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 by comparison.
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 American.
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 Leland 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 Leland 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.