Twin Peaks turns 30: David Lynch's show redefined storytelling on TV at a time when medium was far from prestigious
When you get right down to it, how do you classify Twin Peaks? Psychological horror? Black comedy? Science fiction? Soap opera? It is all this and more, all at once. It is a series that imposes its own genre and its own mythology at its own pace.
TV before Twin Peaks was like a donut without sugar, cherry pie without cream, coffee without caffeine. There was always something — small but essential — holding it back from reaching the heights of cinema. Then, on 8 April 1990, 34.6 million viewers tuned in to watch the pilot of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks on ABC. The body of a young Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is found naked and wrapped in plastic on the shore of a lake in a small town. Her legacy is one of the most enduring inciting incidents in the history of television: who killed the young woman? We've since seen it in Veronica Mars, The Killing, The Bridge, Top of the Lake and True Detective, but we've been seeking answers to such mysteries since the Black Dahlia murder.
For a while, Laura Palmer was the most famous corpse on television. The man called in to investigate is FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). Given its small population, Twin Peaks is a town where everybody knows your name. So, the murder concerns and affects more or less everyone. The small town characters range from the typical (sheriffs, waitresses and businessmen) to the atypical (deaf FBI bosses, one-armed men and log ladies). They're ultimately one large family trying to recover from the devastating tragedy of the death of a seemingly perfect girl loved and cherished by all. Over the course of the first season, we, like Agent Cooper, familiarise ourselves with the townsfolk and their world.
As its topographic name suggests, Twin Peaks is a town of dualities: a twilight world stuck between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Its polished exterior hides a sinister presence coursing underneath. Even though the identity of the murderer is revealed midway through the second season, we learn he was a mere vessel for an evil spirit who can take possession of any character. Even Agent Cooper, who is invited to a journey of disturbing introspection across endless red-curtained rooms and hallways of the mysterious Black Lodge. So, the question on everyone's minds turns from "Who killed Laura Palmer?" to "What the hell is going on in this damn town?"
Lynch offers no easy answers of course. For an audience which expects some sort of closure at the end of each season, he offers none. Not in the 1992 prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which chronicles the bizarre events that transpired the week before Laura's murder. Certainly not on its return to TV for a third season in 2017, where the point of entry is no longer the murder of Laura Palmer, but the abstract purgatory that is the Black Lodge. The closure doesn't come in the conventional sense, but in taking us back to a place where the boundaries between perception, cognition, and emotion have dissolved. Forty-eight episodes/red pills later, Lynch shows you how deep the rabbit-hole of human consciousness goes.
Twin Peaks: The Return was not an exercise in nostalgia to provide comforting escapism; it was Lynch enjoying artistic clarity and independence after a long time to consolidate all his past works (films, commercials, paintings and even his experiences with transcendental meditation) and stitch together another unclassifiable masterpiece. When you get right down to it, how do you classify Twin Peaks? Psychological horror? Black comedy? Science fiction? Soap opera? It is all this and more, all at once. It is a series that imposes its own genre and its own mythology at its own pace. As always, Frost, with all his experience as a TV writer, then patches the whole thing into well-sewn episodic television.
The show brought the genie out of the bottle in a way where it can never be contained again, with small town murders becoming a staple across traditional TV and streaming platforms. This small town murder mystery boom has coincided with the popularity of long-form prestige television, as even auteurs got in on the action — Jane Campion (Top of the Lake), Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Noah Hawley (Fargo). The Psycho prequel Bates Motel too owes a lot more to Lynch, than it does to Hitchcock. Just like small town murders, even dream sequences are a dime a dozen nowadays (from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Mad Men to Mr Robot).
Lynch paved the way for storytellers to tell unique expansive stories long before the arrival of HBO and the streaming revolution. It is hard to imagine what shows such as The X-Files and Wayward Pines would have looked like, or how Carnivàle, Lost and The OA would have built their own mythologies without Twin Peaks. Wayward Pines, like Twin Peaks, is more than just a setting — it is a full-fledged character in the eponymous series. The X-Files imagines similar towns whose tranquillity is disturbed by unnatural phenomena, embodied by unidentified evil forces. On the other hand, Stranger Things turns its town of Hawkins into a museum of nostalgia. Long before Mulder and Scully, Luther and Rust Cohle, Agent Cooper won us over with his Tibetan methods, sweet smile and undying love for coffee and cherry pies.
Long before Redditors discussed outrageous theories on Lost, Game of Thrones and Westworld, Twin Peaks turned viewers into inquisitors on Usenet's bulletin boards, all speculating on the million-dollar question of "what the hell is going on in this damn town?". It is hard to translate our dreams and nightmares, or fears and traumas into images and sounds. Often the monsters that chase us in our nightmares do not have a discernible face, shape or figure. Just as when we dream, we must accept this inscrutable aspect of the images we are observing in Twin Peaks. These images are often held for longer than usual, longer than the audience expects — a gap that forces the viewer to re-examine what he is seeing or makes him realise a truth that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. In the next shot, Lynch may rework his own mythology and this may act as a counter-interpretation to our interpretation. Moreover, once we reach The Return, we're not sure if some of the events unfolding are happening simultaneously, before or after one another. Even if these images are often confusing and disconcerting, they still boast a hypnotic quality of such artistry that makes it impossible for you to end this cinematic Rorschach test.
There really is no equivalent to Twin Peaks except for Lynch's own previous films. The show revolutionised storytelling on TV at a time when the medium was far from prestigious. Twenty-five years later on its return, it redefined what TV could be. Thirty year after its premiere, fans still eagerly await for another order of cherry pie, coffee and damn fine television.
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