On Continually Revisiting Twin Peaks

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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 ExposureTwin 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.*

Like a lot of Gen X’ers in high school during the early ‘90s, a typical evening for me was about experimenting with drugs both illegal and smart, getting high, and thumbing through a copy of Adbusters with aspirations of being a “culture jammer.” It was emphatically not sitting in front of the (still at that time) cathode ray boob tube. I’m not suggesting I was unusual in this regard—exactly the opposite. This was during the Gulf War, and counter culture was simply more mainstream, less “counter.” Granted my family lived in Seattle, but in protest to the war there was a walk-out that involved the entire high school system. We were radicalized, politicized, and deeply confused. Even when MTV’s Liquid Television premiered in late 1991, its “zany” non sequitur ethos was viewed with extreme skepticism—the way someone who really, really, really wants to be your friend is viewed. Which made the reception and success of Twin Peaks all the more remarkable.

In his (also) 1995 essay entitled “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace writes convincingly that Lynch is a filmmaker heavily influenced by the tradition of expressionist art, in which what is portrayed doesn’t gesture out beyond the film as representation, but back inside the director’s head to an inner landscape of thoughts and feelings, and that this, in part, is how his films achieve their power: “The extent (large) to which Lynch seems to identify with his movies’ main characters is one more thing that makes the films so disturbingly ‘personal.’”

It’s definitely hard to ignore the similarities between Special Agent Dale Cooper and Lynch himself: both exceedingly polite in a kind of quaint, retro way, both fascinated by the supernatural (Cooper is drawn to Tibetan Buddhism, Lynch to Transcendental Meditation), both Eagle Scouts. But if we look at Lynch’s work from an expressionist perspective, I think we need to look at Cooper not as a character in the traditional, rounded sense, but as one color (albeit primary) among others in the palette Lynch used to while filming in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. In other words, it’s not just the main characters, but all the players that Lynch identifies with, who together express a kind of chorus for the moods and messages Lynch is signaling from whatever deeply personal reserve is the source for his visions. His oeuvre is not one of story-telling so much as it is self-portraiture, and this is what was perhaps the most striking thing about Twin Peaks: you didn’t feel like the point was to sympathize with the characters. The point was to empathize with the director.

This is why no single Twin Peaks character or subset of characters has a monopoly on the insight and truth telling that pushes the narrative forward in epiphanic leaps. No one who has read Lynch’s 2006 memoir about creativity called Catching the Big Fish would doubt, for instance, that the Log Lady and her log are also projections of the director, of the Lynch-as-half-mad-seer that he must infrequently recognize in people’s responses to him or his ideas.

Perhaps the best early example of this comes in the third episode of the first season, “Rest in Pain,” at Laura Palmer’s funeral. Until this point, we are told by nearly every character in the show what a surprise Laura’s death was, and yet her spurned boyfriend Bobby Briggs, a meat-headed drug-dealer jock who basically did everything Laura asked, flashes an insight that arguably sets the larger thematics of the show in motion by implicating the entire town in her death, saying, “You want to know who killed Laura? You did!”

What seems like a juvenile projection of guilt actually gains gravity over time because, as the show goes on to explore, the “good people” of Twin Peaks are indeed involved in various ways in the machinations having lead inexorably to the prom queen’s death. Of course, because this is Lynch, they are also victims of dark, elemental forces that, as Deputy Hawk tells us in season two, are “as old as the woods themselves.” In due course nearly all the characters contribute something, and it’s usually out of nowhere, and in ways that take on increasingly new and different meanings as the show unfolds, upsetting any easy or clear classification of how character arcs are supposed to behave.

All of which is to say that the excitement and thrill of watching Twin Peaks back then was twofold: it was the discovery, first of all, of someone who “gets it,” and it was proof that this type of someone could jam culture on a truly massive scale.

