O'BRIEN Twin Peaks

Anatomy of aCult TV Following TWIN PEAKS FANDOM, THEN AND NOWScreen Education I ©ATOM I No. 8890In 2017, Twin Peaks finally returned to the screen, bringing with it…
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Anatomy of aCult TV Following TWIN PEAKS FANDOM, THEN AND NOWScreen Education I ©ATOM I No. 8890In 2017, Twin Peaks finally returned to the screen, bringing with it new mysteries and moments of unsettling brilliance. GABRIELLE O’BRIEN investigates the original show’s cult success, the online communities that emerged around it and how the new series toys with viewer of aCult TV Following TWIN PEAKS FANDOM, THEN AND NOWScreen Education I ©ATOM I No. 8890In 2017, Twin Peaks finally returned to the screen, bringing with it new mysteries and moments of unsettling brilliance. GABRIELLE O’BRIEN investigates the original show’s cult success, the online communities that emerged around it and how the new series toys with viewer MEDIASSI fully expect that the new show will actually break the internet, given the obsessive nature of people’s interest in narrative storytelling now, and the proclivity to share it online. – Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost1Screen Education I © ATOM I No. 88‘Dear Twitter Friends: That gum you like is going to come back in style! #damngoodcoffee’:2 this was the tweet that sent Twin Peaks fans into a delirious frenzy of speculation. Was it possible? Could the series really be returning after twenty-six long years? Just like Twin Peaks itself, David Lynch’s tweet presented an oblique opening, an invitation to ‘puzzle out’ a meaning; it was a question mark transmitted in code, one that played to the insiders who would immediately recognise the references and fuel the ensuing social media buzz. Lynch’s cryptic message spoke directly to aficionados because it created a space for fans that was at once nostalgic and SPREAD, L–R: FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (David Lynch) in the new series; Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in the original series ABOVE: Laura in the original series This complex register channels the unique status of Twin Peaks as a series that confounds discrete categories of genre, style and even – in its current iteration – form. Lynch’s teasing tweet chimed with this ambiguity; the promise of a return to Twin Peaks, the most singular television event of the 1990s, was complicated by the co-creator’s rather-elusive creative persona. The creator–audience dialectic remained open-ended and predicated on possibilities rather than absolutes. This playful mode resurrected the sensibility of the original series, which had become known as the blueprint for ‘quality TV’. Roger Luckhurst explains how Twin Peaks redefined the landscape of network television:played by Lee). The ideas of doubling and the doppelganger are recurrent tropes in Lynch’s filmography. The advent of ‘quality TV’ allowed him to bring his aesthetic and (anti-)narrative preoccupations to the small screen, so that the ‘soap noir’4 of a superficially idyllic small town hiding an endless array of secrets anchored the metaphysical in the mundane. This also collapsed Lynch’s fascination with alternate planes of reality: ‘I learned that just beneath the surface there’s another world, and still different worlds as you dig deeper. I knew it as a kid, but I couldn’t find the proof.’5 Twin Peaks explored this dark territory in a way that had never been done on television. Terms like ‘game-changing’ and ‘landmark’ have become overused; but, back in 1990, they were apt descriptions for the series that reimagined what television could look, sound and – perhaps most importantly – feel like. The theme song by Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti set a swooning, melodramatic tone that opened a sensory portal to emotions in extremis; grief, shock, love and longing were here, but the air of dread so central to the Lynchian soundscape was never far away either. People were hooked, and ratings were sky-high. The pilot was a major ratings success;6 but, as interest waned, network producers demanded a ‘wrap-up’ of the central mystery. As a result, the series lost its way and ended up being widely panned. Lynch and Frost wanted to keep the mystery alive, but had to bow to network demands.TWIN PEAKS AS CULT TELEVISION The critical dismissal of the second season of Twin Peaks did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of fans, and the series continued to connect with a cult audience. Fan theory scholar Matt Hills notes that ‘the predominance of science fiction, horror, fantasy, comedy and camp texts within