Big Night In
Twin Peaks and the inauguration of the Golden Age of TV
The first thing I did, on moving into our shared house in the second year of university, was to head down to Granada and hire a TV. The last thing I did before I left a year later was forget to cancel the hire. This was a bad choice.
But getting the TV was a good one; 1990 turned out to be an excellent year. Two new shows in particular proved to be perfect student viewing: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out. The rest of the year was all costumed Twin Peaks viewing parties and repeating Reeves’ catchphrases; not letting it lie, spinning the Wheel of Justice, and wondering what was on the end of the stick, Vic. In this febrile and formative moment, our conversations, habits, styles and listening all converged around these two shows.
Temples of the ancient world often had automata. Trumpets would sound as doors opened; statues would get up and dance, gesture to worshippers and pour out their own libations. Worship at home, with its little clay household gods, was a lot less exciting.
Cinemas were the temples of the twentieth century: human faces in close-up as big as buildings, the visage of a god; a world full of impossible marvels. The TV was the household shrine, with their heads life-sized, and their antics less divine. As Romans once did with their household gods, we invite TV into our homes, point our furniture at it, and include it in our family meals. Back in 1990, this had an even greater ritual quality: you switched it on and accepted whatever the four available channels were showing you.
More constrained than film in budget and scope, TV stories were mundane rather than mythic. And unlike a trip to the cinema, which required planning and travel and getting dressed, the TV was just… on. It was moving wallpaper, as much part of the household life as sorting the laundry and arguing about the bins, which was quite often what they were doing on the TV too. Every night, same time, same channel; TV lends itself to serialised storytelling. Movies are for telling big, singular stories in a big, singular way. TV is for the ephemeral and the repetitive, for variety and soap.
Vic Reeves Big Night Out, for example, was a variety show. The descendent of Victorian music hall - a fundamental form of popular theatrical entertainment - the variety show is a fundamental form of television. A variety show was one of the very first shows ever on the first night of scheduled television broadcasting in the world, on the BBC in 1936.
Big Night Out was the variety show deconstructed - or rather, revealed. It would begin with Reeves singing a ‘60s pop tune in an easy listening style, and from there it would unravel into a bombardment of absurdity: creepy ventriloquism in the form of Alan Davison The Foul-Mouthed Fox; inexplicable novelty acts from Graham Lister; unfathomable family favourites like The Man With The Stick (my mother was very worried about his children).
It was, in other words, an accurate recreation of what it was like to be a child watching a ‘70s variety show. Which is to say, it was like being trapped in an overhot front room on a Saturday night in front of a vibrating, hysterical glitter-explosion of low quality entertainment and high camp, live from the London Palladium. Why is Kojak singing at us? Who is Lena Zavaroni? Who’s going to fix Norman Collier’s microphone? What can be done about Cuddles the Monkey? The whole thing was confusing and alarming, an effect that Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out captured splendidly.
Twin Peaks, on the other hand, was a soap.
Agent Cooper says you should give yourself a present everyday and here’s your chance for today: subscribe to The Metropolitan for essays like this every Saturday morning.
Soap operas get their name from their origins as radio content sponsored by soap manufacturers: domestic dramas to sell domestic products. But although, like opera, they are unstinting in emotion and drama, they inherit more from another, more popular form of theatrical entertainment: the Harlequinade, a simple British drama form developed from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Its sole story concerned the love between Harlequin and Columbine, which was endlessly thwarted by old man Pantaloon and his inept servants Clown and Pierrot. This basic plot of illicit love, generational strife and bumbling comedy was constantly rehashed, varied and reinvented over the course of two hundred years. (Ironically, the Harlequinade gradually gave way to the Pantomime, which is where most soap opera stars end up.)
Illicit love, generational strife and bumbling comedy, peopled by stock characters in an endless series of convolutions and developments: these are also the basic elements of soap opera. And ‘endless’ is not an exaggeration. The Archers, the BBC’s radio soap, has been transmitted without interruption since 1951; the longest running TV soap, Coronation Street, has been going since 1960. Whole generations have grown up with fictional neighbours and relations, the Grundys and the Barlows squatting in the corner of the sitting room, gossiping.
Just as Big Night Out did with variety, Twin Peaks took soap opera and magnified it, uncovering a deep, unexpected weirdness. It has the form of a conventional soap: an American town in the north of Washington state, populated by ruthless businessmen, troubled teens, laughable old duffers, long-suffering parents. Its central mystery - who killed Laura Palmer? - is a reflection of one that gripped the soap Dallas ten years earlier, when all the tabloids were asking ‘who shot J.R.?’
It is, of course, stranger than most soaps. Co-creator David Lynch is a film director associated with surrealism, after all. A Coronation Street character with Nadine’s obsession with silent curtain runners would not be at all surprising. But F.B.I. Agent Dale Cooper would be less of an affable, mystic weirdo and I can’t imagine the Log Lady (a lady who carries around a log like one would a baby) in Brookside.
