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.)
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.