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How TWIN PEAKS Broke Ground, Vanished, and Came Back in Style

How TWIN PEAKS Broke Ground, Vanished, and Came Back in Style

Picking my eyes up from what could in all sincerity be described as a damn fine cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie worth a stop, I was decidedly surprised. It wasn’t the precision of the set design that had transformed a simple Brooklyn event space into a pretty impressive replica of the Double R Diner that stunned me, nor the likewise remarkable recreations of the Palmer residence and the Black Lodge in the adjacent rooms. It wasn’t the rogues’ gallery of costumed actors reviving the likes of Audrey, Killer BOB, and the Log Lady, or the troupe of burlesque dancers who’d spontaneously take to the ad-hoc stages throughout this particularly colorful evening. No, what shocked me above all was how many goddamn people were there.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been too caught off guard, since you can hardly get through a conversation among the pop culture-literate these days without someone dropping veneration for Twin Peaks. But catching glimpse of hundreds of fans, young and old alike, packing my old neighborhood’s Brooklyn Bazaar to the brim for BBQ Films’ Tribute to Twin Peaks this past Tuesday evening gave me a new appreciation for the cult series’ place in the modern world.

In fact, you could even say that Twin Peaks is responsible for much of the modern world of television. “In the grand scheme of things, Twin Peaks was kind of the second big step,” says Prof. Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture, and author of Television’s Second Golden Age. After running through the groundbreaking impact of 1980s television dramas like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, China Beach, and Moonlighting, Thompson lands on Twin Peaks as a pivotal component in “the announcement that television could be much more sophisticated, much more literary, much more complex.”

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Unlikely though its success may have been, what with creator David Lynch‘s particularly unpalatable sensibilities, Twin Peaks was a bona fide hit throughout its condensed first season, earning bombastic critical acclaim and the best ratings for any ABC series in years. “Lynch made the cover of Time magazine,” Thompson says. “Everyone was talking about his personal habits. He’d become a real kind of celebrity cult artiste.”

Almost immediately, you could see the influence Twin Peaks was having on the state of small screen entertainment. “Twin Peaks became a generic name for a certain type of programming immediately,” Thompson says, citing Northern Exposure and Picket Fences as two early examples. “Northern Exposure debuted the summer right after Twin Peaks [and] was called ‘Twin Peaks for beginners.'” He adds, “Right after Twin Peaks, Oliver Stone did a thing called Wild Palms. Miserable failure, but that even evoked Twin Peaks in its title.”

But the tides turned rather quickly for Lynch and Mark Frost’s oddball series. The show’s heyday hit a steep decline following the second season’s premature revelation of who killed Laura Palmer, which had been the driving force of the program up until then. “At the time, it felt like Twin Peaks came and went,” says Brad Dukes, author of Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks. “It was everywhere. Kyle [McLaughlin] was hosting Saturday Night Live, and literally within nine months, they were canceled. Off the air. Poof.”

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According to Dukes, the years to follow saw what was at its height one of America’s most popular and gripping program’s fade into virtual oblivion. Dukes accounts for a lengthy dry spell in Twin Peaks fandom stretching all the way into the early 2000s. “It seemed like not too many people cared about Twin Peaks,” he says, reflecting on when he began blogging about the series in 2011. “The first time I ever went to the Twin Peaks festival in Washington was in 2008, and I think there were about 80 people there. I remember they had the big banquet night at this bar/barn. Piper Laurie was there, Kimmy Robertson, a few other people. And I just remember kind of looking around, thinking, ‘This is all that’s left of Twin Peaks.'”

It wouldn’t be until the show’s 20th anniversary in 2010 that Dukes saw a slight upswing in attendance. “I’ve gone to the fest every year since then and now it’s pandemonium,” Dukes says, adding, “I remember hearing about this parties in Brooklyn [and] bars that would have Twin Peaks night. Twin Peaks kind of became a hipster thing.” Logically, he suggests that Twin Peaks’ eventual availability via streaming services like Hulu and, later, Netflix was paramount in earning the show this new generation of fans. “I’m sure if you’re watching Mad Men, or whatever, Netflix is going to tell you to check out Twin Peaks.”

