Twin Peaks fever has taken hold for the first time in 26 years. The original series is being celebrated, re-analyzed, dissected, and is sourcing all manner of “listicles” for “best episodes,” “scariest moments,” “favorite characters,” etc. Suffice it to say, interest in the new season airing on Showtime this Sunday, May 21st at 9 PM EST is high.
But amidst the feverish interest in the new series are two perspectives I find troubling, which impact the show’s lasting legacy and 27 years of fandom. I must defend Twin Peaks season two and the story of the series as a whole.
The first wrongheaded perspective is codifying Twin Peaks as a cult show. It’s revisionist history and it demeans the show’s legacy. It’s certainly true that since it’s been off of the air only the hard core fans have remained invested in the series, but when the show was airing live everyone watched. Not just a rabid, cultish few. Everyone talked about Twin Peaks around the “water cooler” (whatever that was…).
I challenge this idea mostly because classifying Twin Peaks as a “cult show” isn’t accurate. It twists the truth and turns potential future viewers away. When Twin Peaks was hot, it was sizzling and everyone was watching it. Recent reflections on the series have revealed that even state leaders like President George H.W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth were enamored with the story of the murdered prom queen and the mystery of who killed her. Rocky Horror Picture Show, my dear The Big Lebowski, and heck even Firefly are cult works. By contrast, Twin Peaks was a national phenomenon.
The second and more pervasive perspective is “Season 2 of Twin Peaks went off the rails.” I’m distilling a lot of criticism into one sentence for simplicity, but bear with me.
Season 1 is universally beloved. It’s tightly plotted, engrossing television that, to this day, still manages to astound with its peculiar dream imagery, emotional soundtrack, gorgeous visuals both in locations and in set design, and outrageous characters. Despite taking place in 1990 (1989?), it feels timeless. There’s a reason for this, of course. Creators David Lynch and Mark Frost crafted the genre-bending, transformational pilot movie and the subsequent 7 episodes together. It’s true that other writers and directors were involved, but the “bones” of the story were assembled by Lynch and Frost.
It’s inaccurate to say that Lynch and Frost were uninvolved in Season 2 and I wish that particular legend would die already. Even Brad Dukes’ great oral history of Twin Peaks dispels this notion. What really happened is more mundane — the first season was a limited season event and season two was picked up for a full 22 episodes and it needed to be run more “traditionally.” In short, the machinery of TV bureaucracy intruded. Lynch and Frost couldn’t just secret themselves away and design the whole season. TV didn’t work that way in 1990. Now, folks like Vince Gilligan (who walks firmly in Lynch and Frost’s footsteps), of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul fame, can develop a season from start to finish albeit with more concise 13 episode counts.
But all of that is beside the point. Despite the added pressure of success and the winding maze of 1990 era TV bureaucracy, Twin Peaks season 2 should not be minimized as lesser work. Indeed, I argue that what season 2 ultimately did was build the world far beyond just the murder of the seemingly innocent homecoming queen.
There are some who say the whole season is rubbish, but much of the criticism is leveled at many of the episodes following the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer. Some is certainly fair. Let’s start there.
David Lynch (and Mark Frost to a lesser extent) have long lamented pressure from the network to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer. Lynch has argued that it killed “the golden goose.” I’ve never understood this, much less agreed with it. In other descriptions of Twin Peaks, Lynch has described Laura’s murder as the doorway into the strange, bucolic town full of secrets. If that’s true, then once we’re in the town, we’re in. Laura’s murder being solved should be immaterial. You could make the case that people would have abandoned the show anyway after awhile because they’d feel strung along with no answers in sight. In fact, some viewers were already leaving over the feeling of being strung along during early season two!
But from a story perspective Laura’s murder was merely the first layer of the onion. Once you peel it back, you could reveal greater truths and deeper mysteries (which is what happened!). The criticisms I will agree with about the second season have to do more with the poor transition from Laura’s story to the next big story and some of the subplot choices the show pursued. But simply solving Laura’s murder shouldn’t have ended the show when exposing her killer opened the door into the shows deeper mythology which was (and is) rich with even more story potential, hence the fact that we’re getting more show 27 years later!
Following Laura’s murder, the show should have transitioned directly into the Windom Earle story line. Or, perhaps, maybe just one episode of transition and denouement instead of three or four. I’m not proposing anything new or insightful here, I think this idea is almost universally shared. And, to me, that suggests that the late Season Two stories have merit and are good and the slow build to get there were the real problems. I certainly think the Cooper vs. Windom Earle and Hunt for Owl Cave stories were very strong and breathed some new life into the show, further bending the genre into which Twin Peaks falls.
I’m also not willing to let David Lynch and Mark Frost off of the hook for these Season Two matters. Many of the ideas sewn into those stories originated with David and Mark. Brad Dukes’ book, for example, noted that putting Josie into the drawer pull originated with David Lynch. He also appeared as Gordon Cole in audio and in person. If he didn’t like what he was seeing from the material and the approach, why didn’t he say something or do something? Mark Frost apparently did a writing pass over every script; one or both of the creators was involved in every story the show produced. Lynch, of course, famously reasserted himself in the amazing season two finale (if you don’t know, Lynch used very little of what was scripted for the Black Lodge sequence at the end). But why wait? Some Lynch sycophants won’t like this, since he “walks on water,” but these questions deserve answers especially when he piles on season two as well (as recently as today!). I say, “Own it.”
Putting the leadership questions aside, it’s also worth putting things into their historical context. Twin Peaks season two, particularly the post Laura Palmer episodes, aired and were preempted by the Gulf War. For a deeply serialized show like Twin Peaks, that was a fatal blow. Add to that the show was moved to Saturday nights–hardly a good night for cultivating a TV audience. Original fans, even diehards, likely had a tough time finding the show. But even if they did, with huge gaps in episodes, it was harder to pick up the threads from previous episodes. And it was 1991. There weren’t reruns like there are now and no way to find missed episodes unless you taped them.
I point this out because I’m a “second-generation” (third?) Twin Peaks fan. I was introduced to the show in a college course about transformational TV dramas and subsequently watched it on DVD. I was able to watch the show one after the other. A pre-Netflix binge, if you will. While the post-Laura Palmer episodes are certainly different, in that they lack the central plot thread (at least initially), I still enjoyed them. And if you watched them in close sequencing, without weeks or months long gaps, they hold together much better. I can certainly understand fans’ frustrations in 1991 about watching Ben Horne reenact the Civil War in his office or James mope around with a melodramatic married woman while not advancing the main story much about Windom Earle, the missing Major Briggs, or where BOB had gone. But revisiting these episodes in a more streamlined fashion is enjoyable and easier to pick up the thread.
By the way, I thought the “Ben-as-a-Civil-War-general” story was funny. Ludicrous in the way only Twin Peaks could do. Josie’s story ramped up and, as a result, Sheriff Truman became a more well-rounded character with more to do. I thought the story about Jean Renault conspiring to get Cooper drummed out of the FBI and ultimately killed was good. Renault has a particularly good quote in his final episode:
“Before you came here, Twin Peaks was a simple place. My brothers sold drugs to truck-drivers and teenagers. One-Eyed Jack’s welcomed curious tourists and businessmen. Quiet people lived quiet lives. Then a pretty girl dies. And you arrive. Everything changes. My brother Bernard is shot and left to die in the woods. A grieving father smothers my surviving brother with a pillow. Arson, kidnapping. More death and destruction. Suddenly the quiet people here are no longer quiet. Their simple dreams have become a nightmare. Maybe you brought the nightmare with you. And maybe, it will die with you.”
It encapsulates quite nicely why I think the post-Laura Palmer episodes have merit. Before Laura died, all of the town’s secrets lay dormant with no one particularly interested in exposing them, if that was even possible. Laura’s death was a gateway into these secrets and the deeper mysteries waiting in the woods and solving her murder did not put the cap back on the bottle–it was broken open and could not be resealed. That’s the beauty of TV storytelling, iterative stories that build off of what’s come before and the resolution of Laura’s murder and what happened in the aftermath were worthwhile stories. Poorly executed, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean the story should not have been told.
I’m defensive about season two because all we have had for years is the episodes that were made. No comic books. No further sequels. Just these episodes and a movie. Beyond that, I loved the story of how Dale Cooper became a town deputy and embedded himself deeper into the town and it’s people. His friendship with Sheriff Truman, Andy, and Hawk grew. And he wanted to buy property in Twin Peaks. To me, it was the natural evolution of Cooper’s character that he had completely and utterly fallen in love with Twin Peaks. The real love story of Twin Peaks isn’t Cooper and Audrey or Ed and Norma, it’s Cooper and the town itself.
Coming back to the main point, many of the things people remember about Twin Peaks originated in Season 2. Iconic moments, characters, and stories: the Giant, Laura Palmer’s secret diary, white-haired Leland, Denise Bryson, the white and black lodges, Josie in the drawer knob, “How’s Annie?,” and more. It’s just become fashionable to dump on Twin Peaks season two so people do it and I’d venture to say that many who do haven’t seen the episodes they’re trashing in a while (if at all).
After 27 years (12 for me), the only content fans have had from the world of Twin Peaks are 29 episodes and a movie. We’ve lived with those stories for years, theorized about them, debated them, dreamed about them, wondered what would happen next. We may like some stories more than we like others, yes; that’s true of anything. But those stories are all Twin Peaks.
We can lament that David Lynch didn’t direct more episodes, but the fact of the matter is: he didn’t. Episodes that are probably well loved were written and directed by people who are not David Lynch. Mark Frost directed the season one finale quite capably. Lesli Linka Glatter, Caleb Deschanel, Duwayne Dunham, Tim Hunter… all great directors who brought life to the stories and characters. The show was orchestrated by all of these people, not just David Lynch and Mark Frost.
When the new show continues, it will be guided firmly by David Lynch and Mark Frost. More power to them. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us. But I do hope that 27 years of stories, because that’s what they really are, are not cast aside casually. It’s been 27 years in real life, perhaps just 25 years in the show, but life moves on. I get it and that’s license to forget about some things. I really don’t care much about the pine weasel or Little Nicky all grown up, but it would be nice to learn if Ghostwood was ever developed. Does Josie still haunt drawer pulls in the Great Northern Hotel? Is that what happened to the Log Lady’s husband? Is Ben Horne really Donna Hayward’s father? What, if anything, did Major Briggs do with the communication from Windom Earle via Sarah Palmer (“I’m in the Black Lodge with Dale Cooper.”)?
Twin Peaks is the sum of its 30 parts, counting the movie, too. I’m a completionist. I’ve never been able to say, “Well, Star Trek seasons one and two are really great, but season three is terrible so I don’t count it.” No. The work is the work. Frankly, I think it’s a fun bit of fandom to analyze and criticize the best and worst parts of a series. To stick with my Star Trek analogy, The Next Generation season one is, to put it kindly, not it’s best. But it’s not like the events of that season are ignored because the episodes didn’t turn out as well as we would have liked.
Life is that way, too. There are things we are proud of in our lives. There are things we wish we had not done or that we had done them differently. But all of our experiences make up who we are now. We can choose to ignore some parts of our pasts, but those things happened and they affect us regardless.
I say accept Twin Peaks the same way. It is the sum of its parts, some good, some Evelyn and Little Nicky. But soon, there will be more parts and that cannot be anything but exciting.
Enjoy your coffee and pie this weekend, folks.