The Null Device
My name is Andrew, and until now, I have never watched Twin Peaks.
I had seen, and enjoyed, various of David Lynch's films (Lost Highway in particular made an impact on me at the time with its uneasy dreamlike vision). Twin Peaks had been on television, of which I didn't watch much at the time (the novelty of the internet, in its text-based, pre-web version, had consumed my spare attention). I, of course, couldn't help but be aware of it: the media hype, the Bart Simpson Killed Laura Palmer T-shirts every attention-seeker was wearing. At the time it was easy enough to dismiss it prematurely as just another dumb TV show; something people who watch TV will witter about for the next few weeks and then forget, moving onto the next mass spectacle. (This was about a generation before the idea of Quality TV came around, when episodic TV shows were perceived, mostly accurately, as low-rent boob-bait, something acknowledged in Twin Peaks with its own references to lurid telenovela tropes.) In the years that followed, its influence kept coming up repeatedly in ways that generic dumb TV shows don't. I had friends who made art referencing it, made pilgrimages to the locations, travelled to conventions and got selfies with actors from it, and who sought out David Lynch's pop-up bar in Paris; such fandom doesn't generally happen for, say, Growing Pains or Melrose Place (to choose two names at random).
I wasn't completely truthful when I said I had never watched Twin Peaks. Many years ago, I got a copy (I can't remember where: a set of DVDs borrowed in Melbourne in the late 90s, or some .avi files copied from a friend in California in the late 00s, or a DVD box set buried in a box in a storage locker in Melbourne) and watched the pilot and the second episode. My impression was: this is some kind of greaser hell, a tough, brutal world ruled by the inevitability of violence, and the logic of violence as honour, like Viking-age sagas crossed with Nick Cave murder ballads, with a 50s rock'n'roll soundtrack. It didn't help that among the first characters I saw who were doing something other than merely reacting in shock were a reptilian psychopath whose psychological and physical abuse of his (young, pretty, terrified) wife was probably the least of his crimes, and a greaser hoodlum, whose propensity for impulsive violence had a boys-will-be-boys logic to it, and who ended the episode literally howling like a wolf to intimidate another guy. The phrase “toxic masculinity” was not common currency yet, but it would have described a fundamental element of this world, along with perhaps the great American founding myth of righteous violence. This bleak worldview did not, at the time, compel me to prioritise watching the third episode immediately; I had other things to do, and soon the whole series ended up receding further into the backlog of unwatched TV; to be watched when I found the time. The years passed, and I absorbed bits of it by osmosis, much as one does with, say, Star Trek or Game Of Thrones or Lost; sort of knowing what the Black Lodge is in the way that I sort of know what the Red Wedding or Darmok And Jalad refer to. Over the years, more and more of it slipped into the periphery of my world: the iconic red curtains and zigzag flooring of the Black Lodge appearing in various places, music influenced by the Cocteauvian doo-wop of the soundtrack; I went to a burlesque night in East London which turned out to be Twin Peaks-themed, and undoubtedly missed most of the references; a year or two later, I instantly recognised a (sublime) shoegaze version of the Twin Peaks theme played at a gig at the Union Chapel in Islington.
And so, the .avi files sat on a succession of hard drives (and were more recently supplanted by a BluRay box set, the product of a wish-list-mediated long-distance Christmas), waiting for me to get around to watching them. I copied them to my iPad once, with the view of catching up whilst travelling, but never did: the sheer wall of 29 episodes acted as a psychological barrier: do I have the time to commit to this now? Then, in 2017, came the return: a third series, set (more or less) in the same universe with the same characters. On one hand, the pressure to finally bite the bullet and catch up increased: half the people I knew were talking about it, their talk in a code I half understood, and this would only intensify; on the other hand, the wall of canonical content would only grow steeper and more imposing. The season came and went, friends tweeted about it and started podcasts, but I stayed behind, unable to find the time to catch up on the originals.
