In 1990, a geordie boy won the hearts of the nation by crying like a girl on a football pitch in Italy. A white boy topped the planet’s charts by looping a Queen sample and adopting a street-tough rapper persona. And a boy scout from Missoula, Montana, became the most famous film director of his generation by making, of all things, a television series. David Lynch already had two Oscar nominations to his name (for The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet), but it was Twin Peaks which truly brought his skewed outlook to the world’s attention. And amazingly, the world liked what it saw.
The show’s impact was massive, securing the kind of obsessive devotee previously exclusive to ancient sci-fi series. But unlike Star Trek, Doctor Who and the rest, Twin Peaks’ fan base was a broad church, made up of cultural commentators, style mag editors, a new species called the media studies student, men with girlfriends — even the girlfriends themselves. It wasn’t just the cult TV show it was okay to like; it was the cult TV show it was de rigueur to like.
People saw nothing shameful in unplugging the phone, gathering round the device previously known as the idiot box, and devouring every surreal image, along with a slice of the cherry pie so beloved of our hero, agent Dale Cooper. Once the closing credits rolled, the soundtrack CD would be slotted into the stereo and the coffee-fuelled dissections and discussions would begin.
What initially seemed to be the big question — who killed Laura Palmer? — was quickly sidelined by more esoteric issues. What did it all mean? What, if anything, did the dwarf and the giant in Cooper’s dream signify? Did Diane actually exist? Who was the sexiest female character? These were un-Loaded, pre-new lad times, remember, so Audrey, Donna, Shelly and the others represented politically correct pin-ups — postmodern eye-candy in fetishised high school sweaters and waitress uniforms. The scene in which Audrey Horne ‘auditions’ for a job at local brothel, One-Eyed Jacks, by sucking a cherry into her mouth and pulling out a neatly knotted stalk sent red-blooded males the world over into a kind of hypnotic trance (and may well be the reason the DVD scene selection and freeze-frame functions were invented).
In fact, the soap noir’s cachet was so great that this very publication honoured Sherilyn Fenn, Lara Flynn Boyle and Mädchen Amick on the cover of a glossy supplement celebrating the history of Hollywood glamour-pusses. That’s a film magazine, with every beauty ever committed to celluloid to choose from, opting for three small-screen starlets. But at the time, Sherilyn was bigger than Marilyn.
. There’s no doubt that a glance at the trio’s subsequent careers — cable movies and DTV stinkers for Amick, Boxing bleedin’ Helena for Fenn, May/December ‘romance’ with Jack Nicholson for Flynn Boyle — leaves Empire looking guilty of myopic bandwagon jumping, but we weren’t the only ones. Clubbers took to wearing blue anoraks emblazoned with the letters FBI. Julee Cruise’s breathy vocals over Angelo Badalamenti’s theme tune saw her on Top Of The Pops and the cover of the NME. Badalamenti found himself in demand as a hipper-than-hip collaborator (Pet Shop Boys and Tim Booth of James were among those who sought out his talents) — hugely unlikely given his earlier soundtracks for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and A Nightmare On Elm Street 3. Peripheral characters were given their own shots at movie fame, with Everett McGill and Wendy Robie — the bizarre-even-by-TP-standards Ed and Nadine Hurley — starring as Reagan-esque evil landlords in Wes Craven’s horror satire, The People Under The Stairs.
Even so august a body as the Cannes Film Festival jury were not immune from Lynch fever — awarding the Palme D’Or to Wild At Heart was surely a tribute to the director’s barometer-of-cool status rather than an accurate reflection of that particular film’s merits.
The problem with being the height of fashion, of course, is that the only way is down. The Lynch mob’s stranglehold on popular culture was as short-lived as it was spectacular, with the creator himself appearing on TV to implore fans into lobbying the network against cancelling the show early in the second series. The campaign worked and the show staggered on to a vaguely unsatisfying conclusion. Critics and commentators — eager to refute accusations of Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome — quickly distanced themselves from the series and unfairly savaged Lynch’s cinematic prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. A decade on, with the director back on top of his game thanks to Mulholland Dr. (ironically itself cobbled together from an uncommissioned TV pilot), the time is right to reassess Twin Peaks, away from the harsh glare of the cultural spotlight, outside of the vagaries of fashion.
Watching the first series now, the first thing apparent to any viewer is simple: this is fantastic television, characterised by visual inventiveness, wild shifts in tone and a broad range of acting techniques. It’s funnier than the vast majority of sitcoms, scarier than most horror movies — and often both within the same few seconds of screen time. Perhaps the greatest single stroke of genius lay in making Agent Cooper, the sophisticated city slicker, just as weird as the small-town folk themselves (except maybe The Log Lady).
Kyle MacLachlan’s performance is one of TV’s all-time greats, arch yet humane, wonderfully comic yet grimly moral. It’s almost heartbreaking to look at this and think of his subsequent career — The Doors, Showgirls, a literal wanker in Sex And The City…
But while this particular actor may not have reaped the rewards of his time in Twin Peaks, the medium of television itself owes the series a great debt. It’s hard to imagine shows as varied as Northern Exposure, Buffy, The X-Files, Ally McBeal or Six Feet Under existing without the ground having been broken by Lynch and his co-conspirators. Twin Peaks strode out into the network mainstream, bringing with it surrealism, eroticism, the supernatural and graphic violence — basically the things that make TV worth watching.