*

By 1995 I was attending college in a small town in the Midwest, the kind of environment that isolated students from nearly everything familiar, forced them together in strange combinations, and inspired dubious and unnatural ways of coping. I remember being oddly moved by the following coping mechanism practiced by a woman down the hall from me in my dorm: She would watch movies the way other people listen to music. The TV would just be on, and though she wasn’t paying attention she’d look up now and then, right before a scene she loved, and speak the lines like someone singing along to a chorus of their favorite tune. Somewhat predictably, her tastes revolved around the John Hughes oeuvre, which I hadn’t yet come to appreciate, and though it wasn’t the kind of overt, self-destructive act that made headlines in our college weekly (Student Found Walking Through Back-campus While Naked in Below Freezing Temperature; Student Climbs to Top of Radio Tower and Refuses to Come Down; etc.), I found the behavior intriguing and strange. How could she watch the same program over and over, the narratives becoming almost a second, parallel reality to her own? It works for small children because they’re learning for the first time to see their own lives as story. But for a young adult? It didn’t make sense to me at the time, but it turns out I just hadn’t found the right show.

I began rewatching Twin Peaks in 2005, after moving to another place of isolation that inspires dubious and unnatural ways of coping: New York City. And although I’ve since found friendship and love in this place, I’ve never stopped re-watching. It’s not the kind of feverish binge that Netflix has become famous for promoting, nor is it really methodical. It’s just there, a kind of pleasant background noise that I can tune in and out of. Like a lot of people James Franco knows (according to a recent article in Vice), I keep returning to that small sawmill town with its shenanigans and backstabbings and double crossings and general soap operatics. But whereas Franco seems satisfied to cite our current obsession with season-long mysteries as the source for the groundswell in Twin Peaks interest, for me—and I have to believe other Gen X’ers out there returning to the show—it’s due to something deeper and more complex.

Larry McMurtry, author, bookstore owner, and now-famous rereader in part thanks to this oft-quoted admission, wrote in an essay for New York Review of Books, “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change. When I sit down at dinner with a given book, I want to know what I’m going to find.”

No doubt. But the act of rewatching performs another function as well. It stitches the re-watcher’s present time and place together with the time and place of the original watching, and the narrative begins to act as a kind of medium for the memories evoked, which become distorted by nostalgia in weird and revealing ways.

In the summer of ‘95 I was home from college after having abandoned the “college project” and in true slacker form I moved in with a friend, got a part time job in the kitchen of a fancy-for-Seattle brunch spot, and just basically hung out and put off making any big decisions.

I remember that time as faultlessly, eerily clear and warm, the middle class neighborhood we lived in lousy with gardens and toddlers and dogs. My friends and I were all on the cusp of adulthood, which meant many still lived with parents but everyone had cars and jobs and a little money, and though there were plenty of drugs (though “smart drugs” had completed their very short pop culture life cycle even by then), I had even more free time than I could fill with getting and being and coming down from being high, so apparently I rented the Twin Peaks box set, one VHS tape at a time, and plowed through it.

I say “apparently,” because this isn’t how I remember it at all. I remember or seem to remember flipping back and forth between televised footage of Operation Desert Storm and Twin Peaks while house-sitting with Mylinh, my then-girlfriend, who would go on to live with my friend Brady in the basement of my parents’ house and join a weird Kung Fu cult until Brady became a junkie and she moved to Vietnam. I remember Brady confessing to me that he’d been in love with Mylinh throughout our relationship, and that he’d hated me for the way I took her for granted.

Brady was kind of an adopted brother in our family. He’d been living with his father who worked nights, introduced us to Steely Dan, and once slept with one of our friends from high school. From my perspective, Brady had an enviable degree of freedom. From his, I think his life lacked support. Brady stayed with us for a year or so during high school, slowly grinding down my father’s patience with his huge appetite and underdeveloped self-confidence. My father, who at the time praised self-reliance above all else could not stand the way Brady would ask permission for everything. But my dad’s obvious irritability only exacerbated Brady’s self-doubt, so the pattern reinforced itself until, of course, we all packed up and went on a four month sailing trip to Mexico where the real meltdowns and confrontations could take place, a trip that ultimately resulted in my mother flying home early to return to work, my brother moving into a small shack on the property of a local fisherman, me flying straight to college (see above re: Midwest isolation), my father having an affair with a vacationing grad student studying politics in D.C., and Brady being asked to mule a bunch of coke back to the States by train.