cult forms is far‘Quality TV’, as it was outlined in the 1990s, was meant to carry the auteur’s signature vision in every frame, to use cinematic depth and duration, and confound the easy consumption of what it was always defined against: the indifferent flow of mass TV. Twin Peaks […] rejected the harsh lighting, quick editing and closures of TV plot patterns for a weirdly stretched temporality, a languid extension of the look, as if the form itself had been disordered by grief.3Screen Education I © ATOM I No. 88And there was a great deal of grief in the first two seasons of Twin Peaks. Soap melodrama was heightened and intensified in the show, incorporating elements of the surreal, so that comedy and irony competed with genuine melancholy and pathos. As the cast of frequently loveable, instantly quotable, offbeat characters mourned the murder of their high school beauty queen, the hot topic discussed around office water coolers was the mystery at the heart of the first season: ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) had a troublingly ambiguous identity; alternative versions of her were offered by her friends, lovers and family. We learned that Laura led a double life of drug addiction and sexual promiscuity, and a literal double of her soon materialised in the form of her cousin Maddy Ferguson (alsoABOVE: Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in the original series 92from accidental’.7 Twin Peaks took on stylistic conventions from each of these usually discrete genres, so, perhaps unsurprisingly, its popularity endured through the persistence of its fans. Hills cites ‘endlessly deferred narrative, hyperdiegesis [and] auteurism’8 as key elements of a cult text. He coined the term ‘hyperdiegetic’ to explain the fan allure of cult television and ‘storyworlds’, pointing out that ‘only a fraction of any such world is ever actually seen on-screen, but by implication it continues, coherently and consistently, outside the media frame’.9 In this sense, Twin Peaks is an excellent example of cult television: the universe presented seems hermetically sealed and utterly complete – a fleetingly glimpsed storyworld that registers as authentic, and seems to have a plausible life beyond the immediate plane. Its characters, and their bizarre obsessions and idiosyncrasies – eyepatch-wearing Nadine (Wendy Robie) and her silent drape runners; Margaret (Catherine E Coulson), the ‘Log Lady’, with her prescient and ever-present log; Agent Dale Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan) coffee fixation – offer up a richly coloured, irresistible universe that burrows its way into the spectator’s imagination and takes root there. For commentators like David Lavery, the show was created with a cult audience in mind: No television series had become cultic so quickly, so early in its first incarnation, but then prior to Twin Peaks had any prime time network series been so explicitly formulated as cult TV? 10 Lavery explains that the cult audience is positioned outside the mainstream; in other words, it is ready to seek, indeed anxious to seek, membership in a new systeme, ready to belong to it, to learn its language and customs, by committing their imaginaries to time-slotted new (or seemingly new) televisual experience. If one of the functions of a traditional genre is to build cultural consensus, The Cult serves to build cult consensus in a singular interpretive community, a community committed to difference.11 The Twin Peaks fan community generated a tremendous volume of analysis and speculation. Despite the internet being in its most embryonic stages in the early 1990s, fans still found a way to theorise about the show’s plotlines in early chat rooms. Along with the soundtrack, spin-off books The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes were dutifully purchased by fans searching forTHIS PAGE, FROM TOP: Agent Cooper; Laura's face seen in a gold globe, both in the new series seventy-five issues from 1992 to 2005. But the real fan engagement took place online, as the internet became ‘everyday’. Fan communities grew around private and shared memories of the series. Online fanzines such as Damn Fine Coffee!15 and websites like Twin Peaks Gazette16 created a platform for fan artwork, while fans wrote their own narratives on websites such as FanFiction.Net and Archive of Our Own, in which they reinvented character relationships or transformed plotlines. There was also a space for queer fantasy, with ‘slash’ narratives in which fans ‘queered’ heterosexual characters and reimagined their romantic relationships. Stories of sexual trysts between Agent Cooper and Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean) were particularly popular. The Twittersphere enabled fan fiction with a truly digital twist: the website Enter the Lodge17 kept Twin Peaks alive through tweets. Each character had their own Twitter account, and fans followed them to keep up with the fan fiction as it unfolded. Twin Peaks fan activity is symptomatic of the kinds of practices that evolve from obsessive watching of cult texts. In fact, one important difference between the cult audience and the casual vieweradditional hyperdiegetic immersion. When the series was cancelled, COOP (Citizens Opposing the Offing of Peaks) unsuccessfully lobbied the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) to green-light another series. In the interim twenty-six years, fan activity became more active and participatory. There were annual Twin Peaks festivals and fan gatherings,12 with fans often dressing as their favourite characters; a pop-up interactive restaurant experience in London;13 and journals like Wrapped in Plastic,14 which produced an impressiveis the way that each engages in the practice of watching. Writing about the aesthetics of cult television, Rhonda V Wilcox emphasises that the audiences for these texts are unusual in their attentiveness, and […] the makers seem to create their work in the hope (or sometimes expectation) of having such audiences […] Cult TV audiences do ­recognise themselves as different; this attentiveness to the text is one of the qualities that constitute the difference.18Screen Education I © ATOM I No. 88Terms like ‘game-changing’ and ‘landmark’ have become overused; but, back in 1990, they were apt descriptions for the series that reimagined what television could look, sound and – perhaps most importantly – feel like.93NOSTALGIA VERSUS TIME: NEW WAYS OF WATCHINGScreen Education I © ATOM I No. 88The original Twin Peaks was aired before the advent of digital television, back when analog technology meant the audience had to tune in each week at the allotted time to catch a new episode. Although, as already noted, the series offered an unconventional temporality, the new series of Twin Peaks takes the time–image relationship to the next level in a way that once again shatters television conventions. At the time of writing, Australian viewers had to subscribe to the streaming service Stan to access the rebooted series. In the US, it was screened on the US cable network Showtime, which reported that the new Twin Peaks was its ‘biggest single-night driver’ for new subscribers to the network.19 With so many ways of watching available, hard numbers on ratings are difficult to pin down. Digital transmission opens up the potential for bingewatching and delayed viewing. In fact, if fans waited until all episodes had aired, they could even watch the new series of Twin Peaks the way that Lynch would have it shown – as a film presented in eighteen chapters.20 The Twin Peaks reboot plays with the idea of nostalgia, ­continuously deferring gratification for fans of the original ­series. Spoiler alert: it is not until the sixteenth episode that Agent Cooper emerges from a near-catatonic state and an ­alternate identity. Time is manipulated and slowed down to capture banal activity in real time. This creates a false sense of ontological security that will later be undercut by sequences that take up the aesthetics of gaming culture, as well as by formally experimental set pieces that self-reflexively draw attention to their own artificiality. The control over time associated with modern technology – the immediate gratification of pausing and rewinding that constitutes ‘on-demand’ viewing – is problematised by the show’s representation of time passing, and by the climate of uncertainty that Lynch and Frost so masterfully preside over. Time is mediated by an awareness of twenty-six years having gone by, meaning that melancholy and nostalgia become complementary forces. If we understand nostalgia to be ‘a yearning for the return of past circumstances [or] events’,21 then, for fans of Twin Peaks, this return is disconcertingly intertwined with time passing. This is perhaps most poignantly captured by Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), the sexy siren of the original series (who could forget her knotting a cherry stem with her tongue?). ‘Audrey’s dance’, along with the sultry music accompanying her sensual performance, was a fan favourite. This sequence is revisited in the new series when Audrey takes the floor of the Roadhouse; encircled by swaying young folk, she proceeds to replicate her iconic movements. The nostalgia evoked by this sequence is tempered by Fenn’s middle-aged appearance, which in turn alerts the spectator to the passage of years separating the original dance from 2017. The spectator is reminded of their own advancing years, and melancholy disrupts their nostalgic reverie. Foregrounded again is that keynote of uncertainty: is the ontological security associated with the Roadhouse in previous episodes still to be trusted? Are we watching Audrey’s own nostalgic fantasy? Why does the scene unexpectedly cut to Audrey screaming into a mirror, ‘Get me out of here!’