Culture

The American Genius of Twin Peaks

Harry Dean Stanton and Mädchen Amick) in Twin Peaks (Photo: Showtime)
Far from condescending to salt-of-the-earth folks, as its critics charge, David Lynch’s rebooted masterwork maintains an uncanny, sympathetic eye for those folks’ hopes, dreams, struggles, and triumphs.

‘Shovel your way out of the sh**!”

So goes the tagline of Dr. AMP’s Great American Radio Show, an archetypal entry in the genre of ostensibly conservative but really schizo-libertarian local talk radio. It’s bellowed by a retired crackpot medicine man who is obsessed with the machinations of a “vast global corporate conspiracy” and whose audience eats up his exposure of same, despite — because of? — his total lack of corroborating evidence. Listeners tune in because he’s amusing, because he’s local, because hey, he has a point. The show is a distraction from routine — a nightcap, an outlet for frustration, resentment, and anxiety, never mind that it corrodes public discourse by the minute.

But it is entirely fake.

Not fake in the way Infowars is fake, of course. Dr. AMP is really Dr. Jacoby, a character in Twin Peaks, the television show created by David Lynch and Mark Frost that premiered in 1990. The show was once a cultural phenomenon, earning massive ratings on a bona-fide network back when being on a bona-fide network still meant something. By comparison, viewers of this year’s reboot, a third season subtitled “The Return,” number in just the hundreds of thousands. Once a mainstay of the bygone monoculture, the show is now merely the darling of film critics and Lynch devotees. Contrasting this with the full-on embrace of Game of Thrones — the closest thing to a dominant cultural phenomenon that exists in this fractured media landscape — across social fault lines, some have fallen into the trap of casting Thrones as populist fodder and Peaks as elitist fare. But for all its ethereal whooshing and surrealist impressionism, this season of Twin Peaks is some of Lynch’s most grounded, humane, and contemporary work. It features an incisive exploration of the psyche and life of down-home, down-but-not-out Americans.

That there is pain and hardship aplenty to be found out there in so-called flyover country is something Lynch never forgot, and his reborn program — whose finale is this Sunday — is a sustained, surreal, deep dive into those travails.

What lurks behind the genteel veneer of suburbia is a long-time Lynch obsession. Famously, the opening scene of his 1987 film Blue Velvet brings an idyllic montage of white-picket-fence America to an abrupt stop on a man having a heart attack as he waters his lawn. The camera moves remorselessly into the buried world beneath the man, lingering on a grotesque shot of ants in the dirt. The metaphor shouts. But Lynch’s entire oeuvre is about American society and its accompanying anxieties: 1977’s Eraserhead revels crazily in the industrial decay of American cities and the worries of new parents living in cramped quarters; 1990’s Wild at Heart features Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as cartoonish southerners running away from home and into strange troubles; 1999’s The Straight Story tells the true tale of Alvin Straight reuniting with his brother after embarking on a grueling but scenic tractor ride from Iowa to Wisconsin; 2001’s Mulholland Drive conveys shattered Hollywood dreams through, well, a dream.

Detractors sometimes disdain Lynch’s directorial tone as signaling condescension for his subjects. Roger Ebert called Wild At Heart “repulsive and manipulative,” an “exploitation, put-on and self-satire,” and “dishonest” in a scathing review. Cage’s character Sailor Ripley wears a snakeskin jacket, which he says “symbolizes my individuality and my belief in personal freedom”; critics like Ebert took that to be making fun of southerners or individualists wherever they might be found.

The show’s world is one that clearly engrosses Lynch, or he wouldn’t have brought it back to the air 25 years after its original run concluded with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.

Yet while now is an inopportune time to face charges of elitism, Lynch’s repertoire is hardly a sustained joke at the expense of plain folks. Lynch doesn’t have contempt for these people; he’s endlessly fascinated by them. He himself hails from Missoula, Mont., and cites his American upbringing over and over again when discussing his work. The heartland is not just a backdrop for his films: He makes art showcasing uniquely American themes, anxieties, and triumphs. Work like Wild at Heart and The Straight Story celebrates and unravels Americana, all the while displaying the director’s deep, humane understanding of the problems that plague it.

Which brings us back to Twin Peaks.

The show’s world is one that clearly engrosses Lynch, or he wouldn’t have brought it back to the air 25 years after its original run concluded with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The new season, airing on Showtime, has delivered an idiosyncratic, unsparing portrayal of the contemporary American condition. Misremembered by romantics as a show about coffee, cherry pie, and everything right with the country, Twin Peaks was actually always kaleidoscopic. It was about those things, but also about a father raping and killing his daughter; about a wellspring of unthinkable evil housed in a circle of sycamore trees; about a big-time local businessman running a sex club across jurisdictional lines; about high-school kids doing cocaine and associating with murderers.

