“To all the scribes and artists and practitioners of magic through whom these spirits have been manifested… Nothing Is True. Everything Is Permitted.” – William S. Burroughs, “Cities Of The Red Night” (1981)
1990 was an interesting year.
Germany reunited as Perestroika completely shifted the Cold War dynamics of international relations.
In Seattle, Washington, Dave Grohl joined Kurt Coban and Krist Novoselic in the band Nirvana and would soon begin recording the record that would, for better and worse, define the shape and style of rock music in the following decade.
The top-grossing movies for the year were “Home Alone” and “Ghost”. Neither were sequels, featured Super Heroes, or indeed, had “Big Name Stars” attached.
NBC premiered “Seinfeld”.
Tim Berners-Lee created the first web server, ushering the dawn of the World Wide Web.
And on the 8th of April, a spring replacement series titled “Twin Peaks” debuted on the ABC television network with a 2-hour pilot episode.
It’s hard in this age of instant access, all-streaming, available-at-the-push-of-a-button content, to remember what it was like when there were just three and a half major networks creating and broadcasting the programs that America watched: NBC, CBS, ABC, and the upstart FOX network (which in 1990 only had a half-a-week’s worth of original programming). These shows generally aired once, followed by a repeat broadcast almost a year later. If you missed it, you had to wait a long time to see what the fuss (if any) was about.
This was, in short, the absolute golden age of “Appointment Viewing”.
It was also the era when TV was seen mostly as a poor relation to the Big Screen. With a few exceptions, TV was the ultimate in light-weight entertainment. Movies were where th “serious” stories were told – far away from the tight restrictions of the network Standards & Practices departments. Actors and creators who made the leap from TV to Movies were usually few and far between. And when a Movie Star appeared on a TV Show? Well.. That was news.
All of which should go some little way towards explaining why “Twin Peaks” was such an unusual creature in TV Land.
It was co-created and directed by David Lynch, who was not only a Movie Director, but an Academy Award Nominated Movie Director. The cast drew heavily on performers who may have been off the public radar (or just below it) but were bona fide Movie Stars. Kyle MacLachlan had appeared in the film which netted Lynch the aforementioned Academy nod, “Blue Velvet”. Series regulars included: Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn, who both appeared in 1961’s Best Picture “West Side Story”; Joan Chen, an international film star best known to American audiences for her role in 1987’s Best Picture “The Last Emperor”; and Piper Laurie, a triple Oscar nominee for her roles in 1961’s “The Hustler”, 1976’s “Carrie” and 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God”.
The attention and praise that “Peaks” received in it’s early run centered heavily around the idea that a “cinematic-level” of quality had finally been introduced to the stodgy halls of TV Drama. That a new era of sophistication and maturity had arrived, thanks to the artistic genius of David Lynch. Time magazine gave him a cover story, crowning him “The Czar of Bizarre”. His next feature film, “Wild At Heart”, won him the Palme D’or at Cannes Film Festival. And at the same time, everyone wanted to know: “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”
Impossibly, Lynch’s particular obsession with the darkness lurking beneath the cheerful blue skies of Americana had somehow been adapted and embraced by the Mainstream. Except, of course, it hadn’t.
The question “Who Killed Laura Palmer” is the double-edged sword of “Twin Peaks”. Without it, the show has no drive. It is the entire reason for Agent Cooper to be in the town and connected to the characters. And Agent Cooper is the reason the town’s dark secrets are brought to light; how we the audience learn of and become invested in those secrets and characters. So, if that question is ever answered, all of those reasons disappear. But, as the audience, we NEED that question to be answered. You can see the dilemma. Lynch himself has said that he never wanted the killer revealed. The idea was that over time, it would gently fade into the background while the stories of the town and it’s citizens developed. His creative partner, Mark Frost, knew that was an impossible scenario, and part of the reason “Twin Peaks” flounders so badly in it’s second series might reasonably be laid at the door of this conundrum.
One of the single most frustrating things about “Twin Peaks” is how goddamn perfect season 1 is. That first run of 8 episodes (the 2-hour pilot movie and 7 regular weekly episodes) is a thing of beauty. Without question it forced TV creators to up their imagination and their visual standards. Even at the brutal pace of TV production, “Twin Peaks” never looked less than stunning. The most amazing thing to consider now is how each episode takes place roughly over the course of a single day. That kind of deliberate pacing gave the show so much room to breathe and explore the multitude of characters. It was also unheard of in American TV at that time, and may well have been a factor in the audience becoming frustrated with the apparent lack of progress in the central mystery.