But Brady wasn’t the only friend of mine taken in by my family. Before him there was Dan. Dan’s family life was more stable than Brady’s, but he personally was more unstable than Brady, so it balanced out. Whereas Brady had simply “moved out,” it would be safe to say that Dan had “run away” just a few years earlier to live within the anti-war vigil at Gas Works Park. Fancying himself a sort of raffish vagabond, a modern day Dickensian street hustler, Dan only condescended to moonlight back in the middle class banality of my home after having been hit by a car while high on acid and winding up with a broken ankle. Having responded to his distress signal, my father used the occasion of driving Dan to the hospital as a chance to share the story of the time his testicle, crushed in a football tackle, swelled to the size of a grapefruit. It is a story, complete with my father’s stutter and gesticulations, Dan repeats to this day.

In other words, rewatching Twin Peaks opens a window not to a lazy summer in ‘95, but to a torrent of dramas that spanned everywhere from the beginning to the end of the decade, and paints a group of somewhat indelicate people being anything but tuned-out or shut-in. It evokes memories of my disillusioned and reckless Gen X cohorts in actual, fleshy contact with the dangerous, unfamiliar, and unplugged—much like the teens of Twin Peaks.

*

The word melodrama is derived from the Greek melos, meaning music, and the French drame, meaning what it sounds like, and what it originally described was literally drama set to music. I think it’s interesting how straight a line exists between this basic origin story and what immediately comes to mind when the word is used today: the big, overblown emotions, stereotypical characters, and the broad themes of betrayal, love lost, and so on. Though it’s picked up a lot of baggage in the two centuries since the word was coined, it’s still impossible to imagine melodrama without that soaring string section. In effect, definition has become synecdoche.

A longtime collaborator with Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti composed the soundtrack to Twin Peaks, and what’s so impressive about the melodrama is also perfectly enacted by its music. Because the central Good vs. Evil dynamic within Twin Peaks hinges on a central Fall From Grace (Laura), there is alive throughout the action a palpable sense of Before and After. In episode after episode, characters face or propagate the menace of the Now/Near Future while indulging in nostalgia for the What Once Was. And in large part thanks to the Badalamenti’s score, this high wire act of scheming and reminiscence is played out with incredible economy within one short scene.

Ben Horne is the stock local business magnate and all-around capitalist. He’s the kind of character who doesn’t show up a lot in Lynch’s work—a man who’s amoral but not really interestingly evil, per se, too caught up in pedestrian deceit to be truly transgressive. But in the second episode his brother Jerry comes home from a trip and disturbs the family dinner with sandwiches from Paris. Two bites in, Ben is swooning over the “baguette with brie and butter” and finally exclaims excitedly through a mouthful of food, “You know what this reminds us of? You know what [unintelligible]? It reminds us of Jenny and Jenny down by the river!”

Jerry agrees and the mood is light and giddy, and they peel off from the dining room into a hallway where Ben shares with his brother two pieces of exceptionally bad news, one being Laura’s murder, at which point the mood predictably takes a hit. But not for long! As a tonic, Ben tells Jerry that there’s a “new girl at One Eyed Jacks.” The first-time viewer doesn’t know from One Eyed Jacks, but now the mood is again up-tempo. Whereas before there was no diegetic or non-diegetic sound accompanying the onstage glee, however, now we hear the first low electric brooding strings of “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” a sure sign that whatever One Eyed Jacks holds in store is pretty shady indeed. And so there you have, within about three minutes, an amazingly broad spectrum of the show’s hang-ups and conflicts offered up brie and butter style: the innocent sexual exploits of youth turned corrupt, the familiar (Good) gone strange (Evil).

