Recently, I’ve been hearing a whole lot about David Lynch, and not from the Lynch camp or concerning any new projects (what’s it been, eight or so years since Inland Empire?). Rather, I’ve been hearing about Lynch from people who have been re-watching Lynch’s work, especially Twin Peaks. I was in junior high when the series came on, and I was more interested in watching Beverly Hills, 90210 (the first incarnation, with my man Luke Perry as D-McKay).
But even my young, culturally stilted self couldn’t help being aware of the phenomenon that was Twin Peaks when it hit prime time. The first season was a juggernaut of creative innovation that television had been waiting for, as the response from critics and viewers clearly showed.
In interviews and in his book, Catching the Big Fish, Lynch says the development of the show was gradual: He and co-creator Mark Frost were approached to write a television show (they had been working on an ultimately unproduced Marilyn Monroe project), and they thought they would give it a shot. What started as a surreal mystery set in the Dakotas was shifted to the Pacific Northwest, its title referencing the layout of the fictional town, which is nestled between two peaks.
The pilot was shot with the caveat that they would film an encapsulated ending to the one-show mystery in case the show wasn’t picked up—you can find this quick wrap-up, which has Killer BOB being shot by the one-armed man in the hospital basement, on the DVD box set. Lynch and Frost didn’t think it would be picked up; the test with the network wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great. Then, seemingly against all (or at least most) odds, it was put on the air, and overnight it hit like a bomb. Everyone was asking: Who killed Laura Palmer?
The better question, however, is, Who killed Twin Peaks? And the answer to this one is easy: the same person—we’ll assume it was a network executive—who made Lynch provide a solution to the Laura Palmer murder. The key to any drama, if you want to keep it alive, is to keep the tension taught; and the key to keeping any mystery alive is to not solve the mystery. More than that, the allure of most crime mysteries, from Raymond Chandler to HBO’s new series True Detective, is not dependent on finding out whodunit. More interestingly and realistically, it’s about all the colorful characters we meet along the way, including their selective memories, the unreliable narrators, and the moral struggle inherent to all complex situations that blur the lines between right and wrong.
Another example of this sort of high-level storytelling with the crime as a backdrop is the film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s detective novel The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The story is notoriously full of plot holes, but we love it for the characters, the atmosphere, the human (i.e., flawed) relationships—in the end, no one really gives a crap about the crime or who committed it.
The death of Laura Palmer—a small-town, high school girl whose mythos casts her as both a straight-A, community-service angel and, later, a coke-snorting, orgy-having devil—was the perfect inciting incident to explore all the submerged secret lives of what on the surface appears to be a quiet, white-bread community. When one bad thing bubbles to the surface, the small town's other secrets are dredged up in the process, in thrusts and starts.
When the killer isn’t caught, everyone becomes a suspect, and thus any bit of otherwise normal business is suddenly interesting because it could be a clue. A truck driver dealing drugs to high school jocks, a man trying to get Norwegians to invest in his hotel, a logging mill burning down, a teenager having a crush on an FBI agent—all of these things become layered inside one another because of the unsolved death of Laura. But if you point to one person and say, He did it, the interest in all of those tangential strands is lost. It effectively props them all up.
Walter White’s home life in Breaking Bad, a rather sad soap opera on its own, became infinitely more compelling the longer the show went on because it was the little bit of normalcy in his life that he was trying to maintain while building a drug empire, resulting in the show's gaining a wider viewership than it would have if it had just been about the indiscretions of a drug kingpin. Not so long ago, in the timeline of the show, Walter was just a humble chemistry teacher with a pedestrian home life, and this allowed everyone to get on board; he was one of us. And if Walter White had suddenly decided that he had enough money to leave to his family after he died and quit manufacturing meth—boom, no more show. If Tony Soprano had suddenly quit the mob—boom, no more show.
As soon as Woody and McConaughey figure out who the Yellow King is—combined with McConaughey's Oscar win for an awesome performance, albeit in a movie that discounts one of the defining efforts of the gay community, their unification to fight AIDS in the face of national disregard, making Dallas Buyers Club this year’s The Help—then True Detective will be over, at least in this incarnation. But at least this show has sufficiently curbed expectations regarding the length and impact of its story line.
Twin Peaks paved the way for long-story shows; it broke the prime-time mold of episodic story telling by setting up a season-long mystery. This must be part of the reason for all the attention the show has been getting lately, at least in my circles. Lynch says he was pressured to reveal Laura’s killer—he didn’t even know who the killer was—and caving to the pressure has caused him a deep sadness.
The great David Foster Wallace wrote an essay about Lynch called “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a smart analysis of the arc of Lynch’s career at that point (1996). Eraserhead was the film-school baby of five year’s incubation, a project that bears all the traces of a painter becoming a filmmaker in its emphasis of effect, symbol, and character over narrative clarity (Lynch claims that this was one of Kubrick’s favorite films).
The Elephant Man was the young director playing with the weird as a subject, but dressing it in a relatively conventional structure. Dune was the project that showed Lynch that he couldn’t fuck with big studios because his art depends on his full and complete control. Not because he’s a control freak, as Wallace suggests in his essay, but because his process is one of constant evolution.
It’s telling that Lynch followed Dune with Blue Velvet, because it shows him moving toward a low budget approach where he can have total control and bring the weird back into the structure. Twin Peaks is in many ways a sequel to Blue Velvet; it could easily have been called Red Velvet based on the red room of the characters’ dreams (and Lynch’s dreams).
Lynch cites Transcendental Meditation as the source for his ideas, because it has opened him to inspiration from anywhere it might come. The character of BOB and the red room of Twin Peaks came at moments of sudden inspiration. It’s hard to be in sync with such inspiration when a network is trying to make it conform to rating-friendly expectations, and in fact, treating such inspiration this way will kill ratings, as the second season of Twin Peaks clearly proved.