Essential is a series from Dallas Morning News writers spotlighting timeless works of art and culture.
Essential viewing: Twin Peaks (1990-91, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost)
Here's something to keep in mind about Twin Peaks, whether you're embarking on your maiden voyage or returning to the scene of the crime: David Lynch isn't joking.
It may seem like he is, between the soap opera theatrics, the little person who talks backward and all that gushing talk of cherry pie and damn fine coffee. But where Lynch's work is strange, it's just about always sincere, the surreal vision of a good Midwestern boy who sees things a little different.
The new Peaks, which premieres Sunday on Showtime, glides into a TV landscape impossible to imagine when the original became a cult favorite and hype machine back in 1990. Cable TV wasn't yet churning out adventurous long-form storytelling on a clockwork basis. On the networks, Seinfeld was a year old and NYPD Blue was still on the horizon. Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost dropped Twin Peaks into an unsuspecting universe.
Here was a murder mystery that stubbornly refused to reveal whodunit, not because of the drawn-out suspense factor, but because the show found the very question beside the point. Here was a rich, filmic color palette, and dream sequences that teased and haunted, feinted and jabbed. Here was a lush Pacific Northwest town crawling with neurosis, sex, corruption, drugs, cruelty and heartfelt romance. Here was a story without closure in sight.
Who killed Laura Palmer? Twin Peaks got around to answering the question, but only when ABC insisted. For Lynch and Frost it was always more about luxuriating in the strangeness, strolling through the darkness. They wanted to explore the contours of a place where such crimes are committed, not solve the crime itself.
If this doesn't sound like a recipe for network TV sustainability, help yourself to an extra piece of pie. Twin Peaks was on the air for but two seasons, and it seemed to deflate once the murder was solved. The show built a fervent core of fans, but the mass audience wasn't quite ready for such a prolonged (if colorful) enigma. Without the brave experiment of Twin Peaks, would Lost have even been possible?
Twin Peaks occupies a sort of career midpoint between Lynch's two best films, Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001). Like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks shows us the toxic worm in the apple of paradise, the nasty depths beneath the idyllic surface. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks' Agent Cooper) finds a severed ear in a pretty green field. Something is rotten in the city of Lumberton, an early variation on the town of Twin Peaks.
In Mulholland Drive we reach the apex of the dream logic peppered throughout Twin Peaks. It's an intuitive, symbol-laden storytelling style that frustrates anyone craving linearity. Lynch is at his best when he makes the subconscious come to life and form a tangible story. By the time we get to Inland Empire (2006), Lynch's most recent feature film, the subconscious has taken over almost entirely. There's a story there, but you have to work to find it. Next to Inland, Twin Peaks might as well be Leave it to Beaver.
Which actually isn't as odd a comparison as it seems. There's something almost wholesome at the core of Twin Peaks, an emotional honesty that defies cynicism. You feel it in the true love between Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) and James (James Marshall), and especially in the wide-eyed, can-do demeanor of Agent Cooper. Cooper is Lynch's surrogate, the straight arrow who stays hip to life's mysteries and fundamentally in awe of it all.
So what does the return to Twin Peaks have in store? Script specifics have been guarded tightly, but the show's new home on the wild frontier of premium cable bodes well.
Lynch may boast proudly of his former life as an Eagle Scout, but he also knows sex and violence are as American as, well, cherry pie. More than looser content restrictions, however, the show's new home offers freedom from the storytelling rhythms imposed by network TV. Lynch is a free-associative artist. As Dennis Lim wrote in his superb book David Lynch: The Man From Another Place, "Lynch has always been open about the medium's formal drawbacks: the inferior picture and sound quality and the rude intrusions of commercial breaks, hardly conducive for losing oneself in a story." (One advantage to the old network format: episodes are pretty short, and the original series, currently streaming on Netflix, is binge-ready).
So grab yourself a cup of Joe — black, always black — and catch up on the good old days. Then settle in and return to the town of gorgeous trees and ugly secrets.