‘Twin Peaks’: The ‘Auteur Television’ at Its First Peak

David Lynch, a name that is for many film enthusiasts the epitome for weird, surreal, and bizarre, surprised many people when he had characterised himself as a Boy Scout from Missoula, Montana. He is also known as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” or “Jimmy Stewart on acid”—a very polite, happy-go-lucky, enthusiastic individual, who unironically uses words and phrases like “Golly!,” “Holy jumping George!,” “Howdy!” etc., and who just happens to have a vivid imagination that has been the basis of nightmares for many of his viewers. Contrary to popular belief, Lynch is not the type of a guy who, for instance, chops off his fingernails in his grandmother’s basement and then puts them in his dinner salad, but is somebody who is actually trying, through foundations, meditation recommendations and charity work, to promote, and achieve without a hint of irony, peace and prosperity. But Lynch’s worlds are full of such contradictions, full of idealists who also happen to be scoundrels below the surface, and Lynch is fascinated with the dark and perverse facet of the human condition, but also on the profound and gentle side of humanity, a soulful aspect of his work that doesn’t get nearly mentioned as the former one. The oblique and mysterious nature of Lynch’s work draws many to become obsessed with finding a universal explanation or an enlightened meaning to his films. But Lynch insists on never revealing what the abstractions in his films “mean,” and he suggests to his viewers that they also try to find out for themselves more on an intuitive than a rational level as to what the disturbing visuals, the labyrinthian plots and the unreliable characters truly convey. Lynch claims that everybody is a detective, but it is also important to note that Lynch’s movies are not merely a puzzle to be solved: they are to be experienced, after which a powerful cinema-going epiphany may come out of his best work. This set of essays will try and derive certain interpretations and explanations of Lynch’s ideas, but they are in no way to be understood as definitive or let alone indicative of what the director himself was thinking. Every reader should be an autonomous detective indeed.

After an 11-year break from filmmaking, Lynch returns for, as he puts it, an 18-hour feature divided into 18 parts, called Twin Peaks, which sounds familiar to pretty much anyone remotely acquainted with the man’s work. Lynch’s cult television show that originally aired in 1990 and 1991 and revolutionized television storytelling returns, against all odds, for a special event series starring Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper. Very little is known about the plot or the characters, apart from the fact that it is indeed happening again, 25 years after the murder of Laura Palmer, the teenage homecoming queen whose death has set the plot of the old Twin Peaks into motion. A 200+ cast list has been released, including newcomers such as Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Tom Sizemore. This mammoth project for a 71-year-old Lynch will, therefore, serve as a jumping point for Cinephilia & Beyond to go to the past and explore his ten feature films, starting from the debut film Eraserhead in 1977, all the way to Inland Empire in 2006. His short film, web, commercial and television work will not be included, with the clear and notable exception of Twin Peaks itself, which is an essential component for this retrospective.

The creative twin peaks of the series were joined by an ambitious television agent called Tony Krantz in the mid-1980s—for some peculiar reason that probably came from an intuitive place (fitting for the genesis of Twin Peaks), Krantz thought that it would be a good idea to organise a meeting between an “out-there” filmmaker like David Lynch, with a natural storyteller and a TV veteran that was Mark Frost, of Hill Street Blues, a hit 1980s cop show that preceded all the quality police series that came afterwards in the 1990s, like NYPD Blue or Homicide: Life on the Street. Even though fans of Twin Peaks are still wondering where the chemistry came from that managed to fuse these two creative minds, since it does seem like a very unlikely merge on the surface, the duo took a liking to each other immediately, writing two scripts that never made it into production. One was a Marilyn Monroe biopic (Lynch liked the idea of “a woman in trouble,” a common trope in Lynch’s work, especially in the latter half of his career) and the other was a surreal comedy called One Saliva Bubble, which would have starred Steve Martin and Martin Short, revolving around an identity switch on an airport between, among others, Texas oilmen and Chinese acrobats. Due to his penchant for silly humor, one still should be slightly weary of a full-on Lynch comedy, so maybe there was a silver lining to be found in the fact that Dino De Laurentiis declared bankruptcy and threw that project into oblivion.

