When Twin Peaks originally aired back in 1990, it amassed the kind of excitement very much alien to American television at that time. The show was renewed for a significantly longer second season, its female stars were featured on the covers of Rolling Stone and Playboy, and it had the kind of long lasting influence that was to inform TV shows as great as Fargo and True Detective. Yet the mania surrounding the show did not last: the mystery at the centre of the show – of who killed the troubled high-schooler Laura Palmer – was solved half way through the second season, leaving its protagonist – Special Agent Dale Cooper – with nothing to do for the best part of ten episodes. ABC cancelled the show just as Twin Peaks was moving into more experimental territory, ending with a fantastic but baffling final episode. Much like the filmography of showrunner David Lynch, Twin Peaks is uneven, but when it is good, it really is some of the most fascinating television of the past twenty-five years.
Friendly neighbours. Homely diners. Roads flanked by miles of fir trees. Hot coffee and cherry pie. The town Homecoming Queen wrapped in plastic and dumped in the town river. A red suited dwarf dancing in a room decorated with red velvet curtains. Twin Peaks has images that stick with you on a subliminal level; in fact, a lot of what David Lynch does sticks with you on a subliminal level. His films are like music. They operate on a dream logic which always feels artistic and never frustrating. When Lynch does something weird or strange or absurd, it feels somehow legitimate, somehow that bit more compelling than the images that, say, a director like Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers, Gummo) would put in his films. The good thing about Twin Peaks for first time viewers of Lynch is that it exists on the boundary between dreams and reality; it is nowhere near as obscure as his Inland Empire or as disturbing as Blue Velvet. It is eccentric and weird, but rarely ventures into extreme territory, perhaps due to co-creator Mark Frost, whose sobering influence keeps the surreal nature of the show restrained.
The characters and writing compliment the stimulating imagery. Protagonist Dale Cooper starts most episodes monologing into a tape recorder about the virtues of black coffee, cherry pie and the Douglass fir trees which circle the town, addressing each tape to a mysterious ‘Diane’ who we never meet. Many of the mystery’s clues are revealed by an ever-present ‘Log Lady’, a middle-aged woman who cradles an omniscient log in her arms, or a peculiar ‘Tall Man’, who fades into Cooper’s life in times of peril, giving him vague pointers before disappearing into thin air. Everything works together to give the impression that Twin Peaks is a conventional murder mystery being told in an unconventional way, with oddball characters and deliberately ambiguous dialogue.
The second season may have signalled the end of Twin Peaks on ABC, but it continued elsewhere. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a feature film directed by Lynch, opened in 1992, and was met with a level of critical disdain it did not really deserve. Focusing on the five days leading up to Laura Palmer’s murder and featuring a brief performance by David Bowie, it has a darker tone to the series and has numerous editing issues, but succeeds in delivering the surreal imagery we have come to expect from Lynch. In fact, it has experienced a reappraisal in recent years, mostly due to the revival series, Twin Peaks: The Return, an 18-episode experimental piece of television which is so gloriously bizarre that it is difficult to recommend to anyone who already isn’t a die-hard fan of Lynch’s abstract artistic vision. It’s great, but moves more into the realm of interpretative art than conventional television.
Go watch Twin Peaks. With television being as great as it is now, it is interesting to see where the origins of shows like Riverdale lie. Not only that, but it offers a fantastic crash course into who I think is one of the best directors of the last few decades: the irreplaceable David Lynch. Oh, and watch Blue Velvet. And Mulholland Drive. Those are great too.