? The Lynchian ‘rug pull’, occurring just when the audience is starting to get comfortable, is instantly recognisable to cult fans. Ironically, this dislocating spatio-temporal shift is reassuring. It’s the hit of pure Peaks nostalgia that we keep on coming back for.94THIS PAGE, FROM TOP: Diane Evans (Laura Dern), Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), Agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell) and Deputy Director Cole; Agent Cooper in the Red Room; Deputy Director Cole and Evans; Agent Cooper, all in the new seriesGabrielle O’Brien is a freelance film writer and teacher. She has an MA in film studies and is a regular contributor to Screen Education. An unrepentant cinephile, she likes it best in the dark! SEEndnotes Mark Frost, quoted in Emma Dibdin, ‘Twin Peaks Co-creator Mark Frost Explains the True Nature of BOB’, Esquire, 19 May 2017, < -peaks-2017-mark-frost-interview/>, accessed 7 September 2017. 2 David Lynch, Twitter, 4 October 2014, < david lynch/status/518060411690569730>, accessed 14 September 2017. 3 Mark Frost, quoted in Roger Luckhurst, ‘The Owls Are Not What They Seem: The World of Twin Peaks’, Sight & Sound, June 2017, pp. 18–20. 4 Miles Booy, ‘Case Study: Twin Peaks’, in Stacey Abbott (ed.), The Cult TV Book, I.B.Tauris, London & New York, 2010, p. 29. 5 David Lynch, quoted in Tom Huddleston, ‘Twin Peaks: The Return Episodes 1–4 Recap – So Far, So Wayward’, Sight & Sound, 30 August 2017, < sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/tv/twin -peaks-return-episode-recaps>, accessed 20 July 2017. 6 Luckhurst, op. cit., p. 18. 7 Matt Hills, Fan Cultures, Routledge, London & New York, 2002, p. 104. 8 ibid., p. 109. 9 Matt Hills, ‘Torchwood’s Trans-transmedia: Media Tie-ins and Brand “Fanagement”’, Participations Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, November 2012, p. 411, available at < 23%20Hills.pdf>, accessed 26 August 2017. 10 David Lavery, ‘Introduction: The Semiotics of Cobbler: Twin Peaks’ Interpretive Community’, in Lavery (ed.), Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1995, p. 4. 11 ibid. 12 Alice Newell-Hanson, ‘Peaks Freaks: How the Most Devoted Twin Peaks Fans Are Prepping for Its Return’, i-D, 2 September 2016, < au/article/evnenm/peaks -freaks-how-the-most-devoted-twin-peaks-fans-are-prepping -for-its-return>, accessed 18 September 2017. 13 Samuel Muston, ‘The Owls Are Not What They Seem: A Diner that Promises More than a Damn Fine Cup of Coffee’, The Independent, 2 September 2015, <http://www. -owls-are-not-what-they-seem-a-diner-that-promises-more -than-a-damn-fine-cup-of-coffee-10481496.html>, accessed 18 September 2017. 14 Jeff Jensen, ‘How Twin Peaks Fans Are Gearing Up to Watch the Revival in the Age of Spoilers’, Entertainment Weekly, 19 May 2017, < -are-gearing-up-to-watch-revival-in-age-of-spoliers/>, accessed 18 September 2017. 15 Ryan Ingram, ‘Revisit Twin Peaks with Some Damn Fine Coffee!’, The Snipe News, 14 April 2012, <https://www. -zine/>, accessed 18 September 2017. 16 Twin Peaks Gazette, <>, accessed 18 September 2017. 17 Katie Rife, ‘Laura Palmer Is Dead, but Twin Peaks Is Alive Again on Twitter’, The A.V. Club, 2 April 2014, <https://news. 1 -again-on-1798267447>, accessed 18 September 2017. 18 Rhonda V Wilcox, ‘The Aesthetics of Cult Television’, in Abbott (ed.), op. cit., p. 32. 19 David Nevins, quoted in John Koblin, ‘Twin Peaks Premiere Delivers Only Half a Million Viewers’, The New York Times, 23 May 2017, < television/twin-peaks-premiere-ratings.html>, accessed 10 August 2017. 20 Kory Grow, ‘David Lynch on Twin Peaks Revival: “The Woods Are Full of Mystery”’, Rolling Stone, 17 May 2017, < -twin-peaks-revival-mulholland-drive-w482337>, accessed 18 September 2017. 21 ‘Nostalgia’, Collins English Dictionary, <https://www.collins>, accessed 20 August 2017.Screen Education I © ATOM I No. 88THIS PAGE, FROM TOP: Laura; a statue in the Red Room; Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), Laura and Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), all from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me95
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