Twin Peaks as Complex Television: An Evaluative Critique

twin peaks sign television

Television in the 21st century is more complex than that of the late 1980s and prior (Hundley 2007, p.3). This is largely due to the increase in complex narratives, characterisations and interesting plots that require stricter viewer attention: elements which have become commonplace in television series since they were first seen in the early 1990s. Much of this new complexity was conceived in the science fiction genre, with programs such as Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Lost ushering in a new era of complex television. The popularity of these shows had ramifications across all areas of television, transforming the mainstream television arena and enabling the success of complex storylines by “weaning audiences onto them” (Hundley 2007, p.6). This influence is still evident in the production of quality television today. This essay will make an evaluative critique of the American television series Twin Peaks (1990-1991) in the realm of how it accords with the definition of complex television, including both its textual and contextual dimensions, and the various factors which played out in the series’ making.

Complex television is described by Mittell as an “alternative to the conventional episodic and serial forms that have typified most American television since its inception” (2015, p.17), and he explains that the viewer can derive pleasure from trying to figure out the kernels and satellites in plotlines of complex narratives (2015, p.24). Complex television texts are encoded with dense meaning and imagery, often including multiple characterisations and intricate plotlines. Narrative complexity can be considered a distinct narrational mode, or a “historically distinct set of norms of narrational construction and comprehension” (Bordwell 1985, p.1) that allows for “a range of potential storytelling possibilities” (Mittell 2015, p.22), and in which oscillation between long-term story arcs and stand-alone episodes is possible. A prominent example is the 1990s American television series The X-Files, which Sconce (2004, p.93) describes as having both an “ongoing, highly elaborate conspiracy plot” and “self-contained ‘monster-of-the-week’ stories”. Complex television rejects the need for plot closure within every episode, employs a range of serial techniques that build over time, is not as uniform as traditional serial norms, creates an elaborate network of characters, and is often highly unconventional in many ways (Mittell 2015, p.17; Booth 2011, p.371).

Twin Peaks was created jointly by David Lynch and Mark Frost, and premièred in the United States in April 1990. It was a ground-breaking series that “changed most norms about television at that time” (Hundley 2007, p.6), and despite consisting of only two series of 29 episodes in total, has inspired numerous complex debates about its interactions with its medium (Baderoon 1999, p.94). Nominated for fourteen Emmys and broadcast in 55 non-American markets (Muir 2001, p.250), Twin Peaks was described as “revolutionary” at the time of its release (Hundley 2007, p.24), and is still considered so today. The series primarily centred on an investigation by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) into the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee): a beloved high school student, homecoming queen, and native of the fictional small town of Twin Peaks, close to the Canadian border. Cooper’s investigations quickly lead him to discover that Palmer was not so innocent as she might have seemed. He learns that the teenager lived a precarious, multi-layered life, the town and its people are full of secrets and mystery, and the surrounding woods are home to something supernatural and possibly evil. The viewer quickly becomes aware that Twin Peaks is a series “full of secrets, variegated orders, ambiguous characters and [with a] supernatural overtone” (Loacker & Peters 2015, p.624). In the company of an array of complex characters who “cheat, steal, kill, rape, and deal drugs” (Hundley 2007, p.24), Cooper solves the murder at the end of the first series, consisting of eight episodes. The second, and much longer, series moves the narrative ever deeper into the realm of science fiction, as Cooper investigates the malevolent spirit, Bob, who possessed Laura’s father, and visits the Black Lodge in the woods. Ratings dropped in the second series, perhaps due to the increase in some of the more bizarre science-fiction-oriented elements of the show, and the fact the murder-mystery had been largely resolved, but it is the aforementioned ingredients and the quality of their presentation which made Twin Peaks such a highlight of modern television.

Twin Peaks presents an isolated community beset by evil forces, and its narrative is driven by a murder investigation: an event which reverberates through the close-knit community. It has been argued that the first series constituted little more than an “above-average, literarily-allusive, highly exploitative mini-series about an honours student cheerleader by day/prostitute-drug dealer by night” (Dolan 1995, p.43), but this description does not begin to scratch the surface of the series’ depth. Twin Peaks was partially marketed as a police procedural (Collins 1992, p.345) and has many elements of a classic detective story, in which the investigator is the “traditionally-expected centre of signification” (Carrion 1993, p.242). It is easy to suggest that Dale Cooper is the “literal hero” of Twin Peaks (Baderoon 1999, p.94) and that the series revisits the staples of traditional televisual story-telling by “inhabiting the genres of detective series and soap opera” (Fiske 1987, p.237). However, the way in which each episode feeds back onto itself as the narrative progresses towards a conclusion, moves the narrative away from the traditional detective story and into a space much more complex and interesting. The narrative is also constantly undermined by evil forces, and many other televisual devices introduced by Lynch, which remove ontological certainty in the text and add to viewing enjoyment. There is an ominous sense that anything could befall any of the characters at any time (Woodward 1990, p.50), and deciphering and understanding the intricacies of their fates “became a national pastime and a boon for TV and film critics alike” (Muir 2001, p.251). The presence of these elements in Twin Peaks again point to its accordance with the definition of complex television, in fitting with Mittell’s description of complexity as being when the “ongoing narrative pushes outward, spreading characters across an expanding story world” (2015, p.52). Its multiple complexities led to it being labelled a “genre-splicing work of film art, a parodic, convention-defying detective story” (Lavery 1996, p.16).

Thompson (2003, p.120) suggests that Twin Peaks can be described as “art television, or television which brings elements from art cinema to the small screen”, and for Lynch, film and television are “art medium[s] that subvert and play with well-known boundaries, meanings – and with our senses” (Loacker & Peters 2015, p.621). He seemed thoroughly determined to push these boundaries throughout the entirety of Twin Peaks, with the most obvious challenge to reason and convention being the development of the story of Laura Palmer (Telotte 1995, p.162). Her double or ‘phantom’ life obscures the viewer’s desire to see her lead a normal existence; instead, “drugs, illicit sex, sadomasochism, and hints of devil worship are or were the hidden, yet real, highlights of Laura’s after-school life” (Telotte 1995 p.162), and become inseparable from her identity. Additionally, eccentric characters with sometimes odd or silly mannerisms are deployed generously throughout the narrative to challenge convention and question normality. Even Agent Cooper, the “literal hero” (Baderoon 1999, p.94), uses peculiar methods to solve cases, including speaking to a tape recorder, the use of dreams and visions, and Tibetan meditation.

Multiple uses of complexity on concurrent levels means Twin Peaks‘ narration is extremely effective at “frustrat[ing] the resolution of the murder mystery by revealing ever more elaborate networks of connections” (Baderoon 1999, p.102). It offers a radical rereading of the detective story and, at its close, “disavows the implications of its own subversiveness” (Baderoon 1999, p.94). In combining elements of a police investigation with soap opera and strong surreal elements, the series “prominently alters and undermines ‘normal’ orders, established boundaries and the ‘grid’ of common meaning – in television narratives, but also far beyond” (Telotte 1995, p.165). In the closing scene of the final episode of series two, in which Cooper is possessed by Bob, the hero of the story occupies the position held by the female victim in the opening scene. The audience is faced with a narration “simultaneously subversive and ambivalent” (Baderoon 1999, p.105), as well as dramatic and gripping.

Since the series aired, Twin Peaks has increasingly been framed in the context of science fiction (Weinstock & Spooner 2015, p.161), and it is useful to examine this contextualisation to see how it confirms the series as being complex television. Agent Cooper faces evil forces from not only within the town, but the surrounding woods – a historical link could be drawn to many 1950s science fiction films which presented monsters as a displaced form of communism (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for example) as both an internal and external threat to the country. Lynch also includes many direct links to the decade throughout the series, from the inclusion of actors who rose to prominence in the 1950s in Piper Laurie, Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer, to the fashion, style and music taste of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), and the pristine image of the 1950s diner. As the second series moves deeper into the realm of science-fiction, Major Briggs’ superiors further reference the era by warning Cooper that Brigg’s abduction “could make the Cold War seem like a case of the sniffles” (Hundley 2007, p.26).

Additionally, much of the ambiguity concerning the natural and supernatural elements of the murder of Laura can be seen as being influenced by 1980s science-fiction (Hundley 2007, pp.26-27). Lingering doubt over the extent to which Leland Palmer’s possession played in Laura’s murder, and the cliffhanger ending as Agent Cooper is himself possessed by Bob, leave the audience unsure of many elements of the story. It is uncommon for a traditional detective story to leave unresolved issues, further cementing the idea that Twin Peaks fits with Mittell’s (2015, p.17) definition of complex television, in that it is “highly unconventional in many ways”.

Another element of Twin Peaks‘ complexity, which can be seen throughout the history of horror and science fiction, is the inclusion of sites of deviance or different behaviour (Loacker & Peters 2015, p.622): places where otherworldly occurrences take place. These include The Great Northern Hotel, The Roadhouse and One-Eyed Jacks, and other sites which appear in an imaginary or dreamlike state: the Red Room, the Black and White Lodges, and the Ghostwood Country Club and Estate – a “space in the business imagination of Benjamin Horne” (Loacker & Peters 2015, p.622). Similar sites are used as spaces of deviance throughout television and film history, from the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Bates’s motel in Hitchcock’s Psycho and others, and in several screen adaptations of Stephen King’s work. The sites in Twin Peaks which exist between the real and the imaginary bring about many rapid changes in the narrative, add many layers of complexity to plotlines, and can leave the viewer puzzled or intrigued (Davis, 2010). There also exist sites which are presented as less deviant or evil, but are often just as affective in altering the course of the narrative: the Double R Diner or Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department, for example (Loacker & Peters 2015, p.622). Agent Cooper’s meditative states and dreams are also arguably sites of deviance, although they are used for good in the solving of crime. Hence, it could be argued, the physical landscape of the town of Twin Peaks, and hence the series itself, is a “maze” (Blassmann 1999, p.49), made up of “multiple, seemingly contradicting and obscure formulas, codes and landmarks” (Westwood 2004, p.775): again adding to the complexity and overall quality of the viewing experience.

It is also useful to examine television’s history to see which factors may have influenced Twin Peaks‘ production and to contextualise it within the evolution of television in the United States over a number of decades. Beginning with visual and narrative style, it can be argued that Twin Peaks has been influenced by film noir; a genre of film which emerged in the 1940s and 1950s consisting of drama infused with fear, crime, shadows and violent death, or “films filled with trust and betrayal” (Duncan 2000, p.7). Lynch has drawn on many of the themes and styles from film noir throughout his career, most especially in his choice of settings in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. In Twin Peaks, the ‘otherness’ of the cold northern climate mirrors the psychological state of many of its characters. In his version of small-town America, a majority of characters feel and act like outsiders.

The town of Twin Peaks itself has multiple significances, and is the basis for much of the complexity throughout the narrative. Dienst (1994, p.95) explains that Lynch and Frost wrote the first storylines for the series based on an idea of the town, rather than any particular plotline. Small towns have a long tradition in the American narrative and are often mythologised in American television (Carroll 1993, p288), but this concept is quickly revealed to be a construct in Twin Peaks (Pollard 1993, p.303).

Much of Twin Peaks‘ style is deeply steeped in the Gothic genre of television: a genre generally including plot devices which “produce fear or dread, the central enigma of the family, and a difficult narrative structure or one that frustrates attempts at understanding” (Ledwon 1993, p.260). The Gothic is “a literature of nightmare” (MacAndrew 1979, p.3), where “fear is the motivating and sustaining emotion” (Gross 1989, p.1), and in Twin Peaks, the viewer is exposed to devices such as “incest, the grotesque, repetition, interpolated narration, haunted settings, mirrors, doubles, and supernatural occurrences” (Ledwon 1993 p.260). Its narrative breaks away from the uniformity of traditional television through transgression and uncertainty in a distinctly post-modern fashion. Lynch combines the mundane with the horrific repeatedly throughout the series; most especially when the evil Bob appears to Laura while she is performing simple tasks like writing in her diary or changing clothes. By “exploit[ing] the … potential of Gothic devices to the hilt” and “challeng[ing] the most deep-seated expectations of … television” (Ledwon 1993, p.269) Lynch blurs the distinction between the normal and abnormal, the everyday and the extraordinary, so that the Gothic becomes normal.

Additionally, the influence of many cultural factors are evident in Twin Peaks‘ narratives and its modes of production, and the combination of these lend further complexity to the series. A prominent cultural factor is that of gender and its treatment within the series. Following a decade in which concepts of masculinity and feminism had undergone significant public shifts and homosexuals had “moved from a position of outlaw to one of respectable citizen” (Rich 1986, p.532), Twin Peaks‘ writers were more free to challenge gender boundaries and “open up space for a wider range of acceptable masculinities” (Comfort 2009, p.44). This is done partly through giving value to a wide range of eccentric characters: many of the main male characters exhibit eccentric behaviours, and it can be argued that traditional gender roles are “freed up”(Comfort 2009, p.44) and the idea of what masculinity entails is opened up to greater scope as a result. This is most evident by the inclusion of the character of DEA Agent Denis/Denise (David Duchovny, future star of The X-Files), who alludes to Cooper that he is heterosexual despite dressing as a woman. In one short scene, the idea of masculinity is challenged and eccentricity is accepted at the same time.

However, another element of the culture which influenced Twin Peaks is of a more unsavoury nature. The series suggests that “the worst secrets of all … are the secret connections between culture and self that allow men to brutalise women” (Davenport 1993, p.258). Laura Palmer is first presented as a “stunning corpse wrapped in plastic” (Moore 2015, online), and while Lynch extended the narrative possibilities of television, he did so by telling a story of a girl whose downfall consisted of being abused – sexually and otherwise – by a variety of powerful men, although it has also been argued that Lynch is simply following a well-known formula of “exploiting our love affair with … sex and death” (George 1995, p.110). It is easy to ignore the reality of violence in Twin Peaks, as, when watching TV, people are “in their own homes and…well placed for entering into a dream” (Henry 1999 p.103), a mode of viewing that often overrides the opportunity television gives us to “critically and creatively reflect upon established, often idealizing images” (Weiskopf 2014, p.152). Upon release of the series, Lynch downplayed the violence, describing the plot as simply being “about a woman in trouble … and that’s all I want to say about it” (Blassman 1999, online).

Storey (2015, p.210) describes all television as “hopelessly commercial”: and Twin Peaks‘ displays commercial intertextuality, in the form of its follow-up feature film and The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, to international sales of T-shirts featuring the words ‘I Killed Laura Palmer’. The series was produced to win back sections of a fragmented audience partially lost to cable, cinema and video (Storey 2015, p.210) and was marketed to different audiences in various ways, based on factors ranging from “Gothic horror, police procedural, science fiction and soap opera” (Collins 1992, p.345). Producers hoped the series would “appeal to fans of Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere and Moonlighting, along with people who enjoyed nighttime soaps” (Allen 1992, p.342). This attempt to create new, post-modern productions is now well-established in complex television (Nelson 1996, p.677).

In conclusion, it can be said that if complex television texts can be defined as being encoded with dense meaning and imagery, employing a range of serial techniques that build over time, containing elaborate networks of characters, and being highly unconventional in many ways, it must be said that Twin Peaks qualifies as complex television. Its signs and codes are open to a range of interpretations, and its influences are as varied as the range of television shows it went on to influence in turn. A plethora of factors are played out in the making of the series: historical, institutional, economic and cultural, and it presents many different genre resonances to audiences. It can be considered a particularly high-quality example of complex television: the wealth of academic study it has attracted is evidence of this. Twin Peaks is an important example of everything television can be.


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