Welcome to Twin Peaks
When Twin Peaks appeared on UK television in 1990, the
critical reaction was unequivocal and unprecedented. Art-house buffs and casual
viewers alike were in agreement: this was seriously great. Dave Watkins explains what made Twin
Peaks a killer serial.
Co-created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, writer for the immensely popular Hill
Street Blues, and scored by
Angelo Badalamenti, Twin Peaks
was a bona fide cultural event. Its plot and characters, its tone – intensely
homely and deeply sinister in equal measure – became the stuff of everyday
conversation. A TV drama whose MacGuffin was the sexual killing of a
cocaine-addicted high-school beauty queen cum prostitute by a supernatural
entity called Bob enjoyed, for a brief, odd moment at the beginning of the
nineties, the kind of popularity that we’d now associate with Dancing on Ice or MasterChef. People held Twin Peaks-themed parties.
As a high watermark in
popular entertainment, Twin Peaks remains
unsurpassed. Its strange richness was completely absorbing – as though the
contrast had been turned up on your TV, leaving other programmes seeming flat
For such an experimental
series to take the hold that it did, it required a very particular, receptive
time. Funny things were happening in 1990. Ecstasy had leached into the
mainstream, and with it the clubby stylings epitomised by Madonna’s ‘Vogue’:
part fifties iconography, part chrome-gleamed erotica. And from the other end
of the spectrum, the Pixies were offering up their take on surf rock, suffused
with Roswell-inflected paranoia. If the eighties had been a love affair with
the new, 1990 sought reassurances in an aesthetic that was firmly post-war
And so with Twin
Peaks: the Double R diner,
cherry pie and black coffee; Mike and Bobby, who could have stepped out of an
episode of Happy Days; Agent
Cooper, dictating his reports to Diane like a pre-feminist captain of industry;
the lachrymose James Hurley, perpetually zooming off on his Harley in a
love-struck sulk. It is a world steeped in 1950s imagery, taking them to their
distorted extremes. Agent Cooper is so excessively wholesome he carries an
other-worldly air, his appearance pallid and plastic. Bobby and Mike aren’t
just stereotypical teenagers misbehaving – they’re violent coke dealers.
As series one
progressed, the question of who killed Laura Palmer gave way to the spectacle
of a community revealing itself and its interconnectedness. There was a
straightforward soap opera at the heart of Twin Peaks – Invitation to Love, the play within a play whose themes often
reflected the more complex dramas unfolding around them. But Twin Peaks itself just got weirder and weirder.
By the second series,
ABC had had enough and put the pressure on to reveal the murderer, resulting in
declining viewing figures and compromised storylines. And in truth, the second
series does tail off. But by then, what magic had been created.
There is a scene in the
first series where Leyland Palmer is attending his daughter’s funeral. He is
demolished by grief, and it’s pretty hard viewing. In a moment of anguish he
throws himself on top of the casket as it descends to the bottom of the grave.
The motor lowering the casket malfunctions – it rises and falls, rises and
falls, with Leyland lying distraught on top. It is awful. And it is hilarious.
And were this the end of that scene, it would be a brilliant piece of emotional
manipulation. But instead we cut to the Double R, where Shelley Johnson is
replaying the event by raising and lowering a condiment box behind the counter,
much to the amusement of two locals . . . along with every other viewer. That
such brilliant – and deeply bizarre – screenplay could achieve prime-time
status seems utterly implausible now. I wonder if it will again.