Twin Peaks (1990-2017) – Fandom, Experimental Culture, and Artistic Relevance

Some thoughts on fandom, experimental culture, the artistic relevance of Twin Peaks (1990-1991), and how these relate to the new Twin Peaks (2017).

Quick background, I swear it’s relevant: I’m in my 20s. Twin Peaks had long since ended by the time I was born. I didn’t see the original series until 2012, having seen several of Lynch’s other films. I asked my mother, who is no Lynch fan by a long shot, if she watched it when it was originally on. She said that she didn’t really enjoy watching it for what it was, but she wished that it was rerun from time to time.

I have similar feelings for several landmark albums in experimental music. Let’s say Bitches Brew, or Kid A. I listen to them every once in a blue moon because I feel they take me outside of my comfort zone, and I feel I learn something new with each successive listen, but I rarely put them on for fun or background music. They’re more attempts to discover how these things influenced other things that I actually do enjoy. Little artistic pilgrimages, I guess; that’s their value to me. Twin Peaks might have served a similar purpose for manyviewers that originally watched it.

That, of course, is just a subjective and anecdotal thought, but it got me thinking. I doubt that the majority of the people that made up the original series’ viewership are making up a comparable proportion of that for the new series (who are much closer to my age). The latter are also the people most vocal about how little they feel the new episodes so far have in common with the previous series.

I think this little phenomenon is a kind of “inherited nostalgia” – when the fanbase of a long-running or dormant property gains a younger following that outnumbers its original audience. It happens a lot with movies and videogames. I wonder how many people who enjoyed the original Alien when it came out find common ground with the younger fans half their age who feel the more recent sequels don’t do it justice.

Don’t misunderstand, it would make no sense for someone my age to suggest ‘original’ fans of something have more worthwhile opinions just because they experienced firsthand the culture that the originals were made in. But when creators/cast/developers/etc. are reunited for another bash (especially to the extent and scale that Twin Peaks is going), surely their original intentions remain inextricably linked to the new material, or else they’d try making something new entirely? (Alright, I’m being naive. There’s always money to be made, too, but if anything was definitely not going to be a reliably bankable cash cow, it was probably Twin Peaks – and if that was the ill-conceived intention behind this, they really needed to be making stronger plays toward that very nostalgia).

Famously, the 1992 Twin Peaks movie, Fire Walk With Me, was critically panned at the time. It was much darker in tone and graphic in content the TV show, alienating fans. It has since gained a devoted following as its own horror film, rather than a worthwhile expansion of the Twin Peaks canon – which is what fans at the time really wanted.

To my surprise, the new series feels far more like FWWM than the original show. At times, I feel like I’m watching a multi-part Mulholland Drive sequel featuring occasional role reprisals from TP cast. Fans of the old TV show enjoy its huge cast of idiosyncratic characters and the surprisingly cosy atmosphere, despite its grim subject matter. I would say anyone could watch a first-season episode and find at least a few characters that they have a strong reaction to. What draws new fans is its economy of narrative and character development, something that the new series is making a point to completely avoid.

The new episodes, so far, revel in stilted character interaction, with takes so long and atmospheres so airless that there is less suspense; more just outright dread. Most strikingly, the sweeping melodramatic Angelo Badalmenti musical numbers that formed so much of the original’s emotional backbone is not only largely missing, but replaced by nothing. At the same time, it is completely reliant on the viewer’s understanding and interest of the previous series, or else nothing makes any sense (well, insofar as anything in TP ever made sense). I’ve never seen anything simultaneously build its world while keep so much of it at arm’s length. It’s fascinating.

The original Twin Peaks was an experimental groundbreaker for TV drama. Those discussions normally revolve around its filmic production qualities, unusual approach to character development, or most obviously, the surrealism. Arguably, its work was done as soon as it went off the air (or even the moment we found out who Laura Palmer’s killer was, which led to a comparatively directionless second season). 25 years of its influence later, there is no reason for it to return other than to wrap up its narrative loose ends. So, in the face of constant comparison to the original, it is running in the other direction – by being stubbornly un-Twin Peaksy. Not everyone is on board with that, but most of them have had the luxury of enjoying (or growing up with) the things that the original has influenced. It is still mindblowing that the original even got made at the time that it did, at a time when it was on a network competing with Cheers for the same timeslot – let alone that we are getting more a quarter-century down the line. In this era of the HBO-megabudget, TP seems unwilling to either be completely original or pandering fanservice, and that’s probably the best line it could have taken to remain artistically relevant.

My final thought is this. How entitled is a fanbase to a sequel/revival/reboot being what they want it to be? In TP‘s case, mitation of the original atmosphere would be pointless, and what we’ve gotten so far is as unlike the original as that show was to anything else in the early ’90s. Those people tuned in weekly to try to make sense of a then-unique narrative style that everyone was talking about, or just to enjoy an atmosphere that nothing else on TV was coming close to offering. Now, a sizeable portion of the fanbase are doing the opposite thing, streaming it on-demand and wondering when it is going to closer resemble that weird show the way they liked it. However it wraps up, it’s pleasingly unpredictable so far. Isn’t that what we all really liked about Twin Peaks?


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