For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding the ultimate Drama Derby to determine the greatest TV drama of the past 25 years. Each day a different notable writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on March 23. Today’s first-round battle: Former Vulture editor Willa Paskin judges Twin Peaks versus Battlestar Galactica. You can place your own vote on Facebook or tweet your opinion with the #dramaderby hashtag.
Long before this Drama Derby paired off Twin Peaks and Battlestar Galactica in a TV death-match, the two were inextricably connected in my mind: These are the two shows that have most adversely affected my physical well-being. (To be fair, 24 also had me rummaging around for a Xanax, but giving its audience “everything is a potential suitcase bomb” anxiety attacks was basically that show’s stated purpose.) Twin Peaks and BSG both gave me nightmares. While watching Peaks, I would wake up from eerie dreams and be convinced that BOB or Leland or Leo was standing at the foot of my bed, until a few seconds passed and my eyes resolved them into a shadow, a chair, a figment of my imagination. While watching BSG, I had weeks of very detailed, complex, plot-specific fever dreams, culminating in one particularly grisly incident where I cut open a suspected Cylon Olsen twin on the deck of the Galactica only to reveal the cell phone she had for a heart.
I tell you this both to make clear that choosing between Twin Peaks and BSG is difficult for me — they were the two most intense, riveting, and all-consuming viewing experiences I’ve ever had — but also because the ability to take over one’s subconscious points to what they share: Despite the great distance between the Pacific Northwest and the far-flung corners of the universe, these are two of the most atmospheric shows in existence, both set in such distinct, fully realized fictional worlds that you can walk around in them while you sleep.
With Twin Peaks, it’s all already there: Every serious fight and really big idea we have had about television in the 22 years since it first aired are all presaged, contained, and embodied by this oddball cultural phenomenon that premiered in 1990 to unexpectedly smash ratings, became perhaps the biggest water-cooler show of all time, and then, a year and two months later, was gone, done, over, somehow having faded away even though there would only seem to have been enough time for it to burn out.
The David Lynch–Mark Frost mystical mystery soap, which ran for just 30 episodes on ABC, is the ultimate auteurist series, a mass entertainment so patently the outgrowth of a singular mind-meld that it’s got the dream sequence with a dwarf talking backwards to prove it, and yet it arrived almost a decade before The Sopranos, The West Wing, and Buffy made ambitious, idiosyncratic TV a trend. Twin Peaks was the canary in the coalmine for shows from Desperate Housewives to Lost, The X-Files to The Killing, auguring the tremendous difficulty of endings, of doling out secrets while maintaining pace, of spinning a story endlessly that still must, eventually, end. (Can you imagine what BOB would have done to Twitter? It’s almost too inflammatory a possibility to stare directly at. Safer to squint.) It’s to be blamed (or praised) for the proliferation of “mythologies,” those now ubiquitous long-term story arcs and conspiracies; it’s to be praised (or blamed) for helping make the secret life of the American teen a viable, popular, scandalous TV subject. And, most of all, Twin Peaks made bullshit of any predictions about what audiences “want” — give us your bizarre, your disturbing, your Zen FBI agents! — while also making bullshit of the idea that audiences only want that which is easy and mediocre. (And it flayed the flip side as well, that mass audiences can’t appreciate that which is good and difficult.)
Twin Peaks is a murder mystery, though not just a murder mystery. Teenage Laura Palmer washes ashore, ghostly, blue, and wrapped in plastic, a popular girl with a secret sideline in coke, pornography, and rough sex. FBI agent Dale B. Cooper — described by then-New York TV critic John Leonard in his wonderful piece about the show as “a boy scout from the dog star Sirius” — is called in to handle the case. Twin Peaks welded its weirdness onto an established genre: Peaks takes a form we know — the detective story, as The Wire and The Sopranos would do with the cop show and the mob narrative — and puts it in front of the fun-house mirror. The quirky, disturbing, surrealist Lynchian touches (that stuffed stag’s head on the table in the bank!) are all grounded by the propulsive, baseline, conventional question: Who killed Laura Palmer?
The suspects — the wacky, dry, hilarious, eye-patched, log-lugging residents of Twin Peaks — seem very similar to the citizens of Northern Exposure, which started in 1991, until they don’t. Comedic bits are followed by horrifying revelations: The zany shrink with the outré outfits and peccadilloes has been hearing clients confess to years of sexual molestation; a Myna bird bleeds all over a table full of donuts, but only after mimicking the voice of a girl begging for mercy. Twin Peaks’ clean, Douglas Fir-fresh air covers up the stench of evil.
Though Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed in episode 14, meaning essentially everything that’s important about Twin Peaks happened in just two thirds of a standard-length TV season, its influence is everywhere: in all go-for-broke television with a difficult or complex point of view; in all series that incorporate the mystical and fantastical (Fringe, Alcatraz, The River, American Horror Story, Millennium among them, and if you’re looking for one reason the Lost creators thought the spiritual mumbo jumbo would fly in the series finale, blame BOB); but also in such unexpected places as Parks and Rec’s Chris Traeger, a light comic version of the earnest, peppy, perfect Dale Cooper, or 30 Rock’s Kenneth the Page, a close relative of the dippy, innocent cop Andy.
And, of course, Twin Peaks’ influence can also be seen in SyFy’s grand space odyssey Battlestar Galactica. Premiering fourteen years after Peaks, BSG, a reboot of a trifling seventies series, is a case in point for Peaks’ power, and also so much more than that. Both shows are far-out genre exercises with problematic endings and a rare, non-condescending curiosity about spirituality. And they both gifted us with heretofore unknown categories of people — BOBS and Cylons — that actually make categorizing the folk you walk around on this planet with every day easier to understand. (How to understand Angelina Jolie, except as a Cylon?)
