All week, Loser City is running Twin Peaks and David Lynch themed content in honor of the release of the new Twin Peaks boxed set, which came out on Tuesday. Today we close out the week with a group discussion from Loser City’s batch of newbie Twin Peaks viewers about whether Twin Peaks still holds up today to the uninitiated.
Julie Muncy: A fishing man finds a body in the water and an entire town erupts into chaos. Or, well, so it appears. In reality, this may not be that much of a surprise after all. That’s how Twin Peaks, one of the strangest, most intriguing television shows I’ve ever seen, begins. Whether it lives up to the promise of that great opening, however, is less clear.
In honor of the release of Twin Peaks: The Complete Mystery on Blu Ray, us at Loser City have been writing about and binging on the series all week.I know for a lot of us, this is our first time watching through the series at length. I had seen a couple of episodes before, but aside from that, and a general knowledge about where the plot was going, much of this was new to me.
One of the things that most struck me, I think, was how sprawling the show is—it starts with a very singular, focused event, and from there it blooms outward in every possible direction, accruing subplots and supporting characters at an impressive speed. After a while it was a bit dizzying to keep up with it all. Kurt Pirsig, this was your first time watching it as well, yes? What stuck out? And did anyone else have trouble keeping up?
Kurt Pirsig: It was my first time successfully watching Twin Peaks. The show, the first season especially, was just so heavy and full of soap opera-y drama that it has been a trial of endurance to watch it in a minimal amount of sittings. Being a fan of Lynch’s films I expected a dark feel so that wasn’t a surprise, but how twisting and winding it got as the second season unfolded really pushed my ability to keep up.
The overwrought emotions and the tangible hate that seemed to billow out of the town was particularly striking. Except for a select few that gravitated around Agent Cooper, everyone seemed to have their own misbegotten plans and a cold streak toward anyone they perceived to be “in the way.” Narratively, it was impressively wound. Although, I felt the second season was a bit too long for it’s own good. That’s my initial interpretation. I feel like I could join Dylan Garsee this weekend while he marathons the whole thing at the Alamo Drafthouse and come away with an entirely different one. Kayleigh, you’re also new to the show, what did you think?
Kayleigh Hughes: Former TP-virgin here! First I’d like to answer Julie’s question: YES. Yes, I had trouble keeping up. Part of the magic of the show is certainly in its world-building and the way that it makes the town itself a character, with every resident being treated as equally unique, important, and worthy of our time. But that didn’t mean I was interested in following every person’s outrageous subplot. Like, who were they even kidding with the Josie storyline? I’d argue that the showmakers were a little self-indulgent, especially in the second season, keeping a lot of scenes that would have been cut under different circumstances. Like Kurt said, it was too long for its own good.
None of us are Twin Peaks veterans, and the conversation is running the risk of turning into space where we bitch about how we’re a little bit unimpressed by this so-called masterpiece… But, I mean, I’m a little bit unimpressed by this so-called masterpiece. (Kidding.) (Mostly.)
I wanted to mention some concepts I’ve been thinking through regarding the TP new viewer experience. First of all, I was wondering how our perception of the show has changed based on the fact that, at this point, it’s such a touchstone for modern television (and, as we’ve discussed a bit this week, many other forms of media). The newbies have grown up absorbing so much other content that has been very directly influenced and inspired by Twin Peaks–are we taking that for granted? Elements of the show might feel played out to us, but when the show itself invented or established those elements for the first time, that changes things. Thoughts?
Julie: Twin Peaks first aired on television April 8, 1990, making its splash mostly in that year. “Lonely Souls,” the episode where Laura’s killer is revealed, aired in November of 1990. I, youngster that I am, was born in November of 1990 as well. I’ve never lived in a world without the pop culture power of Twin Peaks.