This connection is hardly arbitrary—according to Thompson, the prestige dramas of our time owe much of their DNA to Twin Peaks. “Whenever I watch Fargo, you can hear Twin Peaks humming—not softly—loudly in the background,” he says. “True Detective, you can see Twin Peaks’ influence. Lost, for that matter, [which took] Twin Peaks’ complexity and total weird non-typical narrative and actually managed to take that notion and make a hit out of it.”

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Thompson subscribes to Dukes’ assessment that the early 2000s weren’t particularly rife with overt Peaks fandom. “There was a period in the late ’90s and early part of the decade before these things were resurrected by major internet communication and social media…when it was less on the tip of everybody’s tongue as it had been in the beginning.”

Dukes builds on this: “I think it really took a few years for creators who were influenced by Twin Peaks to come of age. To enter the industry and bring the spirit of [the show].” Thus the likes of the programs mentioned by Thompson.

And not only have these shows (Thompson also name-checks Breaking BadBetter Call Saul, and Riverdale) built on the kind of material that Twin Peaks pioneered, they may have even created a new generation of television viewers more equipped to handle Twin Peaks than its original audience was. “Twin Peaks was ahead of its time, and now its time has come,” says Thompson, “Now that you’ve got so many more viewers who are used to complicated, sophisticated, literary TV than were back in the age of Twin Peaks.”

On Twin Peaks’ insistence on withholding the answers to its questions, Thompson says, “I think younger people are more able to deal with that than we were.” As an aside, Thompson cites his students’ ability to remember all the names and affiliated houses of the legions of Game of Thrones characters, which he, even after multiple viewings admits to having trouble with. “We had grown up on television that had radically closured narrative. There were very few things that were left unclear. That was one of the rules of television. It had to appeal to tens of millions of people. Everyone had to ‘get it.'”

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But perhaps there’s more to Twin Peaks’ return not only to mainstream popularity, but to our screens in a sequel series on Showtime 25 years after its initial cancelation. “I do think there’s some bigger cultural things happening that makes this time interesting for Twin Peaks to come back,” says David Griffith, Director of Creative Writing at Interlochen Center for the Arts. “I think one of those things is that the world seems unsafe. 1990, not so much. We had not had the LA Riots. The Lockerbie Bombing had been in [’88], but that happened in the UK and that didn’t really bother Americans too much. Iran Contra was kind of in the rearview already. So 1990 felt pretty safe to people.”

Griffith qualifies this assessment with a direct reference to Twin Peaks’ text: “If there was a danger in the world at that time, it was [about] drugs,” he says. “So that is one thing you see in Twin Peaks. These beautiful teenagers get involved in this drug trade across the American-Canadian border.”

But today we live amid what seems like a never-ending conversation about terrorism in the lasting wake of September 11th. “We are living in a world that feels pretty dangerous,” Griffith says. “And that danger is coming from people that are, in some ways, the personification of BOB. These people that seem to be completely demonic and soulless—at least that’s the way we have made them in our imaginations.” He adds, “The evil that men do is all around us. It’s in our very government. Whatever happens in this reboot, I think it’s going to resonate very strongly with people because a lot of people feel surrounded by, or maybe infiltrated by, evil men.”

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It’s even worth asking if this contemporary worldview might change the way we thing about standing Twin Peaks themes and characters. Chief among the lot: Agent Dale Cooper. “There hasn’t been a hero like Cooper,” Griffith says, comparing his nigh unparalleled virtue to the G.K. Chesterton’s mystery-solving priest Father Brown. But today’s audiences may not be able to digest the notion of a profoundly good FBI agent like they could back in 1990. “Given that people are going to bring the contemporary framework with them to watching the show, they’re probably going to see all kinds of things in the representation of law enforcement—especially the FBI—in watching the [new season],” Griffith says. “We can’t forget about the bad PR that…law enforcement across the country has had [these past] five years, going all the way back to…Trayvon Martin.”

