In the late 1980s, American TV networks were on the hunt. Advertisers were trying to attract those with disposable income, which in terms of a TV demographic meant the fairly intelligent, fairly affluent middle. What that demographic responded to, they reasoned, were high production values, involved storylines, and lofty concepts; the ingredients that led to conversations over the water cooler in the office for days after. The ABC network in particular had need of a show that generated that sort of buzz, occupying third place in the race of the three main networks. It was this humdrum hunt for viewing figures and advertising dollars that gave rise to a show about incestuous rape, the interpretation of dreams, teenage prostitution, the plight of the Tibetan people, drugs and pornography, coffee and pie – in other words, all the things that auteur David Lynch thought went on behind the respectable facade of small-town America.
It was suggested that Lynch adapt his vision of life behind white picket fences for the small screen, an idea that interested Lynch very quickly. However, asking the man who directed Blue Velvet to reproduce Desperate Housewives’ scurrilous scandalscape was always going to be like handing Michelangelo a can of magnolia and asking him if he wouldn’t mind running a roller around the ceiling. The hook was the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer; the 50lb line, the continued shenanigans of the inhabitants of Twin Peaks, a fictional town close to the US/Canada border. Looking through the eyes of Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper (a self-introduction as iconic as the diacopic “Bond, James Bond”) we uncover the dramas and intrigues that Lynch and co-conspirator Mark Frost always intended to be the main course.
Extramarital affairs? Twin Peaks has them in spades. Double, triple and quadruple-crossing business deals? Tick, tick, tick. Murder, drug-running, prostitution, brothels, arson, extortion, kidnapping, even a coma victim that suddenly comes back to life with murderous intent – it’s all there. Lynch’s genius lies in adding the surreal to the mundane, so that the two become intertwined, and in some ways it’s the mundane that starts to stand out whilst the viewer becomes habituated to the supernatural. It’s a gift that Lynch shares with Haruki Murakami, whose novel ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage’ is released in its English translation this week.
Once the surreal aspects are introduced, Twin Peaks really starts to soar; but at the same time, they’re the signs that the show was cancelled too early. For example, we learn that Mike and BOB were spirits that used to kill together, inhabiting other people’s bodies to do so, but we don’t learn enough of their background to understand where they come from or why they were driven to do that. Twin Peaks has many such issues, large and small. Who was Mrs Tremond, really, and what was her purpose? Why does Josie appear to be trapped inside a wooden drawer handle? Were the messages that Major Briggs intercepted really from space? The giant, the Little Man from Another Place, the Black Lodge and the White Lodge – all enduring and to some extent unanswered mysteries.
The se/prequel film ‘Fire Walk With Me’ did little to answer such questions, which was one of the reasons it met with little critical acclaim beyond the Twin Peaks fandom. Other supporting material, such as books that represented Laura’s secret diary and Cooper’s tapes, rather add to the mysteries than provide any answers. David Lynch’s refusal to re-enter the Twin Peaks universe – even to allow anyone else to, vetoing a proposed graphic novel that would have accompanied the latest box set – means that answers are unlikely to be provided. It’s this very uncertainty that provides Twin Peaks with its enduring appeal, with fan conventions still being organised and a very engaged fanbase looking forward to the release of this box set.
The parallels with other shows are clear. LOST, most notably, is the most recent show to have provided a similar experience. Just as LOST fails to provide almost any answers, and a fanbase willing to dispute any answers given by the show and propose a myriad of their own, so it is with Twin Peaks. But where LOST was allowed to run to a conclusion (of sorts – it depends whether you like the ending) Twin Peaks was cancelled early, having been forced by the network to reveal Laura’s killer against their will. Whereas the LOST writers always claimed to know the answers and how the show would end, there were no such guarantees with Twin Peaks.
LOST is the Waterfall model, with the start, middle and end known from the outset and only the steps in the journey left to describe. Twin Peaks is Agile development; happy to reconsider and modify its approach on a whim, looking to include and take advantage of any event. Sheryl Lee, who played Laura Palmer, was never intended to have a regular role – Lynch was looking for a local actress to play the corpse, and it was only when they filmed the home movie picnic scene with Donna Heyward (Lara Flynn Boyle) did Lynch realise her onscreen presence. Similarly Frank Silva, a set dresser, accidentally appeared in a shot reflected in a mirror in the Palmer household, and Lynch liked his mysterious and dangerous look and decided he should play BOB from that point on.
While shows such as LOST continue the tradition, it’s not to Twin Peaks that the debt is owed. That honour really goes to the Patrick McGoohan vehicle ‘The Prisoner’, and it’s clear to see the values that run through these three shows – high production values, a great cast, a lot of mystery (that’s never fully explained), and so on. It’s interesting to speculate on shows that have tried to follow the same model and failed – “Flash Forward” and “Jericho” are two that spring to mind. If we take “Jericho” as an example, it’s clear to see that that show failed because it failed to explore the main mystery in the first few shows beyond an occasional mention, leading to plummeting viewing figures. Whilst the show’s central premise had promise – the idea of a massive, coordinated nuclear attack on many of America’s main cities – the show concentrated on living with the aftermath at the expense of solving the main mystery, and clearly viewers were not that interested in two groups of (fairly shallow) characters arguing over limited salt supplies.
This box set represents the pinnacle of Twin Peaks fandom. All the remastered episodes – which look terrific – are there, along with the Log Lady introductions from the original VHS release. It’s the extras that really elevate this offering, from the interviews with crew, cast and characters to the massive amounts of previously unseen material that was shot and never used for Fire Walk With Me. As a present for a Twin Peaks fan, well, they probably had it on pre-order for the last year anyway. But for those new to Twin Peaks, this box set represents around 40 hours of the oddest and most compulsive viewing that the small screen has to offer, and it rewards multiple viewings.