Why Twin Peaks Is Not the Series We’ve Convinced Ourselves It Was

By
Image
The red room. Photo: ABC/Spelling Ent./CBS Paramount Domestic Television

You haven’t seen the new Twin Peaks yet. Neither have I.

Nevertheless, I’m worried.

Not about the show. About its reception.

I fear that a good number of viewers are going to watch the new Twin Peaks eagerly anticipating the charming, consumable, GIF-able, and meme-able elements: the comedy, the flirtations, the quizzical reaction shots, and dry banter; the ritual consumption of coffee, donuts, and pie; Agent Dale Cooper with his big grin and Audrey with her saddle shoes and skirts; the dancing dwarf, Angelo Badalamenti’s funky lounge music cues, and so on.

That’s Twin Peaks, of course. But it’s not all that Twin Peaks was. And it’s not all that the new Twin Peaks will likely be.

Here are seven things you need to keep in mind as you watch the show.

1. Twin Peaks was a laboratory for artists who never expected to be making a hit show and had no idea how to sustain one. It wasn’t perfect, and even now, after nearly three decades of TV shows that ripped off Twin Peaks, it won’t be perfect, either.
In a recent New York Magazine interview, series co-creator David Lynch avoided talking about either the old or new series in detail. But he did admit it started to slide in season two, and the show’s writers realized they didn’t know how to resolve the Laura Palmer murder mystery, much less where to go after they did.

The show’s severe case of artist’s block is how we ended up with a wheel-spinning episode where Leland Palmer drove around with a murder victim in the trunk of his car while audiences clamored for closure to the Laura mystery. It’s also the reason why there was so much stuff in the second half of season two that was weird in a cutesy or gratuitously wacky way, almost like something out of a bad David Lynch parody (think of Josie Packard as a doorknob, or Catherine Martell reappearing on the show as an Asian man with a mustache).

And it’s why the series, which had previously demonstrated an uncanny ability to modulate tone, started whipsawing and stumbling and falling into pits it dug for itself, at times delivering subplots that were so silly or listless that you weren’t sure if they were bad examples of a particular trope or an equally terrible spoof (like James Hurley getting drawn into what felt like a high-school production of Double Indemnity).

It seems less likely that Lynch and his producing partner Mark Frost will have that problem in this outing, because they’ve had 27 years to think about what they might do if they had the chance, and there are people working on the series who came up in the world of post–Twin Peaks TV, not to mention post-Sopranos, post-Buffy, post-Lost, and post-everything-else TV.

But it’s still a possibility, because it’s innate to the essence of the exercise.

Related, and equally important:

2. Twin Peaks was always more about a mood and a vibe than the murder mystery that got such an improbably large audience so excited about its debut.
It was about the owls that were not what they seemed, the wind in the trees, the swaying stoplight, the buzzing florescent light, and the diamond-patterned floor and red velvet curtains in Cooper’s dwarf dream. And the letter hidden beneath a fingernail. And the way BOB climbed over that couch.

Watching a series like Twin Peaks means accepting that much of it, indeed a lot of it, is going to be fundamentally unsatisfying, because the artists are working close to their subconscious minds, writing and directing and producing in much the same way that Cooper made many of his investigative decisions. There’s no tried-and-true blueprint when you’re making that kind of art.

3. Twin Peaks was a meditation on grief and trauma that expressed itself in unrelenting, deliberately unreal, often mystifying ways.
People tend to forget this when they talk and write about and remember Twin Peaks. That show did not go down easy. It was charming and weird, but it was also creepy and upsetting and sometimes genuinely horrifying. It gave you a spoonful of sugar, then it punched you in the gut. The gut punches had to do with the psychological effect of loss on individuals and their community.

Twin Peaks is often described as a mystery or a soap opera, and it was definitely both of those things. But it was also the story of a small town reeling in shock after a random act of violence, acting out in strange and terrifying ways, and purposefully and accidentally disclosing not just their naughty secrets (an element common to the soaps that Lynch and Frost emulated, as well as films like In the Heat of the Night and Anatomy of a Murder), but the persistent sadness, desperation, and dread that lurks under the surface of mundane reality. The deeper FBI agent Dale Cooper and his fellow investigators dug into the soil beneath those magnificent Douglas firs, the more ugliness they unearthed. There was incest, sexual exploitation, drug abuse, drug trafficking, domestic violence, smuggling, murder, and corporate crime happening in those cottages and hotel rooms and in the gloom of the woods.

