A FRIEND CALLED ME, excited, last October after David Lynch announced that Twin Peaks would return to TV in 2016. The two of us had spent hours discussing the show, trying to solve its mysteries and considering how to adapt various items of clothing into a Log Lady Halloween costume. I wanted to share in her enthusiasm, badly. But I mostly just felt frustrated. Like Lost or Sex and the City or Dexter, a once-great show that overstays its welcome is a depressing prospect. And Twin Peaks was well past its prime when it was cancelled after two seasons.
At its best, Twin Peaks was utterly compelling and wildly inventive. But at its worst it could be a nonsensical, meandering absurdity—and towards the end, it usually was. The series frequently brutalized women and discarded any notion of character continuity or development in favour of the surreal. Even worse, for a show that relied so consistently on the unsettling, it could be shockingly dull. Despite its undeniable creative accomplishments, Twin Peaks was far too uneven to deserve the hallowed position its cultish devotees have carved out for it in the pantheon of contemporary pop culture.
EXPECTATIONS FOR THE NEW SEASON were lowered significantly in early April, when David Lynch announced his withdrawal from the project over a financial dispute with Showtime, and then raised back up to impossible heights in May, when he declared he would return after all. Whether these squabbles are officially over is still unclear, but if Lynch does go on to write and direct the reboot, he’ll have a lot to live up to.
Many of the show’s fans explain away its faults by casting Lynch in the role of martyr; his greatness constantly suppressed by soulless, number-crunching network hacks. But a close examination of the original episodes reveals the creator to be an inspired but often stubborn artist whose vision, even when uncompromised, was far from perfect.
Twin Peaks started off as a murder mystery, but it became immediately evident that this was vastly different from a formulaic TV procedural. The town’s inhabitants were strange, almost unearthly. Dale Cooper, the FBI agent in charge of the murder investigation, used visions from his dreams to help solve the case. There’s a sheriff named Harry S. Truman; Lynch himself played a hard-of-hearing FBI agent; “the owls are not what they seem”; all of these wonderful, idiosyncratic details contributed to an alluringly demented atmosphere. But it’s easy toorget how soon the brilliance of those first few episodes began to fade. In our collective memory, the show was always as fascinating and enigmatic as it was at its start. But in reality, Twin Peaks frequently lost its focus.
The show’s surreal elements, initially used to charming effect, began to grate as the series dragged on. Ambiguity is not itself a problem, and Lynch is not the filmmaker anyone seeks out for closure or neat explanations. But viewers grow frustrated when it seems almost useless to even try to make sense of the plot. Why bother caring about a hieroglyph discovered inside a cave when we understand so little of everything else that’s happened? These kinds of things are easier to accept when you have confidence in the show’s narrative ability. But the declining quality of Twin Peaks’ storytelling seemed less like a celebration of chaos and weirdness, and more like the people in charge were just doing any old thing they could get away with. And it’s probably worth noting that the first season—the one so many defend as one of the greatest TV seasons of all time—consisted of only eight episodes.
MANY TWIN PEAKS DEVOTEES parrot the same defence for the show’s decline: it veered off the rails only when Lynch himself was not in total creative control. Apparently the network compromised his vision when they forced him to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer, which he had never intended to do. But as Scott MacDonald wrote in an October 2014 National Post article, the hypothesis about network intervention may not even be accurate. MacDonald situates the show’s descent into craziness (of the non-entertaining variety) at the beginning of season two, when Lynch still had creative control. (The infamous reveal of the murderer’s identity didn’t take place until episode seven of the season’s twenty-two-episode run.) MacDonald’s main gripe is with Lynch’s complete disregard for character continuity: at this point, both Laura’s father, Leland Palmer, and her friend Donna Hayward underwent massive, unexplained personality changes.