But then, a year and a bit after I moved to Sweden, The Covfefe hit. Suddenly I was working from home and not going out; all events and travel plans were up in the air, indefinitely. I looked towards my stack of unwatched video, picked the Twin Peaks pilot from it, and rewatched it to refresh my memory. The following day, I learned that I had done so on the 30th anniversary of its original airing. And so, over the next few weeks, I would rewatch all 29 episodes of the original seasons; starting with one a night, though culminating at four. Last night, I watched the last one,
My impressions were: the mood does get less oppressive from the third episode onwards: Agent Cooper, the idealistic, mystically-inclined FBI agent sent in to solve the murder, does bring a sense of wonder, and also a sense of unreality (the idea that an FBI agent would use dream divination to attempt to solve a case, and that the bureau would back him up on this rather than, say, confining him to the basement where they keep their crank file, serves to break the bonds to realism). The cavalcade of oddities (some, but not all, connected to Cooper) pushes this along further, somewhere between magic realism and the Weird America of a Werner Herzog documentary, whilst keeping things moving along. Meanwhile, the TV format keeps it partially anchored to the tropes of 1980s TV drama, though sometimes testing them to breaking point (case in point, a mynah bird being material witness to the murder, and ending up assassinated). As many others have pointed out, the show loses a lot of momentum in the second season; some of the small-town quirkiness bloats out into a tangle of subplots, which feel like filler (the one about Nadine's superhuman strength/age regression and the one about the paternity of Lucy's child, to name two). The show did pick up towards the end, though by then veering into comic-book territory. What had started with an all too brutally realistic act of evil ended with a luridly fantastic cat-and-mouse game against a ludicrously well-resourced supervillain. (And while Cooper's ex-partner turned megalomaniacal psycho-killer Windom Earle was the most obvious example of a comic-book villain there, both Leland Palmer and Benjamin Horne developed the air of villains from the 1960s Batman series about their characterisation.) The series did end with a stack of cliffhangers, inconveniently enough as there was not a third season within its timeline.
The world of Twin Peaks seemed curiously anachronistic, as if stuck in a Long 1950s going well into 1989; the ghosts of Elvis and James Dean cast a long shadow here, particularly on the younger generation with whose parents these icons would have resonated. (The idea of a soulful, brooding, leather-jacketed teenage rebel riding a Harley would probably have seemed anachronistic in 1990, let alone now.) The adult characters also have a midcentury aura about them: a clubbable whisky-and-golf masculinity that can respectably paper over all manner of discreet vices.
There are some things which didn't age well. For one, Twin Peaks is very white, and it's well into the second season before one sees an African-American face. Which makes one wonder: where did all the black people go? Women characters are often handled in a less than even-handed way; Lynch does seem to like fridging his women to generate jeopardy and tension, and while there are some well-written female characters with agency (one could imagine, in a world where this was more successful, Audrey Horne getting her own spin-off series; you know that she had adventures), many seem to exist merely as bait of one kind or another, squirming or shimmying on the end of a plot device, femmes fatales or angelic victims. Gender-identity diversity fares slightly better; there’s one cross-dressing character — played by an unknown David Duchovny, still a year or two from his own fame as an idealistic, esoterically obsessed FBI agent—though s/he feels more one of a kind with the giants, dwarfs and one-armed men who occupy Lynch’s phantasmagoria than a nuanced sketch of LGBTQ experience. Still, for 1991, a cross-dressing character who is neither a sick villain nor a murder victim was probably quite progressive.
Finally watching the original series both was and wasn't revelatory; much of what could be easily described about it was not a surprise, as it had saturated the cultural environment. What was surprising were the little details: the combination of boy-scout earnestness and profound psychedelic oddness that was its implausible protagonist, the sometime dream-logic governing the actions of the characters (would anyone in real life have acted as they did?). Also, the change in proportions between the actual series and its long afterimage; it was hard to believe that the iconic Black Lodge, the Chapel Perilous of the Twin Peaks universe whose decor inspired a million imitations and homages, only appeared in the final 10 minutes or so of the final episode and a short dream sequence in the first one.
The final takeaway was noticing ripples of Twin Peaks in the world that followed. Some are more obvious than others. One can see elements of the series, distilled to a much higher purity, in the films of Wes Anderson, for example, and what is Donnie Darko if not a jejune student-project attempt at Lynchianism reduced to Hot Topic-era adolescent angst? There was, of course, also the X Files, which aimed at similar territory though in a more literally grounded way, taking the questions of American paranoiac folklore — what if UFOs and/or Bigfoot are real? what if the government is covering them up? — at face value rather than as emanations of a Jungian collective unconscious, and one could probably make a case for Northern Exposure as a Twin Peaks for normies. Outside of the media, the goths and twee-pop kids took a lot from Twin Peaks; more than one scowling darkling in the industrial, goth or metal scene must have channelled the aforementioned reptilian psychopath, Leo Johnson, in an attempt to look grim and ominous; on the other side, the phrase “the owls are not what they seem” gradually lost its sublime terror and joined the iconography of Etsy-era twee, cross-stitched and hanging in Instagrammable flats where Neutral Milk Hotel vinyl spins on a faux-vintage Crosley.
There are more tenuous connections one could grasp at: might the millennial tendency for tarot and astrology owe anything to Agent Cooper's unorthodox methods? Is there a bit of the Black Lodge in the glitches-and-classical-statuary aesthetic of vaporwave? One memorable semi-recent example is a video by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, which has him crooning the line “sorrow conquers happiness” for several hours, accompanied by an orchestra, and standing in front of a red curtain, as if in a corner of the Black Lodge.
Anyway, those are my observations, only overdue by a couple of decades. At some point I'll get around to watching the new series, whose DVDs are sitting in my living room.