David Lynch is a genius, or a crank, or a hero, or a sociopath. It depends on who you ask. And it’s almost definitely a little bit of each. Individual taste, personal tolerance of discomfort, and formative adolescent trauma are among the factors that determine where you come down on the question.
But you’ve heard of Lynch. You’ve also heard, probably, “Lynchian” used to describe vaguely unsettling things. And, probably again, you’ve heard of his divisive, cultic, and massively influential brainchild, Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks, like Lynch, is not for everyone. It is, however, a prism through which we can perceive Lynch’s directorial style, an interesting case of a TV show completely ‘losing it’ between its first and second seasons, and telehistorically significant.
And worth returning to, I think.
They call it Peak TV, what we're seeing today. It's not always a convincing designation. The volume and availability of content is peaking, yes, and of course there are exceptions, but so much of the telescape feels effectively indistinguishable, hyperreal with the same few suffocating plot shapes.
Returning to Lynch, and to Peaks, is a way to consider our current predicament, to look behind in hopes of seeing a way ahead.
In the interest of a common baseline, here's the 30,000 foot view on Peaks: small North West logging town town it-girl (prom queen, blonde, etc.) found dead, idiosyncratic FBI agent tapped to assist under-resourced law enforcement in Getting To The Bottom Of This, investigation slowly reveals that all is Not What It Seems in re. town (Twin Peaks), dead girl, cast of characters, corporeal reality, etc.
There are basically two categories of characteristics that we can call ‘Lynchian.’ The objective techniques - the lights and camera work, lens type and color, editing etc. - and the ‘other stuff’: narrative content, story world, tone, disposition toward the human condition, etc.
The technical stuff is fairly easy to spot and mildly interesting. In Peaks, there’s plenty of it on screen. The extreme close-ups (perhaps most notably of Laura Palmer’s (that’s the dead girl) inanimately alabaster visage), spotlight and strobe, slow pans and trackings, even slower dissolves. Action and violence sequences are portrayed coldly, eroctic and vouyeristic, some shots are held a beat longer than feels natural. Black humor, body horror, and leitmotifs factor in heavily.
Really grasping the Lynchianness of T.P., or anything else, is going to require we look beyond what we ‘see.’
David Foster Wallace, in his 1995 essay on Lynch and his then-forthcoming Lost Highway, defines Lynchian as referring to a “particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment in the latter,” but then posits the real test is experiential. “We know it when we see it.”
To see ‘it,’ of course, requires sort of knowing what ‘it’ is, which, I’m afraid to say, is generally a little woolly and hard to pin down. DFW’s first definition gets pretty close. Think something usually treated as domestic or quaint (“mundane”) superimposed with a preserve or sick aspect (“macabre”), which aspect’s perversity is enhanced by (and challenges assumptions about) the unexpected environment. A dog drinking from a hose clutched in the rigor mortis'd hand of his keeled-over owner, who is back-down dead on his manicured lawn as a toddler approaches slurping on a popsicle, for instance.
Also: in much of Lynch’s work the uncanny is afforded a narrative centrality, weight, and credibility that most of the hypereal directors/writers don’t give it. The realm beyond our perception is important.
Twin Peaks is classic Lynch. Why: It’s (first) central mystery, unfolds to spotlight the idyllic setting’s contained evil, its inhabitants’ neuroses and shortcomings, and the surreal. We’ve got spirits, oracular giants, a small guy dancing in red-curtained rooms and speaking backwards. Laura is actually a coke-fiend with some questionable friends. The FBI investigator is cheery, caffeinated, and has decided that a pivotal investigative step is to listen to the names of potential suspects and then hurl rocks at a glass bottle twenty some yards distant, recording whether the rock missed, struck but did not break, or shattered said bottle.
In the interest of illustration, a classic Lynch scene: Agent Cooper (Kyle Mcglauhlan) is examining Laura Palmer’s body. The overhead fluorescent is flickering creepily, which the coroner has more than once apologized for.
Cooper finds something.
He lifts Palmer’s clay-colored lifeless hand, and we watch in close up as he pries beneath the ring fingernail with a pair of tweezers, uncomfortably deep, and extracts a tiny printed letter. It’s tough to watch and drags on, inescapable. It’s both clerical and gut wrenching in its treatment of the corpse.
About Lynchianness there is much more to be said. But staying T.P.-oriented for now: Lynch’s adept film-making was partially what made Peaks the cultural phenomenon it was. Given its influence, general praise, and booming first season ratings, the show's cancellation after a weak second season is fascinating. What happened?
