Dead Girls, Men in Suits and Symbolism: How Twin Peaks Continues to Influence Television
Anthony Morris argues that an unlikely influence planted a vital seed for the golden age of television drama. A drama that was weird, violent, distinctively atmospheric and very much the work of one auteur-like creator; one with long-form narrative arcs and an overarching mystery. He looks back at David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and traces its lineage to The Sopranos, Mad Men and more.
Here’s an easy question: which American movie director’s work in the early 90s had – and continues to have – a massive effect on the style and shape of television drama today? It’s obvious: Martin Scorsese.
Everyone knows the current golden age of American television drama began in 1999 with The Sopranos, a show so indebted to Scorsese’s gangster epics (especially his 1991 classic Goodfellas) it made him a character (briefly, and played by someone else, but still) in the first season. Without Scorsese, there’d have been no Sopranos; without The Sopranos, there’d have been no The Wire or Deadwood, no Breaking Bad or Mad Men, no Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire – literally in that last case, as Scorsese is one of the executive producers on that series. Towering anti-heroes, men leading lives of crime and domination in a world where others sheepishly obey the rules they break; that’s the world of high-end drama today – the world The Sopranos made.
The trouble with that version of history isn’t that it’s untrue. It’s just not the whole truth. If you watch The Sopranos today, it doesn’t take long to notice another parent lurking in the background. What’s with the dream sequences? What about all the symbolism? Plot threads are left dangling, sometimes forever. Random, often shocking sudden violence is still a part of today’s drama. But where did all this strangeness come from?
Looking backwards at a single point in time, it’s easy to forget that what we’re looking at is a product of what came before. The Sopranos is such a towering achievement of American television drama that the decade before it – in fact, anything that happened between mid-80s series Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere and The Sopranos – has all but vanished from history. Who remembers Oz, the HBO prison series that paved the way for the network to expand their drama programming with The Sopranos? Or thirtysomething, the series that established an audience for the kind of low-stakes high-class relationship drama that series like Brothers & Sisters or the overlooked Tell Me You Love Me would still be mining 20 years later? Or The X Files, which helped usher in a fan-centric television world where merely announcing the casting of the next Doctor Who would become a world-wide media event? Or – and at last we get to the heart of the matter — Twin Peaks?
The work of producer Mark Frost and Blue Velvet director David Lynch, Twin Peaks was a short-lived series set in the titular small town in Washington state. It was initially based around the murder of Laura Palmer, a seemingly perfect high school student found dead and wrapped in plastic on a riverbank at the start of the first episode. The first eight episodes (shown in 1990) caused a sensation; the second series saw the show rapidly fall from favour — and after numerous shifts in timeslots and breaks in the schedule, it was cancelled. Lynch later made a prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; after a mixed critical reception and poor box office, the Twin Peaks story was over.
Twin Peaks is hardly a forgotten classic. It was a pop culture phenomenon at the time with a devoted fan base, and it remains a cult favourite today. But it’s largely seen as a show that exists out there on its own, something that sprang from the notoriously offbeat forehead of David Lynch, too original for anyone to follow, too strange to leave any lasting mark on the wall of mainstream television.
Part of the problem with judging Twin Peaks’ legacy is that the shows that followed it just weren’t up to its level. Northern Exposure took the idea of an isolated small town full of quirky characters and turned it into a mildly amusing light drama that was heavy on the unresolved sexual tension; The X Files took the idea of FBI agents investigating strange cases and carried it off into territory lifted from Oliver Stone’s JFK and the 70s series Kolchak the Night Stalker. For what they were, they were perfectly fine (early X Files was often more than fine), but like Twin Peaks they had the misfortune of being television drama at a time when television drama didn’t really count. Sitcoms like The Simpsons and Seinfeld were the ones having the Golden Age in the 90s; it wasn’t until The Sopranos that drama was taken seriously again … and we’re back where we started.
Twin Peaks may have been mostly written out of today’s television histories, but even a casual glance reveals the magnitude of its influence on today’s television. It was built around a central mystery, it wasn’t afraid to be a soap opera, it was at least as concerned with mood as it was with plot, it was full of quirky supporting characters, it showed violence as something startling and strange, it had moments that were as terrifying as anything shown on television, and it had cliffhanger endings. It was even a prime-time show about good-looking teenagers wracked with romantic angst; you could probably draw a direct line from it to Gossip Girl and you wouldn’t look (too) silly for doing it.
Of course all that stuff had been done by other shows earlier: that’s how television works. Nothing comes out of nowhere. But Twin Peaks took a bunch of things that had been done before – and a few that hadn’t (dream sequences involving backwards-talking dwarves weren’t exactly commonplace) – and put them together in just the right way to make an impact. It showed that you could make a serious drama that was also kind of funny, and strange in a way that felt a lot closer to real life than something like LA Law.
It’s tempting to tidy up David Lynch’s television history the same way the history of television drama has become streamlined over the years. He made the brilliant Twin Peaks, it was killed too soon by a network that didn’t know what it was doing, time has shown it to be a classic series that’s proven to be hugely, if privately, influential; it’s as close to a happy ending as you could ask for. In reality, Twin Peaks’ second series fizzled because Lynch increasingly withdrew from the show and no one else could capture his tone.
Which again, shows his influence: these days if you build a show around a big-name creator, you make sure he (and it almost always is a he) isn’t going anywhere. In 1991 it was still possible to imagine, briefly, a Twin Peaks without Lynch; no one ever seriously imagined a Sopranos without David Chase, a Mad Men without Matthew Weiner, a Breaking Bad without Vince Gilligan.
But after Twin Peaks Lynch tried television again, first with the legendarily bad comedy On the Air (unavailable on DVD anywhere), then the three part HBO series Hotel Room, and finally (to date) with 1999’s Mulholland Drive. Lynch turned that one into a feature film when the pilot was passed over by the ABC network – the same network that had aired Twin Peaks almost a decade earlier.
Despite semi-regular rumours about a Twin Peaks reboot and the occasional hint about him trying another series, there’s been no serious sign of Lynch returning to television again. And why would he? He’s said a number of times he’s much more interested in setting up mysteries than solving them, and while in movies people will go along with two hours of unresolved strangeness, when you’re talking seasons of television … well, that final episode of Lost didn’t go down well with too many fans.
And anyway, Lynch’s fingerprints are all over the current crop of television dramas (well, Game of Thrones not so much). Every time a drama drags a pause out a little too long, or lingers over a strange detail, or dips into surrealism, or has an act of violence that’s both shocking and bizarre, Lynch is there.
In an interview for the UK’s Independent newspaper earlier this year, Lynch revealed he’s currently enjoying both Breaking Bad and Mad Men). Somehow, that’s not surprising.