Welcome To Twin Peaks

 

 

I vivdly remember the first time I saw Twin Peaks. Even though it was longer ago than I would care to consider, the impact of this odd, little show was so discombobulating that the thought of it still judders. I was at home in my parents’ house and it was around 9pm on a school night. There had been a lot of feverish talk in the press about this bizarre blend of murder mystery, soap opera and esoteric thriller which had already caused quite the stir in America and was due to do the same over here. Being a precocious young man with an eye for the unusual I knew that I had to check it out.Showtime came, I had my homework done for the night (I say that but I know that I probably hadn’t bothered doing my homework), and I was nestled into a comfy chair. Little did I know the level of weirdness which was about to slap me in the face. Had I seen any of David Lynch’s work at that point then I might have girded my loins but I was entering virgin territory here. I hadn’t previously followed any television series with any great enthusiasm or interest so was unprepared for how consuming the medium could be. It was probably the first long-running serial on which I became really hooked. This was in the days before DVD box-sets (or DVDs, for that matter) and bit-torrent so you really did have to wait until the following week if you wanted to know what happened next.

It’s been said many, many times before but Twin Peaks was really, really weird. And it got weirder and weirder as the show went on. From spirits trapped in doorknobs to a dancing, backwards gabbling dwarf to a malevolent, denim-clad demon… it’s safe to say that there was nothing else on television quite like it – and there probably hasn’t been since.

I recently wrote a piece on the show to tie in with the release of the long-delayed release of season two on DVD. The funny thing is that I hadn’t watched the programme since it originally aired but it is remarkably clear in my mind nonetheless. I can recall scenes and entire episodes without too much effort. I am not the biggest David Lynch fan. In fact, as I have grown older and perhaps more conservative in my tastes I have become less keen to watch his movies, which are for the most part incredibly unpleasant and salacious. Twin Peaks, however, was tempered by the fact that it was made for a network, so Lynch had to rein in the truly outre material.

It’s still pretty weird, mind you…

AND THEN I SEE A DARKNESS: TWENTY YEARS OF TWIN PEAKS

 It begins, as all good stories begin, with the discovery of a dead body. But from there spirals a bizarre, evil-eyed conundrum that Quincy, Ironside and not even Columbo could never unravel. The man for the job is Agent Dale Cooper, a boy scout with a Dictaphone and an eye for detail. Little does he know what kind of bloody, tarry suckhole he is getting himself into. The tall, twisted redwood which grew out of this poisoned acorn was a watermark of weird which the medium never reached again. Now that the second season of Twin Peaks has finally  been liberated on DVD, it seems fitting to pay another visit. Point your compasses to the American Northwest via the Land of Oz.

It has become one of the most iconic images in television history: a dead girl’s body, wrapped in opaque plastic like a department store gift, carefully placed on lakeside shingle, her face flecked with wet hair and sea glitter. The image is at once disturbing and oddly beautiful – corpses don’t normally appear so alluring, so artfully arranged. Her face, only slightly blue-tinged, seems at peace, liberated from whichever terrible night led up to her current state. The adroitly paced sequence of scenes which follows makes for phenomenal filmmaking. The news spreads around the eponymous town slowly, painfully, lapping from one inhabitant to another in black, oily waves. Not only is this an economical way of introducing the cast and familiarising us with the location’s geography; it’s also a humdinger of a cold open. The emotional wallop is palpable: as the event is reported with the gravitas that accompanies a dead president, we see people weeping, breaking, biting their fists, dropping the receiver. Laura Palmer – daughter, friend, girl next door – is dead.Twin Peaks, population around 50,000 if you also count the demons and ghosts, is about to be torn apart.

When Twin Peaks debuted on American screens in 1990, Time magazine proudly proclaimed that television would never be the same again – big words for a medium which makes a nice accompaniment to a sit-down and a jammy biscuit. But they were right: audiences were hooked by a premise which recalled the “Who Shot JR?” from the previous decade. The answer, revealed through diary entries, dreams and incantations, was probably not what they were expecting. It was disturbing enough that Laura Palmer, a sweetheart homecoming queen with a face and figure that could make Solomon forfeit his wisdom, was tangled up with pimps, truck drivers and drug dealers. How could they have imagined that she was being abused on a nightly basis by an evil spirit called “Bob”? Or that her soul was trapped in an alternate dimension with maroon curtains, zigzag carpets and a backwards dancing dwarf?

Darkness is never too far away inTwin Peaks. From the lumber mills and roadside diners pictured in the show’s titles to the fifties throwbacks who populate them, on the surface this appears to be a place caught out of time, a genial postcard envisioned by Walt Disney. But beneath every porch, behind every Norman Rockwell painting, inside every coffee cup, evil is lurking. There’s something not quite right about the way a ceiling fan whirrs, the way the trees bend in the ghostly breeze that comes with the gloaming. Like Silent Hill or Eerie,Indiana, this town teeters on the crumbling edge of a fantasy of anAmericathat never was and never could be. Ben Horne, the department store magnate and richest man for miles around, also runs and frequents the brothel One-Eyed Jack’s. Dr. Lawrence Jacoby might seem like a bumbling psychiatrist, but his obsession with Laura Palmer drives him to break all manner of medical codes of practice. Everyone inTwin Peakshas their nasty little secrets. Everyone has a skeleton or two in the closet – except the skeletons are real.

It isn’t surprising that this cracked pot tumbled out of the bongo brain of David Lynch, the Jimmy Cagney from Mars who previously made Blue Velvet, an equally disquieting whodunit which opened with shots of white picket fence America before panning down to fill the screen with beetles scuttling in the grass. Teaming up with Mark Frost, famous for his work on the much more straightforward Hill Street Blues, Lynch indulged himself with the ABC network’s budget. Even by his most avant-garde standards, it took extraordinary chutzpah to push the narrative boat out as far as he did – into the middle of the lake, before setting it on fire. In the second season, Twin Peaks grew even odder, involving time wormholes, Laura’s doppelganger cousin Maddy (hello, Hitchcock), and the long-awaited revelation of Bob’s true identity. The twist is a doozy which not even the psychic Log Lady could foresee, one which pulled both the audience and television to a place it had never dared venture before. The episode ranks among the most upsetting and resonant spectacles ever to have been transmitted.

It’s a shame that it was around this point that Twin Peaks began haemorrhaging viewers. Most sane people don’t like ice cream cones laced with salt, so bailed out when the show started to get too freaky when good-natured Dale Cooper – in effect a carbon copy of Lynch – lost himself in the Black and White Lodges. If it was kooky, undemanding fun they were after, they could always tune in for Northern Exposure over on CBS. The show limped to its season finale, avoiding cancellation thanks to a barrage of heavy petitioning from “Peaks Freaks”. Some questions were answered in the big screen outing Fire, Walk With Me (1992), but for many the film was much too violent and unpleasant to suffer the entire way through. In comparison with Twin Peaks on television, which took bubblegum clichés and dirtied up their bobby socks, the movie was all sour and no sweet.

For the fans, it was the bold and brave cliffhanger conclusion to the telly version which acted as both a typically leftfield sign-off and a two-fingered salute to the mainstream. The good guys don’t win the day, and part of Dale Cooper gets stuck within the Black Lodge. If you make it all the way to the end of season two, part of you will be stuck there with him. We may never see the like of Twin Peaks again.

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