On April 8th, 1990: Twin Peaks premiered on ABC. Barely. The network was skeptical, and the consensus among those at the private pre-screening was that there wasn’t a TV audience for it.
The 20-20 hindsight gloss on this initial skepticism was because Peaks didn’t really fit in a drama category, was zany and also sort of grotesque, network heads figured people would reject it. Too weird for the audience. This wasn’t exactly wrong, but underestimated how much folks would buy into the initial Who-Killed-Laura-Palmer bit.
Peaks premiered on a Thursday night to excellent ratings after an aggressive and intriguing advertising campaign. Immediately there was a feeling of collective participation. It’s been called the water-cooler-effect: folks wanted to gather around the water-cooler the next day and talk theories.
But to Lynch and Frost, the murder mystery was only partially the point. If they were ever going to solve it (and it’s not clear they intended to) they’d do so only after milking the “golden goose” for all it was worth. They, in classic creator fashion, were more intrigued by the ambiguous edges of their project.
ABC saw things differently. Ratings, as far as I know, don't reflect ambiguous edges, and when they dipped after the third episode (a new time slot may have impacted this) the executives thought they were seeing the writing on the wall and moved to the wrap up phase. To make a long story short: Lynch and Frost very begrudgingly complied.
So we get the answer. It’s a weird one, and isn’t by itself a death knell for the show. If you’re invested, there’s still plenty to watch for. As it turns out, though, many viewers weren’t watching for Lynch’s filmmaking or surreal universe. They were watching to find out who killed Laura Palmer. When the answer was given, the channel was changed.
There were also emerging narrative issues that would strain the patience of even the more devoted viewers. The murder mystery had been the super structure. The town and its inhabitants could be incomprehensible because the original conceit is hyper-comprehensible and lays a roadmap with a reliable payoff.
Even more, because we’re expecting this payoff, and assume an internal logic, every aspect of the show, down to the very strangest, is assumed to be leading toward something gestalt. We (some of us at least) can take heart in our ignorance and discomfort because we think they will be somehow in one artful move absolved, at which point it will all Make Sense.
But when that sense-making moment drifts from projected future to rearview mirror, we start to lose faith. We start to think maybe we will just never understand.
Never understanding is something that Lynch’s fans have put up with before, though. In some ways, that’s as much his trademark as anything. Things don’t have to make sense. We don’t need a third act. What he is trying to articulate about the world doesn't fit in a conventional structure.
But Lynch, perhaps feeling betrayed by the network, was himself increasingly absent during that second season. Frost too. Whatever the reason, the second season saw less writing and direction by Lynch and Frost, and just as importantly, more by folks they hadn’t personally vetted.
The effect is palpable. New plot lines abound. Some of them the show could have held if done artfully. Frequently they were not done artfully. Some were just bad, unoriginal, and cloying.
And so, despite a pretty harrowing cliff-hanger, the show gets cancelled.
But drop a stone in a pond…
Peaks grew the notion of Auter TV in the states. It proved the medium could support experimentalism, products outside of genre bounds. This shifted the whole conception of American network TV. Before, anodyne tropes and shows people could shut off their brains and watch were the lingua franca.
Peaks played with these genre barriers. On the one hand, it’s obviously nighttime Soap. On the other, it’s a murder mystery. And also horror, and potentially SiFi. And so the fact that people watched it challenges the notion of relatively static audiences for particular genres.
This accomplishes work on two fronts. On the supply side, disillusioned creators and narrow minded executives reevaluate their myopic notions of what could peak viewer interest. On the demand side, exposure to this new realm of content, while not universally well-received, gave some people a taste for something new.
Many of the things done by peaks would be taken up by later shows. Its surreal winding pilot, the unpackaging of a central mystery, the expressionistic shots and delving into characters interiorities. You don’t have to look far for shows that owe Peaks. Some are obvious and bad (24) others are complex and excellent (The Sopranos).
The cult following kept it alive long enough for Peaks to become a money maker again, and this has had the two recent effects of spawning a 2017 reboot on Showtime (not going into that here) and landing both seasons of OG T.P. on Netflix, where you can watch them remastered at your leisure with subscription. You might like them, you might not.
But I would recommend giving them a chance. Why? Because they’re different. I know that’s cliché. I know. But it’s one of the characteristics of our visual culture right now, a culture that seems to be diversifying and approaching a singularity simultaneously, that sometimes clichés hit the nail on the head.