Mourning in America: Remembering ‘Twin Peaks’

Frustrating expectations was part of Twin Peaks modus operandi.

Sometimes I wonder who has it worse. The young millennials face a constant barrage of news stories mourning the passing of another 20th Century icon they’ve never heard of, and they have no true idea of how many quotations and cultural references fly over their heads. On the other side, there are those of us who, in mid-digression, are suddenly confronted by intelligent young people, seemingly in possession of all their faculties, who flummox us with a question like “Who’s Angie Dickinson?” This example really happend to me, and I was at a loss.

This issue pops into my head on the occasion of a new Blu-ray gathering all extant Twin Peaks material in preparation for Showtime’s 2017 revival of the series, re-uniting most of the living cast to pick up the action 25 years later. Among the crowd I hang with, this was bombshell information. Stephen King, not that I hang with him, felt prompted to tweet “Holy shit, America! Twin Peaks is coming back next year, to Showtime!” That pretty much summed up the stunning sensation. Yet I imagine myself being confronted with a roomful of shiny faces asking “Twin what?”

Perhaps I exaggerate. People can Google now, and DVDs of the various incarnations have been in circulation for years. Still, only people who were watching TV in 1990 remember the fever, and I was among the spellbound who faithfully taped every episode and puzzled over them with a concentration I hadn’t devoted to any program since Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, and no, we’re not going there today.

The Lynch Pin

Twin Peaks arrived amid a flurry of intellectual publicity, even hailed by Norman Mailer (don’t ask who — look it up!), because it was co-created by David Lynch, whose distinctive film career stressed the bizarre in a manner that divided audiences. The oddest and “cultest” film was a largely indescribable midnight movie, Eraserhead (1977), starring Jack Nance and Charlotte Stewart, who would be regulars on Twin Peaks. It presented middle-class life as a surreal hell populated by characters odd and grotesque and obsessed with squishy sexual fears.

That more or less describes the subsequent The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984), though these were based on other sources, and it especially describes Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990), where violence and forbidden sex erupt in the lives of suburbanites whose personal mythologies and ways of perception have been shaped by what they’ve seen on mid-century TV: mystery programs, soap operas, The Wizard of Oz (1939), Elvis Presley. They are true children of the media-scape.

Some viewers see these films as ironic, but the key is understanding that “irony” itself is ironic, a mode for discussing the serious. The characters are entirely unironic in their references and repetitions, which they’ve assimilated from the world around them, and the movie sympathizes with their viewpoint instead of making fun of them. That’s how Lynch can seem so naïve and reductive while also being so jaded and vicious.

After Twin Peaks, he’d continue with more of the same in such items as Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001). Like the series, these films subscribe to the notion that identity itself is a mystery and a myth, that incoherence and non-integration is our psychic lot, and that we’re basically flushing ourselves down a dark vortex, done in by our own naïve dreams.

With Mark Frost as co-creator and co-producer, Lynch’s vision was barely tamed into the form of a TV serial that was a little bit of everything. Frost had previously been part of another series of groundbreaking form and content, the open-ended, multi-stranded, serialized cop show Hill Street Blues, of the gritty handheld photography and busy soundtrack, a show that emphasized its “look” and ambience in a way previously rare on TV. Another ’80s example, in an entirely different palette and style, was Miami Vice, which also celebrated a wayward angsty intensity, albeit within a standard episodic structure.

Twin Peaks can be described, among many possible ways, as a weird serial that prioritized tone and visual style over the TV staples of story and character. You just didn’t know what the show was going to do, and frustrating expectations was part of its modus operandi.

Twin Peaks is the name of a town in the Pacific Northwest, an unusual TV setting that lent itself to shots of waving pines and ominously blinking owls and lonely traffic signals amid Angelo Badalementi’s slow, dreamlike, almost drugged-out hipster music of electric guitar and woodwinds. You could smell the pine as sharply as you could taste the “damn fine coffee” at the local diner. As long as the show could wallow in this atmosphere, you felt Lynch and Frost would have been happy not to fool with any bothersome plots at all.

But they had to, so the primary plot driving the first season, not that “driving” feels like an appropriate word for a show willing to meander down garden paths and mislead the viewer with flagrant tricks, involves the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a local high school girl who was a popular cheerleader and valedictorian and homecoming queen known to just about everyone.

Now, TV mystery shows had two main formulae for dealing with murder victims. That of Perry Mason and Murder She Wrote, to name two big examples, was to watch an annoying person making enemies until they showed up dead, and then the detective figured out whodunit by talking to all the suspects. The stylish Burke’s Law exemplified a popular alternative: to open the episode with a body being discovered in some grabby and bizarre manner, and then the detective interviews people who had reason to kill. In neither case is the corpse mourned or even regretted, or only in a token manner, because its function is simply to be dead and trigger the puzzle.

