Twin Peaks was a product of its time. Debuting in 1990, it was up against an awful lot of network TV nonsense. It was trailblazing in a lot of ways. But it simply doesn’t hold up.
The years in which Twin Peaks aired were remarkably conformist ones. The first Bush presidency was a frighteningly corporate time, in which supposed invasions of liberation in Panama and Iraq played out like cynical TV events, while the news refused to cover the brutal massacres associated with both wars. In the wake of the Reagan Revolution, there was almost no protest culture. Music was dominated by the likes of soulless hair bands, and Madonna was continuously controversial because she wasn’t scared of sex. The alternative music movement didn’t go mainstream until Nirvana’s 1991 Nevermind and R.E.M.’s 1992 Automatic for the People.
Television was equally conformist. Drama was still dominated by things like 21 Jump Street and Mancuso, F.B.I. Miami Vice only came to an end in 1989, and Law and Order debuted in 1990. Baywatch was just getting started. Outside of the syndicated Star Trek: The Next Generation, TV sci-fi was represented by shows like Quantum Leap, Alien Nation, and Knight Rider 2000. Seinfeld debuted in 1989, but TV comedy was still dominated by shows closer to Alf, Mama’s Family, and Newhart – all of which came to an end in 1990. Full House and Family Matters were big successes, and In Living Color seemed like a remarkable breath of fresh air. It was in this context that The Simpsons, which debuted at the very end of 1989, was seen as transgressive; people thought a kid who said “eat my shorts” was outrageous. Soon, we’d all be discussing whether Murphy Brown was literally destroying the American family by featuring an intelligent, successful woman having a child without a man around. Reality TV was just getting started, with shows like Rescue 911, and original programming on cable TV was remarkably limited.
It was in this context that Twin Peaks felt like a revelation. You could literally watch the most tired sort of network pabulum, and then watch a moody show that could end with the characters talking backwards and dancing with a midget.
People loved Twin Peaks because it was so different. I know. I was there. And I was a Twin Peaks fan. I even bought all the merchandise.
This isn’t to minimize what Twin Peaks represented. Managed by David Lynch, Twin Peaks was an early example of movie people working on television, previously seen as not only beneath motion pictures but as toxic to movie careers even through association. The show as shot more like a movie, with an evocative soundtrack. Originally, the show was organized around a detective’s rather unconventional and even existential investigation into the murder of the young and beautiful Laura Palmer, but this was really an excuse to showcase the bizarre residents of the show’s small-town Washington state setting.
Of course, the show didn’t last. The show was a phenomenon, largely because it was so different, but it largely eschewed the basics of character and plot. Subplots went nowhere; hell, the supposed “main” plot went nowhere, and there was no conventional character arc in sight. To say an awful lot on Twin Peaks made no sense would be charitable, but that wasn’t supposed to matter because the characters were so quirky and the sequences so interesting. And to be fair, several sequences were very interesting. But this was a continuing narrative, and as time went on, it became clear the show had contempt for the rudiments of narrative.
In many ways, these same descriptions largely apply to Lynch’s movies. But this wasn’t going to be a successful formula for network television, back when network viewership still represented significant percentages of the entire American population.
After ratings declined in the second season, ABC began to meddle. Many mocked the show for how long it took to solve the murder at the center of the show, so ABC had that solved – although the solution was pretty incoherent. The show had always flirted with soap operatic elements, especially with its quirky characters having sex and threatening each other. But by the show’s ending, any sense of parody was stripped away, leaving the show simply a slightly offbeat but truly terribly written soap opera.
If that was what you wanted, Beverly Hills 90210, which also debuted in 1990, was a lot better written, despite its far more conventional setting, characters, and plot. Sure, it was conventional, and it had no interest in challenging storytelling conventions. But at least it was coherent.
Northern Exposure also debuted in 1990. Like Twin Peaks, it featured an offbeat setting: rural Alaska, in the case of Northern Exposure. Its characters also had quirks, but they were more likely to be odd hobbies or mannerisms than murderous conspiracies. Northern Exposure also encountered the strange and unexpected, but characters might look out their window and see a moose wandering the streets, rather than a midget or someone drenched in blood. The show originally focused on a big-city doctor experiencing culture shock, but it shifted towards its eccentric larger cast. No one was magically transported to bizarre locations, and there was no secret prostitution or murder ring. Maybe this was less ambitious than Twin Peaks, but plots didn’t spin off uncontrollably, and Northern Exposure wound run running six seasons instead of Twin Peaks’s two.