Lynch did not want to do television at first, but couldn’t resist the temptation of a continuing story. To an artist who relied on intuition and organic story progression, television offered possibilities above the 2-hour restriction with which cinema was chained. He met with Frost on another one of idea-forming lunches, and there was this “dead girl in their mind’s eye,” inspired by Frost’s memories from his high school years, when a friend’s sister was murdered and whose consequences of grief and tragedy were obviously deeply ingrained into Frost’s mind. What separated Twin Peaks from many other crime shows, where there were countless other murdered girls, is the portrayal of emotional consequences and the effect of an unbearable loss on the community. This is how the concept of an isolated town in the Pacific Northwest came about—armed with a self-made map of the town and the idea of a murdered girl that starts to unravel those town’s dirty secrets–Lynch and Frost made their pitch to ABC, and the beginning of modern American TV unfolded after that meeting.

The still ongoing “golden age of television” owes a tremendous amount to Twin Peaks, and the creators and showrunners of such versatile shows as The Sopranos, Lost and Mad Men all have publicly conveyed their respect and recognized the influence that Twin Peaks had on their respective work. The so-called “auteur television” essentially started with this show, with Lynch defining its visual aspects and establishing the unique, dreamy, timeless atmosphere of the town, and Frost taking control of the showrunning and story structure part—the stable, uniform vision of the two creators has made it possible for the show to be consistent, both in tone and storytelling quality (at least for the first half of it, of which more will be written later). Perhaps most importantly, Twin Peaks abolished the usual episodic, “case-per-week” or “monster-of-the-week” structure that was more typical of crime shows in the past, and introduced a continuing story where every episode was an important puzzle to the overall plot, whose connecting tissue was the ultimate mystery: “Who killed Laura Palmer?”. The irony here is that Twin Peaks was at the same time a soap-opera, and a satire of soap-operatic storytelling. The weird vibe of the show, connecting Lynch’s surrealist tendencies with soapy characters and slapstick comedy, gave it that other-worldly, utterly unique feel that was for so many times attempted to be replicated, failing miserably in the process. The show looks timeless—characters are dressed in 1950s attire, akin to Blue Velvet; Angelo Badalamenti’s jazzy, loungey music also defies being stuck in a certain era, and the town, therefore, feels stuck in a different realm immune to time.

The 90-minute pilot episode (or series premiere; if one recalls Samuel L. Jackson’s elaboration in Pulp Fiction on what a “pilot” is—it is the episode that is shot and then shown to the studio, which decides on the strength of the pilot whether they will green-light the series or not) was the one that immediately started the “Peaksmania” in the first place. Lynch had conceived it as a movie, and the cinematic feel of the episode, shot on location in the towns of North Bend and Snoqualmie in Eastern Washington state, built up atmosphere from repeating shots of eerie trees in the wind and changing traffic lights in the dark, not to mention the rainy, gloomy winter weather that rather appropriately surrounded the sombre mood of a town hit by tragedy. The pacing of the pilot was unusually slow for television at the time, focusing on the inhabitants of Twin Peaks and their reactions to the homecoming queen Laura Palmer being found dead, “wrapped in plastic” (famously spoken by Eraserhead himself, Jack Nance). The archetypes of the small town—a waitress at the diner, a distrustful businessman, a grieving mother, the unhappy, grouchy wife, a noble town sheriff, a high school rebel—are all given a special edge to them, giving them more detailed character traits since everybody is in some way affected by the violent murder in the community, and everybody has an agenda as to how to hide their own secrets that may be threatened due to this shocking murder. But this being a David Lynch project, these archetypes are subverted with occasional ludicrous fetishes, i.e. with the grouchy wife having an obsession about silent drape runners, or the distrustful businessman being a predatory fan of tasteful baguettes etc. The town seems both classical in a soap-opera sense and downright bizarre in a Lynchian sense, and this otherworldly quality of it makes it so compulsively watchable.