All that to say, I think Kayleigh has a point when it comes to the cultural reverse engineering that’s taken place in regards to the series. I recently binged True Detective, which feels like a reconfigured and streamlined approach to a lot of the same supernatural unease that permeates Twin Peaks’s best moments. It’s the same for all the other elements: they’ve been pulled apart and twisted around so much that the original just feels a little misshapen. It’s the same reason I have trouble watching Seinfeld: I just have seen those tropes play out so often in later sitcoms that Seinfeld, although it’s the original, feels derivative to me.
Another thing we might be missing is the centrality of the soap opera here. As we’ve moved away from network tv, the hegemony of the daytime soap has weakened considerably, and I think Twin Peaks is really interested in a lot of those ways of telling a story. For better or worse, it wants to be a full-on melodrama.
Even for the original audience, though, I think it’s safe to say Twin Peaks was baffling at times. I felt like the series was challenging my own ability to immerse myself in its fiction, reeling me in and out for its own amusement. I don’t have a good question to segway from here, but, thoughts?
Kurt: I’ll try and touch on some points that Julie and Kayleigh mentioned, hopefully without getting too long winded. I was first introduced to Twin Peaks through Psych, at least that was the first time I was aware of its reference. Being born in the late 1980’s I was around before the show but my recollection of that time is understandably iffy. I did grow up during what I would consider the tail end of the Soap Opera rage that swept through TV Land and that is something I do remember.
Soap Operas have always been known for their over the top melodrama. As far as I can tell Twin Peaks didn’t really change that in any way I ever noticed. Shows like Dynasty, As the World Turns, The Days of Our Lives, and ER were always highly melodramatic with sprawling storylines. Twin Peaks, especially the first season, turned it on it’s head and gave all these grand overarching plots that all seemed to lead to the death of Laura Palmer. It was a melodramatic soap mystery that didn’t do a ton of diverging from that mystery. Everything seemed to lead to the overall mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. At least in the eyes of the viewer. As the first season came to a close and the second season got a good head of steam it became less focused on Laura Palmer being the central thread and shifted more toward the town as a whole and in that broadening of scope it lost a bit of its appeal. I think True Detectives owes some of its success to Twin Peaks because it learned from the mistakes Twin Peaks made. Tell a story and finish it. That works best for mysteries. Trying to spiral out of a central murder plot into all this intrigue felt like flat and wasted airtime. Soap Operas always had these over convoluted plots that spanned seasons, Twin Peaks’s first season seemed to try and step away from that and tell the story of a town who lost someone everyone held dear. Season two… not so much.
The creepier segments in the show, especially those revolving around Agent Cooper, were highlights and I felt the show lived more comfortably there than it did trying to weave this massive plot. I’ve heard that the networks meddled with the second season quite a bit, specifically changing its timeslot repeatedly, so that could have something to do with how out of sync it felt from the first (which I did love). In short, I don’t think Twin Peaks had this amazing effect on tv as we knew it, at least not to the level of mystique it seems to have. Thoughts?
Kayleigh: Kurt, I’ll agree with you for sure, that the horror elements of the show are hugely successful. In reflecting on where I would like for the show to have gone, had it been given several more seasons, I land pretty solidly on a show that centers around Coop solving a series of macabre crimes in Twin Peaks. Like, if Twin Peaks had become the more horror-centric precursor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that would have been amazing. You’re spot on with what makes True Detectives work as a mystery: ”Tell a story and finish it.”
Where I might disagree with you, Kurt, is in saying that Twin Peaks didn’t have a substantial impact on television. It may not have done anything revelatory to the soap opera/melodrama format, but I think that tonally, it did some very new and interesting things. Twin Peaks was dark and significantly quirky, which is a combination that we’re used to now but that wasn’t very common in 1990. Even apart from the insane number of show-specific inside jokes and references, I think of the Donna-Harold subplot and the Shelly/Leo/Bobby triangle of chaos. What kind of a TV show dares to film a scene of an abused wife and her lover draping her brain-damaged, wheelchair-bound husband–who they keep around for the insurance payouts–in streamers and making love in front of him?