But more impressive — perhaps more daring, considering Americans’ limited tolerance for sincerity — was the show’s willingness to plumb the emotional depths of its characters with the white-hot intensity of a 1950s melodrama or a 1970s Italian horror film, without distancing devices, and often without facetiousness or irony.

The latter was eerie and moving to behold and, for 1990 network TV, unexpected. But it was also upsetting and depressing and occasionally confounding for mass audiences, which is one reason why the show’s ratings, which were immense for the premiere, kept falling by the week, until it became clear a few episodes into season two that ABC was likely to cancel it. Twin Peaks wore the comedy mask and the tragedy mask with equal confidence, and sometimes it put them both away and put on a mask that had live worms in it and might have been made of human flesh.

The audience didn’t just reject the series over the long haul because viewers wanted closure on the question of who killed Laura Palmer, and Lynch and Frost seemed to be in no hurry to provide it. It was also a reaction to the series itself — all of its elements, but perhaps especially the intensity of its darkness. Twin Peaks was not just physically brutal (Leland Palmer’s murder of his Laura-look-alike niece, Maddie, is still hard to watch nearly three decades after its airing). It was also emotionally wrenching, in a way that was uncharacteristic of TV in the early ’90s. Supporting characters were forever weeping, sometimes wailing in grief as they remembered Laura. It was an open wound of a show, right up through the end.

The characters’ pain was hilarious if you were a callow teenager or college student who didn’t understand loss and the many, equally valid methods by which art can examine it. You have to permit yourself a certain vulnerability when watching Lynch, otherwise the simplicity of the characters’ needs and fears and the nakedness of their desperation will seem hilarious. Viewers over the legal drinking age had to decide to be okay with a certain level of emotional exposure while watching the original Peaks.

Twin Peaks was playful about everything except pain. It took pain so seriously that over time, an increasing proportion of its initially big viewership did not know how to process it, except to squirm, snicker performatively, or stop watching. Everybody who watches the new Peaks has to recognize this and not be surprised or upset by it. It’s going to be part of the package, because it’s an area of life that is of deep interest to Lynch, the director of such light and peppy movies as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, and Inland Empire.

A 30-something friend of mine quit watching it after a few episodes because his mother had recently died of cancer; Twin Peaks made him feel as if he was reentering a space he never wanted to be in again.

That Twin Peaks is also coming back.

Related:

4. Twin Peaks teased its viewers, which was fun, but it also tormented them and taxed their patience, which wasn’t fun.
Let’s hop in the time machine and revisit the fall of 1990, when Twin Peaks was about to start its second season.

My girlfriend and I invited a bunch of friends over to watch the thrilling conclusion of season one’s cliffhanger ending, which saw Agent Cooper opening the door to his hotel room and getting shot by an unknown assailant.

We had our coffee. We had our pie. We had our donuts.

We were ready for thrills, laughs, answers.

The show spent the first part of its season premiere showing Cooper lying on the floor, summoning all the energy in his damaged body trying to tell an elderly, shuffling bellhop to go get help. The bellhop seemed incapable of understanding what he wanted, much less that Cooper had been shot and would bleed out if help didn’t come soon.

The scene went on and on.

And on.

And on.

It was amusing at first, but then it became maddening. Finally one of my friends muttered, “What the fuck?” And as the premiere unfolded, taking its sweet time meandering along instead of sprinting toward resolution, you could feel everyone in the room, except for the die-hard Lynchians who would sit through anything he made, getting bored, then surly.

This is what David Lynch does. He’s done it to greater or lesser degrees in every film he’s made, and he’s going to do it again in the new Peaks, which he personally directed from start to finish instead of farming certain hours out.

Hard-core Lynchians are going to be mostly okay with it. Everyone else is going to start grumbling the first time Lynch wanders off the beaten path for several minutes to futz around.

