Simply stated, Twin Peaks re-imagined the possibilities for the prime time television drama. With its movie-quality production values, long narrative arcs that rewarded dedicated viewers, frank depictions of sex, violence and horror, and a fascination with quirky, mundane America, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s bleak, surreal melodrama has left its mark on much that has come since. Such beloved programs as Northern Exposure and the X-Files – which, incidentally, if you combined, you’d probably end up with Twin Peaks again – owe an obvious debt to this complex and, finally, bewildering bit of entertainment.
Just as television is now riddled with the malevolent virus that is Reality TV (a virus which sees creativity stifled in favour of shows designed around horrible idiots competing over who can stay around long enough to generate the most advertising revenue for the principle investors, or something), in the late ’80s, it suffered from one of the most severe creative droughts in its history. Few groundbreaking series managed to claw their way into schedules dominated by aging sitcoms (the Cosby Show, Cheers, The Golden Girls and Empty Nest were all still in the top ten in 1989-90), and there was virtually no viewership for anything without a laugh track. And then, in what genuinely felt like it was out of thin air, Twin Peaks debuted in April 1990 to what was clearly a starving audience.
As weird as anything Lynch had ever done in movies (and sharing much in common with his previous peak under the lid of small town America in Blue Velvet), Twin Peaks offered a kind of familiar escapism that was simply unavailable otherwise on the small screen. It was familiar in that it seemed to take place in an idealized America: the apple pie, truck stop, everyday America we know from country songs and road trips. But it was escapist because just as much as this little town seemed recognizable, it harboured more immorality, danger, and labyrinthine mysteries than any Gotham or Metropolis could offer. The juxtaposition, then, of the murder of a beautiful Homecoming Queen and the revelations of the sexual economy and terrifying underworld in which she was involved establishes the duality at the core of the show. Everyone has secrets; no one is pure. Clues are everywhere – red herrings, too – because no one is innocent. Not really.
A film noir mingling with elements of the daytime soap opera and the late night slasher film, Twin Peaks is open to multiple readings. Emerging smack dab in the middle of the era of postmodernism in academics, Lynch and Frost’s approach spoke to a growing desire on the part of many clever Americans (and folks from elsewhere, too) to deconstruct their entertainments, to peel back layers looking for the something, or the nothing, lying in wait within. They flirted with this new fascination, hinting at answers, dropping tiny possibilities, parlaying the audience’s masochistic craving to be toyed with into a kind of orgy of irony. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the program is that it refused to gather up its plotlines in a tight little ball and then unravel them before our eyes. Rather, it spilled out its contents in a haphazard mess and dared us to wind them all up again.
It was never going to last. Certainly, ratings looked very good after the first (short) season carried a cliffhanger into the second full outing, but just how long could the public at large handle all of this deepening mystery? And, once we had been to the red room, there seemed to be nowhere else to go. How much more was there left to peel away before the town simply ceased to be? When the show was cancelled at the end of the second season, no one should have been surprised.
With crisp performances throughout (especially from Kyle MacLachlan, in a role he was born to play), unforgettable settings and cinematography, and inventive, uncompromising scripts from episode to episode, Twin Peaks makes for uncommonly rewarding repeat viewings. Sure, Angelo Badalamenti’s score can get a bit plodding at times, and the show often moves at a dreamy (which can sometimes mean boring) pace, but more often than not, you’ll likely find yourself watching, round-eyed, swept up by the curious and compelling nightmare as it draws you ever deeper into the woods.
The Gold Box is indeed the definitive Twin Peaks collection (as Lynch himself attests, sort of, on the DVD box itself). It gathers, for the first time, every single episode including the two-hour pilot (which, until now, had been frustratingly unavailable on DVD) along with copious special features (including an alternate version of the pilot), extras and making of featurettes, many of which are quite illuminating. For any fan of such current Twin Peaks offspring as Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and even Desperate Housewives, a trip back to the Great Northern might just be a revelation. Indelible, and absolutely essential.