Why Twin Peaks was a watershed moment for TV
“I’ll see you again in 25 years”
The world Twin Peaks returns to is lightyears away from the one it left. When the final episode aired in 1991, the last apartheid laws were being abolished in South Africa, Yeltsin was elected Russian president and “I Wanna Sex You Up” by Colour Me Badd was number one. Few television series could endure the test of time over such a long span of time but Twin Peaks was always an exception; such an exception that it lay the foundations for the television revolution.
Film has always traditionally been the big business audio-visual art form with glittering international premieres and the biggest name directors and actors. What film has never had is the collective emotional connection of TV, the ‘appointment to view’ and the office watercooler factor that comes from a pre-programmed and episodic series. The Atlantic puts this sensation beautifully: “Norm said something funny on Cheers and a single, vast chuckle rumbled westward across the continent and sank hissing into the Pacific.”
Twin Peaks thrived on this collective passion but the public interest was also its downfall. The first series was a condensed and focused 8 episodes filled with mystery, charm and intrigue. The second series was a mess. The network – ABC – were keen to capitalise on the success of the show and forced creators David Lynch and Mark Frost to rush the reveal of the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer, derailing any momentum and almost cancelling the show altogether. Lynch would recover from this infringement on his art by going on to direct a number of acclaimed films including Mulholland Drive which was named by a BBC poll of film critics as the best film of the 21st century.
What Twin Peaks and the Lynch films post-Peaks all have in common is an unrelenting command of pace. If Lynch wants to slow things down, then they slow down. If things seem confusing, then it’s because you’re supposed to be confused. There’s no Hollywood rush towards a neat resolution at the end of each episode. This attitude was pioneering for television at the time and is seen in modern day series like Mad Men and True Detective who use pace masterfully. They use the long form of television to tell a story, to let characters grow with the audience and to tease romance and tragedies.
Would we have series like the cinematic Lost or the quirky Fargo if Twin Peaks hadn’t come before? Twin Peaks proved that television could match the style, the tension and the intelligence of the big screen without compromise. Now Twin Peaks has returned to digital screens, it’s clear from the outset that compromise is so far off the agenda it’s in the Red Room. Lynch has gone ‘full Lynch’ with surreal sequences and fresh plotlines to starve fans of Cooper, coffee and damn fine cherry pie.
The new series is another watershed moment in television thanks to its mainstream-challenging structure. Critics and audiences may be confused but, as we’ve seen in the past 27 years, the power of Twin Peaks is not dependent on ratings and reviews but on the ability to shift the parameters of what is considered mainstream network TV. All of this is somehow fitting for a show where staring into an empty box is the norm…