David Lynch: Peak TV should be paying the surrealist director royalties

Twin Peaks continues to influence almost everything on television more than 30 years later, from the technical to the creative, from Riverdale to Billions. How did a relatively obscure director, known for making almost incomprehensible films, come to dominate popular culture so thoroughly without the average person even knowing his name? 

In the Golden Era of Television, one man’s creative vision and voice remains supreme.  Incredibly, the somewhat obscure, surrealist filmmaker David Lynch continues to influence shows as varied as Riverdale and Billions, more than thirty years after changing the media landscape forever with the premiere of Twin Peaks.  This influence is both large and small.  It includes the technical and the artistic, the characters and the story, the setting and the atmosphere, even the modern conception of a show’s “mythology.”

The examples are legion and show no sign of slowing down.  Riverdale, season 5, episode 18 is even titled “Lynchian,” beginning with Cole Sprouse’s Jughead providing a handy definition of the word, an “Adjective to describe something inspired by the noted American filmmaker, David Lynch. And/or to describe something that is both incredibly macabre and incredibly mundane. Also, Riverdale’s status quo, reaching new depths of perversion with the discovery of a videotape in which someone wearing a mask of me is bludgeoned to death by someone wearing a mask of my girlfriend.”  Riverdale itself was originally pitched as “Archie Comics meets Twin Peaks,” the show opens season one with a mystery surrounding the murder of a popular teen. Lynch also made a film with mysterious video tapes arriving at people’s doorsteps.  Twin Peaks influence on Billions is more subtle, but still present.  Season 5, episode 10, “Liberty” ends with a several minute shot of a stoned Paul Giamotti’s Attorney General Rhodes making an omelet.  The shot is framed from the top corner of the kitchen, looking down and slightly askew on the occupants.  His daughter cuts some bread in the right corner of the frame, and billionaire Mike Prince lurks in the middle background.  It’s classic Lynch, echoing Twin Peaks: The Return (Season 3) ending an episode with five minutes of a man sweeping a barroom floor.

At the same time, there’s a good chance your average TV viewer doesn’t know who David Lynch is, nor would they be able to name a single one of his movies.  It’s like they’re living in his world without being aware of it, making it even more remarkable that a relatively obscure, off beat director, known for creating almost impossible to understand surrealists fantasies, has this kind of influence.  How obscure and off beat is he?  David Lynch recently released a short film on Netflix about a talking monkey in love with a chicken.  There’s nothing in the early or even latter days of his career to suggest he would revolutionize television.  His first movie, Eraserhead, is an independent passion project that took five years to make.  It tells the story of a man who impregnates his girlfriend only to birth a monster that haunts him with it’s deformity.  The film itself features tiny, bleeding chickens, weird musical dreams complete with sperm falling from the sky only to be stepped on by an also deformed singer, little dialogue, and a lot of foreboding atmosphere backed by eerie sound design.  It was so out-of-the-box and borderline incomprehensible, one reviewer is reported to have yelled, “This is bullshit, people don’t talk like this, people don’t act like this,” at an early screening before storming out.

Comic legend Mel Brooks, however, was impressed and ultimately helped secure Lynch as the director of the excellent The Elephant Man with Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt.  Along with The Straight Story in 1998, The Elephant Man remains among the most straightforward and “mainstream” of the director’s work, though his signature darkness, obsession with odd social situations, and at times otherworldly feel are all present.  The film was well received and raised Lynch’s profile enough to be considered for such commercial fare as The Empire Strikes Back.  He chose to make 1984’s Dune instead, and, though good in parts, the result was an epic flop that has haunted him for years.  Dune did introduce him to his onscreen muse, Kyle MacClachlan, and the two partnered together on Blue Velvet shortly afterwards.  Released in 1986 to critical acclaim, cut through with a disturbing performance from Dennis Hopper, Blue Velvet is the first time we see hints of Twin Peaks.  The movie is set in a small town, with dark secrets lurking beneath the surface, like the insects crawling beneath the finely mowed lawn in the opening.  Kyle MacClachlan is back home from college, only to discover a severed ear on a walk.  The ear leads him on a journey through the underworld, one of sexual depravity, violence, and just plain insanity, all ideas that would come to fruition on television a few years later.

Twin Peaks itself debuted on April 8, 1990 on ABC, unleashing what at the time appeared to be a short-lived cultural juggernaut.  The premiere garnered some 36 million viewers and quickly became the most popular mid-season offering.  To create Twin Peaks, David Lynch partnered with Hill Street Blues veteran, Mark Frost, producing a series that blended Lynch’s surreal phantasmagoria with a traditional crime story.  The series opens on the discovery of a body wrapped in plastic like an ordinary murder mystery, but from there descends into far more radical storytelling.  There’s some strange other world, The Black Lodge, and dancing little people that talk backwards played forwards.  The murder isn’t the only mystery in the town.  There’s also drug dealing, criminal conspiracies, ruthless business people, and prostitution.  On a lighter note, there’s damn fine coffee and cherry pie, and no shortage of intriguing, beautiful women.  

At the time, no one had seen anything like it on the small screen, or even the big one, and it quickly became Must See TV before NBC coined the phrase.  Twin Peaks was cancelled barely a year later, however, exiting “with a whisper” as one reviewed put it.  “Peaks set a new standard for hot gone cold in a flash,” quipped a 1991 piece from the Dallas Morning News.  For most TV programs, that would have been the ignominious end, but for Twin Peaks, it was just the beginning.  In addition to a spin-off movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. and a rabid cult following, the combination of big budget production values, quirky, interesting characters, puzzle-box mysteries, and a town steeped in both personal and paranormal demons would set the TV stage for the next thirty years and more, inspiring a wide variety of other seminal shows from The Sopranos to Lost.  You can call it a Lynchian-twist that the quickly cancelled series would live on in the shows it ultimately helped birth.

It’s almost hard to imagine now, in an age where TV shows feature stunning visuals and gorgeous cinematography, but Twin Peaks was the first show from a major network actually shot on real film instead of video, prompting a revolution in how TV was made.  Other shows quickly followed suit, and almost overnight the poor quality recording, bad lighting, and soap opera look and feel of network dramas was replaced by something much closer to what you would see in a theater.  The shots themselves were much longer, well-conceived, and framed, typified by the scene where Leland Palmer learns his daughter was murdered.  Mr. Palmer receives a frantic call from his wife while at a business meeting at a local hotel.  He exits the meeting and takes the call in the lobby.  His wife informs him that their daughter, high school student and local beauty Laura, hasn’t come home.  In the background of the shot, we see a police car pull up outside the hotel.  The officer exits the car and approaches while Leland is still on the phone.  He turns and sees the officer, immediately puts his missing daughter together with the arrival of the police, and drops the phone in a moment of pure pain and panic.  His wife realizes what’s happening as well and screams, hauntingly, through the phone.  It’s a powerful, engaging sequence in an age where most TV was filmed on cheap sets, the camera rarely moving outside of a basic panning or zooming shot.

Twin Peaks influence is far from merely technical, however.  The initial impetus and early arc of the story, the discovery of a dead body, the unraveling of a mystery, and the impact it has on the entire town is now almost a TV genre of its own.  From Dark to Stranger Things, how many shows start out with the mysterious death, kidnapping, or arrival of some character?  How many small towns have been rocked by unexpected revelations resulting from some initial crime?  How many times has someone learned that their neighbor is harboring a dark secret and not who they seem?

In Twin Peaks itself, we learn later that Leland is possessed by a demon and had been abusing his daughter for years.  Ultimately, she died at his hands, setting the entire series into motion.  He’d been secretly administering drugs to his wife as well, ensuring she remained unaware of his activities when the demon, Bob, took him over at night.   This kind of dark thematic fare wasn’t exactly common on TV at the time, certainly not on a show where some of the most prominent characters were high school students.  Brenda and Dylan on Beverly Hills 90210 hadn’t even slept together yet, one of TV’s heralded first forays into teen sexuality. Meanwhile, Twin Peaks had already been exploring murder, incest, abuse, adultery, drug use, drug dealing, forced prostitution, murder, gangs, and more.  This was dramatic, shocking, edgy stuff, the dark side of life in a small town splashed on the small screen for all to see.

It might have been too much if not for a wry sense of humor and whimsy, blending the absurd and the profane.  Special Agent Dale Cooper is the FBI agent assigned to investigate Laura’s murder and others like it in neighboring towns.  Agent Cooper is unconventional to say the least, using a combination of standard investigatory techniques and outright mysticism.  He also has a love for coffee and pie, and is immediately entranced by the town and the surrounding trees of Washington state, near the Canadian border.  To a large extent, the audience experiences Twin Peaks through his eyes, balancing the dark material with a boyish charm and optimism, a sense that the town itself certainly has its problems, but that good people doing the right thing can make a difference.  Of course, nothing is ever simple in Lynch’s world.  It turns out that Agent Cooper has encountered the demon before and his infatuation with the town might just be the lure of the evil lurking under the surface, like he were “coming home” akin to Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

The FBI is also aware of the existence of the paranormal and investigates it secretly, as The X-Files would create an entire show around three years later.  Interestingly, David Duchovny played an FBI agent on Twin Peaks, albeit a cross-dressing one in likely another first.  Otherwise, the anti-hero would come to dominate prestige TV starting with The Sopranos less than a decade later.  The Sopranos itself juggled dark characters and themes with lighter moments, explosive violence and shocking savagery with quips about food and the other necessary inanities of daily life.  While Twin Peaks doesn’t feature a true anti-hero, the stage is clearly set in the blend of the macabre and the fanciful, the intrigue of evil lurking beneath the surface.  These are concepts that would be mined further to varying degrees by Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Americans, Ray Donovan, Billions, and more. 

There’s a subtler influence on the future of television as well, combining a sprawling mythology with a lock-box structure wrapped in the supernatural that keeps you guessing throughout.  Twin Peaks wasn’t the first TV show to prompt the question who killed so and so.  The prime time soap opera, Dallas, had gone there a decade earlier with the infamous “Who killed JR?”

Twin Peaks took the concept of a series driven by a central mystery and expanded on it by offering a seemingly endless series of clues, suspects, red-herrings, twists, and turns.  Unlike a traditional mystery where the detectives slowly, but surely zero in on a suspect, Special Agent Dale Cooper and Sheriff Harry S. Truman discover only an ever expanding series of additional criminals, crimes, and mysteries, many of them interlocking.  Instead of leading them closer to solving the murder, each clue seems to take them even further afield as they piece together Laura Palmer’s final hours and days.  She was part of a drug smuggling ring at the school, had multiple lovers, worked at a whorehouse in Canada owned by a prominent businessman, and seemingly touched everyone in the town either as an angel or devil.  This  all culminated in the presence of the supernatural and even a secret ring of heroes devoted to stopping it.  Ultimately, Laura sits at the center of a massive web, some strands disparate, others connecting, inviting the viewer to tease out the important parts and prompting near endless discussion even before the arrival of the internet.

This is precisely the model that Lost would refine and perfect almost 15 years later.  The same model lives on in Westworld, Dark, and many another show, built on the idea that one mystery begets others, and a complex puzzle is slowly revealed with each episode as the world and the audience’s point of view expands. The idea that a TV show exists in its own small, yet expanding universe with its own history and mythology is an equally common modern trope.  Less than ten years after Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer would introduce the idea of the Buffyverse, that the show itself is just a small part of some larger world, similar but different from our own.  Twin Peaks got there first in two ways, one world-building and story-oriented, the other commercial.  First, the world of Twin Peaks is not our own.  The supernatural clearly exists, and comes with unique rules.  There’s a Black Lodge and a White Lodge, demons and doppelgangers, portals to other dimensions, and even potentially time travel.  In Twin Peaks: The Return, Lynch goes so far as to create an origin story for the original evil, arriving on our planet with our first foray into nuclear weapons.  The current TV landscape is dominated with similar traits, fantasy and the supernatural, each show with its own spin on good and evil, the rules of magic and monsters.

Commercially, Twin Peaks wasn’t simply a standalone property on television either.  The show was accompanied by official books, including the Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and a biography of Special Agent Dale Cooper, that expanded the world and introduced new mysteries.  There was also a prequel movie, Fire Walk With Me, that delved into Laura’s final days.  These are all the trappings of a modern cultural phenomenon.  For example, Breaking Bad had its follow up movie, El Camino, and The Sopranos’ a prequel, The Many Saints of NewarkGame of Thrones is now it’s own cottage industry.  Once again, Twin Peaks got there first.

In fact, it’s difficult to identify any modern show that isn’t directly influenced by Twin Peaks with the possible exception of period pieces like Downton Abbey.  Even then, watch Babylon Berlin, set in 1920’s Germany on Netflix and you will see many hallmark Lynchian elements including interlocking mysteries, bizarre sexual predilections, weird music and dance interludes, conspiracies, and more.  In short, they should all be paying David Lynch royalties, or at least give him a cool title like The Father of Peak TV or something.  Sadly, David Lynch had another opportunity to revolutionize television with Mulholland Drive featuring Naomi Watts.  A pilot was completed in 1999, but ultimately rejected by the networks for being too dark and violent in the wake of the Columbine shootings.  Lynch ultimately turned it into a feature film released in 2001 and widely considered one of the best of the century.  Who knows what he might have done with it as a TV show as intended?

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