Like a press conference before a title fight, “Twin Peaks” is sharing Hall H at Comic-Con with its new Sunday night competitor, “Game of Thrones.” Right before moderator Damon Lindelof introduces David Lynch’s cast and crew (and maybe the man himself?), HBO’s television Goliath, “Game of Thrones,” will have just left the stage. While we have no doubt the “Twin Peaks” fandom can fill the empty seats in San Diego, whether or not the show can survive the extra competition on Sundays — and from all corners of TV — is a different story.
One couldn’t ask for a better representation of peak TV than “Game of Thrones”: A pricey adaptation of a popular series of novels, the HBO fantasy drama likely wouldn’t exist if television hadn’t changed post-“Peaks.” No one made TV like “Game of Thrones” before the so-called golden age began, but Goliath TV shows like “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” and “American Horror Story” are both the reason networks can take a chance on something risky, like a “Twin Peaks” reboot, and the reason so many critically acclaimed series go unwatched. “Game of Thrones” is the hit HBO needs in order to make three seasons of “The Leftovers,” similar to how “Shameless” and “Homeland” support “Twin Peaks.”
It’s not about the direct competition as much as it’s about the competition from all sides. “Twin Peaks” helped birth the modern era of television and its record-breaking number of shows, so perhaps a better metaphor for the relationship between “Peaks” and peak TV is familial: that of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), the son who killed his father in “Gladiator,” in pursuit of power. “Game of Thrones” wouldn’t exist without “Twin Peaks,” but now the son is towering above his father, cradling his head, ready to crush the life from his lungs.
To be fair, there’s no stopping “Twin Peaks.” These final nine episodes will air no matter what, and their mere existence is a win for artistry itself. Variety critic Sonia Saraiya says as much quite eloquently in a recent, coincidentally titled column on Part 9. But if “Game of Thrones” (and the rest of television) steal eyeballs, that’s a problem. Yes, viewers can watch both. Yes, peak TV can exist in competition with “Peaks” TV. But time is finite, viewers’ patience is ever-dwindling, and “Twin Peaks” may be seen less simply because there are so many other, more prominent options out there. What does that mean for what’s next? What could that mean for television’s next golden age, the sequel to what “Twin Peaks” originally inspired — a.k.a. what’s going on right now — and what “The Return” could inspire if more people were watching?
Ignore the timeslot competitors: Look at all the shows people are watching instead of “Twin Peaks.” Middle-of-the-road series like “The Son” and “Animal Kingdom” are getting more eyeballs. Carbon copies of successful giants — like “Fear the Walking Dead” — are dominating the TV landscape. More viewers means more influence. More influence means more shows like that show, and more similarity means less innovation.
We’re influenced by our environment, and after years of fresh, never-before-seen series, the TV environment is trending toward repetition again. Many critics have already noted how certain ambitious TV projects merely look like prestige TV. They tick off the requisites without providing the insight or entertainment of the medium’s best offerings. In his review of “Gypsy,” New York Times TV Critic James Poniewozick writes, “TV is suffering from competence. With the medium’s cachet rising, money is pouring into productions, movie talent is lined up to jump ship and the product looks luminous on our giant wide-screen sets. Rarely does a bad show announce itself anymore with klutzy performances and cheap production. Instead, mediocre and even awful TV is often technically very good.”
That means it’s harder to spot bad TV by typical measurements, which often results in viewers sticking with shows that look, sound, or generally seem like a higher quality than they are; now, these viewers aren’t stupid. Often, they realize they’ve wasted hours of their life once it’s all said and done, but the ease of bingeing something with no obvious flaws is too tempting. People may not love “Fear the Walking Dead” as much as its predecessor, but they’re still watching. And if they’re still watching, more shows like it will be made.
In the lead up to the “The Return,” prominent creators spoke up about how much of an impact Lynch’s original series had on their work.
“‘Twin Peaks’ was my gateway drug that inspired me to do this for a living,” Damon Lindelof said.
“Even though it didn’t go on very long, it changed how people saw things,” “Homeland” director and producer Lesli Linka Glatter said.
Star Kyle MacLachlan remembered hearing stories from writers after the original “Twin Peaks” aired who credited Lynch’s series for making them think their ideas were valuable. “‘I didn’t really think it was possible to do this, but because of ‘Twin Peaks,’ I felt empowered,'” McLachland recalled.
“Twin Peaks” has always been about innovation, but how will the next generation of Lindelofs, Linka Glatters, and Chases know to trust their instincts instead of abide by past precedents? The ratings clearly indicate more people are seeing “Game of Thrones.” That means there will be more demand for something similar from future creators. It’s bad enough the ratings may not allow Lynch to continue his story (if he decides he wants to); they also indicate we may not see another “Twin Peaks” of any kind for a long, long time.
And yet, “Twin Peaks” still exists. It’s still out there. People are watching. The original started a sensation when it first aired, but was quickly dismissed and thusly cancelled. Perhaps its only fitting the new iteration sees a similar result play out, only slightly altered for TV’s new era. It’s happening again. The only question left is what will TV look like in another 25 years?