Twin Peaks Reconsidered
Every year, North Bend, Wash., a 6,500-strong town located 30 miles outside of Seattle, adds about 300 people to its population for three days. Though it seems an odd burden for a town that few have heard of and with little attraction outside of natural splendor, it is accepted with an air that is almost colonial. The visitors come to commemorate a remarkable event. In 1989, director David Lynch, with cast and crew in tow, descended upon North Bend and neighboring Snoqualmie to film the pilot episode of Twin Peaks. Though production thereafter relied on a California-based studio, Lynch made icons of area locations, including the grand Snoqualmie Falls (as seen from the Great Northern Hotel), the lumber mill, the Double R diner (now called Twede’s), and the endless expanse of Douglas firs.
This pilgrimage, held since 1992, attracts fans from around the world. They participate in costume contests, film screenings, bus tours, meetings, panels with cast members (a healthy majority of whom have appeared at least once), and trivia. One fan, 16-year-old Spencer Collantes of San Francisco, has been banned from the trivia contest for simply knowing too much about the show. “I’ve seen Twin Peaks more than 30 times,” he tells i-D magazine. “I’ve won the contest for the past three years.”
The Twin Peaks pilot episode aired in April 1990 on ABC to 34.6 million viewers. It ended 29 episodes later in June of 1991 with less than a third of that audience. Its demise was slow and undignified, subject to months of preemptions, hiatuses, schedule shuffling, and general indifference. A show of so fleeting a lifespan and so relentless an obsession is not an easy one to explain, even if its kind is recognizable enough today. It is ostensibly about the murder of Laura Palmer, a troubled homecoming queen in a small town, and about Dale Cooper, an FBI agent of ice-pick-sharp intuition and permanent reserves of positivity, who is tasked with solving the crime. There is also a woman who literally carries a log everywhere she goes, a parallel world, a demonic spirit who wears nothing but denim, a fish in a percolator, and lots of coffee and baked goods. It is a mystery, but also a soap opera, a teen melodrama, and a surrealist fairytale.
Twin Peaks lived, died, and was reborn by those alsos. They helped sink the show while entrenching the cult around it. At times it may seem as if those who talk about Twin Peaks are not always talking about the same thing. It was a quirky primetime thriller and remains a pop-culture phenomenon; but it was also a proto-prestige drama, a cautionary tale of creative excess, a visual puzzle as yet unsolved, and one of the greatest television shows ever created.
Now the cult followers of Twin Peaks will get a chance to watch a new 18-episode season of Twin Peaks, premiering May 21 on Showtime. It has been made with the direct participation of Lynch and his Twin Peaks collaborator, the seasoned TV writer Mark Frost, who have brought to the new project 36 original cast members (with some notable omissions, however, for reasons that include mortality) and double the number of newcomers. Promotion has been limited to coy seconds-long spots, including one with David Lynch dressed as one of his characters, the hearing-impaired FBI agent Gordon Cole, eating a doughnut, while Angelo Badalamenti’s eerie and romantic theme music plays.
It’s difficult to know what to make of this remake effort, though it seems just a bit precarious given how out of control the show can get and the inherent risk of disappointing the show’s lingering loyal fan base. It calls to mind the words of Ted Williams after he took on managerial duties at the Washington Senators and friends suggested he was still young enough to be a player-manager. “You don’t mess with the mystique,” said Ted. Is Lynch messing with the mystique? Perhaps. David Foster Wallace once said he preferred Twin Peaks’ second season to its first because of “the fascinating spectacle of watching a narrative structure disintegrate.”
David Lynch loves to talk. He will talk at length about seemingly anything that strikes his fancy, and charm his listeners to pieces in the process. Some years ago, he did a semi-regular video series in which he reported on the weather—that is, he sat in his Los Angeles workshop and described how it looked outside in a voice that had not aged in spirit or cadence. He largely eschews profanity and speaks of everything with a kind of youthful revelation. But this enthusiasm does not often extend to his work, which he talks about in effusive generalities that read either as necromantic visions or straight confessions. Sometimes both. “I had always wanted to sneak into a girl’s room to watch her at night and that … I would see something that would be a clue to a murder mystery,” he recalled describing the genesis of his 1986 hit movie, Blue Velvet. “I went home and somehow I pictured someone finding an ear in a field.”