Julie: A kind that watched Weekend at Bernies and thought, y’know, I bet I could make this more upsetting. I kid, but only mostly. I think you’re right, Kayleigh, about the gender politics of that sequence being intriguing and possibly groundbreaking, although it’s a subplot that really didn’t work for me. I just felt nervous and sad. I think you’re getting at something important here, though, which is the way the show confronts domesticity within its horror-slapstick framework.
I’m not sure if this is a groundbreaking element, but it certainly is a jarring one, and the sheer brutality of some of these depictions does tread ground that I haven’t seen in many other places. I of course want to talk about the moment in “Lonely Souls,” where, as the Tall Man puts it, “It is happening again.” That murder scene is among the most traumatizing things I’ve ever seen on a television show, and I’m frankly a little surprised it aired. The thematic suggestiveness of it, too, is worth noting, the way it juxtaposes the mundane and the supernatural in this fundamental act of what is a tragically common sort of abuse. Did some unseen evil kill Laura Palmer, or did Leland? Yes. Both. The show’s supernatural horrors always feel like ways of abstracting and recontextualizing familiar and easy-to-miss tragedies.
In terms of the show’s long-term influence, however, I think the lasting impact of the series lies in a lot of the things that make it so hard to watch now. The bizarre approach to tone, the sprawl of its central mystery into a dizzying web of subplots and suggestions, the way it takes your expectations for a procedural detective show and promptly drowns them in coffee. Don’t those moves remind y’all of some other big-tent mystery-based TV shows that have emerged since Twin Peaks went off the air?
Kurt: I agree that some of those tenets have made their way into modern tv. I also agree that there really hasn’t been much on tv that can rival that Bobby/Shelly/Leo scene or the scene involving Leland and Laura. I will state that the dark themes, quirkiness and overall zaniness of the show can be linked back to a few predecessors. Shows like The Twilight Zone, Green Acres, Dark Shadows, and Alan Alda’s later vision for MASH are all up there with quirk and dark surrealist tones. Surprisingly, Green Acres might be the best example. From the first episode, which was filmed as a mockumentary, the show was steeped in surrealism. A lot of what helped the horror elements of Twin Peaks go was that very same tendency to lean towards the surreal.
Hooterville in Green Acres is a town full of people with bizarre personality quirks (sound familiar?) anchored by one man who is completely normal. Maybe it’s the ’60’s era sitcom filter but any show that has two people that treat their pig like a son (literally) is a lot darker than its sitcom roots lead you to believe. Dark Shadows takes the mystery/horror theme and really runs with it. It’s a soap opera centered around well… a lot of things. I’ll cut and paste this from Wikipedia, “Dark Shadows was distinguished by its vividly melodramatic performances, atmospheric interiors, memorable storylines, numerous dramatic plot twists, unusually adventurous music score, and broad and epic cosmos of characters and heroic adventures.” Several plotlines centered around things such as, “werewolves, zombies, man-made monsters, witches, warlocks, time travel, and a parallel universe.” Those are all still pretty out there concepts now. Dark Shadows aired from 1966 to 1971. I could easily imagine all those things eventually having happened in Twin Peaks.
The Twilight Zone might actually be the loosest example but it’s hard not to see the influence that it’s had on tv in general. Especially since creators like Lynch would have grown up watching it. I could go further down this rabbit hole and maybe I will at some point. Yes, the disturbing things people saw in Twin Peaks were disturbing but they aren’t so totally uncommon that I’d argue they changed television. Twisted love affairs are standard practice for soap operas. People used to go into comas every other week on General Hospital and weird stuff would happen with their spouses. Lynch did manage to drape that into a wonderfully creepy horror setting but I can’t say it is particularly groundbreaking.
That’s not really the question though is it? I suppose the real question would be, “Has it left an indelible mark on our pop culture?” and I would say yes to that. What are your thoughts reader?