And if it does it too often, you’re going to start to see reports that the ratings are sinking, and pieces speculating on whether Twin Peaks can “save itself.”

To quote something Park Chan-wook, a pretty Lynchian director himself, once told me in an interview, the most important relationship in a movie by a true artist is not between any two characters, but between the film and its viewer. With Lynch, the relationship is complicated, to put it mildly, and there are times when his work is frustrating for what feels like no clear reason. In his expressionist or surrealist works — a description that covers pretty much everything but The Elephant Man and The Straight Story — you never know why he’s doing things, where it will lead, if in fact it will lead anywhere, and if he’s just messing around. He’s so opaque when he wants to be that you can’t be sure if he’s driving aimlessly or if he knows his destination and exactly how he’ll get there.

Lynch has been known to travel in a straight line — sometimes literally, as in 1999’s The Straight Story, a classic about an old man driving a tractor to visit his brother that’s also the least characteristic movie he’s ever made. But a lot of times he’s more like a weird Lynchian dad who might, say, pile the whole dang family in the car and just start driving, repeating, “I’ll tell you where we’re going when we get there,” over and over for days on end until he finally drives into the tentacled mouth of hell.

5. Stuff like Twin Peaks turns a lot of people off. I mean a lot. Always has, always will.
We tell ourselves we’re all right with shows like Twin Peaks and artists like Lynch because hating everything that’s not a meat-and-potatoes linear narrative with traditional bits of foreshadowing and callbacks and payoffs is square, and nobody wants to be a square, daddy-o.

But the truth is, whenever any otherwise compelling popular TV artist throws us a truly startling curveball — as the creators of The Sopranos, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica did — the tendency is to proclaim that it was pretty good until it “jumped the shark” or “shat the bed” or otherwise stopped being good.

And when it becomes clear that a series isn’t terribly interested in narrative housekeeping, and in fact has to remind itself to give a damn about that kind of thing, the popular audience tends to run the other way, because they don’t know how to process it. Even now, shows tend to be a lot neater and clearer and less intuitive than Twin Peaks. Even when they’re weird, they’re weird in a way that you can process and document, like Stranger Things, or shrug off as spectacle, like American Horror Story.

This is a very old tendency in the popular audience. We’ve encountered it time and again in response to innovative TV shows — not just Twin Peaks, but Miami Vice and Moonlighting before it, and the original Star Trek, and The Prisoner, and Night Gallery. Neither the culture nor the media that covers the culture are equipped to deal with mainstream work that feels genuinely new.

6. You never know why David Lynch does certain things, and he either can’t or won’t explain why he does them.
This is the most exciting bullet point for me. I can’t wait to see the new Peaks throw a wrench into the internet’s content machine, much of which is driven by fan theories, charts, “explainers,” and editorials about why this or that is problematic and what X gets wrong about Y.

Quite by accident, Lynch, a filmmaker known for his cryptic, sometimes cranky deflections of “What does this mean?”–type questions, is about to embark on a trolling expedition through the most tediously literal-minded era of film and TV fandom — a period in which social-media users and media outlets (including this one) fall over themselves to parse the microscopic details of mythology-rich shows, and producers participate in “exit interviews” and electronic press-kit sit-downs, live tweets and liveblogs, Facebook videos, and Reddit AMAs.

We might see Lynch do a few of those as part of his contractual obligation to promote the show. But I’d be shocked if he treated them as anything other than inadvertent meta-commentary on the uselessness of treating a David Lynch project as if it were a season of Game of Thrones or House of Cards.

Don’t expect him to validate anyone’s attempt to turn an essentially left-brained work of art into a right-brained one that can be solved for “X” like an algebra problem. Do expect him to give flippant or terse answers and smoke a lot.

7. David Lynch has become an increasingly difficult, alienating artist, and he’s not suddenly going to do an about-face.
You saw Inland Empire, right? The nearly three-hour David Lynch–Laura Dern collaboration that was taped with a camcorder so crude you wouldn’t use it to shoot your blind uncle’s birthday party, and that seemed to implode and dissipate as you watched it?

