Twin Peaks Revisited: “Cult” Text as Popular Phenomenon
Twin Peaks was a short-lived ABC series created by the legendary film-maker David Lynch and writer Mark Frost which ran for two seasons (30 episodes) between 1990 and 1991. Despite a decline in ratings which eventually led to its end, the show has become a cult classic among Lynch fans and those with a taste for the strange. In 1992, a film, which served as a prequel to the series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was released to a critical panning and a disappointing box-office return. Despite several sequels planned for the film, fans of the show and the world which it creates have not seen any new Twin Peaks material for 22 years. Now, a new box set called ‘Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery’, which will feature 90 minutes of deleted scenes from the film, as well as many other features, is set to be released on July the 29th. What can we expect from this new box set and what could this mean for the future of Twin Peaks? Also, how does it remain so popular several years after its original broadcast? So, get a damn good cup of coffee brewing and a slice of cherry pie, before diving into the strange world of Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks focuses on the events of a month in 1989 in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, in the American state of Washington, following the murder of Laura Palmer, a 17-year old high school girl. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) is sent in to investigate, eventually leading him towards a dark path filled with things which are not as they seem. The television series alternates between being a melodramatic soap opera, a surreal crime drama, a horror story and a slapstick comedy, often within the same episode. It is this amalgamation of genres which gave Twin Peaks its magic. Indeed, there was nothing like it on the air at the time, and, perhaps there never will be again. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me tells the story of the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life and the events which led to her death. Opening symbolically with a television being destroyed, the film travels in a completely different direction than the television series. With the lack of restrictions placed by television censorship, Lynch’s film is more violent and dark than the original show, as well as featuring more nudity, drug-taking and being generally scarier than the often humourous nature of the show. Ultimately, it was this stylistic change which led to the demise of all that is Twin Peaks, among other things. Yet, still, it is ultimately this commercial failure which has caused the popularity that it still holds today.
According to Umberto Eco’s discussion of the term ‘cult’ in a discussion of Casablanca, a cult text must display not just one central idea, but many, and survives because of its ‘glorious incoherence’. Twin Peaks is, thus, perhaps, the perfect cult text, in that it intentionally aims to transcend coherence. Simply by looking at the trailer for the unseen footage from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (above), one can see that Twin Peaks is dependent more on its images than any coherent connection between such images. For instance, the image of the Black Lodge with the Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) is one which is indelibly attached to the Twin Peaks world. Therefore, a cult text is more meaningful when dismantled into its separate pieces than together. Therefore, like many other Lynchian texts, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me does not search for a meaning, but rather is a puzzle of many different meanings. Still, this definition of Twin Peaks as a cult text does not singularly explain its popularity. While those who love this world wish to see everything associated with it, what fans most desire is a certain closure which is inherent with other television series.
In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, this idea of “cult” is only partially cultivated, as Lynch only just recaptures the feel of the original television show. Instead of attempting to create the same feel of the soap-opera/cop drama, it instead follows a typical horror film structure. According to Eco, the creation of a cult text is dependent on its use of ‘intertextual archetypes’ or so-called ‘”magic” intertextual frames’, such as a repeated cliché or narrative feature. This idea only further solidifies the need for the incoherence of a cult text. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is definitely incoherent as it is trying to be two things at once: 1) a prequel to the television show and, 2) a separate Lynch horror film. However, the problem is that to watch one without the other leaves the viewer with an incomplete picture of the Twin Peaks world. Essentially, a cult text (e.g. Donnie Darko) views its truth or ‘meaning’ as a minor part of its understanding and depends more on style. This argument of a dependence on style and a neglect of substance is one which is often used against Lynch’s works, and while it is difficult to refute such an argument, it does not denote that style can not constitute substance. The over-used maxim “A picture is worth a thousand words” is significant in most of Lynch’s work and especially within Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The elongated sequence of ‘The Pink Room’ is one which is dripping in excess (in nudity and general themes), over a loud, hard-hitting score. It feels so out of place in the Twin Peaks universe, but it is a defining scene of the film, solidifying its identity as darker and sexier than the television show. Perhaps these unseen deleted scenes (featuring side characters) will further confuse the film’s intention or will help it feel more like the television show. However, what is necessary to understand when looking at the Twin Peaks canon is that it needs to be incoherent, incomplete and inherently “magic”.
Warning: Spoilers for Twin Peaks ahead!
It has been more than 20 years since the end of Twin Peaks and the ending still does not even feel real. Seeing Dale Cooper, the heroic protagonist trapped within the Black Lodge is still shocking, mostly because it goes against everything television conventions portray. Even for serialised television shows, like any other art form, there should be a beginning or an introduction of the characters, the ensuing problems that those characters face and the resolution of those problems and some form of conclusion. The end of a television series are the episodes which are often the most divisive. However, the end of Twin Peaks never really felt like an end. It just felt like another end-of-season cliffhanger. Nevertheless, this does not discredit the value of what came before it. Just because something does not have a conclusion should not mean that its artistic merit is degraded. Ultimately, Twin Peaks could have continued infinitely as it was, at heart, a soap opera which focused on the day-to-day problems of normal people. The fact that the death of Laura Palmer was brought to the forefront neglects several other great story lines and characters. Once Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed, ratings consequently dropped dramatically in Season 2, as viewers were left with admittedly lacklustre story lines such as James’ journey into Evelyn Marsh’s life and Andy and Dick’s fight over Nicky. However, once Cooper and the gang seemed to close in on ‘BOB’ and Windom Earle in the magnificent ‘Black Lodge’ sequence of the finale, it just ended out of nowhere and was cancelled. But, perhaps, the 90-minute footage promised within this new release may answer some unsolved questions about the fate of Twin Peaks. However, should those questions be answered?
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me remains a haunting depiction, and a severely underrated one at that, of Laura Palmer’s last days, but it did not help us with figuring out the aftermath of the television show. Whether or not we shall see Dale’s doppelganger, now possessed by ‘BOB’, wreak havoc on Twin Peaks or what will happen to the real Cooper is not evident in the trailer. However, it is highly unlikely that fans will receive a definitive conclusion to Dale’s story. As other sequel films were planned to explore the Twin Peaks world, such footage would have been filmed if these ideas came to fruition. However, not even reaching half of its budget in its box office returns meant that fans were left wanting more. While this new footage will not completely satiate our need for a conclusion, it will be delightful to see characters like Josie, Harry, Nadine and Annie again. Regardless of what this new footage will show, the show was never about resolving issues, it is about the constant battle between good and evil. However, it is hard not to wish the creators of the show reuniting.
Despite David Lynch stating that Twin Peaks was “dead as a doornail”, commercial, as well as popular pressure to revisit Twin Peaks in some capacity will be reignited by this coming release. However, in addition to the 90 minutes of deleted scenes are other extra features, such as interviews between David Lynch and the Palmer family in their new lives 20 years after the events after the show and a documentary about the show. Ultimately, this release is the definitive ‘Twin Peaks’ experience. Regardless, like any other television show, there is still desire for some sort of reunion. Such an suggestion is not completely ludicrous, especially if David Lynch is revisiting the characters of the Palmers. While a few of the actors are dead, including Frank Silva (‘BOB’), it would be possible to jump forward 20 years, showing the impact which the Cooper doppelgänger has had on the town. Still, doing so would ruin the legacy of the show as a strange and untouchable anomaly of television culture. If it were revisited, it would lose some of the magic which could only be found in the early 1990’s, with haunting music, cheesy acting and a beautiful atmosphere. Unlike modern television shows which aim to have a conclusion or a leaving message, Twin Peaks leaves you unsure of where it will lead you, but it is always a place wonderful, yet strange.
While Twin Peaks was probably not intended to end the way it did, it would not be the same if it ended happily or with a proper conclusion. It may seem natural to view it as an incomplete art artefact, but, in doing so, it presumes that art is only real when seen together. This is simply not true. A passage of a novel or a sentence of a poem can be considered beautiful without reading the whole text. A scene of a film or television show can be beautiful without viewing the whole film or episode. Most significant when speaking about Twin Peaks is the important of imagery, as simply viewing a shot of the woods, or creamed corn can evoke an emotion. The term ‘cult’ is restrictive in that it is characterised by its audience, in that they are aware of every intricacy and never misses an episode, but ‘cult’ means much more. Ultimately, ‘cult’ is a form of genre, which shapes its textual features, as much as it determines who watches it. It is one which consciously aims to be imperfect, or rather not understandable in normal artistic conventions or contexts. As such, Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, especially the latter, embodies this ideal, in that it encourages you to view it both as a depiction of Laura Palmer’s last days, but also as a temporal jumble of experiences and dreams.
However, the ultimate question is: Will this new Blu-Ray release be the last we see of the ‘Twin Peaks’ universe? And, the ultimate answer, is probably: Yes. Any new footage would not do the show justice, and while fan service is definitely appreciated in this new world of self-aware viewers, it would appear to be creating perfection from what is, at its core, an imperfect thing. Fan service in a ‘cult’ world should only be executed if it will improve on the original text, and Twin Peaks is complete (in its incompleteness) as it is. However, if this new footage has remained dormant for more than 20 years and is now being released, who is to say that David Lynch is not interested in revisiting the show in some capacity. However, it should only be done if he (and potentially Mark Frost) agree to do it, not just because ABC or CBS or the fans want it back, and should only be done with those two or other original writers at the helm. Regardless of the fact that CBS are calling it the ‘holy grail of Twin Peaks fandom’, it will probably not be the last release ever, as the fandom will only increase with today’s saturated web-based criticism. The deleted scenes and extra features will no doubt more theories and fan edits to arise, but new fans and old fans alike will only increase their hunger for more.
But, this is all just speculation and wishful thinking. Yet, it will be no doubt that after more than 20 years of no ‘Twin Peaks’ (and 8 years since Lynch’s last feature film), the extra footage promised with this new release will not satisfy the fans’ hunger for that certain ‘Lynchian’ feel. He, however, is the artist, and his intentions and desires will always override our own. He has gone on to produce two full-length albums and is a successful artist. Regardless of if this is the end of Lynch’s career in film or the visual medium, Twin Peaks will live on without him and live on without a definitive end. Nothing will again capture the magic of the show and the movie. Nobody could replace these characters. These deleted scenes and bonus features will serve as a much welcome auxiliary nonetheless and will hopefully draw in a new pool of fans. It lives on as a dream inside of us, unsure of where it will end or what it all means. Essentially, it is a tragic tale of good in conflict with evil, on a constant cycle where evil and bad intentions triumph and where nothing is as it seems. We, like Dale Cooper, will be on a constant chase for the truth and the execution of justice, and will probably never find it and that is how it should remain.
Eco, Umberto (1985). “Casablanca: Cult movies and Intertextual Collage” in SubStance, Vol. 14, No. 2, Issue 47.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
I’m gonna binge-watch every single second of these discs in one sitting…
Me too, mate
This is not a show that you can recommend. There is no target or specific type of person that will like this show. I love it and I know people who just can’t get into it.
I think Twin Peaks has such a large cult following (that some people don’t understand) because, much like the rest of Lynch’s work, this is as close to art as any serialized show has gotten.
It really is impossible to describe without saying it has some really bad ‘soap’ elements, but I think that those laughably bad moments are what makes it so attractive to me.
I think that the ‘Black Lodge’ sequence of the final episode is one of the best sequences on television.
I hear they have good coffee in Twin Peaks
Damn good coffee…and HOT!
If you love twin peaks, then check out Hannibal. Hannibal is the second best show ever next to twin peaks.
Have heard good things about ‘Hannibal’, but never been a big fan of the character, only just found out he was first in a series of books. But might check out the pilot.
The show definitely lost focus in the second season. Most of David Lynch’s stories begin with the mystery. That mystery is never supposed to be solved. It just serves as a backdrop to the weirdness that goes on around it. The story is about how the mystery affects the characters.
If the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer was ever solved, it would effectively end the story of Twin Peaks, and Lynch knew this. However, he received relentless pressuring from the network to throw the audience that particular bone. As a result, the mystery was solved, and the show had no-where to go for the remainder of its run. Unfortunate. It deserved a better wrap-up than it got.
I do not agree that the mystery should have never been solved. I mean you can not create a cop drama without eventually solving it. But, the soap drama could, and by definition, would have continued indefinitely. I think that people, quite understandably, thought that the mystery was the heart of the show. But, as you say, it is the day-to-day worries and tribulations of the side characters which fleshes out the show.
I think that the show was inappropriately marketed by focusing too much on the Laura Palmer mystery. I do not think that the show had nowhere to go. While the whole Windom Earle storyline is lacklustre compared to that of Laura Palmer, it is still part of the show. Deserve is an interesting idea, but it is a shame that commercial pressure led to its demise. If the creators/Lynch/Frost wanted to continue the show or continue it through film, then it should have continued.
Tbh, I preferred the Windom Earle story in S2 over the Laura Palmer mystery, which was also excellent.
This. The Windom Earle-arc was incredible. While I still prefer the Laura Palmer mystery by a very, *very* tiny margin, the series rebounded in a huge way with the second half of Season 2, with Frost and Lynch back onboard and fully re-invested.
It greatly saddens one to think that we very probably would’ve received a creatively-reenergized Season 3, had ABC picked it up.
Definitely agree with you guys. Windom Earle was a very engaging plot device. While I am not sure I would call it an arc, and is simply a typical bad guy narrative. Still the whole Miss Twin Peaks set-up was very nicely done and much better than some of the cringe-worthy stories of Season 2. Also liked Ben Horne going crazy into reconstructing the Civil War. ‘Tis a shame that we get no Season 3.
At first I wasn’t a huge fan of Windom, but he was a neat character; more so from the “autobiography” of Dale Cooper than anything. I gained some appreciation for him once the backstory was filled in.
I was looking forward to reading your article because I love Twin Peaks. I’ll never the shock I felt when Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed and the sickening feeling watching the series finale featuring an evil Dale. I do hope (somehow) the fans get some closure. Nice job!
That sequence is still one of the best sequences of television. I would not hold your breath on full closure. While we may get a few more scenes of Dale in the Black Lodge and investigating Teresa Banks’ death, we will not get closure in this new release. Still, it will be cool to see new footage of characters like Nadine, Ed, Pete and Josie! Thank you for commenting!
Very well written article! I originally found the series through watching some of Lynch’s feature films and wanting more. While at times there are still scenes in the series that make me cringe at its cheesiness, Lynch has never strayed away from the absurd either. I also agree with you that Fire Walk With Me is a very underrated film. While perhaps as a standalone film it doesn’t really work, there are so many memorable scenes and fantastic acting from Sheryl Lee. I can’t wait for the Blu-Ray, I’ve already pre-ordered my copy!
While Lynch and Frost did create the series, there must have been other creative forces in the more soapy elements of Season 2 and that should be remembered. I adore Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and is one of Lynch’s best works (arguable, I know). Sheryl Lee is fantastic. Thank you for commenting!
I feel as though this series would definitely be something up my alley. I tend to enjoy the weird in addition to the regular, so I will give it a shot. Cool analysis by the way!
Give it until the third episode to see if you like, I reckon.
best show ever made
Debatable, of course, especially considering that it was not properly ended. But, I definitely agree somewhat, love the show.
I just remember David Lynch himself in the role of the deaf guy with an ear trumpet … what a show.
Easily one of the funniest bits of the show: BONZAIIIII!!!
It’s awesome this is finally getting transferred to blu ray and it will have the whole series, the movie, plus a shit ton of deleted scenes, but it’s freakin expensive… That’s absolutely crazy. I’ll definitely be waiting for a price drop.
Having recently purchased all of the Twin Peaks material, this release is too soon and too expensive for me to seriously consider getting it. I will have to read exactly what the deleted scenes are until I get it.
I don’t understand this show,the murder mystery, and the Agent were freaking awesome, and the show was damn unique. But the soap opera bits were so damn boring, and unnessary, still a good show regardless i suppose..
The soap opera bits are sometimes boring, but they are an integral bit of what the show is. I could understand why you would not like it though, it is not for everyone.
Soap Opera bits? You mean the parts where it builds up the characters, lets you get to know them, their motivations, their secrets and how they all played into the mystery? Those are kind of..essential to the whole story.
Unless you’re talking about something else I don’t get.
That is essentially what I am referring to, and they are often exaggerated, but this is a generalisation. I am referring to the worse parts of the show, such as James and Evelyn Marsh, Dick and Nicky, and so on. I definitely agree with you Myra Simon, but I can see why people may be bored/confused/scared off by these elements of the show, so I was merely partially agreeing with Paul. Not everyone will love the absurd storylines such as Nadine, although they are the heart of the show.
Precisely. Couldn’t watch it thanks to those bits. Wish there was a special edition with all this crap cut out.
A fan edit with this very purpose, sir or madam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YHSFrK1nzM&list=UUXgV7HCThrTTm5nbSKrjHIQ
Funny, I just started watching this show on Netflix, the other day.
Hope you like it, Kim.
i love the soundtrack on this show.
One of the very best.
This show was awesome and I’ll pick up this set. Pretty sweet to get 90 minutes of deleted/alternate footage. I’m sure I’ll enjoy that. I know its fashionable to hate remakes and such, but I hope they do a remake or something eventually. I wouldn’t mind experiencing it again…
A remake would only work with the support of everyone and with a legitimate story, not unlike this: http://uproxx.com/up/2014/04/twin-peaks-season-3-happening-twitter/. But experiences like Twin Peaks or one which is not highly driven by story are few and far between these days. Only other one I can think of lately is the British ‘Utopia’ (soon to be remade by Fincher for HBO). Anyway, thank you for commenting.
Wow this show takes me back and I must say I’m starting to feel old now lol. Will definitely watch it again though as I’m sure there was a bit of context that I probably didn’t fully understand as a young adult.
It is one of those shows which grow in appreciation after several viewings and I hope you like it again.
Lynch is a genius, but his vision requires a huge leap of faith from the audience, and even then I suspect the only person who understands 100% of the elements is Lynch himself. I don’t get every nuance of every frame, but instead of being frustrating, it just lures me in more completely.
I think all of us who love genre tv owe a huge debt to Twin Peaks. It wasn’t perfect, but w/o it tv today would be far less than it is.
btw – people who love TP should check out Lynch’s Mulhulland Drive.
Thank you for commenting, Monique. I definitely agree with what you are saying about Lynch. However, I think some elements are inserted because they are visually interesting, rather than them being 100 percent meaningful. I think Mulholland Drive is the first stop for Twin Peaks lovers, then Inland Empire, then maybe Eraserhead.
I think Lynch also inserts elements simply because they are more visually interesting. Lynch is a master of imagery, and one should not look for a lot of meaning in his choices.
I would also recommend Inland Empire to those who like Twin Peaks.
Absolutely agree that TP capitalises on incoherence. It’s a total pastiche of loose ends, which are just as jolting and disturbing as the more overtly horrific elements of the show, i.e. BOB. I tend to agree with you – the unanswered questions are part of what makes TP so haunting. It’s supposed to prey on its viewers’ minds, not reassure us. Great article!
Thank you for commenting, Sophie. Totally agree.
I’ve found in my short career of exploring great TV and films, and I would consistently hear of the cinematic merit Twin Peaks holds. Curious to see what the cult hype was about, I watched the series this summer. I found it to be interesting, dramatic, funny, sometimes a bit campy, but great nonetheless. I deeply enjoyed my viewing, and can finally understand why it’s held with such esteem in television history.
Glad to welcome you into the fold of ‘Twin Peaks’ lovers, Megan. Thank you for commenting.
Cool read! I admit, I am something of a latecomer to the Twin Peaks fandom and only started watching out of curiosity after its return was announced – but I fell head over heels in love with it! It’s really hard to explain to people who haven’t watched it though – they look at me like I’m crazy haha
It is definitely an anomaly of television. Welcome to the world of Twin Peaks.
This is a bit of a window of what if the question “Who shot JR?” has never been answered.