It’s an irony of our times that in today’s era of new-as-the-Internet technologies like Netflix, Amazon, Redbox, ITunes, and OnDemand, when it comes to TV, everything old is new again. This year’s Television Critics Association has announced that NBC will be reviving Will & Grace for an 8-episode “event” next year, while ABC resurrects a Roseanne revival. Syndicated classics of the1970s early-evening, like To Tell the Truth, Match Game, and Gong Show will fill the lazy, crazy days of summer on ABC’s Game Night. Fox’s two signature dramas, 24 and The X-Files, had already been brought back for limited-series “events”, and until it was made redundant by 81-year-old Larry Hagman’s death from a heart attack in late 2012, TNT reached back to the last days of disco and the go-go ‘80s with a Dallas revival, starring originals Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray, and Hagman. Other shows like Hawaii Five-0, MacGyver, and Wonder Woman were rebooted with just as significant differences from their dated originals.
But no other TV show to come back from its watery grave could generate the kind of passionate fanboy excitement that Showtime’s long-awaited revival of David Lynch’s signature TV experiment Twin Peaks (which premiered this Sunday, May 21) could have. From the moment ABC’s publicity department asked the immortal question, “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” in the early spring of 1990, until the show sputtered out to its inconclusive and dissatisfying end barely a year later, Twin Peaks became an obsession of literary-type and “emo” Gen-X tweens and teens, and their arthouse-cinema fan parents.
There had been other TV shows that consciously—and credibly—imitated the style and feel of feature films before. High-class (in their day) detective dramas like Mannix and (the original) Hawaii Five-0 certainly bore more than a passing resemblance in both style and substance to early New Hollywood films like Bullitt, The French Connection, and Dirty Harry. Perry Mason and Dragnet both owed plenty to late ‘40s and ‘50s film noir, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better 1970s-era equivalent of Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald, and Bogart than Jim Garner’s signature Rockford Files. The best episodes of “adult westerns” like Gunsmoke and Bonanza were often almost indistinguishable from their big-screen brothers. As different as they were in style and audience, Peaks’ most obvious predecessor came five and a half years before its premiere, when NBC knocked it out of the park with a pair of what programming chief Brandon Tartikoff called “MTV Cops”, as the distinctively cinematic and stylish Miami Vice (helmed by longtime feature director Michael Mann) raced to the rescue in 1984, ending just nine months before Peaks’ premiere.
But if Twin Peaks was not the first show to be thought of and executed in feature film terms, or by an A-list feature film director, it was definitely the first TV series to have a specifically indie film feel. Earlier hits like Star Trek, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Defenders, and Hill Street Blues had redefined what you could talk about on television. Twin Peaks exploded the storytelling style and the very aesthetic boundaries of primetime. It refused to operate in a proven genre: it could very loosely have been described as a mystery (who killed Laura Palmer?) or a nighttime soap opera (with its continuing multiple storylines and focus on a wide cast of characters)—but those comparisons only showed how different it was. Its characters were more often constructs of past Hollywood clichés, with late ‘80s/early ‘90s teenagers dressing and acting like Bettie Page pinups or “Fonzie”/James Dean leather-jacket rebels from what would’ve been their parents’ youth. The prices on the wall at the Twin Peaks diner, which served the “best damn coffee” and cherry pie in TV history, were last seen in real life when President Nixon retired from office. Its lead characters were a slicked-back young FBI agent (whose style of dress was likewise arrested from about 1965), and a tall oak tree of a sheriff with the memorable name of Harry S. Truman.
And they were the normal ones! Who can forget the demon BOB, or the psychic Log Lady, or the S&M-overtoned Orientalist villainess, or other such truly crazy characters?
Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter and United States of Tara creator Diablo Cody, who was a middle-schooler when Twin Peaks premiered, told PBS’s “America in Primetime” series in 2011 that Twin Peaks stills set the standard in virtually all the writers’ rooms of prestige TV series on both broadcast and cable. Yet if that’s the case, it’s very interesting (and revealing) how few TV shows to emerge in Peaks’ wake truly tried to recapture that show’s dreamlike, ethereal, otherworldly style and feel.
That isn’t to say TV didn’t try. Within two years of Peaks’ premiere, CBS launched Northern Exposure and Picket Fences, two series set in small towns with lots of self-consciously quirky characters and kinky secrets. But while they were generally class acts, Northern Exposure was played for inoffensive character-driven dramedy, and Picket Fences was anchored by lovable, relatable characters like an elderly, universally respected judge (the great Ray Walston), a seventyish shyster with a heart of gold (the equally great Fyvush Finkel), and a middle-class family headed by reliable stalwarts Kathy Baker and Tom Skerritt. The TV dramas that launched in the 1990s and early 2000s, like Law & Order, ER, CSI, NYPD Blue, Ally McBeal, The Practice, 24, The Wire, The West Wing, and The Sopranos all represented huge leaps forward in challenging subject matter, three-dimensional characters, and cinematic style—but almost all were simply designer versions of proven “genre” shows like crime/legal dramas, hospital shows, and Scorsese-style mafia movies.