Since the premise of the show—a whodunit mystery—makes everybody in the town a potential suspect, the story warrants an outsider, a firm foothold for the viewer to serve as an entry point into this world, and this is the lead character, Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper, who nevertheless is full of his own eccentricities. One of the biggest accomplishments of Twin Peaks is that it makes the very difficult task of making the valiant good guy the most interesting one seem effortless. Kyle MacLachlan’s energized, audacious performance of Cooper is half the victory, and it is quite telling that his constantly expressed love of “little things,” such as cherry pie, coffee, ducks on the lake and Douglas fir trees, was based on Lynch and his infectious on-set enthusiasm.

This enthusiasm is also very much reflected in the utilization of “happy accidents” as Lynch calls them, namely improvised and spontaneous enhancements of scripted situations. Notice the flickering, malfunctioning light in the autopsy room while Cooper is looking for clues under Laura’s fingernail (the light was supposed to be normal), or the actor in that same scene mishearing MacLachlan’s question (“Could you leave us alone, please?) and answering “Jim,” a non-sequitur to which MacLachlan responds by simply repeating the question, or the fallen deer head in the safety deposit box scene (naturally, it should have been placed on the wall), or the fact that in the very final scene of the pilot, there is a reflection of the set decorator Frank Silva in the mirror, who will be cast as the demonic entity BOB, one of the scariest villains ever to grace the screen. BOB was also the product of a “happy accident,” coming into Lynch’s mind when Frank Silva worked on moving furniture around in Laura Palmer’s room during the shooting of the pilot. Silva—“like everybody in Hollywood,” as Lynch deviously likes to put it—was an actor, becoming an essential component in the world of Twin Peaks and epitomizing the Lynchian motif of “evil as a force.” David Foster Wallace has described this concept, which may be one of the chief reasons why Lynch makes his viewers so uncomfortable and freaked out, is that unlike people, forces simply are: they permeate everything, moving, shifting, pervading and corrupting. What makes BOB so frightening is that he is essentially unbeatable; he simply comes when there is potential in a man to unravel and bring to the forefront all of his most disgusting and disturbing features, but his existence also opens up the possibility of good, of innocence, of redemption, since light would not be recognizable without the darkness behind it. Shades of Blue Velvet abound in Twin Peaks, and themes of duality have never been so prominent thus far in Lynch’s career.

After the initial success of the pilot episode, with 34+ million American viewers tuning into the show at some point during its premiere in 1990, the seven-episode first season of the show was a tremendous critical and commercial success. Lynch was filming Wild at Heart during the production of the 1st season, only to come back to direct in an out-of-order fashion (after the rest of the first season was already filmed) Episode 2, which is the quintessential hour of Twin Peaks, with both Lynch and the cast firing on all cylinders. Almost every scene in the episode belongs to the pantheon of classic Lynch scenes, starting with the manic baguette-eating charade of the Horne brothers, the younger and smaller played by David Patrick Kelly of The Warriors fame. Again, Lynch’s spontaneous skills and an affection for the random are emphasized in the scene where the seductive Audrey Horne, played by Sherilyn Fenn, dances to Angelo Badalamenti’s dreamy music in the diner—this was not scripted, but worked out on the spot. The other dance scene in the episode is a much darker one, where the broken shell of Laura’s father, played with rigorous dedication by Ray Wise, dances with Laura’s picture, smashing it and cutting his finger in the process (Ray Wise has called this scene his “Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now” moment, referring to the opening scene of that film where an inebriated Sheen really cut his fist after punching a mirror). This scene is very important in retrospect since it has dangerous allusions to secrets revealed in later parts of the show. The episode also introduces the most lovable bastard of the show; the cynical, acid-tongued, rural life skeptic (an understatement if there was one) Agent Albert Rosenfield, played with ferocious glee by the recently deceased, great character actor Miguel Ferrer.