Unfortunately, the second season is a goddamn mess. A mess with some startlingly brilliant moments, but a goddamn mess all the same. It really feels like the pressure to reveal the killer, combined with the temptation to play up to the “quirky” aspects of the show’s character (Cherry pie! Coffee! Tibet references!) caused a complete loss of conviction in the creative team. Lynch and Frost were both off doing movie projects for a chunk of the 2nd season, and that clearly resulted in a lack of focus. The network fussed over the scheduling, the audience became ever more disillusioned, and even the friendly critics started proclaiming that the emperor had no clothes. “Twin Peaks” sputtered to a halt on June 10th, 1991, just a little over a year after it first appeared in a blaze of promise and glory. No one really seemed to care. The most watched shows on TV the following season were “Murder, She Wrote”, “Home Improvement”, “Cheers”, and “Unsolved Mysteries”. TV’s grand experiment with “cinematic-level” quality was over.
The truly bizarre thing is that nowadays you can barely throw a brick without hitting a TV program with “Twin Peaks” in it’s DNA. I’d challenge anyone to not find elements of “Twin Peaks” in “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men”. Watching the first 8 episodes of “Breaking Bad” it struck me how the pacing mirrored “Twin Peaks” first 8 episodes perfectly. Every episode is roughly a day long, allowing us to really sink into the ebb and flow of the characters and their lives. “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner flat-out stated that “no one can discount the influence of “Twin Peaks”, or David Lynch in general”. Carlton Cuse, the executive producer of “Bates Motel” also copped to “Peaks” influence: “We pretty much ripped off Twin Peaks… If you wanted to get that confession, the answer is yes. I loved that show.” “Broadchurch” brilliantly uses the environment it’s set in as if it were a character in the show – very “Twin Peaks” that. “Veronica Mars”, “The Killing”… I really could keep going.
But there is one show that I’d especially argue would never have appeared nor made the impact that it did without “Twin Peaks” paving the way. This show owes it’s very life to “Twin Peaks”, yet utterly surpassed it in terms of fame and success. Like “Peaks”, it crashed and burned under the weight of it’s own expectations, and, like “Peaks” it has been raised from the dead to try and redeem itself.
Three years after “Twin Peaks” cancellation, FOX network (now up to a full week’s worth of original programming) debuted the pilot episode of “The X-Files”. It was very nearly the inverse of the premiere of “Twin Peaks”. No one had expectations other than low. The pre-release publicity made some claim that the show was to be based around “actual documentation” of paranormal events. It featured only one actor with a vague hint of name recognition – David Duchovny, an actor who had in fact appeared as a transvestite FBI agent in the 2nd season of “Twin Peaks”. He was Fox Mulder, the believer FBI Agent. His co-star was an absolute unknown – Gillian Anderson was just 25 at the time of the series’ debut and had appeared in a few sub-indie film roles, most of which hadn’t been released theatrically. She played Dana Scully, the rigorously skeptical foil to Mulder’s wild-eyed theories.
The basic template was solid, but the first season watched as the show wavered uncertainly between “Scary Monster” episodes and “Sci-Fi Encounter” episodes. Creator Chris Carter took every opportunity to make his affection for the short-lived “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” series known. It seems clear that, early on, his ambition for “The X-Files” was to be nothing more than a scary fun show. As the popularity increased, that ambition needed to be rethought and broadened. Gradually, a vast government conspiracy was shown to be lurking around every corner that Scully & Mulder turned. The possibility that all of the crazy theories Mulder followed were merely double bluffs to keep him from uncovering the REAL secrets gave the show far sturdier legs than the simple “chasing down monsters” set-up. At times, “The X-Files” felt downright subversive: it gleefully splashed the darkest, most paranoid fantasies and fears all over the primetime TV landscape. In this universe, the JFK assassination conspiracies was small potatoes. Everything is permitted. Trust No One.
Through it all, an absolutely undeniable slow-burn chemistry developed between the show’s leads. Mulder & Scully became the biggest “Will-They-Or-Won’t-They?” couple to hit the small screen in… oh gosh, ever? There was a hardcore group of fans who watched the show less for the weekly horrors and intrigues than for the possibility that Mulder might drop his deadpan facade and call Scully by her first name. (If Scully or Mulder referred to each other by their first names, you knew shit was about to get REAL.) Or there might be a hug. Any display of affection between the two, however small or seemingly mundane, was like a sip of water in a desert for these fans who went by the honorific “Shippers” (as in “relationshippers”) in the online chats that sprang up in the series’ wake. (Yes, “The X-Files” was one of the first TV series to build a truly dedicated on-line community.)