But let’s give Battlestar its due: On paper, there is no way that Battlestar should work, which is why people who love it are always having to “swear” to people who haven’t seen it that they’ll like it even if they don’t usually like sci-fi. Twin Peaks is a ballsy show, but Battlestar is a Star Trek knockoff that had the guts to take on torture and Iraq, religion, and apocalypse, the nature of the soul and the ramifications of technology, and did all of this so captivatingly that forsaking showers and work are well-documented side-effects of watching it.
Plus, the acting is better. Peaks had some wonderful performances, most especially from Kyle MacLachlan as Cooper, but it also fetishized bad acting: The show constantly juxtaposed the melodramatic and the original, the striking plot twist coming right after, say, Laura’s identical cousin arrives in town, and it did the same with the performances, pairing Lara Flynn Boyle with James “I practiced at the Joey Tribbiani School of Smell Acting” Marshall, or giving MacLachlan the wooden Michael Ontkean to play off of. Even BSG’s weaker links (Helo, Hera, Dee) can act circles around much of the Peaks cast, and they had the harder job. If bad acting could be shoehorned into the Peaks aesthetic, it had no place in BSG, which had a premise that so inherently skews towards the silly, its cast could never even nod in the direction of camp.
Among Battlestar Galactica’s stronger players are its actresses, blessed with some of the meatiest roles ever written for women on TV. BSG’s gender politics are euphorically advanced, with Starbuck, Six, President Roslin, and Boomer, not to mention every other female pilot, mechanic, Cylon, and civilian, so fundamentally equal to the men around them that gender parity isn’t something they even have to talk about. (Meanwhile on Twin Peaks, all the non-crazy fully grown women spend their time in abusive love triangles.) At a time when it is, somehow, still acceptable to call a woman a slut for taking birth control, one wishes more than ever that Starbuck were a real person, so she could swagger into Rush Limbaugh’s office and ask him if he would like to try and put something, anything, between her knees. (It would be icing on the fantasy to imagine President Roslin following her in, doing that thing where she smiles out of fury, and then eviscerating him without ever raising her voice.)
And where BSG especially has Peaks beat is on the matter of endings: Before its disappointing series finale — not a show-killer, just a letdown — Battlestar had strung together what, to my mind, amounts to the greatest stretch of season finales and premieres ever assembled. The series was only four seasons long, but because seasons two through four were broken in half, with hiatuses in between, there were basically seven finales and premieres, each one more insane and breathtaking than the next. (They include the adventures on Kobul, the saga of the Battlestar Pegasus, and the ultimate high points, that breathtaking time jump between the finale and premieres set on New Caprica, parts of a story line that was one of the most nuanced treatments of the Iraq war that exist.)
Did BSG have its flaws? Of course it did: Gaius Baltar’s weird religious ramblings became so annoying and far out by the end, they are best fast-forwarded through (authority-undermining confession: Gaius always annoyed the hell out of me); the middle of each season would often lag; and, no, no one had any idea all those characters were Cylons when the show began. A bit more damningly, compared to Peaks, BSG’s spiritual searchings eventually shaded into Oprah territory. If Peaks was genuinely committed to the possibility that evil — like the truth — is really out there, over the course of its run BSG ultimately made the squishier, more comforting case that evil is all a matter of perspective. While in the early seasons this relativist position allowed the show to be daringly provocative — humans are not just the tortured, but also the torturers — come the finale, it turned out we’re all descendants of loving human-Cylon miscegenation. (The upside of this gooeyness, however, is that there are maybe a dozen BSG episodes that made me cry — let’s not even talk about “The Passage” — and not one episode of Peaks that ever did.)
But if the taut, gripping survival story that was early BSG eventually gave way to something a little flabbier, its decline in quality is nothing to that of Peaks, which fell so much faster, and so much further. Compared to Peaks, which ran aground at the end of its very first story arc, BSG is almost like a Cylon: stronger, tougher, and capable of infinite replication.
And yet, it can’t be BSG. Twin Peaks and BSG have always been associated in my mind for a reason besides bad dreams and the others enumerated above: They are also the two shows I say the most hyperbolic things about when I’m drunk. The thing I say about BSG is, “It is the most insightful, important allegory about the Iraq war ever made,” which, on the one hand, I know, cut me off already, but, on the other, if someone knows of a more insightful, captivating, and thought-provoking portrayal of the dehumanization of occupation and the allure of insurgency, well, please, shout it out in the comments, because I need to see that.
But the embarrassing thing I say about Twin Peaks — the embarrassing thing I really mean — is “Twin Peaks makes me proud to be an American.” For fourteen weeks two decades ago, we all got together in our living rooms and watched something that was unlike anything we had ever seen before. And that thing was really fun to watch, it had sex and it had drugs, it had handsome leading men and beautiful leading women, it had an addictive plot and delicious melodrama, but none of those things made it any less strange, or any less a piece of art. Twin Peaks was a weird show in 1990, and it is still a weird show now — really, go watch it — way shaggier and odder than anything on TV today. BSG and Twin Peaks are both great series, but only Peaks is a reminder that, on occasion, 23 million of your fellow citizens can be open and wild and brave enough to embrace something genuinely new — even if it is only a television show.
Winner: Twin Peaks
Reader Winner as determined on Vulture’s Facebook page: Battlestar Galactica
Willa Paskin is the former Deputy Editor of Vulture, and the new TV Critic for Salon.