Lynch is a dreamboat for nascent filmmakers thanks to his ability to turn raw ideas into sensational visions. This is evinced in his very first film, Six Figures Getting Sick, a commissioned 50-second stop-motion piece from 1967 that shows six sculpted heads spewing liquid. Lynch, who came to film from painting, is not a verbal artist. He prefers to dictate scripts, and strings together his images using stilted dialogue that isn’t far removed from an Ed Wood film. His images can be striking. Blue Velvet divines both the beautiful and the grisly with its Rockwellian roses and its Buñuelian ear.
But television as a verbal medium did not attract Lynch. The actual idea that David Lynch could subject himself to commercial breaks and Standards and Practices came from the outside. The prime culprit seems to be then-CAA agent Tony Krantz, who match-made him with his other client, Frost, and told them to take it to the ratings-starved ABC. “We didn’t really have something that we were completely settled on,” Frost later recalled of the 1988 pitch meeting. “[W]e told them about this strange town in the Northwest, and a murder that happens. And I remember David said something about ‘And there’s the wind in the trees,’ and he moved his hands a certain way.” A pilot script was ordered.
Twin Peaks could never really overcome its pilot episode. It is a beast unto itself. Every time I watch it I try to put myself in the mindset of those who originally tuned in in 1990, and every time it is impossible. Having put Miami Vice’s hyper-contemporary urban “zen pulp” to rest, audiences were thrown into the ’90s by a rustic postmodern clash of casual absurdism, bleak violence, and a fixation with the 1950s. And not many involved in its making thought it would go anywhere. “I had the sense of freedom making that pilot,” Lynch said, describing the “euphoria” of “this probably isn’t going to go anywhere, let’s really do it.” Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper, concurred: “We figured it would be just a one-off and no one in their right mind would ever consider making this a series.”
But the low expectations backfired. “Will Laura’s murderer ever be found? Will he or she turn out to be, as one rumor has it, an extraterrestrial?” John O’Connor wrote in a New York Times review of the pilot. “It really doesn’t matter. Keep your eye on those details and enjoy this unique television trip.”
One has to feel bad to some degree for Sheryl Lee, portrayer of Laura Palmer and her brunette cousin Maddie Ferguson, whose main career highlights consist of being murdered or playing dead on this show. She spent a whole workday, and then some, being fake-brutalized up and down the Palmer living room by three different people to make up a grueling four-minute reveal of Laura’s and Maddie’s killer(s). This is to say nothing of the hours she spent lying on a rocky shore in the middle of winter, “wrapped in plastic,” for the pilot episode’s iconic opening scene. But it’s true that these occurrences seem somewhat beside the point compared to the elaborate world Lynch and Frost brought to life that was at once alien and familiar.
“Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip the fronts off houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell.” Joseph Cotten’s screed to his niece in Hitchcock’s suburban thriller Shadow of a Doubt is often seen as a direct precursor to the Lynchian worldview. Though dried of obscenities, it presages the bitter brutality Dennis Hopper brought to Frank Booth in Blue Velvet four decades later. And this is not lost on Lynch: “There are too many possibilities for something to go wrong—so you could always worry about that. And there’s many things that are hidden and seeming like many, many secrets; and you don’t know for sure whether you are being just paranoid or if there really are some secrets.” But Cotten’s swine are better contrasted against Laura Dern’s robins, from a scene often overshadowed by Blue Velvet’s improbably menacing suburban underbelly:
I had a dream. In fact, it was the night I met you. In the dream there was our world and the world was dark because there weren’t any robins. And the robins represented love. And for the longest time there was just this darkness. And all of a sudden thousands of robins were set free, and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did. So I guess it means there is trouble till the robins come.