But the two highlights of Episode 2 involve the lead character. Cooper’s Tibetan rock-throwing sequence, where the intuitive detective, relying on “body-mind” coordination, inspired by the plight of the Tibetan people, throws rocks at a bottle after a name has been mentioned in relation to Laura Palmer’s murder. Both hilariously original and ridiculously absurd (notice the deputy sheriff Hawk wearing kitchen mittens for no reason whatsoever), the scene further defines Cooper as a uniquely entertaining protagonist, dragging him away from the lazy Sherlock Holmes comparisons. In fact, Cooper is the opposite of Holmes in many facets: whereas Holmes is cold, misanthropic and relying exclusively on reason and logic, Cooper is a caring, loving individual, relying on dream logic and Tibetan-influenced intuition to find the right answers. The definitive right answer comes in the most iconic Twin Peaks sequence at the end of the episode—Cooper dreams of the Red Room, an acid vision of a red-curtained nightmare where everybody moves and speaks backwards. Michael J. Anderson delights in the role of “Man from Another Place,” dancing on the zig-zagged floor (makes its second appearance in the world of David Lynch after Eraserhead)—the whole setpiece is just a creative delight, both hysterical and terrifying, indicative of a world beyond, a nightmarish hereafter defying time, but immensely compulsive to watch. Lynch had made the actors talk backwards and then looped their voices so that it sounds forwards (a bit headache-inducing trying to verbalize the silly thing), although the lines themselves do not benefit much, since they are not very forward at all (“That gum you like is going to come back in style!,” surmises the devious dwarf). It is with this scene that Twin Peaks has etched itself into modern pop culture, and American television was really never quite the same afterwards, while a guy who started off his career with a 90-minute endurance test of a film featuring the murder of an evil, cackling baby, was suddenly on the cover of the Time magazine.

“Peaksmania” lasted for its first season, but the fact that it was sanctioned for 22 episodes in its second season was the beginning of the end for the show. Frost and Lynch did not have an outline for the entire 22 (which was way too many to sustain the same storytelling quality and a sense of mystery around “Who killed Laura Palmer?”), and Episode 8, the 2nd season premiere directed by Lynch, worked very hard to alienate the casual viewer who wasn’t a huge fan of Lynchian madness, primarily in the form of the excruciatingly long opening sequence involving a decrepit waiter and a giant, moving along at a snail-like pace, which resulted in many people switching off their TVs. Lynch never really cared about the masses, and this episode is a living proof of this. Nevertheless, it also includes some of Lynch’s best work, especially in the re-enactment of Laura Palmer’s murder in the end of the episode, whose gargoyleish expressions are pure nightmare fodder. Another sequence has that sense of combining humour and tragedy in a Lynchian manner, where the absurd storyline of a husband accidentally shooting his wife straight in the eye–sold by the Lynch veteran Everett McGill, giving the monologue an emotional weight that really shouldn’t be there—is nevertheless backed by Miguel Ferrer’s facial reactions that mirror the audience’s in their amusing incredulity. Episode 9 continues in that Peaksian, schizophrenic vein: where the impossibly cheesy sequence of three teenagers singing a love ballad and putting their emotions out in the open is followed by the scariest sequence of the show, and possibly TV in general, with BOB creeping around the living room and straight into the camera, violating the dream space of the viewer with that special kind of delight that can only come from a place of pure malice.

BOB features prominently in Episode 14, the next episode directed by Lynch. The network has put tremendous pressure on Lynch and Frost to finally reveal the killer of Laura Palmer, something that Lynch laments to this day, calling it a huge sadness. Lynch’s plan for the show was that the main mystery of the killer would never be revealed (or at least until the final planned episode), slowly going into the background, but holding the show and its characters together, comparing that original mystery to a “beautiful goose that laid the golden eggs.” The closest comparison would be the show The Fugitive, where the killer of the protagonist’s wife, hunted by the main protagonist, was confronted in the very last episode. But the network insisted and Lynch capitulated, proving once again that the artist’s creative highpoints sometimes come from places of frustration and restrictions. The entire episode is carefully paced in a Hitchcockian manner, but the real highlight comes in the final terrifying sequence where Laura Palmer’s killer is revealed, gruesomely torturing, killing and violating another victim in the process. It is puzzling even to this day that such a disturbing and tormenting scene was even allowed on the air in 1990, but it features Lynch’s strongest characteristics as a director comfortable with rising tension, keeping suspense and increasing horror—the simple sound design of a rotating, empty record player, is what makes the scene so memorable and unforgettable, along with the actors giving their hundred percent in physically and psychologically demanding performances. But the scene itself wouldn’t be nearly as potent without the juxtaposition that Lynch creates, involving other characters such as Cooper and the other townspeople, who, accompanied by a Badalamenti/Julee Cruise ballad, sense that something is wrong in the air, that another tragedy has taken place and that all-encompassing grief is again striking their unhealed wounds. This again puts Lynch not in the role of a gratuitous, exploiting filmmaker, but a humanistic one, where something as evil as murder has its consequences on the psyche of an all-American community, and never serves only as a pure plot device.