The series grew in leaps and bounds. By season 3 it wasn’t just a “cult” hit – it was a ratings block-buster. And it achieved this success while creating some of the most bizarre and challenging episodes of television since, well… since those first 8 episodes of “Twin Peaks”. Watch any episode written by Darin Morgan (the emmy-winning “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” is one of the greatest hours of TV ever produced, in this scribe’s humble opinion) and most of the ones written by Vince Gilligan to see what I mean. Yep, “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan got his start on “X-Files”. Gilligan even met his future star Bryan Cranston on a season 6 episode where Cranston played a white supremacist who kidnaps Mulder.
At it’s best, “The X-Files” represents the spirit of daring that got “Twin Peaks” it’s initial rush of acclaim. Sadly, the producers didn’t know when to say “when”, even when Duchovny and Anderson did. The series’ final 2 seasons saw a woefully muddled end to what had once been the sharpest show on TV. Not only did the “Alien Invasion” arc become a bloated, chaotic mess; the true crux of the show, the Mulder & Scully “will-they-wont-they” arc, was resolved in the most unresolved, weak-tea manner possible. (It almost seemed like Carter and company so resented fans’ desire for the duo to end up together that they intentionally came up with the least satisfying denouement possible.) In 2002, after 9 seasons, “The X-Files” sputtered to a halt. No one really seemed to care.
In the wake of 9/11 and endless paranoid theorizing, real life had started to look a lot like an “X-File”. There was an attempt to restart the brand as a movie series, but 2008’s “I Want To Believe” was such an odd, muted return to Mulder & Scully-world that no-one could get behind it. It was trampled under the Bat-boot of “The Dark Knight” and utterly lukewarm reviews. Here again, we have a strange mirroring of “Twin Peaks”: In 1992, Lynch released “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”, a feature-film retelling of Laura Palmer’s last 7 days. In effect, a “prequel” to the TV series. If people had hated the way the TV series ended, they abso-fucking-lutely LOATHED this movie. It was a failure at the box-office, with critics, and indeed, even with many hard-core fans.
So, by 2008, that really seemed to be the end. In a 2001 interview with EMPIRE magazine, Lynch had stated with absolute certainty, “…Twin Peaks is DEAD. It is as dead as a doornail.” The same could now reasonably be said of “The X-Files”.
Then, in October 2014, both David Lynch and Mark Frost posted a message on Twitter: “That Gum You Like Is Coming Back In Style.”
And in March of 2015, Gillian Anderson tweeted: “Mulder, it’s me. Are you ready?”
To which, endearingly, if out of character, Duchovny replied: “I’m ready G woman.”
Impossibly, both “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files” are returning to TV as limited run series on Showtime and Fox networks respectively.
There is something so utterly perfect about that. These shows ARE linked in oddly improbable ways beyond the coincidence of Duchovny appearing in both as an “outsider” FBI Agent. There is a real sense that, ground-breaking as these shows were, they badly fumbled their individual end games. The chance that they could return and redeem themselves is just so. Utterly. Damn. Perfect. The fact that both in their own individual ways so totally embody a particular strain of the American psyche gives their returns more of a “zing” than does, say, the revamp of The Muppets.
But ultimately, the real reason to be excited about their return? This is a possible moment to disprove that oft-quoted (and possibly mis-quoted) line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s – “there are no second acts in American Lives”. If “Peaks” and “X-Files” get it right, these could at least be the greatest second acts in American TV’s life. There’s plenty of potential for this to go oh-so wrong, obviously. “The X-Files” in particular could fall back on iconography and “mystery box” storytelling. “Twin Peaks” has already had a major wobble out of the gate with the apparant resignation and then re-installment of David Lynch. (“Showtime: We’re Like HBO! Only, y’know… Cheap & Half-Assed!”) So yeah… this could all fall apart. Again.
But I, for one, am optimistic. This time around, neither show has to worry about anything beyond living up to the best of their respective canons. In a TV landscape so crowded by programming of any and all genres, and where schedules are pretty much at the whim of the viewer, there is no longer pressure to carry a 27.4 Neilsen rating. There should be a freedom in that fact. The hope I have is that Lynch/Frost, and Carter, Anderson, & Duchovny will just go full on, damn the torpedoes, and deliver worthy final acts to two of the best shows American TV ever produced, full stop. Let the Art dictate what they create, not the Commerce.
After all. Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
And I want to believe.
“The X-Files” premieres January 24th, 2016 on FOX. “Twin Peaks” will air on Showtime sometime in 2016.