“Can This Be Happening on Television?” — The Twin Peaks Effect Goes Gold
I started out just as a regular person, growing up in the Northwest ….
Once upon a time during the reign of George I, on April 9, 1990, to be exact, TIME announced the debut of a television program “like nothing you’ve seen in prime time — or on God’s earth. It may be the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV.”
Never mind the “may be.” The New York Times called Twin Peaks “event television given a memorably wicked spin. Nothing like it has ever been seen on network prime time.”
A review in the Los Angeles Times (“TV You’ve Never Seen Before”) began with two questions. “Can this be happening?” and “Can this be happening on television?”
Considering how much genius-level, groundbreaking programming has been produced at HBO and elsewhere since the turn of the new century, it’s a tribute to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 30-episode ABC series that Twin Peaks remains as “hauntingly original” and “memorably wicked” when revisited in 2014 as it did in 1990 when it lured a network television audience into the dark forever-ominously-rustling north woods where “the owls are not what they seem” and FBI agents with second sight thrive on cherry pie while keeping a line open to other worlds.
Heralding the Golden Age
Last month during an interview with David Lynch at the International Music Summit in Los Angeles, the recording artist Moby suggested that Twin Peaks, the “first truly compelling idiosyncratic” TV show “heralded what we’ll call the weird, quasi golden age of television.” Moby made the statement in the course of asking the Twin Peaks mastermind if he’d ever been tempted to write or develop a new show.
Lynch preferred not to answer, dismissing the question as “awkward,” perhaps because he’s weary of denying rumors that he’s shooting new episodes when the only news of note is that a BluRay edition will soon be released. My quibble with Moby’s “golden age” reference concerns his use of the qualifier “quasi” in regard to an era that has witnessed giants of television art like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, among others, including the ongoing fourth season of Game of Thrones, which made the front page of Saturday’s New York Times (“Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role”).
To state the obvious, sexual violence has been endemic to the entertainment industry for generations and has been exploited not only in the media (i.e. the Times story) but in countless productions vastly inferior to Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks.
In any case, sexual violence was not what addicted people to Twin Peaks. Rape and murder may have given the show its “Who killed Laura Palmer?” hook, but what made it a sensation was the way the question was augmented and amplified through the dynamics of visual style, unique characters, wildly imaginative writing, and, perhaps most impressively of all, the music of Angelo Badalamenti. From the first note, the mood created is warm, mellow, musing, inviting, dreamily beautiful. Right away you know that no matter what horrors are in store, the realm in which this film exists has a primal beauty, sad, mysterious, and infinitely suggestive. The mood is sustained as Badalamenti’s achingly poignant music follows the flow of feeling between a couple falling in love through their shared love of the murdered girl, as happens when James, the last of Laura’s boy friends and lovers, and Donna, her best friend and soulmate, confide in one another. The music is above all about loving Laura, so that you know that however sordid her secret life or the circumstances of her murder, she was adored, a darling of the community, its most beautiful child. The emotional chemistry of Twin Peaks is voiced by Donna the moment she and James are falling in love when she says “It’s like I’m having the most beautiful dream and the most terrible nightmare all at once.”
More pervasive than the love theme is the subtle undercurrent of menace Badalamenti creates, an ebb and flow of dread that intensifies whenever the scene shifts to the interior of Laura’s home. Without that sinister undercurrent, the focus on an ordinary stairway with an ordinary ceiling fan slowly turning overhead might suggest something vaguely, uneasily off center; with the music it’s as if a demon’s hand were guiding the blades of the fan: something terrible happened here and is going to happen again, as it does at the end of the 14th episode when Laura’s lookalike cousin is brutally murdered in the adjoining room. The effect would be purely sensational except that the slaughter takes place as Badalamenti’s wrenchingly eloquent music fills the road house where James and Donna and other friends of Laura are watching Julee Cruise sing the song of love and death that sealed their relationship.
Who Killed Twin Peaks?
Somehow it made sense that a show “half in love with easeful death” should bring about its own demise. One problem had to do with the burden of the mystery; all the exotic possibilities put in play promised more than any denouement could conceivably deliver. The real killer, however, was ABC’s insistence that the iconic question be answered.
“The mystery was never supposed to be solved,” says David Lynch, still passionate on the subject 15 years later in the featurette accompanying the DVD. “That mystery was sacred. It held all the others. It was the tree and the others were the branches.”
Even without the network’s fatal interference, Twin Peaks would have had to survive Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the media blitz of the first Gulf War, which was underway as the show stumbled toward its conclusion.
The TP Effect
Just for fun, imagine something called, for lack of a better term, the Twin Peaks (TP) Effect, with the understanding that the single character who most thoroughly embodies it is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. Cheerful, upright, moral, supremely sane, and yet formidably quirky, he’s the unconventionally conventional presence wherein the magically real splendor of the show unfolds, from the basics of “damn fine coffee” to the Red Room and the dancing dwarf, extrasensory communication, and parallel universes.
The TP effect is alive and well in the Golden Age. It goes without saying that the Sopranos version of coffee and cherry pie is gabagool and Carmela’s ziti, and though Tony Soprano may seem miles to the dark side of Dale Cooper, what about the big guy going to pieces when a family of ducks abandons his swimming pool, and what about his dream at death’s door in which he envisions himself as a dorky traveling salesman? And what else but the TP effect puts the Pine Barrens episode at or near the top of every fan’s list, the misadventures of Paulie and Christopher shivering, bitching, and hapless in the wilds of New Jersey? Welcome to Twin Peaks, Paulie Walnuts. And welcome to Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Imagine the season of TP you’d have if he were teaching science at Twin Peaks High. Then there’s the silver-tongued flamethrower from Justified, Boyd Crowder. Imagine this lethally charming character coming on to the waitresses at the double R diner. And think of the season you could build around a gay holdup-man like Omar from The Wire. Another variation of the TP Effect, found in the avuncular, elegantly spoken person of David Lynch’s star-gazing Major Briggs, anticipates the rhetoric of Deadwood’s Al Swearengen and the Dickensian hotelier E.B. Farnum.
And what about the ad man with the secret past? If this TP effect caper seems a bit, well, capricious, there’s a recognition of it online in the extensive Twin Peaks site, where Don Draper from Mad Men is shown checking into the Great Northern and flirting with the TP siren, Audrey Horne. Remember, Jon Hamm’s Draper comes from La-La Land, where his best friend was the wife of the man whose identity he stole. Finally, consider the aura of Twin Peaks in the parallel universes of Game of Thrones and its wittiest character, Tyrion Lannister. Who needs the dancing dwarf of the Red Room when you can have Peter Dinklage hunkering down in a booth with Dale Cooper at the Double R and digging into a big piece of cherry pie?
This fantasia could go on for a dozen seasons, but this is David Lynch’s show and so should end in Bob’s Big Boy in L.A. where, according to his book, Catching the Big Fish, he “used to go … just about every day” to “have a milkshake and sit and think: There’s safety in thinking in a diner. You can have your coffee or your milkshake, and you can go off into strange dark areas, and always come back to the safety of the diner.”
For the David Lynch-Moby interview and all kinds of Twin Peaks material, visit http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/lynch/moby-david-lynch-interview.