-“Sopranos” world? Why does it continue to engender conversation and accrue new fans, most of whom weren’t even cognizant in 1990, with each passing year — even as its boxy academy frame and network-stipulated abstinence recede even deeper into a long-gone style of television?
Traces to Nowhere
As with his (picket) fenced-in nightmare “Blue Velvet,” Lynch offers an unflinching look at the seedy underbelly of small town America in “Twin Peaks,” warts on frogs on bumps on logs and all. Duality is a central theme in the show, as is the case with most of Lynch’s work. Peeling back the scabrous mask, he cultivates the nebulous images of the secret self, revealing how the characters, and the town they inhabit, exist on two distinct planes — or plains, perhaps. In the soft light of day they have dates at local diners, with their hair pulled back and their fingers laced, the smiling visages of public personas; but after hours, it’s all hollow-eyed lies and nighttime treachery.
“Twin Peaks” is a show of cognitive dissonance, at once in love with the past while using nostalgia as an agent of chaos. Lynch, as co-creator, mingles the cafeteria gossip of a John Hughes flick with the duplicitous Americana of Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road,” and the results were unlike anything else that network television had ever seen before.
Lynch also seems more in touch with the anxieties of the American teenager than any other writer working in television at the time. (Though they don’t share the same target audience as “Twin Peaks,” “My So-Called Life” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” both tap the show with their depiction of youth as real people with real problems.) Lynch uses these anxieties, these lusts and loves and broken hearts, to corrode the genial façade of small town life. With its soap opera bed-hopping, mysterious police procedural, and coming-of-age epiphanies, all enveloped with Lynch’s signature style of surrealism, the show marks a brief, fleeting moment of weirdness that owes as much to art-house cinema as it does primetime network television.
How it all begins: In the opening moments of the series, a middle-aged man named Pete Martell (Jack Nance, of “Eraserhead” fame) finds the body of a young girl, wrapped in plastic, on the beach. The girl was, is, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee, a first-time actress of whom Lynch became quite fond), and her death creates ripples that are felt by everyone and everything in the tranquil town of Twin Peaks. The idyllic Americana of tall trees and green groves becomes a knavish burg shrouded by looming evils.
The FBI sends in their resident eccentric, the brilliant, coffee-loving Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), a man who channels Tibetan mysticism and uses his dreams to solve cases. Of course, this being a Lynch production, nothing is as it seems, not even the owls: the deeper Cooper and company delve into the mystery of Laura Palmer’s life and death, the more sinister things become. There’s a one-armed man, an evil entity known as BOB, a red room with long, flowing curtains and music always in the air. This is a place where coincidence and fate figure largely in everyone’s life, often at odds with each other.
What makes “Twin Peaks” great is the way Lynch and his collaborators splash an absurdist humor over the gloomy proceedings. Between glimpses of evil entities and backwoods murders are jokes about cherry pie and Douglas Firs. Whether everyone is oblivious or astute is ambiguous; as Pauline Kael says in her luminous review of “Blue Velvet,” Lynch’s style can be described as hallucinatory clinical realism. The bland, functional dialog and aloof banality of “Blue Velvet” “Mulholland Dr.”, and “Twin Peaks” have the distant nonchalance of a martini-soaked daydream. In “Blue Velvet,” Kyle MacLachlan brings the sheriff a severed ear in a brown paper bag, to which the sheriff casually replies, “That’s a human ear, alright.” It’s equally upsetting and uproarious.
It takes a good actor to deliver such a line with proper conviction (or lack thereof, if that’s what’s called for). As is evident from Bill Dukes’ new book “Reflections,” an oral history (from which David Lynch is sadly absent), one of the essential aspects of the show’s success is its vast cast of character actors and relative unknowns, most of whom never had roles half as good again — another way in which Lynch’s show is a progenitor of David Chase’s. (Chase, however, had no qualms with killing off characters, whereas the upcoming revival of “Twin Peaks” will suffer not from dead characters but from actors no longer with us, like the inimitable Nance.)
The coterie of supporting characters is among the most eclectic and colorful in television history, and includes the eye patch-wearing Nadine (Wendy Robie), the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson), the astute and articulate Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis, who would play Agent Scully’s father in “The X-Files” two years later), Jack Nance’s wild-eyed, fish-percolating Pete Martell and the mystifying Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), a romantic with a pin-up veneer and a heart that yearns. As the show goes on, loyalties dissipate and ethics become murky; everyone’s cheating on everyone and no one says what they mean. We, and the town, learn that, despite her glowing public image, Laura Palmer was not the angel everyone assumed her to be, and her secrets seep into the deepest, darkest crevices of Twin Peaks.
Dukes’ book doesn’t really answer any questions regarding the gargantuan success of “Twin Peaks,” nor does it attempt to vivisect the ubiquitous pop-culture permeation of Lynch and Frost’s show. It does offer some insights from the actors, and Frost seems more than willing to talk on behalf of Lynch. But the question still remains: why is the show still with us?
That question is, like most questions worth asking, intrinsically unanswerable, but it may prove axiomatic: As is evident from the recent Twitter chatter, “Twin Peaks” continues to spur debate among fans. Instead of offering answers or closure, it leaves us swimming in miasma. Shows like “The Sopranos” and “Buffy” and “The Twilight Zone” and “Breaking Bad” — even “Gilmore Girls” — remain embedded in our pop-culture consciousness because they pose so many unanswerable questions; think about the final scene of “The Sopranos”, which owes a subtle debt to Lynch. We can talk about these shows with friends, colleagues, internet strangers, ourselves and never get satisfaction.
Lynch has made it a lifelong policy to refuse any interpretation or analysis of his work, which leaves the vivisecting to his fans. “Twin Peaks” may not be as dense or distant as “Inland Empire,” or Lynch’s abstract mixed media art, but it certainly invites us in like an old friend who has stories to tell and wine to share. Methinks most of you reading this article have already found myriad ways in which I’m completely wrong about Lynch, about “Twin Peaks,” about my use of commas, and you’re more than willing to opine; the show is like a living thing encased and preserved, The Man Behind Glass. Its fans are the keepers that feed it and keep it alive.
Rest in Pain
As is now common knowledge, the show was temporarily derailed in its second, and final, season, when Lynch, feuding with network execs who wanted to reveal Laura’s killer (perhaps we could say they had a… Dispute Between Brothers?), was usurped — or left of his own accord, depending on who’s telling the story. For the rest of the season, the show loses its way. Lynch’s contributions to the second season are minimal, but they also unquestionably offer the best parts: The early reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer in Episode 14, “Lonely Souls,” may be the television equivalent of premature ejaculation and the reason Lynch departed, but it’s handled with dexterous brutality. (“Brutal ejaculation” could be a chapter in Lynch’s memoir, no?) In Lynch’s absence Heather Graham enters the picture as Annie, a love interest for Cooper whose only memorable contribution to the show is the air of boredom she ushers in. With no more mystery left to solve, Cooper spends his time flirting with Annie, and viewers spend their time wondering what the hell happened.
When Lynch finally returned for the legendary finale, called “Episode 29”, aka “Beyond Life and Death,” he lent an unmistakable Lynchian air to the proceedings, dispensing horrors in lieu of romance and upending whatever happy ending viewers had imagined for two years. Lynch raises more questions than he answers, leaving viewers — particularly those unfamiliar with Lynch’s cinematic work — flabbergasted. He ends the show with one unanswerable query: “How’s Annie?”
Fans have been trying to answer that question for the last 24 years, and now, with the recent announcement that Lynch will be bringing “Twin Peaks” to Showtime in 2016, they may finally get their answer. We have two years for empty speculation and pontification; there’s no rest for Cooper or Laura, who live on in the phosphorescent wake of the Black Lodge. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.