As a 12 year old, Twin Peaks was the most exciting thing I had ever seen.
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What made Twin Peaks so special?

Nothing since has been able to measure up to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Nothing has had its power. Why not?

I watched Twin Peaks the first time it was broadcast on UK television, and I have never really been back. It was the very early 1990s, Tuesdays or Thursdays, I think, around 9ish. Twin Peaks was on just after Food & Drink, which meant that each time I was propelled towards the sweaty, intimate horrors of small town murder and sexual violence, I had only fleeting memories of Paul Heiney holding a whisk to remind me of the world I was leaving behind.

As a 12 year old, Twin Peaks was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. It was also completely terrifying: an abstractly traumatising work fostering awful thoughts that would not be burned away by sunlight. Even my introduction to the show was unnerving. I accidentally caught the start of an early episode that my older brother was watching in the living room. I was sat quietly at a table in the corner, clumsily super-gluing an orc together. I remember the music, the slow pan downriver, and then the investigation began for the evening: a beautiful teenager had been murdered, and a community was coming apart as a result. Although the main narrative followed an FBI agent freshly landed in town to sort things out, it was instantly clear that this was not a crime so much as a sudden eruption of disorder, ill-defined but all-consuming – the sort of thing that might not remain safely contained behind the screen of our old spin-dial TV. That night, I had my first ever panic attack and was sent to bed raving. Inevitably, my mum assumed it was the glue. It wasn’t the glue.

Nothing since has been able to measure up to Twin Peaks. Nothing has had its power. I only realised that this week, almost a quarter of a century after the fact, while reading that the series’ co-creator David Lynch has pulled out of a follow-up due to budget problems. It’s a stark thought, and probably a shameful one: 25 years, and nothing has reached as deeply into my imagination as this dreamy potboiler about the adventures of a heroic federal agent who really likes donuts. Nothing has scared me as efficiently or as thoroughly. It’s made me wonder why.

The Showtime trailer for the Twin Peaks follow-up

Miraculously, in the years since I first saw it, I have not become a Twin Peaks bore. I don’t corner people at parties to quote the Log Lady, and I haven’t actually watched the 29 episodes since they first ran on BBC 2. To see me, you would never know that I have re-read The Autobiography of Special Agent Cooper until the spine crumbled away to white powder, or that I have the Official Twin Peaks Board Game in the attic. (It’s up there because it is terrible, incidentally.) This isn’t embarrassment; it is a question of intensity. I simply loved Twin Peaks with such a crippling passion that I had to put it out of my mind entirely once it was finished.

Mine was that special, bitter kind of love – common in superfans – that cannot be shared with anyone else, at any cost. The show was rebroadcast, it landed on video, then DVD, and now Blu-Ray; it has always been background chatter for my generation. I have studiously ignored all of this, just as I have ignored the fan-sites and the treachery of the central actors turning up in other programmes. (It’s not always easy to ignore this last part, mind. A few months ago, switching channels I briefly glimpsed Agent Dale Cooper, hair now grey but swept back and held in that same, laminated way, firing off lines on How I Met Your Mother. Distanced as I am from Kyle Maclachlan’s FBI days, I wanted to reach through the screen and rescue him.)

It’s a testament to the sheer potency of Twin Peaks that I can still remember quite a bit about it despite years of pretending it never happened. I remember the peculiar Twin Peaks tone, which is unique and coherent from the very start. It is born of a narrative that flirts with soap opera rather dangerously at times, and yet never gives you the easy distance of irony. It mints real terror and wit from its juxtaposition of the awful and the mundane, and this love of the mundane, of worn American icons like warm pie and diner booths and stuffed bears, cannot be written off as campness or satire. Lynch’s own historical support for the GOP isn’t satire, so it’s not entirely surprising that his TV show provided me with a loving introduction to a lot of things I now find rather tricky to love: cloying small town life, bland authority, the heroic FBI. Righteousness in Twin Peaks is often disquietingly simple. The darker supernatural side of things, meanwhile, is so frightening because its own rules never quite come into focus. We just have to accept that there is a portal to another realm hidden beyond a red curtain in the woods, and that the killer being sought is both a member of the community and also a denimy pan-dimensional burnout named Bob.

What I remember most clearly, of course, is Agent Dale Cooper himself, the man who will solve the murder of Laura Palmer and be swept away in its wake. He’s sharp, bright-eyed and good with a gun, but he’s also delicate, whimsical, and besotted, in a slightly alien way, by everything he sees, as if he’s witnessing it for the first time. From his breakfasts at the Great Northern Hotel, ordered with a wonderful oddball precision, to his late night dreams that provide crucial clues to the case, we spend a lot of time with Cooper. We get in close. His habit of dictating memos to his secretary Diane gives him a neat form of soliloquy and allows us unprecedented access to his mental world – and yet something remains unknowable about him. He is unusual: good-looking but rather sexlessly so, a shop mannequin right down to the sculpted, one-piece hair. Unlike other famous detectives, he is a creature of intuition rather than reason. Throughout the series, he seems filled with tantalising gaps. “I don’t like birds,” he says at one point, rather sharply. Why not, you want to ask. What happened? It is wonderfully maddening, such constant proximity to somebody who nonetheless remains slightly remote, who almost never appears outside of his interchangeable work clothes, even.