When the two-hour premiere of Twin Peaks opens with the discovery of Laura’s nude body wrapped in plastic sheets, the first thing the show does is take it seriously as no death on a TV mystery had ever been taken. Everything stops as the town goes into shock and spirals into a collective keening, amplified by the insistently mournful and sinister music.

It’s not soap opera grief, a histrionic moment backed by a tinkly piano, but a montage of scenes letting us know the rug has been pulled from under everyone who hears the news, from the weeping policeman to a fleetingly glimpsed girl dashing across the schoolyard. Most notable is the discomfittingly lingering grief of Laura’s hollow-cheeked and frizzy-haired mother (played by the magnificent Grace Zabriskie, a Lynch regular), who will spend the series as an intense, alcoholic, spiky basket case of dimensions that would make you wish to leave the room.

The reaction is so full, and the dead Laura’s continuing centrality to the series so complete, with her smiling face beaming iconically over the closing credits, that she becomes more than a multi-faceted character whose secrets and relationships form a Rorschach blot for the desires of others, although she’s that in a big way. She seems mythical and allegorical, as handy and glib a symbol for American youth in general and girlhood in particular — and by extension the suburban middle-class American dream and all its values and goals — as you’ll find in any TV show. The sadness, then, becomes a sense of the passing of those idealistic and naive values, the promise of one vision of America’s future. After eight years of Ronald Reagan, it was mourning in America.

That’s a lot of hermeneutical weight, but Laura Palmer can bear it. Feminist critics have found much to discuss in the fact that the show centers on a dead beauty queen, and well they should. The kind of questions that arise around the fetishization of The Dead Girl can only arise so forcibly because, although myriad pretty women and ugly men drop dead on every other crime show, their deaths never matter. They’re only plot devices, which ought to be more demeaning to our humanity. Twin Peaks is dedicated to the proposition that Laura Palmer matters, even after her death.

That’s why it was disappointing that the series gave short shrift to the horrifyingly depicted death, worthy of an R rating, of Laura’s identical cousin Madeleine. This time, there was no dwelling on aftermath, as if the show couldn’t have taken any more without snapping entirely.

Wait, what? Identical cousin Madeleine? See, that’s one of the things. The show was an encyclopedia of references to the movies and TV shows that had gone before, from Laura and Double Indemnity (both 1944) to Vertigo (1958) and Experiment in Terror (1962, which has a Twin Peaks and a Lynch) to, well, The Patty Duke Show.

There was an almost parodically cleancut and off-kilter FBI Agent in Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan of Blue Velvet) and a straight-up he-man sheriff in, honest to goodness, Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean). Talk about iconic names of a bygone America. If today’s youngsters don’t know Twin Peaks, how will they know the things to which it refers?

Despite the show’s knowing references to the content and conventions of pop culture, it evoked these things with the perverse intent of subverting or ignoring the standard structures and expectations. Lynch and Frost stated more than once that in their original model, they’d like never to have had to reveal or decide “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” which became a pop-culture query as rapidly as “Who Shot J.R.?” a few years earlier. To “solve” a mystery would be reductive, while leaving it open would imply the town’s if not the world’s collective and mutual guilt.

So despite all these references, this show of multiple ambiguous tones from horror to satire to cozyness to queasiness to the sheer uncanny was in certain ways like nothing before. Its closest analogue was another cult series that swiftly caught the public’s attention and almost as swiftly wore it out, the daytime soap opera Dark Shadows. Cheaply done and slow as molasses, this supernatural soap from the early ’70s gave itself complete narrative liberty. It could jump back in time or go into “parallel time”, it could revive killed-off characters without having to unkill them, it could have actors play multiple roles.

That brings us to the show’s other prominent element: the supernatural. The show’s mythology includes access to another world, a world behind the world, a spirit world known to local Indians by terms like the White Lodge and the Black Lodge. There’s also UFO mythology mixed in, as one of the characters was attached to the FBI’s Project Bluebook, itself the subject of a short-lived ’70s series produced by Jack Webb, Project UFO. Some of the minor recurring characters were liminal figures who crossed over from the other world (in dreams, for example) or implied access to it.

