Revisiting Twin Peaks

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Watching “Twin Peaks” back in 1990 used to fill me with dread, but it’s a different kind of dread I feel now at the show’s impending revival on Showtime.  Do we really need to revisit this series and potentially spoil our memories of one of the weirdest and most original TV shows of all time?

I sure hope series creator David Lynch has something more to say and is not just looking for a paycheck, because it sure seemed that he had already squeezed more out of this tale than it could reasonably bear. Even before it went off the air after 29 episodes, it had run dry of ideas and been reduced to gimmicks and increasingly bizarre plot twists. And then there was a reunion movie, the less said about the better.

The weirdest thing about “Twin Peaks” is that it was on the air at all.  TV in 1990 was dominated by the four major broadcast networks with their paint-by-numbers dramas and prime time soap operas. No one had seen anything like this moody and discursive show, where plot took a back seat to atmospherics, dream sequences and raw emotion. And yet the pilot attracted 34 million viewers and “Who killed Laura Palmer?” briefly became a national obsession, justifying a hilarious parody on Saturday Night Live.

In anticipation of the revival and to see whether the show was actually as good as I remembered, I recently watched the original series on Netflix. To revisit “Twin Peaks” after all these years is to be transported back in time.  The show was so intense and out of the ordinary that even the opening notes of the theme song evoke specific memories of people and places from that era.  (And what a great theme.)

While rewatching “Twin Peaks,” the thing that struck me immediately is how much “Stranger Things,” that recent Netflix homage to the eighties, owes to it.  They were both creepy small-town mysteries with handsome sheriffs trying to combat the evil supernatural forces that thrived out in the dark woods.  Both shows deal with parental angst, class divisions, and bullies.

The difference is that “Twin Peaks” turns up the volume to eleven in every aspect and preys insidiously on the cultural anxieties of the late 1980s.  There’s a sweetness and innocence running through “Stranger Things” that is entirely missing in “Twin Peaks,” where unbridled sexuality, greed and drugs threaten to snuff out all that is good in small town life.

And speaking of small towns, I’ve lived in a few and I can tell you that the percentage of drop-dead beautiful girls is much higher in the town of Twin Peaks than it is anywhere else in the universe.

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This is not what the girls looked like when I was in high school

Even 27 years later, “Twin Peaks” has the power to shock, and not just through the murder of a beautiful girl, which is now a commonplace trope, but through Davis Lynch’s eerie direction and Angelo Badalamenti’s otherworldly musical score.  Lynch also got more disorientation out of oddball casting than anyone, except for perhaps John Waters. He resurrected former “West Side Story” co-stars Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn from obscurity, and gave major parts to “The Mod Squad’s” Peggy Lipton and “Carrie’s” Piper Laurie.  Seeing them all in “Twin Peaks” was just plain weird, then and now.

And yet, to be honest, the emotional impact of some scenes is undercut by the overwrought acting.  I actually laughed out loud at the wailing at Laura Palmer’s funeral, which was so over-the-top.  And throughout the whole series the characters show little nuance or depth – they are either good, bad, delusional or perceptive with no grays.

The real man of mystery at the center of the show is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan.  Outwardly, Cooper is a model FBI bureaucrat – straight-laced and playing it by the book.  But he’s full of quirks, including his over-enthusiasm for coffee and pie and a habit of dictating his every thought into a tape recorder for an unseen “Diane.” He’s also remarkably intuitive, able to tell at a glance who’s sleeping with whom, and prone to dreaming about dancing dwarves.

As great as it was, “Twin Peaks” is a cautionary tale about extending a series beyond its natural life.  Once Laura Palmer’s murder was solved, there was no reason for the series to continue, but in those days, TV shows ran until their ratings got low enough to be cancelled, which happened just 15 episodes past the murder resolution.

“Lost,” that other popular show with a supernatural mystery at its heart, lasted far longer than “Twin Peaks,” but still tried its viewers’ patience to the breaking point.  More recently, “Mr. Robot” fell into the “Twin Peaks” trap, with a wildly original debut and an audience-displeasing sophomore season.  In the same vein, I am worried about the upcoming second season of “Stranger Things,” given that the first season was a near-perfect extended movie on its own with no need of a sequel.

Despite my reservations about what a contemporary “Twin Peaks” will bring, I’ll definitely watch it.  David Lynch is too great a filmmaker to blow him off.  My curiosity is mounting day by day.   I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, though.  And to be honest, I just hope I can make it through the end of the run.

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