Even if we buy into the oft-repeated argument that Lynch’s narrative was hijacked, the decline is, frankly, still shocking. Being coerced into changing the show’s direction would be damaging, surely, but does it follow that a show about a town coping with a murder would become near-unwatchable after the killer was identified? The reveal didn’t answer all the questions about Laura’s death, or provide closure of any kind. There were so many lines of inquiry Lynch could have taken at this stage—about Laura, about her killer, about the impact this revelation would have on a town like this one. But instead, the most interesting characters were shunted aside to make room for new additions and give an alarming amount of screen time to the least interesting elements of the first season. Lucy Moran, the police secretary, for instance, is a great secondary character, with her propensity to over-explain and a voice that suggests the recent inhalation of helium. But what’s entertaining in small doses doesn’t always work when placed front and centre; few people will ondly remember the extended subplot of her surprise pregnancy and attempt to determine paternity. A similarly tedious plot point involved James Hurley, the motorcycle-riding loner who had been boyfriend to both Laura and Donna. He was relegated to a stale solo journey and a romantic involvement with a black widow type. The whole thing attempted neo-noir but played out with all the subtlety of a hammer to the face. Some other things that happened during the second season that you’ve probably tried to forget: Agent Cooper got a love interest in the form of an ex-nun played by Heather Graham and engaged in a “deathly chess game” against his former FBI partner, and (white, female) Catherine Martell spent several episodes undercover as a Japanese businessman.
Overall, post-reveal, Lynch comes off less as an artist unable to fulfill a vision and more as a showrunner who’s given up completely. Capitulating to the network’s demands, infuriating as that must have been, wouldn’t have ruined the show if its other plots—those eerie, nebulous tangles of story that were tangential to Laura’s murder—had been treated with care and continuity. Audrey Horne as a shrewd but vulnerable teenager experimenting with the performance of different roles; Leo Johnson as an often quiet but intensely menacing villain; Pete Martell expressing some bizarre but ultimately comforting thoughts in careful cadence: these were characters written with wit and nuance, acted out with skill and sensitivity, and then relegated to the sidelines in favour of Billy Zane and nonsensical cave symbols. And most crucially, if Lynch’s original intention was to let the murder remain unsolved, wouldn’t he have been forced to move new characters and subplots to the foreground anyway? With or without network intervention, surely a director as creative and commanding as Lynch could have come up with something better than deadly chess.
THOUGH THE DECLINE WAS SHARP after the first season, Twin Peaks was never without its problems. It’s rarely taken to task for its treatment of women, who are frequently subjected to gruesome violence and bodily indignity.
In the fourth episode of the series, Audrey is elusive but illustrative in describing One Eyed Jacks—the illegal Canadian casino/brothel—to Agent Cooper. “Men go there,” she tells him pointedly. When he inquires about women, she is amused. “Women work there.” That divide characterizes the way the show functions. Men solve crimes; women are the victims of crimes. Many female characters attempt amateur detective work, but these efforts are always met with the threat, at least, of bodily harm. Shelly Johnson saves what appears to be incriminating evidence about Leo but gets beaten for it; Audrey goes undercover at One Eyed Jacks and is held captive. And Laura’s lookalike cousin, Maddy Ferguson, manages to find the killer, who then recreates the crime by murdering her, too. There are some women who commit crimes, such as Josie Packard and Catherine Martell, but they are often punished and usually killed. This small, wholesome American town is a very dangerous place for women. The details of Laura Palmer’s rape are discussed repeatedly, and casually. A fight breaks out in the morgue over her cadaver. Her naked corpse becomes public property—a symbol onto which the townspeople project their own thoughts and opinions.
DAVID LYNCH WASN’T READY to make his art palatable to a network audience in the spring of 1990, but television viewership has changed significantly since then. The TV landscape of the last twenty-five years is permeated with allusions to Twin Peaks: the grave, artful explorations of secret identities in Mad Men or Breaking Bad; the thoughtful, layered investigations of the effects of violent crime in The Fall; the fully realized eccentricities of the small towns in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Parks and Recreation; the enthusiasm of Portlandia (Kyle MacLachlan’s cheerfully weird bike-riding mayor of Portland could easily be Dale Cooper in another place and time). The dark, strange places Lynch chose to explore are now a crucial part of what we expect from a good television show.
Its legacy is undeniable, but so are its shortcomings. Twin Peaks should have ended when it was still sharp, fresh and had a sense of purpose. Like a damn fine cup of coffee, some things are best left as is.