What does this remind us of?

All our own Jenny and Jennies, of course. All the encounters that seemed somewhat risky, a bit dangerous at the time and now appear simply and refreshingly foolish. Like the time I had sex with my girlfriend Mia by candlelight in the oversized bathtub at a party, and our friend Daniel came in to serenade us on guitar. Daniel had been my frenemy until that point, at one time kicking me out of his house for the astonishingly dickish move of ashing my cigarette on his head. He went on to study classical guitar at Yale and make the rest of us look bad.

And the time my friend Dan (while he was living at my parents’ house) and I wound up having a playful threeway with that same girlfriend only to have my father burst into the bedroom, yank the covers off of us, and call us “sick” before storming back downstairs. Our embarrassment turned almost immediately into disdain, and we marched ourselves right downstairs after him and into the night, but not before yelling at him as we left, “You’re the sick one!” Mia wound up sleeping with a much older man who owned a bookstore in the University District and gave her a first edition copy of Alice in Wonderland worth 20k. We broke up shortly thereafter.

And the time I ran off to Port Townsend with my friend Gunther, where we spent a weekend breaking into houses and sleeping in an abandoned trailer. All we wound up with was a couple jars full of change, but I woke one night to find his hand down my pants. Gunther and I hotwired my parents’ car and drove it first to San Francisco where we bought a bunch of acid, then to Maryland, where we thought we’d get a good deal for it. Not two weeks would go by before I was being bailed out of juvie by my mother, and helping her hotwire the car every morning on our very awkward drive back to Seattle from Wisconsin.

I revel in these memories not simply for the innocence they now seem to represent, but for the way they seem to gesture toward the possibility of a life dramatically different than the one I’m living now. There’s no dead prom queen. There’s no One Eyed Jacks. But as I gain weight and hump off to my job helping people sell useless crap, an ominous string section starts to swell with its own set of implications, more banal if no less eschatological. And this, finally, is perhaps why we Gen X’ers are returning to this show now, why it feels so important to us at the cusp of middle age: we’re again facing truths as substantial as those we faced on the precipice of adulthood. Our parents are dying. Our babies are being born. Our health is becoming something other than adjectival. Looking forward from this point, it’s not difficult to see why our youthful frolics—charged with unpredictability as they seemed at the time—would be appealing to revisit. And Twin Peaks, more then any other show of its era, is the perfect medium for that reminiscence.

Leslie Jamison’s essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” circles around the core metaphor of sugar substitute as sentimentality to show how both cause suspicion because in both cases our pleasure is unearned. It’s a terrific essay, but the author misses a pretty neat opportunity to complicate the dynamic even further with science. There’s mounting evidence suggesting that the body responds to artificial sweeteners in all kinds of messed up ways, including a stimulated appetite and compromised ability to control it. In the presence of these sweeteners, the body redoubles its efforts to ingest real calories as though they’re opening up holes the body needs to fill.

That same thing happens when we rewatch Twin Peaks. The yearning arises as we get riled up alongside Bobby Briggs’  j’accuse routine, or reminisce with the Horne brothers, or weep with Laura’s mother, played by the excellently cast “Amazing Grace” Zabrinski, after she learns of her daughter’s death. Who are we really getting choked up about? Or better yet: what? The high emotion, empty calories, and fraught nostalgia of the show make it a perfect vessel for the sweetness, sadness, and resignation of our memories. We become the actors, dredging up our own stories, picking our scabs to bleed for the act of watching. The show itself becomes a more intimate show-within-a-show, and provides a window, a decent if abstracted overview of the shenanigans and general soapiness of our own high school years. What we once watched to admire the man behind it, we now embrace to inhabit the dark, pliant husks of its characters. Their unearned emotion becomes earned. David Lynch’s soaring self-portrait has finally, twenty years after its inception, become our own.

Shya Scanlon is the author of Forecast, Border Run, and In This Alone Impulse. His novel The Guild of St. Cooper will be published by Dzanc in March, 2015.