This homily, appropriately filmed just outside a church, is difficult to watch without some ironic remove. But it also serves as a window for a hopefulness that Hitchcock was less willing to fathom. In fact, looked at another way, Blue Velvet, on a moral level, has more in common with its 1986 theatrical contemporary, the Sylvester Stallone tough-on-crime vehicle Cobra, than with anything produced by Hitchcock. In this regard, Twin Peaks is both an extension of and improvement on that moral framework.
Though David Lynch’s work has been pored over by possibly every manner of film critic in Christendom, one of the most astute observations of Lynch comes from conservative intellectual Joseph Sobran. Surveying Lynch’s work for National Review in 1990, Sobran wrote that Lynch, far from being a “left-wing avant-garde muckraker of the national soul,” is far more nuanced. “Good and evil are clearly—even violently—distinguished, but, otherwise, the normal and the abnormal keep close company, even within the same character.” Twin Peaks, moreover, “shows that Lynch can give his intuition subtler expression when he doesn’t make use of shocking extremes.” “And then, once you’re exposed to fearful things,” Lynch said, “you begin to worry that the peaceful, happy life could vanish or be threatened.”
To ascribe a brand of politics to David Lynch would be wrong. Though he’s said to have admired Ronald Reagan, he has supported the Natural Law Party—of the Yogic-flying, transcendental-meditation variety, not the Straussian variety—going so far as to make a campaign commercial for physicist John Hagelin, the party’s 2000 presidential nominee. All the same, denying that there is a broader social vision within his work is not so easy, particularly with regard to place and its effect on his characters.
His 1977 debut feature film Eraserhead is remembered as a horrific paean to parental anxiety but is just as ably viewed as a hate letter to cities. Inspired by his time living in Philadelphia, Lynch reduces the urban landscape to a depopulated wasteland of noise, smog, concrete, isolation, and shadows. “In my mind it was a world between a factory and a factory neighborhood,” Lynch said of the film. “A little, unknown, twisted, almost silent lost spot where little details and little torments existed. And people were struggling in darkness. … I always say it’s my Philadelphia Story. It just doesn’t have Jimmy Stewart in it!”
Twin Peaks, by contrast, has echoes of the Missoula, Mont., of Lynch’s youth—or at least his attitude about it in hindsight. “My childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it’s supposed to be.” Of course he is ever quick to note the sap that bleeds from the tree, and the ants beneath the grass, but Twin Peaks is not given enough credit for the complexity of the contrast. The stark divide between corruption and innocence, robin and insect, and Madonna and whore in Blue Velvet is dissolved with a kind of Lynchian humanism.
Though Twin Peaks is something of an island in a sea of trees, and dislodged in time (as if it exists in a parallel universe where the Cold War didn’t end and Sub Pop Records didn’t exist), it is no monoculture. It upends the usual rule of Lynchiana that the most menacing characters are the most memorable; and not merely because the demonic “BOB” was portrayed by a set carpenter who was accidentally shot in a mirror’s reflection in the pilot. The serial structure allowed Lynchian idiosyncrasies to deepen into logical traits, pulling someone like Catherine Coulson’s “Log Lady,” who lives in an actual house, was once married, and carries useful knowledge about the town and its lore, from non sequitur to flesh and blood human. It has also paved the way for Lynch’s best female characters, who have tended to serve mostly as ciphers for a protagonist’s desires and revulsion. Here they have their own wisdom, charms, and vulnerabilities. Sherilyn Fenn’s Audrey Horne (and later Laura Palmer), for instance, has the complexity and impulses of a James Dean character while James Marshall’s motorcycle-riding throwback James Hurley has the allure and sensitivity of an ingénue.