All of Lynch’s work in this period sees him subverting conventional narrative tropes with his own unrelenting vision reality. In Eraserhead (1977) a struggling couple with a sickly baby are confronted by a monster; the mystery-solving kids of Blue Velvet (1986) find themselves mixed up with Dennis Hopper’s horrifying Frank Booth; and in Twin Peaks, Lynch uses the soap opera themes of family, community and small town life to reveal what lies beneath. Laura Palmer has been the victim of familial sexual abuse; the avaricious businessman Ben Horne makes his money from gambling and prostitution; the high school kids are all drug dealers.
Lynch insists on treating the American Dream (the promise of prosperity, individual freedoms and the social compact, the drama of democracy) as an actual dream, full of unexpected and inexplicable symbolism and dark meanings. The Log Lady’s log is not the source of comedy it initially appears to be. It hears and sees things, things that are crucial to the plot. This is because it is a log in a story defined by the haunted forests of fairy tale. Laura Palmer was not killed by her sexually abusive father; or, not quite. Leland Palmer has been possessed by an evil spirit from the woods. Deep in the trees that surround the town of Twin Peaks there are brothels and drug runners; but there is also The Black Lodge, a place of mystical evil that was known to the Nez Perce tribe before Twin Peaks was founded.
As Sheriff Truman observes, ‘There’s something very, very strange in these old woods… we’ve always been here to fight it.’ The ‘we’ in this case is The Bookhouse Boys, a secret society dedicated to combating the evil that seeps down out of the trees. The Bookhouse Boys are named after a library, a symbol of human rational civilization standing against the uncanny natural world.
The tension that runs through Twin Peaks is between America the country and America the land. America is a nation built on a Native American burial ground; it is haunted by its own promise. This tension runs through Lynch’s fascination with American mid-century culture, which drives the production design of Twin Peaks, all tight sweaters and chrome diners. The ‘50s suburban dream was available only to white Americans of a certain class, and post-War progress signalled the increasing artificiality and corporate control of the military-industrial complex. The tension persists in Angelo Badalamenti’s eerie jazz score and in the production design; there’s a frenetic weirdness in the decoration of The Great Northern Hotel, all wood and hunting trophies. There is a panicked superstition to the obsessive rituals of coffee, pie and doughnuts. Everywhere, the crazy irrupts into the mundane.
This all works particularly well in the first season, in which the mysticism is still obscure, and the surrealism perfectly in place. (It fails in the 2017 third series, set and released 20 years after the original, which goes too heavily on the mythology and Lynch’s oneiric visuals.) The deeper themes and symbolism offer a counterpoint to the surface soap. As Douglas Sirk said of his 1954 film Magnificent Obsession (which is itself a deeply weird and overwrought soap, with a strong strain of odd mysticism, beautifully shot around the same mountains and forests that surround the town of Twin Peaks):
‘There is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this quality nearer to art.’
This is why Twin Peaks marked the beginning of modern box-set television. It wasn’t because of its story arc or its popularity, but because it insisted on taking the medium seriously. TV had always been seen as the poorer cousin of film - literally so, given the smaller budgets - but Twin Peaks helped solidify it as an equally weighty medium.
Ironically, it took a film director to do this. Film is largely seen as the director’s medium; this is, after all, the basis for auteur theory. TV, on the other hand, is a writer’s medium; show-runners are usually writers. It’s an article of faith that the big screen favours visual storytelling while the small screen favours speech. This is where Twin Peaks stands alone in the history of great TV shows. The universally acclaimed works of the later twentieth and twenty-first century have largely been the equivalent of sprawling, serialised Victorian novels. The Wire, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad are full of plot, dialogue, character development and toxic masculinity. They use the regularity and intimacy of the medium to fold us into these big and involving stories. But Twin Peaks did something different. Lynch directs it very much as a TV soap: establishing shots, two-shots, alternating one-shots for conversations, nothing extraordinary. But then Lynch isn’t given to the camera gymnastics of Orson Welles or David Fincher. His genius is for mise en scene, the illumination of odd details from his personal cosmography, the conjuring of an obscure and haunting visual language that entices investigation even as it refuses translation.
By adding Lynch’s talent for dream-like visuals to Mark Frost’s TV writing (he cut his teeth on Hill Street Blues), Twin Peaks created a whole new kind of art. It weaponised the domestic language and tropes of television to reveal the mystical in the mundane. It showed that TV was capable of more than just soaps and variety. But in turning the medium itself into art, it did so in a way that has never been replicated.
The Metropolitan is running Substack’s referral programme: if you invite your friends to read and they sign up, you get a complementary paid subscription
For more eerieness in the northern woods, what about the X-Files, featuring Twin Peaks co-star David Duchovny: