Twin Peaks (1990-1991) is so richly and thoroughly realized that to know it is to make it as real to the psyche as a once visited landscape. Twin Peaks should never have happened. The fact that it happened, as it did, as sublimely Lynchian as it so often was, is more incredible than the wildest plot twists and visual scenes contained within its narrative.
These stories prepared middle America for the banal horror that lies in the most common stand of Douglas Firs, a wholly original world that changed future television dramas deeply in ways that were inspired, creative and banal. From the quick arrival of the imitation/flattery of “Northern Exposure”, a good show sold and digested as a more palatable version of Twin Peaks, to “The X-Files”, to the high school soap opera drama of “Beverly Hills, 90210” which would boldly offer highly sexualized teenagers who strained credibility as 20-something actors, to the current crop of vampire lore and beyond, Twin Peaks, cancelled after two strange and beautiful seasons, hangs around in unexpected places and has left an indelible mark, much like the murderous “Bob” who roosted in Twin Peaks, its nearby towns and lakes and behind the eyes of owls and upstanding citizens. The figure of “Bob” represents an irrepressible idea of the dark waters inside all of us.
Equal parts okay soap opera, suspense thriller, and pitch black comedy, Twin Peaks is also a visual marvel of its time. Coming as it did long before the high caliber of cinematic television that we now can find in abundance on HBO, Showtime, AMC, and elsewhere, Twin Peaks is a master class in David Lynch’s filmic techniques (for those so inclined), a beautiful visual production surrounded by brooding, hypnotic music by Angelo Badalamenti, an alternative travelogue for those who are more comfortable in the dark. It is a place swirling with the forces of good and evil where anything might happen. Here, dreams, visions, Tibetan methods, coincidences, and absurdities are both valued and weighted in an inside out world where an F.B.I. Agent unexpectedly tolerates, accepts, respects and believes in the strange and miraculous unknown, and brings his expected prowess and skill to bear on a world even as it threatens to consume him with its strange beauty. Agent Cooper approaches it all with preparedness, with a latex glove always close at hand, and loves this place unconditionally, essentially becoming its resident despite getting shot, seeing his career threatened and as murders and violence continue despite his diligent, flexible law man skills.
With its homeliness and familiarity, slyly couched in the false sense of reassurance of a damn fine cup of joe and real pie at a diner we are always looking for, to no avail, on real-life road trips, Twin Peaks is reminiscent of the micro worlds of Steven King at his early best, when readers everywhere looked up blinking to find they were not, actually, dwelling in Castle Rock but instead on a vacation chair in a rented cabin. Here lives the shorthand of small town Americana that perhaps never was (teasingly situated 5 miles from the Canadian border for us Canucks), something maybe borne in the shared furtive dreams of men longing for the long gone girls in saddle shoes and bobby socks, real girls ripe as fruit; and boys who were reckless in expected ways, with cars and bikes, not a video game or school shooter in sight; peopled by a lost type of human who talked about everything and looked each other in the eyes while crushing peanuts on a roadhouse table. Almost everyone here is beautiful, flawed, quirky, and sad. Almost every love is unrequited, stolen, forbidden, or lost, and so, somehow unkillable, never to burn out.
All this exists as the “blonde woman in trouble” at the core of so many of David Lynch’s subsequent film oeuvre lies in a plastic shroud on a rocky beach, impossibly beautiful in a still shot that betters her prom portrait (with its plastic, hard sheen and its secrets behind the staring eyes). Lynch may or may not have had sympathy for this young woman in trouble- she is the first of many blonde teenagers of popular fiction to have had many dark secrets that covered up even darker secrets, and diaries within diaries. A puzzle, a plot device is our Laura. The world of Twin Peaks, for the viewer, takes precedence over the dead girl’s story much as it does for Cooper. It’s a place overpopulated with threads, characters and actors much more interesting than Sheryl Lee’s Laura could ever be, maybe in part a feature of our jaded post-“CSI” and “Law & Order” world, the one we have become jaded in since murder has been an acceptable lead story on “Entertainment Tonight”. In 1990, the death of Laura Palmer was undoubtedly more affecting than it could ever be now, and her killer’s grin and gaze was the stuff of nightmares that seem pale today.
To watch the entirety of the series on Netflix today, when audiences are well versed in quirk, The Coen Brothers, and the normalization of the supernatural, the edge-of-seat moments come from the sparkling and persistently strange moments of the series that have not been done to death by other directors, and have remained beautifully “Lynchian” ones. Watching Kyle MacLachlan’s pitch perfect delivery as he expands his worldview ever further in conversation with The Log Lady’s log about what it saw that night. Wondering where they found the hundreds year old porter who brings Cooper the milk on a tray, warning him that it will get cold on him fast and giving a stunning wink and skinny thumbs up combo while Cooper lies on the floor in need of urgent medical care. Being genuinely surprised and thrilled as Leland Palmer reveal himself to be a true song and dance man (and the true star of the show, in retrospect). The world of Twin Peaks is stuffed with older, neglected actors who sink their teeth into their parts with the glee of Bob “having fun”, who sometimes chew the scenery but still fit right in in the circus that resides in The Great Northern. Piper Laurie, forever the scary mom from “Carrie”, is particularly notable in this regard during season two.
Twin Peaks, much like its interior nostalgic preoccupations, is in itself a singular artifact of a simpler, cleaner time: a time before blogs, recappers, fans who want to be spoiled and assert control of plot developments and demand their “ships” to be realized; and the related new forms of social networking market research which are more relevant but also more dangerous than archaic, offensive Neilson ratings boxes that tell us what the world will get to see based on a pitifully small sample. To watch it now is to enjoy it in the old way, to sidestep the few spoilers that exist among all IMDB boards, and to remember old T.V. Guide covers that touted the show’s unlikely mass appeal from the side pocket of Grandpa’s recliner. The critic in me can see now that Sherilyn Fenn’s shooting star in season one probably got too big for its britches with a sick out at the start of season two, resulting in a drastically reduced part from what was once threatening to eclipse all the other beauties on the show, including key figure Sheryl Lee (in a double role!) David Lynch, along with half of North America, was quite possibly in love with Fenn for a while, and he created for her an iconic role for all time that featured her middling talent, considerable charm, and truly classical beauty to its best advantage.
The dance between Special Agent Cooper and the underaged Audrey Horne is classically sketched, underexplored, and the most compelling of the show. One might argue with the T.V. that in the recent past of the 50’s that the show idealizes, a girl like Audrey could reach the age of 18 and marry a man in his late 20s or 30s without any scandal. The chemistry is real and perfect, their time on screen together too short, their longing believable. Audrey, the immature spoiled brat with nothing to do but shit disturb at the highest levels she can manage in her small world becomes driven to become a secret agent in order to help Cooper with his case (and get his attention). Both characters incur great personal risk in order to help the other, and break out of the quirk that has been sketched out for them from the pilot onward.
Fans of this show will still try to gossip in this way as if we were part of the discussion, insiders, like we do now. But once we waited to see it appear as it was moved through time slots and borders inside trucks via videotape, and discussed it with a few people who got it, loved it, hated it or were confused by it. We cut our teeth on it, and after it was gone (and not seen in reruns, hard to find, special), T.V. was a dreary landscape for much of the next decade or longer. Impossibly quaint and special, it escaped the internet era of disseminating T.V. shows to death, or reduction to memes, two current and cannibalistic ways of showing affection now, violently, and with a crudeness we would assign to bad men who lurk in the woods.