Late to the Party: Twin Peaks (1990-91)

November 17, 2010
By | 8 Comments

I am no stranger to catching up on television that I missed the first time around, but there is something particularly ominous about Twin Peaks.

It is surprisingly ominous, at first glance. Generally speaking, a two-season run is not a substantial time commitment, and the series is now readily available on DVD (and all but the two-hour pilot is streaming on and Fancast). Compared to the six seasons of The Sopranos or the seven seasons of The Shield sitting on my bookshelf, Twin Peaks should be easy.

And yet it’s not. There is a mystique surrounding Twin Peaks, both in terms of its cult status (fueled by Lynch’s cultural cache) and in terms of the oft-discussed mystery of who, precisely, killed Laura Palmer. While I may not necessarily be hugely familiar with Lynch’s work, I know enough to be comfortable with his perspective, and I am thus far unspoiled regarding Laura Palmer’s fate. My problem is not that I do not understand this mystique, but rather that some part of me feels I know it too well.

Some part of me is convinced that I know what Twin Peaks is about. I know it features a particularly esoteric performance from Kyle MacLachlan, I know it features vivid dream sequences, and I know that it takes place in a small town. This knowledge comes not from trailers, Wikipedia or IMDB; it comes from hearing people talk about it in passing, seeing references to it on other television shows (The Simpsons’ “Who Shot Mr. Burns” is particularly influential in this area, and Psych is doing an homage in December), and by seeing it used as a reference by networks when they want their small town mystery show to spark fond memories of the series (ABC’s Happy Town being the most recent example).

One could argue that I should have had similar problems with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but since Buffy ran for seven seasons I felt comfortable it would have sufficient time to define itself independent of the hype. With Twin Peaks, I presumed that the mystery is the show, and because that mystery has become such a pillar within modern discussions of serialized television its influence seems almost too strong. I imagine it’s how the next generation will feel about The Wire, although I’ll likely admonish them for hesitating much as you are all admonishing me as you read this.

Of course, as you already knew, the second I sat down with the Twin Peaks pilot I was transfixed. Its haunting credits are an immediate palate cleanser, an establishment of tone so distinctive that it erased the majority of my preconceptions.

The credits create mysteries with no connection to my previous knowledge of the series. The images, which prove central to the series’ broader mystery, were completely abstract: the saw mill has no meaning (especially when the title doesn’t appear for forty seconds), the waterfall has little significance, and the still water of the river has even less. And what do we make of the bird who opens the credit sequence? These may seem like small questions, some of them likely revealed to be fairly insignificant to the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death in subsequent episodes, but Twin Peaks is mysterious, not a mystery. Knowing that it is Laura Palmer on that beach before the show tells us does not change the fact that her death is just one part of a larger whole.

Twin Peaks is a messed-up town, filled with elements I think comfortably qualify as melodrama: numerous abusive relationships emerge, and there are enough illicit affairs (spread equally among both young and old) to make one suspect there is something in the water. And yet Lynch stages it all in what I’d (perhaps naively) consider Lynchian style, with the same kind of abstraction that defines the credits. Laura’s parents learn of her death on separate ends of a telephone; we linger on various objects, body parts, at times when it seems unnecessary; the flickering lights in the hospital are echoed at the Town meeting. The atmosphere, so fundamental in the credits and so paramount throughout the pilot, puts familiar elements into an entirely new context, regardless of what decade we’re watching in.

I have yet to get to the dream sequences so prominent in the series’ cultural image, nor have I been able to witness the series’ supposed inconsistencies (although that seems to be a matter of opinion). It’ll be some time before I have the free time to truly dig into the series, but often that first step is the most challenging. It provides a new reference point, rewriting the paratextual and intertextual constructions of the series with personal experience.

Rewriting Twin Peaks into my very own mystery.


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8 Responses to “ Late to the Party: Twin Peaks (1990-91) ”

  1. Josh S. on November 17, 2010 at 11:11 AM

    Definitely one of the best shows ever. Full of homages to the film and tv canon, experiments with mixing diegetic and non-diegetic sound, references to the occult, and some truly messed-up psychological elements that demand the sophistication of Lacanian analysis to unpack. I’m not sure we’ll ever see a TV show as sublime as Twin Peaks again, but here’s hoping… Right after Twin Peaks concluded Lynch did a little-remembered follow-up called ‘On the Air’ about early live television, also worth watching.

  2. Tausif Khan on November 17, 2010 at 12:42 PM

    Myles are going to add a button to your wordpress site linking to all of your Antenna posts (besides the general link to Antenna)?

    Are you going to be catching up on Buffy and Twin Peaks simultaneously?

    I also have not seen Twin Peaks. I have the entire series but have yet to watch it. My only experience with Lynch is his film Mulholand Dr. which was phenomenal.

    On his commentary for The Buffy the Vampire episode “Restless” Whedon mentions that people felt Willow’s dream sequence (specifically between the stage curtains) was influenced by Lynch’s work. Whedon said that the scene had it is own message but did not address specifically whether Lynch had influenced the work.

    I wonder how much Lynch influenced Whedon (if at all). They come from similar perspectives but go in different directions. Whedon takes his existentialism from Sartre while Lynch is more transcendental.

    I can wait to explore Twin Peaks.

  3. Eldritch on November 17, 2010 at 3:10 PM

    “Twin Peaks” was very well done. I was mesmerized by it, as was the rest of America, when it first ran. However, it’s a triumph of style over substance. There is no solution. There really is no mystery. In season 2, an answer to what happened to Laura Palmer is given, but it’s very unsatisfying. It had nothing to do with anything characters or the story had developed. Lynch was just playing with the audience. He’s a master at creating haunting images, but those images have no meaning behind them.