Americans loved the show precisely because it did justice to what they understood about the country — the good, the bad, and the in-between. Its pilot episode drew 35 million viewers. Beautiful shots of the mountains gave way to harrowing shots of the forest, that original primeval setting which so frightened the Puritans on their first forays into the wilderness. Near by mileage but far by feel from hipster-rife Seattle, rural Washington — rural America — embodies the full spectrum of good and evil.

Now, 25 years later, many Americans are more engaged by the fantasy world of Thrones, which takes the violence, sex, and betrayal of Twin Peaks and adds dragons. But the ones who are tuning into Lynch’s second go-round in the Pacific Northwest see familiar sights. The plight of the townsfolk eerily tracks with the way Brink Lindsey described the modern United States in a recent piece:

If we pull back from a narrow focus on incomes and purchasing power, however, we see something much more troubling than economic stagnation. Outside a well-educated and comfortable elite comprising 20-25 percent of Americans, we see unmistakable signs of social collapse. We see, more precisely, social disintegration — the progressive unraveling of the human connections that give life structure and meaning: declining attachment to work; declining participation in community life; declining rates of marriage and two-parent childrearing.

Look around town. Shelly Briggs is still stuck in her job as a cashier at the Double-R diner. Her divorce from Bobby Briggs has made it harder for both of them to be good parents. Their daughter, Becky, is addicted to drugs, and so was Becky’s fiancé Steven, until he shot himself. Carl Rodd, the landlord of Fat Trout trailer park, sees his tenants selling platelets to make ends meet and plunging into domestic violence. Nadine Hurley has a storefront — one — for her drape-runner business, but it’s hardly the innovative success she expected it to be. The only real business success in town could have belonged to Norma Jennings, who was on the verge of franchising her diner — before her slick, greedy business partner Walter caused her to walk away from the deal. All the while, designer drugs flood into high schools as kids draw together and break apart, their society riven and their judgment impaired, overdose an omnipresent threat.

If Twin Peaks, Wash. was a real town, it would have been hit hard by the opioid crisis.

Not all is economic stagnation and collapse. For some, love forges a hopeful path forward. Big Ed Hurley and Norma are finally getting married: Love found a way. The two, however, are in their late 70s, and Ed spent the last two and a half decades falling asleep behind the desk of his gas station in lonely despair. What might have been, and what has been in the intervening years, pains viewers even as we take solace in the eventual union.

And then there’s Dr. Jacoby, whose radio show speaks to the alienated residents of Twin Peaks. Mind you, their alienation is not from the fruits of their labor, brought about by industrial capitalism, pace Marx. Instead, it’s an alienation from their town, their neighborhood; from nature, from the surrounding beauty; from, finally, the civic unity and community life that once held the town together. There’s no mention of the secret society known as the Bookhouse Boys; the Miss Twin Peaks contest seems shuttered. So while some of the alienated turn to drugs, others turn to crackpot politics for the same narcotic effect. Jacoby’s rants offer an outlet for pent-up resentments. He hawks his golden shovel as a way to “dig yourself out.” Channeling rage toward the “global corporate conspiracy,” Jacoby reassures the townsfolk that their stagnation is not their fault, that there is a way out. It’ll just set you back $29.99.

It’s not necessarily condescending to portray the struggles cursing large regions of the country, but it can easily come off that way. Remember 2012? “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest,” President Obama said. “The jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing’s replaced them.” It was a decent diagnosis, but just decent — “then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them,” he continued blithely — and it fed the prejudices of Obama supporters and opponents alike.

Lynch, by contrast, notes the harrowing aspects of small-town America with a quiet humanity, a deeply sympathetic understanding of the darkness that envelops it. He doesn’t point blame — though episode eight of the new season suggests the genesis of evil is nuclear weaponry — nor does he hold that suffering is the provenance only of certain groups of people. (For this, and for his portrayal of mostly white characters, he’s received some criticism.) He depicts his characters with a searching lens.

Of course, cultural commentary can only cover part of the show. Primal evil is also in the mix. Sure, people fear globalists because they fear having their fates decided by forces beyond their control, and Lynch’s nodding to that fact brings Twin Peaks into an ongoing national conversation about class, society, and politics. But the conflicts that drive the show cannot be reduced to the ramblings of Jacoby or the difficulties faced by the townsfolk. Its elemental antagonist is the malevolence inhabiting Sarah Palmer or animating the doppelganger of Special Agent Dale Cooper, not the loss of the locals’ social capital. Its focus has shifted, with time being split between Washington, South Dakota, and Las Vegas. Its surreal style remains as significant as ever.

That said, among Lynch’s many strengths as a director is his ability to connect the clash between uncanny forces of good and evil to the quotidian experience of American life. And this season, when the show spends time in its namesake town, it delivers a stark portrayal of the narrow margin between social survival and utter decay.

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