That show you like is going to come back in style

I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube recently. Pivoting from my use of the platform as a way to endlessly consume old Vines, thanks to various recommendations I have discovered a turbulent underbelly of educational resources, apparently a good decade after most other people.

One of these channels recently ran a video concerning the surrealist director David Lynch and his crooked use of spoken and written language. I have never been a devotee of Lynch, nor of his work, though I have often wished I was. I remember watching Mulholland Drive at university and enjoying it immensely, even though the meaning of it eluded me, but the way this video spoke about Lynch and his unique lens on the world awoke a tempered desire to consume what many consider the director’s magnus opus: the bizarre and disturbing soap opera of Twin Peaks.

I’d heard of it, of course. Anyone with even a passing appreciation for the Golden Age of television we’re living through knows of it and its titanic influence on almost all foundational examples of television drama that followed. Over the years I had apparently concocted an idea of what it might be like based on vague impressions of Lynch’s work and of that single viewing of Mulholland Drive. I expected a non-linear, vaguely comprehensible dream of a series, a collection of vignettes and motifs with little connective tissue but which tap into primordial fears of the collective consciousness to both terrify and delight.

I did not expect an extended gag about a police officer’s sperm count, nor to come away from each episode craving cherry pie and some damn fine coffee.

Twin Peaks is one of Lynch’s earlier works, coming in behind Eraserhead and The Elephant Man but before Mulholland and Inland Empire. The version of Lynch here is a developing one, not yet consumed by the many intents of abstractness but still experimental and dangerous. It was also a collaboration with Hill Street Blues runner Mark Frost whose steadying hand is felt less and less as the series continues but to whom the run owes a huge debt in terms of comprehensibility. The series is not a parody or a mockery of its contemporary TV soap-operas, shows like Dallas or Dynasty, but an inversion, a surrealist vision which twists them into uncomfortable shapes that reflect bizarre images of themselves back to us.

Photo by Elke Karin Lugert on Unsplash

The setup is simple: a young girl is murdered in a small logging town and, fearing a serial killer on the loose, FBI Agent Dale Cooper is sent to investigate. The first episode is, for the most part, a fairly straight rendering of exactly the programme such a summary might conjure. We are introduced to the town and its inhabitants, Cooper arrives as the fish-out-of-water protagonist, the personal lives of the characters complicate the seemingly simple investigation.

But there’s something off from the beginning too. The camera lingers more than it should, shots lasting just a few seconds beyond the unconscious comfort zone of the viewer. Characters stare at each other silently where other shows would have them talk. Odd cuts between scenes create a warped sense of space to the world, like the whole town is at once very real and also something from a dream. Underscoring it all is Angelo Badalamenti’s jazz score, seemingly consisting of three tracks looped endlessly. The most repeated, a haunting synthesised drone of a track, resolves itself into a piano led swell that could have come from any other TV drama of its day, before slipping back to the same humming drone that puts teeth on edge and hairs on end.

This is Laura Palmer’s theme. The murdered student at the centre of the mystery dominates the first season entirely, an impressive accomplishment given her character’s death before the first episode. Every shot in the pilot, every line of dialogue, every side-glance summons the ghost of Laura to appear. Over the next 7 episodes the character is fleshed out through memories, vocal snippets and, perhaps most importantly, that which is not said at all.

The character becomes the immovable focal point in a way I haven’t seen before or since in a serialised television narrative. She becomes the fulcrum around which Lynch slowly shifts convention, revealing the flattened, rotting underbelly of the town and the darkness the lies hidden behind the eyes of the viewer. What appears initially as a procedural crime show becomes a dive into the nature of society as a social construct and the unacknowledged battle between the light and dark of human nature within us all. Laura is the heart of the show, and her first appearance onscreen marks a profound shift in tone, and our expectations of what lies ahead.

At the end of the first episode, Agent Cooper falls asleep and is transported to the Red Room, the series’ iconic rendering of neverspace, the void behind the darkness. Before him stand a dwarf and the woman who may or may not be the spirit of Laura Palmer. The small man and dead girl move in reverse, their speech distorted and warped as they talk in nothing but riddles and abstractions. “Let’s rock!” says the man while Cooper sits calmly, letting the disturbing scene play out before him. He has become the viewer incarnate, unaware of the greater moves at play, watching dumbly as they spool themselves out before us. Like Cooper, we watch the scene in a kind of stupor, utterly dumbfounded by the images before us yet unable to look away.

As the scene begins to wrap, Maybe-Laura approaches Cooper and whispers something in his ear. The Man from the Other Place shifts uncomfortably from his chair and begins to dance. A toe tapping jazz tune plays, and like Cooper we sit entranced, wondering exactly what it is we’ve gotten ourselves into.