The lessons were not learned by the writers after this episode: after the Laura Palmer storyline is resolved in an extremely rushed and sloppy fashion, nullifying the consequences of grief and suspicion this event has caused on the town, the show literally tanks and suffers a creative amnesia which continues until the end of the doomed 2nd season, introducing tired and childish plotlines, caricature-like villains, shoehorned love interests and a sense of lacking any purpose, driven by the fact that both Frost and Lynch were occupied with different projects or had simply lost interest. This all changes in the season finale, Episode 29, where Agent Cooper is literally taken to the place of his nightmares. The most avant-garde episode of the show (and consequently, of television in general) features 20 minutes of improvisational pandemonium in the Black Lodge, a Borgesian labyrinth of infinite, infernal, nauseously repeating Red Rooms, floating in strobing lights, coffee puns, evil doppelgängers of dead souls shriekingly smashing the fourth wall, all accompanied by Badalamenti’s dissonant guitar lines. This section was created and improvised during one long night of shooting, with Lynch discarding a script written by Frost and two other regular Peaks writers, Harley Peyton and Robert Engels, featuring tons of unimaginative set pieces and dreadful, overwritten monologues by the dull, laughably non-threatening 2nd season villain that is Cooper’s ex-partner Windom Earle (just a couple of examples from the original script):

Good answer. I’ve always hoped my endless hours of
mentoring might CONTRIBUTE to the development
of a fertile MIND. You were such a dullard, Coopy, such
an earnest, plodding, do-gooding Eagle Scout – it was
all I could do sometimes to keep myself from

In case of emergency, break glass.
(turning back to Cooper)
Here’s the deal, Dale. Throne room. Windom.
Windom sits on throne. Windom king. Windom happy.
Problem: Windom need to make deposit first. That’s
how it works. Windom can’t make deposit all by
himself. Windom un-happy.

One can easily imagine Lynch throwing the script in disgust after this. The entire episode is Lynch’s well-intentioned attempt at a “soft retcon,” nullifying or making irrelevant all the silly plotlines that have burdened the show in the second half of the 2nd season, but trying to make them compelling in the last minute. Nevertheless, there is a sense of anger and cynicism in the way characters are handled and discarded, enhanced by a permeating, pervading feel of dread and uneasiness surrounding the entire town, backed up by Badalamenti’s composition Dark Mood Woods, a Twin Peaks classic composition if there ever was one. Black humor involving decrepit old men also makes a reappearance, and Jimmy Scott’s hypnotic performance of Lynch/Badalamenti-written Under the Sycamore Trees, welcoming Dale Cooper into the Black Lodge, makes Dante’s entrance to Hell mild and comforting in comparison. Hope was abandoned a long time ago in David Lynch’s version of an ending for a show that has been neglected and crushed by a television network that never did know what to do with it. The episode is a tour de force of insane, surreal atmosphere, the purest and most merciless David Lynch hour since Eraserhead (interestingly enough, Lynch had requested that the entire Black Lodge sequence be uninterrupted by commercials during the original broadcast, resulting in an unusual structure of fade-outs), especially with its crushingly dark cliffhanger, a crucial reminder before one sets again into the world of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks on May 21st.

Written by Lovorko Marić

Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Photographed by Richard Foreman Jr. & Richard Beymer © Lynch/Frost Productions, Propaganda Films, Spelling Entertainment, Twin Peaks Productions, American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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