By far, the two recent series that most closely owe their existences to Twin Peaks are A&E’s recently-concluded retcon of the Psycho film franchise, Bates Motel, and the Duffer Brothers’ wonderfully addictive small-town science fiction look at Stranger Things. (Among more mainstream fare, F/X’s American Horror Story and CBS’s summer perennial Under the Dome would be the closest matches.)
The two truly successful TV shows that premiered in immediate wake of Peaks which came the closest to equaling their parent—in both style and quality—were Fox’s 1993-2002 supernatural-tinged mystery The X-Files, and the WB’s (now known as the CW) first true breakout, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ran from March of 1997 to the spring of 2003. No accident that Fox in 1993 and The WB in 1997 had barely just begun, and both networks would have been satisfied with ratings that would have been unacceptable on the Big Three of CBS, NBC, and ABC. While both of those shows eventually grew into true ratings hits, it was the “buzz” that Fox and the WB were initially hoping for.
As such, Twin Peaks prefigured the precise moment when TV would start migrating from a mass-appeal medium, whose mandate was to “broadcast” to the largest audience possible, to a niche, specialty medium that would begin “narrowcasting” to ever more specific and discrete audience segments. Twin Peaks didn’t begin the trend, but it accelerated it exponentially. While the Internet and 24-hour news as we now know them barely existed in Peaks’ era of 1989-91, the term “buzzworthy” might as well have been invented for the show. Every magazine and tabloid, all the Entertainment Tonight and Current Affair style TV shows were running top stories. This had happened to shows before—Dynasty, Dallas, Charlie’s Angels, M*A*S*H, All in the Family—but in those cases, the shows actually were watched by an overwhelming majority of TV viewers. This time, the show in question was certainly popular enough to survive its first abortive 8-week season, but even at its best, it was not a top ten hit. However, it was an obsession among discerning film and TV critics with the biggest platforms. Like it’s considerably more mainstream ABC sister Thirtysomething, it wasn’t that everybody watched Twin Peaks—it was that the right people were watching it.
After the passing of the Golden Age live TV dramas and the truly classic early comedies (Your Show of Shows, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy) it became something of an upper-middle-class status symbol to claim that one “never watched” television—the “boob tube”—except maybe for PBS, the news, and sports events. There were a few shows that it was respectable to claim watching—a Star Trek here, a M*A*S*H or All in the Family or Mary Tyler Moore Show there, a Columbo movie or Roots-style “event” miniseries every now and then.
But less than a decade after Peaks reached its peak, the tables were turned. Now it was rare for a yuppie exec or college academic to not know what was going on in The West Wing or at Tony Soprano’s table. There were no pseudo-intellectual brownie points to be gained by saying you “never watched” Seinfeld, Homicide, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Will & Grace, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, or Friends. Quite the opposite, in fact. More and more, TV began migrating in two directions—exploitation reality shows of the lowest class (Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo Boo, Anna Nicole, Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Maury Povich, Jerry Springer) on one hand— and challenging, transgressive, antihero-driven dramas like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Good Wife, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder plus top-drawer period pieces like Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey on the other.
As befitting a show from an indie-film icon, it’s also more impossible to separate the made-for-TV Twin Peaks from its big screen siblings than probably any other TV series in history. (And not surprisingly, after its two-season cancellation, Lynch released a feature film that was both prequel-and-sequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.) Peaks popped at the same time the phrase “independent film” was being culturally redefined from the cheapo slasher, Blaxploitation, vampire, and chop-socky karate movies (with their lineups of one-dimensional beach blanket bimbos, women in prison, biker gangs, and shrieking victims) that previously connoted the term.
Less than four years before Peaks’ premiere, David Lynch truly broke through to the national consciousness with his genre and gender-bending, ethereally twisted slice (and we do mean slice) of suburban perversion, 1986’s Blue Velvet, starring Peaks’ central star, Kyle MacLachlan. New black filmmakers like Robert Townsend, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Spike Lee were likewise beginning to self-publish their striking stories of the streets. Arthouse cinephiles like Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes, and Gus Van Sant were unwinding their stories of alienated gay Gen-Xers, quirky bros that talked a lot but never really explained themselves, and existentialist yuppies having sex, lies, and videotape. Roughly concurrent with and immediately after Twin Peaks run was what is universally recognized as the Golden Age of “Indie Film” (roughly 1989 to ’96), which defined the very term of art as we use it today: Do the Right Thing, Boyz in the Hood, Clerks, Spanking the Monkey, Clean/Shaven, Gas Food Lodging, River of Grass, What Happened Was, Trainspotting, Bottle Rocket. Almost all of them helped inspire (or were inspired by) Peaks, and the boundaries it pushed past the breaking point.
In closing, perhaps no other non-miniseries, regularly scheduled show in TV history which ran for as few episodes or for as short a time as Twin Peaks would have as much of an influence on American pop culture. And none would remain as strongly in the popular consciousness more than 25 years after its end. Even Star Trek had three years and nearly 90 episodes (plus a successful feature-film franchise and countless “next generation” sequel series, not to mention cartoons and comic books).
Only time will tell whether David Lynch and Showtime will be able to recapture the magic of the original—much less update and expand upon it. Because for a show like Twin Peaks, it isn’t so much the destination that counts. It’s the ride.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture War. He has written on culture for FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series Pioneers of Television.