    I never followed “Lost,” but I understand that many people were disappointed that its finale failed to address its many mysteries. However, the “Lost” finale gave a satisfying resolution to its characters. No such luck with “Twin Peaks.” Lynch just tried to start a new mystery, so it remained an endless series of taunting images. I felt ripped off when I saw that, and so did most of its audience. People stopped watching, and the show was canceled.

    I understand Lynch never wanted to reveal the killer, but was required to by CBS. Apparently , he wanted the series to run for years without revealing what was behind its mysteries; perhaps he never wanted to. I take from that, that he just wanted to produce endless images with no meaning. Frankly, I’m glad it ended sooner rather than later. I don’t like being played with.

    Perhaps this is a bit like the “Battlestar Galactica” controversy over its finale. I’m a BG finale hater. That series, too, was well done. It was great drama, but its drama was, in my opinion, made empty by the finale which revealed many of the situations and characterizations were just writing devices, not actual drama. (I mean, What was Starbuck, really?)

    So if you’re satisfied with the images per se, then you’ll find “Twin Peaks” enjoyable. Otherwise, not.

  4. parabasis on November 19, 2010 at 8:57 AM


    The show is not really inconsistent, instead what happens is the show goes flying off a quality cliff into a ditch in the second season and doesn’t emerge from it until the very final episode. It is part of what is frustrating about the show. While the show has to be watched in its entirety, there’s a large chunk towards the end that’s pretty awful.

    Most people attribute this to the decision (Forced on Lynch by the network) to solve the Laura Palmer mystery. And you can see that his name appears in the credits as a writer or director far, far less after this happens. He and Mark Frost kind of abandon the show, it seems. And one soon-to-be Hollywood starlet shows up and is terrible. How she ended up becoming a superstar and Sherylynn Fenn didn’t is beyond me.

  5. parabasis on November 19, 2010 at 8:58 AM

    PS: I should say that I went into it last year as a Johnny-Come-Lately and I even knew who killed Laura Palmer and I still loved it.

  6. amanda on November 19, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    I am so excited for you! TWIN PEAKS may not be the best television series of all time (I give that title to THE SOPRANOS) but it holds a very special place in my heart. Watching it as a preteen ( I was 13), I was dumbfounded that such a program was on TV. It was so bizarre, so creepy and so unlike anything else I had seen up to that point. It marks the first time that my friends and I had real discussions about what a television show “meant.” We all had our theories and interpretations.

    When THE SECRET DIARY OF LAURA PALMER was released, we all ran out to by it, and pored over it like detectives with a really juicy clue. The book was very racy (if my Mom has known what was in it I don’t think she would have bought it for me), like ARE YOU THERE GOD IT’S ME MARGARET for psychopaths.

    Reading the diary along with the series was such an intense fan experience–my first real fan experience. I think this was enhanced by the fact that this was before the DVR and DVD box sets. When TWIN PEAKS was on, I was there–it could not be missed, Although I have liked other TV shows more than TWIN PEAKS, nothing else has come close to recreating the level of fan engagement. I guess it’s like your first love?

    Hope to hear more of your thoughts about this show on your blog!

  7. Sean Duncan on November 20, 2010 at 10:24 AM

    One thing I find fairly amusing is how several younger friends have reported that they think the series *is* the dream sequences… because those are the only clips that they’ve been shown in TV studies classes. Watch the series, and you see it’s more a wry and clever play on soap operas than it is a good mystery, or even terribly good horror. But that’s actually a compliment; the way that Lynch’s obsessions with 1950s/1960s culture and Mark Frost’s obsessions with arcane mythologies intermingle is truly wonderful, and having just rewatched the series this summer, it still holds up as one of the best TV experiences I’ve ever had, from shot of Josie to “How’s Annie?” TV now seems to pale in comparison (I’m looking at you, so-called “quality television”) because of how incomplete and evocative and just plain stylish some of the shows I encountered in my formative years were, like Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks seems effortless, while most current shows seem like they’re just “trying too hard” to hard to give us these over-determined, consequential narratives rather than provide a fascinating, unique, and bizarre world. I much prefer the latter, and lament that I can’t imagine any network taking a flyer on a show like TP in this day and age — I’m of the mindset that Mulholland Drive would have made an even more fascinating show (and more interesting than the film the pilot turned into), would any network have taken a chance on it.

  8. parabasis on November 20, 2010 at 12:29 PM


    I find your comment a bit odd, if only because I’m having trouble thinking of ANY show that was like Twin Peaks in any era of television. You write that shows you encountered then were incomplete, evocative and stylish as compared to today’s “quality television.” What shows do you mean (in both categories)? I think in order to do a fair comparison, you have to compare the best of each… and I think even taking the best of 90s televised drama, most of it pales in comparison to “The Wire” or the first two seasons of “The Sopranos” or “Friday Night Lights” or– if we bring other nations’ television into it– “Slings and Arrows”, “Life on Mars,” the final installments of “Prime Suspect,” and “State of Play.” And that’s just off the top of my head (hell, I just realized I left out “Mad Men”). In fact, the only two dramas from that decade that can really be said to belong on this list would be “Twin Peaks” and “Homicide: Life On The Street.” “Twin Peaks” is a total outlier, the only other show I can think of that was like it in any way is “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” in that both of them turned what normally are seen as deficits in a show (uneven acting, to put it politely, oddball pacing, constant digressions etc.) and turn them into assets.