They include Margaret the Log Lady (Catherine Coulson), a lady who carries a log; The Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson, later of the eerie HBO series Carnivale), a backwards-speaking dwarf in a Red Room accessed in Dale Cooper’s dreamworld; The Giant (Caryl Struycken, later Lurch in the Addams Family movies) and his real-world analogue, a nameless doddering old waiter played by Hank Worden, a character actor known for “not quite there” roles, as in The Searchers); Phillip Michael Gerard, the One-Armed Man (Al Strobel), who functions as both a reference to the ’60s series The Fugitive and a red herring no longer attached to the demonic “Killer Bob” (Frank Silva); and the ethereal singer (Julee Cruise) at The Roadhouse.

These figures stick in the audience’s memory more sharply than the antics of the many characters who held center stage. These actors include Mädchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook, Richard Beymer, Lara Flynn Boyle, Joan Chen, Sherilynn Fenn, Heather Graham, Piper Laurie, Peggy Lipton, James Marshall, Jack Nance, Russ Tamblyn, Ray Wise and Billy Zane, among many others including Lynch himself as a partly deaf FBI Chief.

The Influence of Anxiety

Twin Peaks had an incalculable impact on TV, a fate that might not have been obvious for a show that, as with other comet-like hits that passed as soon as they arrived (e.g., the ’60s campfest Batman), had shot to the top of the ratings only to plummet like King Kong from the Empire State Building. This happened not so much because bewildered viewers, attracted by all the fuss, found something they couldn’t make head or tail of, though that was part of it. It wasn’t so much that nobody cared after the central mystery was answered, though that was part of it. It wasn’t entirely due to ABC dismissively shuffling it all over the schedule once they’d lost interest, though that was a big part of it.

It was that Lynch and Frost, who had been contracted for a short serial in which they thought they might not bother to solve the crime, were caught short by ABC’s decision to renew the surprise hit for a second season. With no plans in place to continue the characters and their plotlines, the show went into emergency mode and began frantically cranking out material with as many writers and directors as they could hire. One episode was directed by Diane Keaton. Others were early work of Leslie Linka Glatter, whose prolific career moved on serialized shows like N.Y.P.D. Blue, Murder One, E.R., The West Wing, Swingtown, Weeds, Mad Men, Masters of Sex, True Blood and Homeland.

In my opinion, the show was most decisively done in by this lack of planning. The last-minute, thrown-together nature of the post-Laura episodes make them comparatively weaker, yet they still have strong elements and were getting visibly more compelling by the final episodes — by which time the show had already been cancelled. Everyone agrees that the episodes directed by Lynch are especially strange, distinctive and disturbing, and many fans wished he could direct them all, but the show’s visual quality remained consistent even as its concentration sometimes wavered.

Aside from a nod of recognition in another quirky small-town show that began the same year, Northern Exposure, the influence of Twin Peaks was felt in more or less direct variants like Eerie, Indiana, a good-natured, child-oriented series; American Gothic, the 1995 series about a small town sheriff; Picket Fences, the first of the David E. Kelley Productions; and most decisively in The X-Files, the launching of Chris Carter’s TV empire. It starred David Duchovny, whom Carter had seen as cross-dressing DEA Agent Dennis/Denise Bryson on several episodes of Twin Peaks.

As some of these names indicate, the show’s long-range influence on today’s long-form serials is extensive, whether on regular network shows like Lost or Wayward Pines, or cable or streaming productions like American Horror Story, Banshee or Hemlock Grove, to pick only a few of the more obvious thematic links.

As for Twin Peaks, which had been a hit just about everywhere in the world that showed American TV, Lynch followed up with a theatrical prequel, Fire Walk With Me (1992), a gloomy, crushing and frustrating hallucinatory assault that could make little sense to those unfamiliar with the series. It tanked everywhere but in Japan, but there’s no escaping the claustrophobic punch of its downbeat analysis of Laura Palmer’s last week of life. This is Lynch at his darkest.

That movie is included in this new CBS/Paramount Blu-ray of Twin Peaks: The Original Series, Fire Walk With Me & The Missing Pieces, which differs from the 2014 Blu-ray Twin Peaks: The Complete Mystery, reviewed here, by dropping the final disc of inconsequential bonus material. In other words, this nine-disc set still includes alternate endings and deleted footage that Lynch has edited into a “feature” called The Missing Pieces, not to mention the foreign version of what’s called the pilot film (the premiere episode) and the Log Lady intros from the Bravo Channel reruns. There are, of course, making-of’s and miscellaneous doo-dads, and the “Slice of Lynch” dialogue from the 2007 Gold Box DVD edition, which collected the series and pilots but not the movie.

So fans who own the 2014 Blu-ray have no reason to buy this incarnation, but now it’s a little cheaper and repackaged to cross-promote the forthcoming series revival. If you’ve given it a skip, here’s another chance to see what the fuss is about.