General TV stuff

Twin Peaks: Coffee, Donuts and Cultural Waffle

David Lynch, Mark Frost and Kyle MacLachlan are returning. But everyone else on the internet is wrong. Here’s what Twin Peaks is really about.


I read lots of things on the internet that make we want to start typing “no, no, no!” in annoyance. The news that Twin Peaks is headed back to television after 25 years and a mass of diminished careers has thrown up a crop of bad articles and plain nonsense. It’s about how we’re now afraid of the police, the end of the American dream, sex and death (when in doubt, say something is about sex and death – it’s a surefire escape route, unless you’re talking about In The Night Garden, in which case it’s a surefire route to a cell).

What is certainly true is that Twin Peaks remains an intriguing, vaguely impossible cultural artefact that has seeped into television over the years and started to fruit in unlikely places as the tellybox has regained the top spot as the entertainment medium of choice. That wasn’t the case when Lynch headed to the small screen, nor was it common to see television series shot so beautifully. Twin Peaks was the original box-set television, the definitive water-cooler series; an intricate slow-burning saga that took months to play out that had everyone talking.

The seven or eight minutes where Leland is revealed as his daughter’s murderer and kills her analogue cousin have a stunning force, as the pay-off to one of modern entertainment’s great mysteries is revealed. Around one in five people in America watched it – and it’s as staggeringly weird as it is utterly assured.

In its own way it’s a forerunner to the dull thud of predictable revelation in today’s genre television: the answer is not so much ‘who killed Laura Palmer’ as ‘what killed Laura Palmer’ and begs yet more questions. Terrifying, disturbing and upsetting, you can’t watch it and not know that you’re seeing something unique. As with much of Twin Peaks is just looks so incredibly stunning too, which ensure it looks like nothing else on television. A word too on Ray Wise, who it’s clear is operating in a league of his own in Twin Peaks amid many, many fine turns.

In the absence of meaningful answers – even the recent Secret History Of Twin Peaks is fairly gnomic – have sprung up hundreds of interpretations that I view with scepticism. The atomisation of the American nuclear family; a filtered pastiche of US TV’s portrayal of domestic families; an Americana gothic ghost story; id and ego; a dissection of nostalgia and good ol’ cliches. Lynch himself said of it in retrospect that it was about the effects of incest on a family and the wider community, in what I always took to be a fairly clear example of retconning.

I suspect Twin Peaks is not really about anything. Moreover, it’s purposefully about nothing. It is a mood piece; a blank slate; a televisual ink blot test. Tellingly, when Lynch and Frost drift away from the show halfway through its second series, it becomes a crude and pointless parody of itself because, without its creators, it’s a totally empty vessel. There’s nothing for the writers and directors coming into the show to latch onto and to see them try – to force some meaning into it or bash the show into awkward shapes – is painful. When Lynch returns for the finale it’s as if normal service has been resumed. When Lynch does try to make Twin Peaks meaningful in Fire Walk With Me it’s much less successful.

In an age of criticism, self-important broadcasts and flatulent internet waffling Twin Peaks is as irresistible – and as deadly – to the culture bore as a Venus fly trap. Twin Peaks is meaningless, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t brilliant. For me it’s brilliant because it’s meaningless.