Many ideas that live at the forefront of the social conscious today didn’t earn a second thought from the creators of Twin Peaks, nor from most of the viewing public, back then. As Griffith says, “I think there’s going to be interesting conversations around the show in terms of race and ethnicity that weren’t happening in 1990.” He cites one particularly regrettable instance in particular that would, as he puts it, set “Twitter on fire” today: “[The episode when] Catherine is dressed up as the man from Japan. The long hair and the Fu Manchu mustache. That would never fly right now!” This on top of the fact that, as Griffith reminds me, “There were no black characters in the original Twin Peaks.”

The opposite side of the same coin is that modern audiences are more willing to embrace certain themes that, in the original Twin Peaks, may have come off as arcane or even taboo. Griffith cites Lynch’s affinity for Eastern spirituality as a big example of this. “All the Dalai Lama stuff in the original series, we thought it was a joke—but it wasn’t,” he says. “It became much more permissible in the early Aughts for people to start talking about the transcendental meditation practices. [In the reboot], it won’t be seen as campy, I’m guessing…We have entered an era where there is a lot more interfaith dialogue.”

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Some might say that Twin Peaks was ahead of its time regarding LGBTQ issues as well, though indeed not without room for improvement. “One part of the quote-unquote successful formula for the original show was the implication—although not explicit—of lesbianism between Laura and Ronette,” Griffith says. He adds, “Think about the fact that David Duchovny was a [transgender woman] in the first series. He’s coming back in this series, and it’s going to be even more trenchant this time. It’s not going to be as campy.”

As for what other differences we can look forward to in the new series, all parties have their expectations, hopes, and, yes, fears. “I think we are in for a drastic departure,” Dukes says with excitement. “I don’t think they’re going to find a body in the first five minutes. I think it’s going to be something very, very different.”

Thompson, on the other hand, isn’t so sure that Twin Peaks can capture the same kind of magic. “What Twin Peaks did, they were the first to do a lot of that stuff…And now [that we’ve seen] all the shows that have kind of stood on the shoulders of Twin Peaks…it’s going to be a real challenge to go back to that original and have it be as innovative a quarter of a century later.”

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That’s not the only point on which these two disagree. While Dukes asserts, “Number one, I want to see Agent Cooper redeemed. I want him to conquer the darkness and defeat BOB,” Thompson is worried about the new series undoing the conclusion of its predecessor.

“When we last saw Agent Cooper, he was possessed by BOB,” Thompson says. “I don’t want them to simply erase that. So is Agent Cooper going to be a bad guy? I guess that’s the way it would have to be, and maybe I want to see that. There’s something about that so beautifully created universe that was created and we left. Maybe you cant go back to those kinds of things.”

Apprehensions aside, we are indeed going back. And its not just original fans like Thompson, Dukes, and Griffith who’ll be tuning in this time, but a whole new generation of Twin Peaks junkies—crowds of whom I observed eating up BBQ Films’ recreation of the spooky Washington town in Greenpoint, Brooklyn earlier this week. We can point to a lot of things that may have brought the show these hundreds of new devotees: was it the efficiency of streaming, a decade weaned on sophisticated television, or a more open-minded society that made the 2010s the right time for Twin Peaks to come back in style?

Perhaps, like any damn fine cup of coffee, it just needed a moment to cool down.

Check our gallery below for images from BBQ Films’ Tribute to Twin Peaks, and remember to let us know what you think of the new season premiere after it airs on Sunday night!

Featured Image: Republic Pictures/CBS Television Distribution
Images: Republic Pictures/CBS Television Distribution, NBC
Gallery Images: Christopher Gregory

Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist, and a naysayer and a hatchet-man in the fight against violence. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.

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