I saw it three times because I’m a Lynch completist. It was a confounding, punishing, wholly original experience. I think it’s Lynch’s most formally daring feature, which is quite something considering that it followed Mulholland Drive. But I am not at all surprised that it made about eight bucks in theaters, and that afterward, Lynch was either unable to fund another feature or too discouraged to try.

We should prepare ourselves for the possibility that the new Twin Peaks will, from time to time, be even more abrasively strange than Inland Empire, because Inland Empire came out 11 years ago, and Lynch has only gotten crankier and more mystical with age.

If you look at David Lynch’s post–Twin Peaks work you see a decisive progression toward abstraction, meta-narratives, and challenges to the audience’s preconceptions.

Starting with the 1992 movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me — which in retrospect feels more like a busted pilot for another series that got smashed and diced and pulverized into a narrative collage than an attempt to wrap up the loose ends left dangling by cancellation — Lynch quit dropping surreal or expressionistic moments into otherwise orderly narratives, and started messing with narrative itself.

Fire Walk With Me is nearly as rhythmically odd and boldly fragmented a story as Mulholland Drive, which came out nine years later. The second half is a descent into hell that climaxes with a heavenly vision that includes proudly fake-looking angel wings. Except for The Straight Story, which feels like Lynch’s farewell to conventional storytelling as time wears on, each successive Lynch project post-1992 has been more formally radical than the last. Lost Highway is a narrative Mobius strip with an unexpected and unexplained identity transference in the middle. Mullholland Drive might or might not be a marriage of realism and surrealism, reality and dream, but because everyone who sees it has a different interpretation of its structure, its ending, and its interest in role-playing and identity, it’s impossible to say for sure. And Inland Empire is pure dark sorcery, a psychic hostage video that could’ve been pirated from Robert Blake’s Lost Highway demon-voyeur.

It’s not just the specific, terrifying images in his later films that lodge in your mind (Blake with his fiery stare and powdery face; the man behind the dumpster in Mulholland Drive; the humanoid rabbit family in Inland Empire). It’s the gnawing sense that you’re losing your own mind as you watch the film, or that you’re failing to control a nightmare, or recall a dream after waking up.

I find his later films much more unsettling than his early ones because they aren’t merely disrupting conventionally structured stories with unconventional images and situations — they seem to be attacking the foundations of linear narrative, gnawing at it like termites to see what’ll happen when it falls apart.

As a Lynch-crazed buddy of mine said last week, “Everybody thinks they’re ready for more David Lynch, but are they ready for pure, uncut, post–Mulholland Drive, mind-fucking, T.S. Eliot-I-will-show-you-fear-in-a-handful-of-dust David Lynch?”

Maybe he won’t give us that because he knows most of us can’t handle it.

But I bet he will.

Somehow, despite not having made a hit film in over 30 years, Lynch convinced a major entertainment conglomerate to pay for 18 hours of new material by David Lynch, at the budget he needed, and with complete creative control. He hasn’t had this kind of financial support since he made Dune in 1984.

Nothing like this has ever happened before — not with an American artist as uncompromising and instinctual and fundamentally unknowable as Lynch, and certainly not at a point in the artist’s career where he’s traveled further away from the commercial beaten path than any director of comparable stature.

To imagine a similarly unlikely development, you have to envision, say, Starz giving Terrence Malick the budget for an 18-hour series after releasing To the Wonder and Knight of Cups.

Only the brand recognition conjured by the words Twin and Peaks made this scenario possible.

But if you believe Lynch is going to give us a conventional, commercially viable Lynch Lite alternative at this stage of his long, strange career, you must have missed his campaign to get an Oscar nomination for Laura Dern’s Inland Empire performance. He sat in a chair at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and LaBrea next to a live cow. Behind him was a “For Your Consideration” poster. Nearby was a second poster that read, “Without cheese, there wouldn’t be Inland Empire.”

When somebody asked Lynch what he meant by that, he replied, “Cheese is made from milk. Get it?”

I don’t, and I want more.

Twin Peaks Is Not the Show We’ve Convinced Ourselves It Was