This is the inaugural essay for the Twin Peaks Project—a series of investigations, reflections, and reminiscences by writers who were influenced by David Lynch’s seminal television show. The project will begin August 1st. To learn about participation, visit www.twinpeaksproject.com.
By Shya Scanlon
In episode four of the first season of Twin Peaks, Sheriff Harry Truman and Deputy Andy enter the police station looking for Agent Cooper, and find receptionist Lucy Moran watching a soap opera called Invitation to Love on the television at her desk. When Truman asks her what’s going on, she launches into a breathless recap of the goings on within the show-within-a-show, a series of shenanigans and backstabbings and double crossings fairly typical for the genre.
Truman clarifies, “What’s going on here?”
Modestly funny, but what’s funnier is that the plot of Invitation to Love mirrors the action in Twin Peaks itself, so Lucy is actually providing a decent—if abstract—overview of the shenanigans and general soapiness we’re tuning in for.
A David Lynch noob might mistake this for a subtle wink at the audience, a sign to resist taking the show too seriously—it’s a melodrama, after all. How else should we perceive the overwrought yet strangely wooden acting of the stock characters inhabiting this idyllic sawmill town in the Pacific Northwest?
But a viewer familiar with the eerie, epic melodramas Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart would have a different interpretation: it’s clearly playful, this self-reflexivity, but it’s no sly, pomo effort at self-sabotage. Those two now-classic films—the former became a critical darling; the latter won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1991—clearly established the concerns still presiding over the production of Twin Peaks: chief among them the struggle between good and evil within the context of kitsch, camp, and nostalgia. All three are set in a present heavily inflected by attitudes and aesthetics normally associated with the 50s, as though Grease were reskinned as a supernatural thriller. As with Twin Peaks, the challenge for the viewer is always that, faced with the superficiality of camp, one is tempted to laugh off the intensity and depth of the struggle. But it was truly the juxtaposition itself that interested Lynch.
Newsweek pronounced 1995 “The Year of the Internet.” It was also the year of the Oklahoma City bombing; Aum Shinrikyo claimed responsibility for a sarin gas attack in Tokyo’s subway; and both The New York Times and The Washington Post published an anti-technology manifesto titled Industrial Society and Its Future written by one Theodore John Kaczynski, AKA “The Unabomber.” That same year, all twenty-nine episodes of Twin Peaks were released as a VHS box set, fully rentable at any sufficiently well-stocked video store. Twenty years later, they’re being re-released along with a new cut of the prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, on Blu-ray—a format whose physicality, despite its technical advancement, seems almost quaint in this age of cloud-based digital storage and file sharing.
No matter. I’m betting the rerelease is going to sell gangbusters because unlike, say, the contemporaneous and at-the-time very popular television show (which ran for five seasons to Twin Peaks’ two) Northern Exposure, Twin Peaks has cemented its place in television history, not to mention popular culture, thanks in part to the ongoing impact and relevance of David Lynch, but mostly to the fact that it’s just a really fucking awesome show.
This release also happens to be perfectly situated in what everyone keeps calling television’s New Golden Age, in which no less a commanding middle brow institution than The New York Times itself is publishing op-eds comparing the latest crop of shows to Dickens, and in which no less a middle brow author than Lorrie Moore is writing, in the slightly-higher-than-middle brow New York Review of Books, that author events are crowded with writers swooning over the hot, macho, and vulnerable Tim Riggins (played by the equally hot, macho, and vulnerable Taylor Kitsch) in the runaway hit show based on a movie based on a book called Friday Night Lights.
Premiering five years before the box set finally arrived, Twin Peaks didn’t come out during a Golden Age of Television. It came out the same year as Beverly Hills, 90210, and Wings. Granted, 1990 also saw the premier of one of the most popular television franchises of all time, Law & Order, but the only thing golden about Law & Order is its unlikely longevity. And in a time when Billy Bob Thornton, discussing his decision to do TV (in his case, join the cast of an “original adaptation” of Fargo) offers, incredibly, “I saw friends of mine doing it,” it’s easy to overlook how groundbreaking it was for an esteemed-if-admittedly-not-household-name director to go straight from winning the Palme d’Or to having a show on the same network as the musical police drama Cop Rock, about which the less said the better. It’s easy to forget, finally, that in 1990, TV was just not where cool kids looked for identification.