Typing Faster

March 24, 2010

The Death of Laura Palmer: How Twin Peaks Revolutionized American Television

Filed under: Future of TV, Stuff I Like — petertypingfaster @ 8:01 am

The Guardian put up an interesting piece talking about how Twin Peaks changed US television.

It’s hard to recall now the excitement generated by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks when it first aired on British television back in 1990. But it managed to make staying in seem urgent and exhilarating. There were Twin Peaks evenings, at which fans gathered in each other’s houses to watch this revolutionary entertainment, a sort of surreal soap-cum-murder-mystery. Offices practically had to install water-coolers just so their staff could stand around them and speculate on who killed Laura Palmer. It was one of those moments when American popular culture reminded us just how cool it could be.

It also marked a decisive turning point in US television drama. Before Twin Peaks there was plenty of well-made American TV, though it was mostly generic and limited in ambition. But Lynch, a cinema auteur, tore up conventions and almost single-handedly reinvented TV drama. The standard narrative arc went out of the window, and in its place came idiosyncratic character studies, an elliptical plot, dialogue that brought the bizarre and the banal together in a captivating verbal marriage, and imagery quite unlike anything seen on the small screen. There was also, of course, the haunting theme music by Angelo Badalamenti that seemed to plug directly into the eerier quarters of the subconscious.

The audience was not just hooked but enthralled, beguiled and bewildered.

Suddenly television was full of possibilities. Five years earlier, the high-water mark of innovation had been reached in British television with The Singing Detective, but thereafter the British model struggled to develop and thrive. By contrast, American TV hasn’t looked back.

It would be wrong to attribute all that’s since taken place to the creative impact of Twin Peaks but Lynch’s legacy can nonetheless be seen in dramas in a whole range of recent TV shows. For a start, Lynch helped make television attractive to film stars. Kyle MacLachlan, who played the other-worldly Special Agent Dale Cooper, had been the lead in Blue Velvet. The message was that television was no longer a Hollywood ghetto. Without Agent Cooper perhaps there would have been no Jack Bauer. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that JJ Abrams’s high-concept genre-mashing with Lost would have happened if Lynch hadn’t pioneered the way. And in David Chase’s casting in The Sopranos it’s possible to see the influence of Lynch, who used almost forgotten character actors like Richard Beymer.

In the end, Twin Peaks didn’t quite deliver on its fabulous promise, trailing off in its second series into paranormal confusion. But by then it had already worked its magic. “That’s a damn fine cup of coffee,” Agent Cooper liked to say. One way or another, American TV woke up and smelt it.

The article goes on to interview some of the key people from the series. Mostly it’s actors regurgitating typical interview dialogue, but there’s also an interesting segment with Mark Frost the co-creator and writer.

David and I didn’t worry whether the viewers would “get” Twin Peaks. We decided that we had a break to daylight here; a chance from the network to go mad, to do whatever we felt like doing. ABC were so desperate at that point, they had been languishing in third place for God knows how long – so we were able to secure from them unprecedented artistic controls on the show, largely because we told them from the beginning: “You’re not going to be able to understand this, so there’s no way you can hope to guide it.” And they looked at the pilot and said: “You’re right.” They gave us notes but I don’t think we paid attention to a single one.

I can’t really think of any ideas that David and I considered too “out there” to be included. Most of them ended up in the show. David would call up in the middle of shooting – he’d be off doing a movie or something – and say, “Mark, I think there’s a giant in Agent Cooper’s room.” And I’d go, “OK…” We’d explore it – and it would work. Perhaps there was one idea that threw me for a loop. During the second season we knew that Joan Chen’s character was going to die. David, as he was wont to do, called me up and said: “I think she gets stuck in a door handle…” So we tried to make that work. It didn’t make any sense to me, it still doesn’t.

ABC were profoundly uncomfortable with this show from the very beginning. They’d moved us to a dreadful time slot for the second season – Saturday night at 10pm when you mostly had the living dead home watching television. And then there was a hit show called The Gulf War that came on, so everybody kept cutting away from us to live shots of bombs falling in Baghdad.

Twin Peaks finished soon after that. I think there were shows that came along afterwards that owed a debt to what we’d done. The one that meant the most to me was David Chase saying that The Sopranos had been influenced by the show. He felt it had given him the freedom to go places narratively that he hadn’t really considered before (a dream sequence, say) and the notion that he could have a sprawling cast and still be able to service them all. His was the last show I watched with enduring interest. I don’t watch network television any more.

Pretty coo, though I’m not sure how much valuable information you can actually draw from that. Twin Peaks was, in a lot of ways, a product of a very specific time and situation. You had a struggling network, a very successful cult filmmaker, and the fact that nothing like it had ever been attempted before. Now that two of those things no longer apply (I can’t see NBC taking a gamble this big, at least not so long as Zucker is till around) can it ever really be replicated? Doubtful.

But wouldn’t it be freaking cool if more network execs would take that hands off approach? If more execs were able to step back and realize that “I can’t understand this, so I’ll just get out of the way and let the writers guide it,” we’d be in a much better place. It takes giants to do something like that though, and unfortunately this is a business dominated by midgets more often than not.

Ah well, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride…

H/T to Mr. Tommy Gushue for sending me the article in the first place.

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4 Comments »

  1. Isn’t “Lost” a bit like Twin Peaks (just updated, and “more” successful in a variety of ways)?

    Comment by Elize Morgan — March 24, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    • In some ways yes, in some ways no.

      Lost is way more mainstream that Twin Peaks ever was. I’d say Twin Peaks has more in common with a show like X-Files than it does with Lost (at least tonally).

      The real question is would Lost (or any other heavily serialized sci-fi type show) have been made without the influence of Twin Peaks? Probably not in my book.

      Comment by petertypingfaster — March 24, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  2. The major connections with Twin Peaks and Lost would be the gigantic ensemble that still allows everyone to have their own stories, the slow teasing out of the supernatural elements, and the bigger mythology underneath it all — which may or may not have been made up along the way.

    Comment by Tommy — March 24, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

  3. ..and I’d have a whole herd.

    Yeah, it’d be sweet.

    I miss Peaks. (My friend even hosted a Peaks party or two on the nights it aired, with damn fine coffee and cherry pie) Sometimes, while watching, I got the impression Lynch and Frost were playing a huge practical joke on the television audience, but at the same time, I couldn’t look away. I stayed with it to the bitter end, and even watched Fire Walk With Me, though it was a disappointment, being a prequel, rather than the resolution I craved.

    Comment by Garner Haines — March 24, 2010 @ 5:51 pm


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