The first TV show I watched in a serious way was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. I read the arts section in the newspaper every day when I was a teenager. We lived in the DC suburbs, so the TV critic was the great Tom Shales of the Washington Post. I don’t remember much about his writing, which later won a Pulitzer, but I loved reading him. He was one reason I tuned in for Twin Peaks. On the day the show premiered, he wrote, “Twin Peaks disorients you in ways that small-screen productions seldom attempt. It’s a pleasurable sensation, the floor dropping out and leaving one dangling.”
Another reason I watched was that Twin Peaks was a big pop culture phenomenon. The magazines next to the grocery store check-out line had Laura Palmer’s hazy snapshot on the covers. “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was the big headline of spring 1990. Imagine it: a moment when surrealist director David Lynch was mainstream, cozied up next to the National Enquirer’s latest report on how aliens kidnapped Elvis.
The show was a TV turning point. We hadn’t seen this kind of continuous narrative on evening television. For the first time, I had to program the VCR to record the episodes I would miss—skip one episode and you were lost.
But it was also unlike anything on TV before or since. The surrealism was sometimes hilarious, sometimes unsettling. The greatest mysteries in town go unexplained, giving Twin Peaks an air of the uncanny.
An aging spinster walks around town cradling a piece of firewood in her arms, talking to it. No one knows why. They just call her the Log Lady.
A woman with a black eye-patch grows obsessed with the sound of her curtains opening and closing. She devotes herself to inventing silent drapes.
“Don’t drink the coffee,” a man says, “I just found a fish in the percolator.”
And the traffic lights. Those long, moody shots of the traffic lights changing at night on empty streets. Red, green, yellow, red.
Amazingly, it’s twenty-five years since the show premiered. I can still remember the feeling of strange anticipation I felt on Sunday nights. What would happen was the least of my questions. Chiefly I wondered, would the show get weirder this week? Would it finally veer off the rails?
Here, too, was a vision of post-Cold War life in which nothing was settled, no conflicts resolved. The world wasn’t growing more banal with “the end of history,” as Fukuyama called it in 1989. The world was instead growing more eerie. Could anything heal the unease underlying life in Twin Peaks?
The British band Bastille’s 2013 single Laura Palmer is a decidedly anthemic ode to Twin Peaks. It has a chorus I can’t stop singing along with. The lyrics reach out to something we can’t quite see, just like the story did. The mood is triumphant rather than uncanny, which is a bit odd given that Laura Palmer is dead. But the joy in the song reminds me of how David Lynch’s strange world was, in fact, a place of wonder. A place of cryptic joys.
This is your heart. Can you feel it? ♥