Debating the Return of Twin Peaks

October 11, 2014
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Showtime has recently announced that David Lynch and Mark Frost will be returning to Twin Peaks in 2016, with a nine-episode season that continues the story of the landmark ABC series. Is this a good thing? Amanda Ann Klein makes her case for the prosecution as to why they should leave Twin Peaks alone; Dana Och and Jason Mittell argue for the defense by sharing why they are excited to return to the woods.


Amanda Ann Klein: I started watching Twin Peaks when ABC aired reruns in the summer of 1990, after some of my friends started discussing this “crazy” show they were watching about a murdered prom queen. During the prom queen’s funeral her stricken father throws himself on top of her coffin, causing it to lurch up and down. The scene goes on and on, then fades to black.

I started watching based on that anecdote alone and was immediately hooked. Twin Peaks was violent, sexual, funny and sad, all at the same time – I was 13 and I kept waiting for some adult to come in the room and tell me to stop watching it. My Twin Peaks fandom felt intimate, and, most importantly, very illicit.

One month before I turned 14, Lynch’s daughter published The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a paratext meant to fill in key plot holes and offer additional clues about Laura’s murder. But really, it was like an X-rated Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. The book was far smuttier than the show and my friends and I studied it like the Talmud. That book, coupled with  Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack, which I played on repeat on my tapedeck, created my first true immersive TV experience.

Jason Mittell: If may interject briefly to share this, you’re welcome…

AAK:   I’m aware that my resistance to a Twin Peaks Season 3 — just typing the words makes my stomach knot up — is due to my selfish desire to seal up that special TV viewing experience like a time capsule. The series holds up in 2014, but what made it particularly special to me in 1990 was how I had never seen anything like it before. Will Twin Peaks feel derivative in a television landscape populated with so many other campy, wonderful TV series (Sleepy Hollow, The Strain, Scandal, American Horror Story Freak Show, to name just a few)? Maybe I’m just a romantic, but I think Twin Peaks is best screened under the soft glow of nostalgia. Paging the TV historians!

JM:  Not at all. There have been weird TV shows before Twin Peaks, but with the one exception of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, they did not attract a crowd. You’re right that Twin Peaks fandom felt like an exclusive club, but it was an enormous one (and I reflect on my own romantic memories of watching the series below). What made it so special was that it was so unique and yet so popular, at least for the first season – it wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan oddity (like Frost & Lynch’s follow-up series, On the Air). Its popularity was why we got a second season, Secret Diary, and Fire Walk With Me. Had it been ignored at the time, it would be more like Freaks & Geeks or My So-Called Life – short lived perfect seasons that make us rend our hands at the failures of networks to know when they have something special. Instead, we have an object lesson on being careful what we ask for, which seems like a relevant thing to keep in mind today.

Dana Och:  As the Leave Twin Peaks Alone meme implicitly acknowledges, you (and all the others bemoaning the return) know that you are overreacting.

First, the back end of the second season (ok, most of the second season) would have already “lessened” the impact of the brilliant first season if we seriously believed that the mere existence of more episodes sullied or contaminated. Second, and much more interesting to me, you are highlighting the struggle over whom the show belongs to now. If that meme was originally about critics being mean to Brit Brit, here its use signals a feeling of helpless outrage over a cult object that has belonged to the fans for almost 25 years. But to claim ownership over the show in this moment is to demand dominance over the creators themselves, creators who have become synonymous with the quality television authorship mode.

My larger questions deal with whether the panic button is being pushed because people may have to reconsider how and why Twin Peaks became such a central text in defining “quality television” and the ways in which its history has been reconstructed and revised to fit a very specific narrative. Will that narrative falter if the third season sucks or goes more toward the elements (such as soap opera) that were always there but often have fallen by the wayside when current reviewers and critics invoke the series as a sign of genre, authorship, or quality?

In the hours after the announcement was made, many critics and sites started to retweet and post links to articles about the show from its original run. I found this trend remarkable, actually, as my twitter stream reflected the struggle between those who regard the show primarily as a cult object that was personally important to the development of their identity and taste parameters, and those who invest in the show as a sign of a larger industrial or generic shift in relation to television, journalism, and perhaps even the relationship between the two. My cult relationship to Twin Peaks will not shift for the fact that a potentially awful third season will air; the show will be different, as I am different. (On a rewatch a couple years ago, I was horrified to realize that I am now older than Nadine. This realization was perhaps one of the most depressing moments of my life.) What could be threatened, though, is an investment in the series as signifying a shorthand for criteria with which other shows are compared, or the nostalgia for the series as an originary moment that allowed for a shift in the mainstream imagination of the medium.

Though, to be honest, my tune may change once the conspiracy theories start proliferating online about how there is one grand message that can be decoded across all Lynch texts.  Twin Peaks to me is not about encyclopedic knowledge, drilling, and mastery; it is Lil walking in place offering signs and clues that go nowhere. It is experiencing a full range of affect and realizing that knowledge takes place in innumerable forms. The shift in the public cult object is the thing that will potentially be most interesting–and frustrating–to me about the new series. Though I am well aware that early message boards were used to discuss this show (as discussed in this edited collection, the first book on media studies that I purchased back when I was still a 19-year-old Biology major), I was at least a decade from regular computer use and even further from crowdsourcing knowledge and theories. And, just like both of you, my viewing context plays a role in my response to this news: I was a teenager in nowhere Kentucky watching the show by myself in the basement of my mom’s house on a tiny black and white television. I never had a community feeling associated with the show. The show and later the prequel were intensely personal, which may also be why I don’t feel at all threatened or worried about a third season.

Or, perhaps I am just drinking the Kool-Aid, but chug-a-lug, Donna.

JM:  Maybe I’m midway between your two positions – I am really excited about Twin Peaks returning, not because I have a deep, quote-driven relationship to the text, but because my relationship is so experiential and contingent. I watched the first season while a sophomore in college at a time that I didn’t really care much about television (yes, I’ll admit that I used to not care about television!). But each week a crowd of students would gather in a dorm lounge to marvel at what the fuck we were watching on television. For me, Twin Peaks will always be those moments of collective disbelief and bewilderment – that the crowd dissipated for the second season, that most of us found Fire Walk With Me frustratingly disappointing, and that the narrative never “paid off” in any satisfying way, none of these belittle that initial experience and wonderment over what television can do.

AAK: Fire Walk With Me broke my heart.

DO: Fire Walk With Me is one of my favorite things in the world.

JM: Do I expect that the return to Twin Peaks will generate similar experiences? Of course not. But I anticipate that it will be interesting. For me, the biggest disappointment that could occur is if the Showtime season is boring – I’ll embrace an interesting trainwreck much more than an obvious attempt to remake the original’s originality. And I’d contend (per Sean O’Sullivan) that seriality thrives in the anticipation for more, not the satisfaction of that more being what you want. I fully expect that much of Showtime’s season will be unsatisfying and disappointing, but I’m fine with that as long as it gets us all talking about Twin Peaks, going back to rewatch the previous seasons, and imagining possible futures for Agent Cooper et. al.

One last context for my excitement: I’ve written about David Lynch and seriality before, considering how the achievement of Mulholland Drive is predicated on its failed serial status, and Lynch’s own creative reimaginings during the 18 month production hiatus. After less than two years, the Mulholland Drive pilot appeared to Lynch as if a dream to be radically rethought and transformed. Imagine what might have happened in the minds of Lynch & Mark Frost over a 25 year serial gap?! Such anticipation is killing me.

AAK: Lest I come off as a purist, I want to note that I’m generally a fan of sequels, reboots, remakes and all other manner of multiplicities. As a kid who grew up with the Star Wars franchise, I prepared for the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace by going to see the rerelease of the “digitally remastered” trilogy as Lucas rolled each of them out in theaters (“remastered” Jabba the Hutt, I can’t unsee you). I bought my tickets for Phantom Menace months in advance and drove, via caravan, an hour out of town to see it in a THX-certified theater. That was a very sad ride home indeed.

Phantom Menace was disappointing, yes, but far worse is the damage these prequels did to the Star Wars series as whole. My students refer to it (gasp!) as the “first Star Wars,” and many of them have never seen the original trilogy. By making crappy prequels, Lucas did real damage to the franchise—he opened up that perfect time capsule and sullied its contents with Jar Jar Binks and needless digital chicanery.

So unlike Dana, I do fear that my cult experience will shift once season 3 of Twin Peaks airs. Opening up a text that had previously (however unsatisfyingly) been closed will retroactively impact that text, and, by extension, its cult fandom. I don’t want the history of Twin Peaks to be rewritten the way the history of Star Wars has been rewritten. I want it to stay in 1991, with its floppy, pretty boy hair and jean jackets, forever. I realize that this isn’t rational but the cult heart wants what it wants.

JM: But don’t we need to raise the figure of authorship here? After all, whom do you trust more with a beloved serial text, George Lucas or David Lynch? The biggest sin of the Star Wars prequels was what I raised above: they were boring. Mind-numbingly, soul-deadeningly boring! (This is triggering flashbacks to the interminable “romance” scenes in Attack of the Clones.) The precedent of Mulholland Drive leads me to expect that Lynch is not going to offer us the midichlorians of the Black Lodge, but rather take us down another level of mindfuckery via the pacific northwest equivalent of Club Silencio.

AAK: You’re right, of course. George Lucas and David Lynch are very different directors with very different goals. And truthfully, I’m not concerned about the potential quality of a Twin Peaks season 3 (I have faith in Lynch’s ability to, at the very least, make something interesting). In fact, given the disappointing way that season 2 ended, not with a bang but a whimper, I imagine Lynch and Frost will provide a more definitive sense of closure for the series.

But for this fan, the birth of the series, its unexpected critical and commercial success, ABC’s insistence on revealing Laura Palmer’s killer midseason and the consequent loss of the series’ impetus for existence, and then its meandering final episodes, are all part of the holy Twin Peaks narrative I’ve been telling myself for the last 25 years. The way the series played out speaks to the way I watched and understood TV in the early 90s. Of course, an argument could be made that reopening the text and giving Lynch and Frost  a chance to do it all over again, this time on a premium cable channel, speaks very much to the way we watch and understand TV today. Beloved gone-too-soon shows like Arrested Development and Veronica Mars were given a narrative reprieve and, while I was delighted to have these reunions, the results were ultimately disappointing, like going to your 20th high school reunion and seeing that your senior year crush is bald and 50 pounds overweight. So yeah, I’ll have a cocktail with Twin Peaks when it returns to Showtime in 2016, but I don’t think I’ll feel the old sparks fly.

JM: Maybe I’m strange, but I want to see what Twin Peaks looks like bald and overweight!

DO: And with high cholesterol!  As with the fandoms that surround the cult shows that you mention (and my other favorites, the Whedon shows), the discourse often romanticizes the series and the author by blaming the network (TPTB, The Man) for squashing the promise and brilliance of the show. I wonder how that narrative, for which Twin Peaks is often invoked as an example par excellence, plays out with the move to Showtime, especially as Fire Walk With Me has established a precedent of distrust with a portion of the fans.  It is true that I am personally excited for the third season (as I would be excited for any Lynch show), but my larger intellectual curiosity is how the show functions discursively and as a marker or sign.

AAK: Now you’re talking about two different things though, Dana. There is the scholar and then there is the fan. Sometimes those positions overlap for me and sometimes they don’t. In this case, they don’t. As a media studies scholar, I can’t wait to see how viewers (veterans and virgins alike) react to season 3 of Twin Peaks. But as a fan, it makes me feel like the internet is about to take a dump in my junior high diary.

DO: Yes, I am talking about two different things, but I do not see how scholar and fan are not overlapping, especially as the show serves as a text that thrives in the academic and popular imagination as a place where the two converge. The problem of authorship and cult are inevitably going to collide here, with the core audience facing that its “stable” cult object will shift, potentially challenging our sense of mastery and ownership over the text and our understanding of its larger cultural signification.

JM: With Twin Peaks, I feel like I’m less of a fan of the show itself than the idea of it, and the reflective analysis it triggers. What I’m most looking forward to is the conversation around the show – especially given that Twin Peaks helped inaugurate the online forensic fandom that I’ve argued is central to contemporary serial television consumption, I’m curious to see how the series plays in the digital era. We weren’t live-tweeting, building wikis, and writing/reading online episodic reviews back in 1990 – what will Twin Peaks viewing culture look like today? And like with all revivals, how much of that consumption will be about the new object versus our memories of how we watched and cared about the old version? So while everyone is watching Twin Peaks, I feel I’ll be spending a lot of time watching everyone watch Twin Peaks too. I can’t wait…


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4 Responses to “ Debating the Return of Twin Peaks

  1. Derek Kompare on October 11, 2014 at 4:49 PM

    Great discussion, on exactly the terms I’d imagine. All the way through I was thinking of how so much of this fits what has transpired over the past decade with Doctor Who. While there are huge differences between DW and TP (the former a sprawling hyperdiegesis, the latter a flash-in-the-pan cult nugget), this debate went down in similar terms, particularly between the September 2003 announcement of the show’s return, and the revival’s premiere in March 2005. The next year-plus will be largely the same in regards to TP: lots of speculation (who’s returning? who’s not?, etc.) and anticipation. The imprimatur of authorship does point to Lucas, Hurwitz, Thomas, and Whedon, though for DW, both Davies and Moffat (and many of the show’s writers and even lead actors) have fan credentials that have functioned as a facet of their authorship. I’d imagine along the way there will be many “new” people associated with TP season 3 who publicly declare themselves “major fans” of the original, in a similar manner.

    All three of you locate TP firmly in particular nostalgic circumstances (though most strongly with Amanda), something impossible to strip away from any significant revival or adaptation. It’s not fair, but it’s perfectly understandable. If there were no nostalgia, there’d be no new Twin Peaks (or Doctor Who, or Star Wars/Trek, or Veronica Mars, etc.). For those of us who “were there” originally, this will be a very different experience vs those who are just discovering the show, especially since the intensity was so focused on a particular time (1990-91) vs. being dispersed over many years. Lynch and Frost and Showtime and everyone involved in the production will do what they will with the show, with their own nostalgic baggage to navigate. The rest of us need to do that as well, take a step or two back from what it was and who we were in the spring of 1990, and enjoy the resulting harmony and dissonance.

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