Twin Peaks and suspicion in small towns
Leigh Alexander on what changed between then and now: no-one calls the police in small-town TV shows anymore. Modern entertainment always has something to say about who we are, what we want and what we fear.
Twin Peaks is television from a different time. I was only nine years old when it came out, and yet I was aware of the national curiosity about Who Killed Laura, like the mystery of Who Shot J.R. a decade before. Dallas and Twin Peaks formed a warm halo of static to my child’s mind. They were sonorous panoramas of the adult world. Like daytime soaps, except they had dark underbellies that did not reveal themselves until after my bedtime. Back then there was a commercial for Zest soap that claimed regular soap ‘leaves a sticky film on you that won’t rinse away’—You’re Not Fully Clean Unless You’re Zest-fully Clean.
Twin Peaks has the same initial premise as both Top of the Lake and True Detective:a small town full of dysfunctional characters convenes around a bizarre crime affecting a young woman’s body. In all three series, we, the viewers, study each town resident and weigh their pathos and their quirks against their potential guilt.
But in Top of the Lake and True Detective -- the complementary yin and yang of small-town crime fiction, if you ask me -- pulling at the strands of the crimes reveals talking points for our modern fears.
For example, when I watched Top of the Lake with my boyfriend, I knew early on in the series who ‘did it’. But he didn’t believe me; he trusted the character that I mistrusted. After each episode, my insistence sounded ever more shrill, more unhinged. When I turned out to have been right all along, our shared experience of the show sparked a discussion on the social reflex to undermine women’s instincts, and one of the show’s key aphorisms: That an infant knows to cry when it wants something, but modern women are confused into silence, or into talking nonsense.
We talked about Being a Woman on the Internet—as a woman who works in video games, it’s hard sometimes for me to talk about anything else.
* * *
Set in the Pacific Northwest, Twin Peaks casts a group of small-town cops, good ol’ boys through and through, as the heroes of the story. What they lack in intellect they make up for in instinct and integrity, and are faultless companions to the show’s uncanny protagonist, Special Agent Dale Cooper. Compared to their salt-of-the-earth police work, Cooper, a city slicker who marvels at the local trees and trusts dreams and tibetan rituals to help him find clues, is a charming curiosity -- although Hawk, an officer presumed to be Native American, brings along the ‘wisdom of the land’.
American audiences are no longer sympathetic to small-town police in this way, and certainly not to fast-talking feds. Messages about the rot and corruption that lies beneath our postcard-pictures of roadside diners, cherry pie and logging mills are no longer novel. These days everybody knows the prom queen is on coke; it’s expected. These days, Kyle MacLachlan, who played Agent Cooper, plays the mayor of Portland on Portlandia, a show about the precocious and self-important excesses of “hipster” culture in the Pacific Northwest.
Owls are now twee, not spooky.
Why did my generation decide to turn back to and get ‘into’ Twin Peaks as young adults? Was the surreal, grainy aesthetic compelling, like an Instagram filter on culture? Was appreciating David Lynch’s grim studies of suburbia an especially hip activity for our era’s over-educated, under-employed film kids? Was it just Netflix?
Perhaps we rebelling too, against the emotional landslides of the modern social media environment. What, even, is a “cult classic,” when anything and everything can be dragged kicking and screaming into the hashtaggable world, created for participatory consumption? Twin Peaks can be packaged into memes, memories and soundbites in a way well-suited to internet culture -- the upcoming third season was announced using the hashtag #damnfinecoffee.
But these snippets are divested of any sociopolitical heft. What is political about making fun of James Hurley, as you do? Relievingly, nothing at all.
That’s not to say the resurgence of the show won’t have anything relevant to say to us, about us. We mustn’t forget An Invitation to Love, the satirical show-within-a-show which acted as an admission of the ways Twin Peaks placed unique and alienating demands on a viewership accustomed to the more accessible, paint-by-numbers storylines of its time. The best news about new Twin Peaks is the fact David Lynch will personally direct all eight episodes.
Laura’s mother sobbing on her avocado bakelite phone, descending the stairs again and again, framed by an inherently-eerie ceiling fan. Arresting images that we’ve yet to unpack.
There is a certain pleasure in having access to a shared experience that’s resistant to relatability. Let’s be real: Twin Peaks is not an intrinsically-inviting program. A modern viewer has to have made the willful and determined decision to watch it. Even in the series’ heyday, the back half of the second season saw its viewership plummet, leaving the show unresolved to such an extent that a third series is now desirable.
Nostalgia is never only nostalgia, but the raw, reflexive appetite for something we can no longer access. This is unpopular culture, and the choice to participate is almost a political statement in and of itself.
It goes well alongside the current social media environment, where some people might be done talking about Ferguson, but we ought not to be. Nobody feels they can trust the police. That’s what the show is about.
(Stop reading now to avoid spoilers)
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