Twin Peaks was followed in 1992 by a movie, subtitled Fire Walk with Me, which was panned by critics. It was both a prequel to the TV series and a sequel, jumping around in time, explaining some aspects of the series that were unexplained while changing others. Some fans of the series loved it; others hated it. Critics mostly hated it, finding the movie unrelentingly bleak. Those unfamiliar with the TV series needed footnotes to understand the movie’s many otherwise unexplained scenes, yet the movie couldn’t hope to wrap up all the dangling characters and subplots from the TV series.
Twin Peaks may be seen as one of those splendid failures, a noble experiment that crashed and burned. The show is neither coherent nor, if we’re honest with ourselves, actually very good, by almost any rubric one could devise. Its history was truncated and distorted. It doesn’t really work as a story or actually make sense. It contains a lot that’s evocative, and it’s certainly earned its place in TV history. But history is filled with TV shows and other artistic works that, while greatly influential, aren’t excellent, satisfying, or even complete as works of art.
Ultimately, Twin Peaks is a product of an era in which Ross Perot could become a sensation as an eccentric independent candidate in the 1992 election… before dropping out, while referring to wild conspiracies… before returning and ultimately winning a sizable chunk of the electorate. Ross Perot could have been a character on Twin Peaks. And he’s a symptom of how hungry America was, in those years, for something different. We were so hungry that a candidate like Ross Perot, who occasionally babbled incoherently while referring to charts and graphs, seemed like he might represent a legitimate new direction. And that’s what Twin Peaks was too.
Today, we live in a very different era. Cable TV dominates, and it’s provided room for a lot of artistic shows with offbeat settings. Movie stars and directors aren’t shy about associating with television anymore. Many shows relish in lavish cinematography and original scores that puts Twin Peaks to shame. The way the show relished launching evocative subplots, while rarely resolving anything, has become so commonplace through shows like Lost that it’s become a cliché. Even the idea of an unconventional detective investigating the brutal murder of a young girl has been redone, perhaps most successfully on the first season of True Detective.
As a result, we can look back and see Twin Peaks as a kind of trailblazer. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of confusing this with retroactively evaluating Twin Peaks as better than it was. It can’t begin to stand next to True Detective, or any number of prestige TV shows that have come and gone. You can blame this on increased budgets and how ABC interfered with Twin Peaks, but the show’s problems were there all along. Its cache stems largely from the fact that it debuted in 1990, when nothing like it was on American TV, thus allowing the show to be ahead of its time.
Well, that and the fact that it was made by David Lynch. Here too, it’s impossible to separate Twin Peaks from Lynch. In the 1980s, Lynch could also seem like a breath of fresh air. In retrospect, the 1980s was when Lynch made his most conventional narrative films, including 1980’s The Elephant Man, 1984’s Dune, and 1986’s Blue Velvet. After this, Lynch would shift away from narrative cohesion, which was actually a regression back towards his first film, 1977’s Eraserhead. He isn’t interested in telling a story, or in character as we understand it; he’s far more interested in evoking, and there’s a place for that. But his movies, like 2001’s Mulholland Drive, tend to be incoherent messes that are largely boring outside of a few key, visual or intellectually compelling sequences.
I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. I was horrified by our grandpa president and his incoherent utterances, his impeachable criminality, and his ignorance about nuclear war. And I still vividly remember waking up and going to “early bird” gym class, the day after the Gulf War had started on schedule, exactly like a TV series, and thinking that everyone, whether for or against, would be talking about it. Instead, I couldn’t provoke anyone to care that our country was at war. I remember going to stores that rented video tapes and discovering Lynch, along with plenty of other oddball stuff. I also remember sitting with my friends and sharing music on cassette tapes, and feeling like mainstream music held absolutely nothing for us until alternative and grunge appeared. In this context, David Lynch was a revelation. And so was Twin Peaks.
But that’s not our world anymore. It hasn’t been for a long, long time, if it really ever was. Once I got to college, I discovered movies like 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, which could eschew character and conventional narrative but still tell a kind of story – and which were far more visually compelling than Lynch’s films. Terrence Malick returned to directing in 1998, and his movies tend to be unconventional narratives that are far more wildly ambitious and beautiful and evocative and coherent thematic explorations than anything Lynch has produced. If you like stuff that takes you on a journey, even if not all the pieces fit together, there you go. Half of Soderbergh’s movies do the same thing, albeit with a bit more of a traditional focus on narrative and character. All of the themes for which Lynch is most famous, and which Twin Peaks explored, have been done better than others. Lynch’s use of eccentric and violent characters seems passé in a world in which Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is now over 20 years old; Tarantino has since produced several far superior films using such characters. Lynch’s fascination with the underbelly of rural America felt like a gut punch to Reagan’s absurd fetish for a 1950s picket-fence America that never existed, but rural America is rarely depicted anymore except with such underbellies. Today, Mad Men can feature a hallucinatory musical sequence, and it’s worth discussion but is neither shocking nor revolutionary.
