Like many relationships, this one begins and ends in the bedroom.
My first visit to the Washington town of Twin Peaks came when I was just 13, staying up late to savour the show’s super-fashionable quirkiness on my 14-inch black and white TV. Twenty-three years on and the return trip is thankfully more vivid in our Blu-Ray age: as crisp and bountiful as the waterfall which hypnotises you during the opening credits. Sweeping the audience away is the duty of any good TV drama, and Twin Peaks doesn’t disappoint.
Like the murky river which prefaces each episode, watching the show is like drifting up a dark, meandering waterway, carried along on the gentle crescendos of its theme tune; the serene, soporific love ballad Falling. The dreamboat in question is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who arrives in town to smoke out the killer of local beauty Laura Palmer, and eventually goes native by ditching the G-man suit and donning a woodcutter’s wardrobe.
Dale is a lovable parody of your traditional TV cop, his deadpan delivery and perfectly-sculpted hair make him a kind of cuddly T-1000, a benevolent crime-fighting machine whose arsenal includes endless amiability, superhuman attention to detail and preternatural Tibetan calm. He’s at home in Twin Peaks: a thumbs-up man-of-the-people who embodies the show’s cheery, accepting tone.
There is an abundance of warmth here: co-creators Mark Frost and David Lynch enthusiastically satirise the goofy foibles of small-town America. Together they knit a homemade patchwork quilt of oddball characters both stereotypical and left-of-field, from the endearingly two-dimensional good guy Sherriff and his village idiot sidekick, to the big, bad businessman who relentlessly chomps on a phallic cigar and his vivacious, trouble-seeking daughter, for whom the adjective ‘sexy’ is woefully faint praise.
Despite their outward banalities, the town’s inhabitants all seem to possess hidden depths, like they’re intertwined with some weird psychological ecosystem rippling below the town’s surface. The mystery of Laura’s death is the Hitchcockian MacGuffin through which we glimpse this deeper malaise: a Gordian knot of buried secrets, tortuous pasts and inexplicable neurosis, encased in a labyrinthine plot that often feels like you’re dropping pebbles into the deepest of wells, waiting for a reciprocating sound that never comes.
Naysayers dismiss Lynch as a purveyor of weirdness for weirdness’s sake, an artist whose chief insight into the human condition is that, aw shucks pardner, it really is a strange world. But as Dale would earnestly tell you while devouring a donut, this misses the point. Sometimes the best and most authentic thing to do, both as artist and detective, is to nurture your irrational side, which in Dale’s case is a nightmarish dreamscape of sleazy bordellos, pasty-faced giants and gyrating, gibberish-spouting dwarfs.
It’s one of the show’s best piss-takes (and Twin Peaks is blissfully funny) that the investigative work is informed more by surreal imaginings than hard factual evidence, a neat endorsement of Lynch’s idiosyncratic, intuitive filmmaking style. Perhaps the most symbolic character therefore is orchid enthusiast and pathological recluse Harold Smith, a frail, damaged petal of a man who refuses to step into daylight lest he suffer a convulsive fit.
Ultimately, Twin Peaks is a show all about turning inwards. On one level it’s a playfully comic probing of a closed, insular community that can’t look beyond itself, full of people who seem happiest when gingerly traversing the bizarre landscape of their own minds. And then on another it’s a startling psychological horror, creeping steadily under your skin before tearing this membrane asunder with scenes so frightening they’re branded indelibly on your brain.
Alas, like many nightmares (and great TV shows), this one doesn’t know when to stop. Midway through the second season, Twin Peaks commits narrative hari-kari, self-destructing when Laura’s killer is revealed so the tantalising air of mystery is forever polluted. I don’t want my TV shows to jump the shark: I’d much rather the shark dragged me prematurely into unfathomable depths where there’s no such thing as dramatic closure.
When the end credits roll in one of the show’s turgid tail-enders, and Laura’s face vanishes from my screen for the final time, I find myself wishing I’d never found out what happened to that angelic, troubled and eminently corruptible young lady. This would have been infuriating, for sure. But it would have been more intriguing, more authentic, much more Twin Peaks.
In typical David Lynch style, the show continues off screen though, bubbling away in my own head like a pot of Dale’s beloved fresh coffee. I switch off my bedside lamp, close my eyes and let the blackness rush in like flood water. After a while, I picture that waterfall again and recall its wild, primitive energy, swirling with suggestiveness and throwing up countless red herrings.
Then I slip gently below the waves, floating down to a murkier yet far more satisfying space. It’s a realm where not everything has to be explained, nothing is ever what it seems and some mysteries never will be solved. After all, when being kept in the dark is this much fun, why bother swimming back to the surface?