– Agent Dale Cooper
I love Twin Peaks. I love the characters, the seedy, small-town setting, Angelo Badalamenti’s music and the trademark David Lynch weirdness. I remember when I first watched the series. It was a couple summers ago; each night after work I’d come home, have dinner and then sit with the girlfriend and watch an episode. When it was over, we’d argue over whether or not we should watch another one, like, right that moment, or if we should be patient and wait for the next night. This is a sign of a great TV show. What makes it great? Why is it so damn hypnotizing (aside from the amazing introduction)? For those who watched the show almost two decades after the original airing, as I did, or those who will watch it now for the first time on Netflix Instant Watch, the elements that make it addicting might not be so clear. It’s because it’s a well-made soap opera.
I know you might be thinking, whaaaaaaat? This idea, though, is not new. It is well documented on Wikipedia and in Amazon reviews of the Gold Box Edition of the show. At no point does the show try to hide this fact. It embraces it. (As shown by the meta-soap opera Invitation to Love that can be seen on televisions throughout the series, sometimes this fact is even overt). Lynch and Mark Frost embraced it as well; the show was conceived as a murder mystery/ soap opera. Lynch has stated that his goal with Twin Peaks was to create a never-ending story, one that would have lasted years and years. Characters would come and go, and the mysterious death of homecoming queen Laura Palmer would enable the discovery of new stories and new mysteries (and remain unsolved until the series finale). Sound familiar?
In the first twenty minutes of the pilot, we are introduced to twelve or thirteen characters who play an important role in the murder of Laura Palmer. They all have a history and they are all given their own stories. Some of these are introduced slowly and carefully, as is the case with the complex relationship between Norma Jennings, Ed Hurley and Nadine Hurley. New characters are introduced as well, some in an abrupt way; Heather Graham makes a sudden appearance as Annie Blackburn, a love interest for Kyle MacLachlan’s impeccable Special Agent Dale Cooper, late in season two. It’s clear there was the intention to have a rotating cast of characters all connected by Palmer’s death. New ones might come, old ones might leave, but Laura Palmer would tie them and the town together. After spending some time in Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper thinks it might be a wise decision to settle there permanently.
The idea that the main story arc would last several episodes, that it would span seasons, even, was uncommon for prime time TV. It wasn’t uncommon for day time TV, though; soap operas, or what is sometimes referred to by grandmothers (and in my case, grandfathers) as “stories,” had been doing it for years. Consider what was airing alongside Twin Peaks during prime time in 1990: Growing Pains, Roseanne, Quantum Leap, Family Matters, Coach. Twin Peaks stood out.
More than that, these other shows had squarely defined plots; by the end of the half-hour or hour, the story of that episode was tied up and the next episode was a loosely related, new experience. When episodes didn’t end so clearly, these shows ran the “to be continued” card, breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience, “hey, we’re not done here!” Twin Peaks simply existed and, as a result, ushered in a later era of serialized prime time. Lost and 24, brought to you by Twin Peaks.
Many of the situations in which the characters find themselves are reminiscent of day time soaps. Think about how secret pasts are revealed, then think about Josie Packard in season two. Think about how mysterious identical twins arrive in town for no reason just to steal ex-boyfriends, then think about cousin Maddy. Think about love triangles and quadrangles, then think about the relationships between many of the characters. (Most were secretly involved with each other). Think about Leland Palmer. Everything combines to make an addictive viewing experience. The only thing we miss by watching this show on DVD and Netflix is that, when these scenes occur, there is no dramatic music and cut to a commercial.
Then there’s the weird shit. The shit like Agent Cooper’s dream of the red room and the midget who moves and speaks in reverse. The giant who sometimes visits him. Mike, the one-armed man. The Log Lady. The … do I really need to keep going? There’s a lot of weirdness in this show. However, some of it really isn’t that peculiar when we look at it in the context of other soap operas.
Remember that moment on General Hospital when the evil Mikkos Cassadine used a formula inside the Ice Princess diamond to freeze Port Charles and control the world? Remember the time on Guiding Light when Reva was in a coma and she was projecting astral images of herself to her boyfriend and his new lover? Remember when, later on Guiding Light, they cloned Reva and the clone turned out to be evil? Remember the witch on Passions who used magic to animate her doll Timmy who was later turned into a real boy by “the angel girl” who granted his wish? I don’t remember this shit either, but it sounds crazy enough and makes most of Twin Peaks sound completely normal.
Twin Peaks is different because it embraces the weirdness and makes it authentic. It doesn’t blindside us; the weird doesn’t exist solely as a means to push the plot forward; it exists because it’s natural. As a result, we embrace it; it rarely shocks us. We like it. Agent Cooper talks to his faceless counterpart Diane, has a spiritual connection with Tibet and routinely exclaims his love for black coffee. Okay, I’ll believe that. These things define his character and we are eased into them to the point where they seem normal.
Each character has their own unique qualities. Nadine wears an eye patch and is obsessed with drapery. Gordon Cole (played superbly by Lynch) is hard of hearing, speaks very loudly and has a thing for bonsai trees. Eventually, even the Log Lady and her mystical log seem normal. Maybe we’re the strange ones because we don’t have these eccentric qualities (except we all do, if you look a little closer).
There is a point where things get too weird. Due to pressure from ABC, Lynch and Frost brought the Laura Palmer storyline to a close and suddenly, as Lynch said, the goose that laid the golden egg had its head snipped off. This is when the show goes too far; you have to really be into Twin Peaks to enjoy it after this point. The situations that occur are so abnormal and come about so abruptly that they could fit in with the soap operas of today—here, I’m thinking of Leo Johnson being enslaved by Windom Earle, Nadine enrolling in High School again and Ben Horne becoming a Civil War general (in his mind). Not only that, but the quality of the show hits a sharp decline.
The mystery of Laura Palmer’s death was the glue that kept the stories together. Without it, everything is disjointed and the focus is lost. There is an attempt to make the mysterious appearance of Windom Earle and his stalking of Agent Cooper the new center point, but it’s a weak move. It’s not well-written or interesting. We get extended scenes of James Hurley leaving Twin Peaks and becoming involved in a boring story of murder with Evelyn Marsh. We get Thomas Eckhardt trying to force Josie out of town. We get Denise/ Dennis Bryson (aka David Duchovny in drag).Then everything gets extra-supernatural with Major Briggs and the black and white lodges. Blah. The series finale, directed by Lynch, certainly makes up for it, though.
The eccentricities are why the show is a cult classic. Without them, and the soap elements, it could still be great; however, the soap elements accentuate the weirdness and turn it into something spectacular. Even with the lackluster part of the second season, I consider the show one of my favorites. It’s one I can always revisit. It’s my television safety net. I’ll be taking advantage of its recent addition to Netflix.