The real function of David Lynch, if we’re honest, is as a cultural touchstone. In the same way that liking Woody Allen used to signal that someone was an intellectual, liking David Lynch used to indicate that someone was artistic. Mentioning David Lynch had nothing to do with the filmmaker or his work. It was a way of telling whether you were talking to someone who was open to different or unconventional kinds of art. If you mentioned David Lynch, half the people I knew in high school or college would say they loved his work, and I doubt many of them had seen much of his work, let alone like it. While it was airing, Twin Peaks was the kind of show most of my friends would list in their top TV shows, because they thought they should or because this lent artistic credibility to themselves and their other choices, but these same people mostly didn’t watch or enjoy Twin Peaks. If you wanted to signal that you weren’t a conformist and that you had disdain for most mainstream movies, all you had to do was praise David Lynch. And really, being such a touchstone is a remarkable accomplishment. But it shouldn’t be confused with producing good art, let alone good stories.
Today, Lynch is still such a touchstone, although I’d argue that Lynch, as a cultural signifier, now means something very different. It’s still a test. But outside of tentpole, big-budget, Hollywfood movies, there’s not much of artistic mainstream to rail against. Technology has fractured entertainment into a thousand niches. Meanwhile, the right might worship Reagan more than Jesus, but their kids have tattoos and piercings, and plenty of them list themselves as bisexual in dating profiles whether they are or aren’t. We elected Clinton in 1992, the year Fire Walk with Me came out, and the Clintons have had to run away from that presidency because it was absurdly far-right by today’s standards. Lynch always existed in opposition, but our choices have expanded so that it’s not a spectrum, with bland conformism on one side and artsy-fartsy crap no one really likes on the other – make your choice. Instead, there’s a wide array of choices, which leaves Lynch precisely nowhere… except as an indicator of whether one confuses incoherence with art.
A lot of people do. A lot of smart people do. Go to an academic conference, and you’ll hear an awful lot of theoretical jargon that doesn’t illuminate anything. In fact, when you know the jargon and decode what’s being said, it’s often remarkably simply and often actually at obvious odds with the subject being discussed. But such jargon makes simple observations seem complex and deep, and many people assume that if they don’t understand something, it must be intelligent.
And that’s what Lynch signifies: whether you can see through a few thematic lines of dialogue, and a few intoxicating visuals, to realize there’s no much there.
Lynch and his movies haven’t changed. If you asked me or my friends, back in the day, what we liked about Lynch, the top answer was always that he was different. My friends who still like Lynch today would by and large give the same answer. It’s just that we have more options now, in which it’s possible to be both different and good. Those who still praise Lynch tend to be people who confuse the two.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a virtue in being different. I’m glad Lynch is still making art. I’m not someone who gets mad that art I don’t care for exists. And if you really enjoy Lynch, that’s awesome. I mean that. I am glad whenever people enjoy art, even if it’s art I think isn’t very good, or is too mainstream, or is dumb, or is faux-artistic, or anything else. I’m pro-joy and pro-art.
But a revival of Twin Peaks? Sure, it’s a classic TV show, and there have been revivals of both Dallas and 90210, so why not? But Twin Peaks is so rooted in its time, in a particular cultural moment that’s long since passed. And there’s neither a story that needs to be continued nor a sense of untapped potential that might be captured this time around. If anything, Lynch wanted to avoid wrapping up plotlines more than ABC forced him to, and Lynch’s most fondly remembered movies were his most commercial 1980s ones, on which he was at least forced to bow to the idea of narrative.
But who knows? Perhaps Lynch has finally found his medium, and the diversity and creative freedom of cable TV is now so great that it has a place for Lynch, alongside dozens of other interesting shows. Perhaps Twin Peaks deserves revival, now that we’re in a cable-TV environment more in tune with the original show’s intentions. I’m sure the result will be more interesting than several critically acclaimed but overrated shows. I’d certainly prefer a new season of Twin Peaks to, I don’t know, another batch of Blue Bloods episodes, or of far worse nonsense like Wife-Swapping Bootleggers (I made that up). But with due respect, that can’t be the standard. There’s no reason to suspect the result will actually be good, and there’s no reason to want to see more Twin Peaks.
Besides, isn’t getting excited about a beloved but outdated show’s revival, purely on that basis, a product of the kind of corporate-worshiping culture that people like Twin Peaks for going against?
Now, a remake of Wild Palms? That I might get cautiously excited about. Someone tell Showtime.