Twin Peaks is an ideal world of uncommon, even impossible, vibrancy. The weird not only seem to out-populate the normal, but the normal (with one important exception) are just that. The oddity of the town exists in spite of rather than in accordance with the spiritual forces of “the Black Lodge” that converge in its forests. The evil, whether represented by “BOB,” the miscreant locals, or pretty much anyone from Canada, requires defense. David Lynch famously turned down an offer to direct Return of the Jedi, though the look and manner of Dale Cooper and his FBI cohorts bear a strong resemblance to George Lucas’s clairvoyant arbiters of universal moral order. At the heart of Twin Peaks is a fantasy, but one that’s grander than its fantastic elements.
For anyone who grew up in Union County, N.J., the 1,945-acre Watchung Reservation bore a significant ominousness. Though strewn with park areas and beautiful streams and foliage, getting to certain towns required driving on unlit serpentine roads cutting through its dense swath of forestry. It was not uncommon to hear that it was haunted, or that it was a breeding ground for cult ritual or Klan meetings. My high school’s senior class supposedly had a Halloween tradition of nabbing freshmen and stranding them in the middle of it, perhaps in the Deserted Village, which is exactly how it sounds. It rings terribly juvenile, to be sure, but it is rooted in reality.
In 1972, the body of 16-year-old Jeannette DePalma of Springfield was discovered after going missing for six weeks. A local dog had found one of her arms and brought it to its owner. The rest of her had been found in a Reservation quarry, called the Devil’s Teeth by locals, surrounded by makeshift crosses and other “occult objects.” The death was ruled as suspicious and caused a sensation, with local newspapers openly speculating motives of witchcraft and Satanic worship. “Do Pupils Pray to Devil?” read one headline. But 45 years later, “Who killed Jeannette DePalma?” still goes unanswered amid a fog of ever more salacious rumors and accusations of police cover-up and negligence.
One could travel to any part of the United States and discover similar stories. There is an abundance of Twin Peaks, in other words, where tragedy and gossip ascend into ignominious legend. What was most unbelievable, and therefore most entrancing, about the series was not its violence or its demons but the resilient hope Lynch and Frost stood up against them. Though by no means the most optimistic show ever produced it was among the least cynical. A basic good was assumed of everyone until proven otherwise. Its justice system, with a trailer-traveling judge who held court in the local bar, is unquestionably lax. Its authorities, both local and federal, are incorruptible. “While I will admit to a certain cynicism,” says Miguel Ferrer’s sardonic and pugnacious FBI forensics investigator Albert Rosenfeld:
the fact is that I am a naysayer and hatchetman in the fight against violence. I pride myself in taking a punch and I’ll gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King. My concerns are global. I reject absolutely revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method … is love. I love you Sheriff Truman.
Since the show’s original cancellation, showrunners have tried doggedly to ape the Twin Peaks atmosphere. Shows like The X-Files, Lost, True Detective, Bates Motel, and most recently (and bizarrely) the Archie comics reboot Riverdale, which features Twin Peaks star Mädchen Amick, have tried to resurrect the show’s signature weirdness and dark Americana for new audiences. Yet the weirdness, such as in Lost, was often unfathomable, while the darkness, as with True Detective, was impenetrable. If one wanted to find these in more recognizable proportion, while also not being totally beholden to the show’s legacy, one would need to look away from television—say, to Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole, which is as much about the tribulations of Seattle-area teens in the midst of maturity as it is about the mutations they sexually transmit to one another. Or perhaps one could check in on the new Showtime Twin Peaks starting in May.
Twin Peaks was a show that no one thought he needed when it first aired, and it is still a show that no one really needs now. At the same time, a return to Twin Peaks is not at all gratuitous. Twin Peaks, after all, never technically went away. I’m not speaking of the cosplay parties or the Reddit threads, but of the place. As with any town, Twin Peaks will have had to weather the passage of time. It will have decayed and aged. It will have been razed and paved over. It will have been healed of some of its past traumas just as it will have acquired new ones. It may misremember its legends—or its spirits—and allow them to reemerge half-recognized and more terrifying. We may assume this because Twin Peaks is everywhere. At least we know that the coffee will be hot.
Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey.