‘Never before, in the history of television, had a program inspired so many millions of people to debate and analyze it deeply and excitedly for so prolonged a period Twin Peaks generated the kinds of annotated scrutiny usually associated with scholarly journals and literary monographs’ (Bianculli, cited by Lavery 1994). We are accustomed to our television programmes mixing genres, using dream sequences, alluding to other era’s and giving us surreal moments. Many think that this is a direct result of the American TV programme Twin Peaks, which caused controversy and gained a cult status like no other before it. It was created, written and directed by the film director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Erasurehead), in partnership with the well established American novelist, screenwriter, director and film producer Mark Frost (Hill Street Blues, The Equaliser) who had worked in television for many years. Could Twin Peaks be the embodiment of postmodernist television? This essay will investigate current postmodernist theory looking at how it uses examples of intertextuality and pastiche.
It will also look at various aspects of the series itself, looking into the contextual elements of the time as well as a formal analysis. It will endeavour to ascertain what makes it such a quintessential piece of postmodern television. It will give an explanation as to what postmodernism is and explore how Twin Peaks is an example of the postmodern era and postmodernist television itself. It is hard to pin point what postmodernism is, it is a style, a movement, a condition of socio-economic factors, a mode of philosophy, a form of politics or a type of cultural study, in this essay we are concerned with the latter. To understand Postmodernism one must have an understanding of Modernism, insomuch as Postmodernism is a method of thought that is a response to Modernism.
If there is a common denominator in all of these contentious definitions of postmodernism, it is the determination to define it as soothing other than modernism, a term that is likewise given variable status. Modernism is generally characterized as a period of profound elitism, in which case postmodernism signals a move away from the self-enclosed world of avant-garde back into the realm of day-today life (Collins 1992, p. 4). Another view could be ‘Modernism is concerned with the creation of original thought and art, one can see that Postmodernism is a recycling or re-use of what was once original’ (Albanese 2012, p.
8). In his essay ‘Authorship and the Films of David Lynch’ (1997), Pearson breaks down postmodernism in four classifications; ‘four categories which show authorship as typified by postmodernism. These are: parody and pastiche, prefabrication, inter-textuality and bricolage’. It is hard to recall the anticipation and excitement that Twin Peaks caused when it first came to our television screens. Thanks to a clever advertising campaign where teaser adverts asked questions like ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer? ’ the whole nation tuned in to see what all the hype was about – a famous and successful film director making a television show was unheard of. The show was conceived by two men of different backgrounds in the film and television industries, who shared the goal of creating a television show that would not be another predictable program’ (Albanese 2012, p.
4). Twin Peaks aired in April of 1990 and the pilot episode was watched by 34 million viewers in the United States. To give you some context, 1990 was the year that the French and the British met in the middle whilst building the Channel Tunnel, The Simpsons first aired on Sky, the Poll Tax was introduced in England and Wales, and Goodfellas and Pretty Woman were on at the cinema. It also marked a decisive turning point in US television drama. Before Twin Peaks there was plenty of well-made American TV, though it was mostly generic and limited in ambition. But Lynch, a cinema auteur, tore up conventions and almost single-handedly reinvented TV drama’ (Collins 1992, p.
4). It also generated a great deal of merchandise, such as ‘The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer’ among other books. VCR tapes recorded the action and were watched over and over again and a soundtrack was heard in people’s homes. The website Alt. tv.
winpeaks appeared just a few weeks after the series started, which created a community of Twin Peaks followers trying to figure our what was going on and who had killed Laura Palmer. ‘“Thanks to Twin Peaks”, Newsweek reported in May, 1990, “trendiness” had become “as simple as turning on the TV each Thursday evening–and then, at work the next day, pretending you understood what the hell was going on”’ (Leerhsen and Wright, cited by Lavery 1994). There is a repeated colour palette used in Twin Peaks which is predominantly green and red. This was not only an aesthetic occurrence but a valuable tool that contributes to the plot and characterization.
As soon as the programme titles appear we are thrust into the world of Twin Peaks with a view of Douglas Firs and mountains, with the bright green and red text introducing us. Nearly every scene has a heightened redness to it with the scenery and clothing of the characters mirroring this in tones of red and green. ‘Red and green; society & nature have wired these two colors so deeply into our subconsciousness that no other two colors share such a connection of opposing meanings’ (Kissmetrics 2009). Green is signifying the positive; the natural beauty of the area, the all American clean living lifestyle, the safety of community, of honesty and healthiness. The Red symbolizing the negative: anger and power, evil, sex, dishonesty and fear, a warning! It is good and evil, Heaven and Hell.
These colors contribute to the feeling of duality (as does the word Twin in the title) and accentuates the fact that all is not what it seems. There is also the recurring theme of some Traffic Lights, hanging in the night air, alone in the dark, the lights moving from green to red, things are happening. They signify a feeling of loneliness and denote the ever changing perceptions of the town and the people that inhabit it. The traffic lights represent the story, alluding to the murder of a high school homecoming queen and the secrets she hid.
‘Both the films and Twin Peaks are centred around revelations of a hidden perverse ‘underneath’ of family and small town life. Lynch’s american of violence and uncanniness is constructed in terms of a false idyllic appearance that hides an essential truth underneath’ (Jerslev 2004 p. 156). The sets, costumes, and characters of Twin Peaks signify a mixture of an all american small town with a 1940s/50s sense of film noir.
This is depicted by the average decor of the everyday homes and families, by the timeworn diner and the vintage style garments that the high school girls and waitresses wear. The character of Audrey Horne, for example, wears Saddle Shoes to school but changes into a pair of red Stilettos once she gets there. The red stilettos signifying danger, rebelliousness and risky behaviour. Audrey’s shoes are an early clue to the fact that all is not as wholesome at it seems in Twin Peaks. The “fish in the percolator”, her beautiful corpse sets the stage for the collapse of structure – that of small-town mythology, that of the family relations, that of the feminine ideal, and, finally, for the viewer, the imagined correspondence between signifier (blonde homecoming queen from a small town) and its signified (the search for which becomes the content of the series). It acts as the initial fissure in what will open up to reveal a gaping chasm in the Symbolic Order’ (Collins 1992, p.
7) We then meet Special Agent Dale Cooper, sent from the FBI to solve the murder of Laura Palmer. His suit and overall demeanour and dialogue connotes trust and goodness. He is a follower of rules, a straight arrow, an all round good man. He takes interest in details and says things like “a damn fine cup of coffee” (Lynch 1990) and “Damn good food. Diane, if you ever get up this way, that cherry pie is worth a stop” (Lynch 1990), both the coffee and the pie reinforcing the American wholesome living message, representing a bygone era where life was good and simple, black and white (like Special Agent Coopers suit), giving the viewer clear distinctions between good and evil.
Many of the scenes take place at the local diner – the Double R – these small town signifiers insist upon normality. Certain other characters, Margeret Lanteman, also know as the Log Lady, are there to provide a level of mystery and magic, all is not what it seems. ‘When that relationship breaks down, when the links of the signifying chain snap, then we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers’ (Jameson, cited in Collins 1992). The films of David Lynch are well known for their postmodern intertextual references, and this is carried over into Twin Peaks. ‘Twin Peaks borrowed heavily from both televisual and cinematic genres: soap opera and melodrama, police procedural and film noir’ (Ayers 2004, p. 95).
Here the boundaries between genre, culture and style are combined into a kind of collage. Twin Peaks is full of hidden and not so hidden references to other movies and TV shows borrowing motifs from other sources. Postmodern film director David Lynch paradoxically fuses and fragments images from 1940s glamour films and photography, black-and-white film noir, small town americana, graphic violence, mutilated bodies and mythic icons (picket fences, Dorothy Vallens red shoes, flowing curtains, and entire buildings)’ (Braziel 2004, p. 107) Twin Peaks both resembles and parodies the conventions associated with film noir including an investigative narrative, flashbacks and voiceover, changing points of view, the femme fatal character which is a mystery and also the distinctive visual style.
It also follows the rules of ‘Soap Opera’, which consists of ‘a television series depicting the interconnected lives of many characters often in a sentimental, melodramatic way’ (dictionary. reference. com). ‘Twin Peaks’ small town locale, affluence and lack of children is reminiscent of other night time soap operas of its era, including Dallas, Falcon Crest and Knot’s Landing’ (Bloggs 2010). And of course the ‘police procedural’, which is predominantly how the show was marketed initially.
A pastiche of these genres brings a different expectation each time, adding to the ever changing action, driving the plot forward, and keeping the audience guessing. Additionally, David Lynch cast actors that had worked with before in other projects. Jack Vance, had previously starred in Erasurehead (1977), and Kyle Maclachlan appeared in both Dune (1984) and in Blue Velvet (1986). David Lynch himself guessed starred as FBI Agent Gordon Cole, and it wasn’t the first time that Lynch had collaborated with the composer Angelo Badalamenti who had worked on all his soundtracks, including Twin Peaks, since Blue Velvet (1986).
Furthermore, he has appropriated character names from real famous people. Agent Dale Cooper is named after a prominent northwest American, Harry S. Truman, the Sheriff, received his name from a US president. James Hurley, the biker and boyfriend of Laura Palmer was named for James Dean.
Whilst the food obsessed brothers called Ben and Jerry, are named after the popular ice-cream brand and a Marlon Brando film ‘One Eyed Jacks’ (1961) was given to the brothel in the series. Lynch also took character names from other films, such as the absent female protagonist and femme fatal being named ‘Laura’. Arguably, the most significant intertextual point of reference in the series is to Otto Preminger’s film Laura (1944). Numerous other relevant touchstones have been identified, including Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), noir classics such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), as well as the audio-visual and narrative conventions of television soaps’ (Richardson 2004, p. 78). And less obvious, almost unnoticeable references such as, ‘There’s the scene in which Piper Laurie is signing an insurance document.
The insurance salesman is named Walter Neff, Fred MacMuray’s character in Double Indemnity. It is a strict correlation. They’re both dodgy insurance salesmen. The reference only exists for that moment.
It doesn’t seem to function on any other level’ (Reeves et al 1995, p. 177). A huge part of the attraction to Twin Peaks, which garnered a loyal following, was the tracking of intertextual, allusionary quotations, references to other movies by David Lynch, cameos by Mark Frost and Lynch’s son Austin, as well as numerous inside jokes. The application of mixing genres and intertextual referencing signifies the dissimulation of the story and emphasises the idea of postmodernism, ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of styles in the imaginary museum’ (Baudrillard, cited by Storey p. 137).
‘Twin Peaks became a cultural phenomenon that epitomises the multiple dimensions of televisual postmodernism. Twin Peaks was not postmodernist because it involved David Lynch, or because it depended on a number of postmodern stylistic conventions or because it generated so many commodity inter-texts (‘The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer’, ‘Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes’, and a soundtrack album) rather the circumstances that allowed for its development and the ways in which it circulated are emblematic of postmodern culture and represent the confluence of a number of factors that give postmodern television its historical specificity’ (Collins 1992, p 4). The postmodernism world is obsessed with signs, it also concerned with intertextuality, pastiche culture and historical allusions. Twin Peaks had all these aspects in abundance, it wasn’t afraid to take risks and cross over genres, it was confident enough to only allude to story lines without being obvious and spelling things out. It liked to leave a lot of the interpretation to the viewer themselves. Although 25 years has past, people still discuss Twin Peaks.
This can accredited to its style and is proof that the multilayered nature of postmodernist television works. Twin Peaks is even now parodied too in other postmodern shows. “Welcome to Twin Peaks. My name is Margaret Lanterman. I live in Twin Peaks. I am known as the Log Lady.
There is a story behind that. There are many stories in Twin Peaks – some of them are sad, some funny. Some of them are stories of madness, of violence. Some are ordinary.
Yet they all have about them a sense of mystery – the mystery of life. Sometimes, the mystery of death. The mystery of the woods. The woods surrounding Twin Peaks.
To introduce this story, let me just say it encompasses the All – it is beyond the “Fire”, though few would know that meaning. It is a story of many, but begins with one – and I knew her. The one leading to the many is Laura Palmer. Laura is the one” (Lynch, Frost 1990).
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