The energising sense of an absence at the centre of Cooper is echoed in the rest of the narrative - and might explain why it has such a power to fascinate. There is a sprightly haphazardness to the way Twin Peaks flings clues at you, a breeziness as it rockets between feral domestic tragedy and the ancient mischief of the Black Lodge, which makes you wonder if anyone was entirely clear on where things were headed. Breeziness is probably close to the truth, actually. Bob, the principal antagonist, was famously the creation of an on-set mishap: although the full story is apparently a little more complicated, he’s still a stage dresser accidentally caught in a reflection during a take. Created more by chance than by canny design, by intuition rather than reason, he knocks the entire narrative brilliantly off-kilter. He does not look supernatural – he looks like he might sleep in the back of an old Mazda – and so the mystery around him only feels more genuine. (Glancing at Wikipedia, it seems that much of the deeper weirdness of Twin Peaks may have been tidied up and codified in the years since the show was made. There’s now a careful internal structure in place that explains the strangest elements – or at least gives them standardised names – and, in doing so, gently robs them of their power. People who love the series have not been able to save themselves from ironing it all out; proof, really, that you only hurt the ones you love.)

 

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It helps, of course, that in 1990 when it first aired in the US, Twin Peaks was a television pioneer. It was the first slice of TV that seemed to have engaged the full sweep of tricks available to cinema, particularly Lynch’s own work. Columbo didn’t have frequent, arresting close-ups of chess pieces or cigar embers, and it didn’t take a sculptor’s delight in the precise material qualities of creamed corn or maple syrup, dripping from a jug. The A-Team didn’t have the Dutch angles and the dreaminess. The dreaminess! There’s a persistent Valium haze to Twin Peaks. For all the bursts of sudden screaming, it works its wonders by quietly tranquilising you, delivering an unpleasantly romanticised murder victim who looks like a snow queen, wrapped in glittering plastic and gently frosted, and offering a vision of the afterlife that resembles the chill-out room in a low-rent casino. To say Twin Peaks was ahead of its time would be to ignore how beautifully it served as an introduction to the 1990s for a lot of us, right down to Cooper’s wonky new age preoccupations. Still, it certainly seems made for the present day just as well: its catchphrases, non-sequiturs and numinous hotel-room giants allow it to travel quickly through the world of memes and GIFs and 140 character limits.

Looking back, there are more personal reasons that explain the special way that Twin Peaks terrorised me. This murder mystery was very likely the first piece of art I had properly engaged with that was not made for children, and I was coming to it at a peculiarly receptive age. A perfect age. Somewhere around the same time that Twin Peaks was on, my mum, who was finishing an Open University course, told me about a book she was reading: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. What if Gregor Samsa wasn’t really turned into an insect, she asked. What if it’s just how he felt? My mind was blown by that. I was ready for Lynch.

How different it is to love a piece of art when you are 12. The TV I watched back then was so much more vivid, the books so much more writable. Not because I’m growing feeble with nostalgia, but because as a kid with less history weighing you down on this side, it’s just easier to cross over into the screen or into the text, to imagine yourself within a different world, witnessing it, moving it in different directions. Watching Twin Peaks each week became a kind of sweet punishment because I cared so much about what happened and who it happened to. Growing up inevitably distances you from that, just as an appreciation of how cleverly something is put together can distance you from it even more. Today, I squirm at the punishments dispensed in Fortitude each Thursday because they are graphic and because I am squeamish, but I don’t truly feel for those affected by them, and these people die the moment I turn the TV off anyway. Twin Peaks – OK, and Back to the Future – those two great loves of my childhood seem to have depleted the reserves of genuine empathy I have for anybody else who is not strictly real.

Maybe it was the exhaustion of being so deeply involved. If Twin Peaks was a terrifying education, nudging me towards the idea that life can be a slippery thing of false surfaces, it was still a landscape to dream about. Despite the incest and murder, in Twin Peaks I found a place I wanted to live. In Special Agent Dale Cooper, I saw not just a protagonist, but a model for the kind of adult I wanted to one day be. Dashing but idiosyncratic, he provided an aspiration so lofty and outlandish that it swiftly became embarrassing.

There’s nothing quite like the power of art when it’s encountered in the early years of your life. That’s probably why we bend in such strange directions to try and recapture it. In the same paper that I read about David Lynch pulling out of a new series of Twin Peaks, there was a piece that looked at the emerging genre of colouring books aimed at adults, unlikely bestsellers filled with delicate mandalas of black ink designed to delight and perhaps enrage. David Lynch would understand that combination, I think – and if the bizarre imaginative sprawl of Twin Peaks is anything to judge him by, I think he would safely resist the impulse to stay within the lines.

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses