When Twin Peaks stormed the airwaves 27 years ago, the creation of director David Lynch (hot off Blue Velvet, a cinematic masterpiece) and TV scribe Mark Frost (fresh from Hill Street Blues, a television classic) captivated audiences in novel ways that today are commonplace to the point of cliché. It was a high strange serialized drama and ironic soap opera, lacquered with prestige thanks to its cinematic panache and auteur branding. The storytelling roamed a spectrum of pitched, singular tones with striking emotional impact. One scene could move you to fanning and maybe some giggling with a hyper-sincere beat of sexy-sweet teen love, beautiful young faces shot in sensual close-ups. The next scene could scare the hell into you: A demonic serial killer enters as if out of the corner of the mind’s eye, sidling in slo-mo from the side of the frame, moving into the dead-center of the screen, huffing and puffing toward the camera, before finally crawling over a couch to get into your face. BOB is going get you, Maddie, BOB is going to get you…
There were also many deadpan jokes about donuts.
One mood ruled them all. Lynch’s favorite mood: mystery.
“Twin Peaks is a mystery that holds other mysteries,” says the filmmaker with his trademark crypto-generic evasiveness when asked to describe the show for those who may know it. ABC marketed the living s—t out of the show’s inaugural, defining mystery, the brutal murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a teenage beauty queen found dead, wrapped in plastic, and stuffed with a trove of dark secrets. Twin Peaks was so much more than a whondunit, but the network made the audience believe it was only about this bit of business. The tagline of the ad campaign that launched the show was “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” Lynch’s mesmerizing artistry captured our imagination for the question. We watched for the answer. We even tried to solve it. I certainly did. The son of a homicide detective, an avid consumer of mystery pop, I felt like Twin Peaks was made just for me. I treated the story like a crime scene. I actually took notes during the pilot. I held viewing parties after every episode and made my guests stay and parse the latest developments. By the middle of the sketchy second season, most of my friends had stopped coming over. Maybe I should have served snacks.
I’d later learn I was far from alone. And so Twin Peaks taught us something else, a behavior that’s become a staple part of today’s TV watching experience: theorizing.
Twin Peaks was a phenomenon of bygone TV era. There was no live tweeting, no Reddit, no post-mortems with producers breaking down episodes or discussing some “THAT” scene. What I would have given back for an immediate Q&A with Lynch to explain my #DancingGuyRedRoomDoppelgangerWTF? But there were online services back in 1990. And there were “bulletin boards” where the curious and perplexed gathered to debate and speculate.
Lynch can attest to this. He’ll also tell you he loved it.
“One day I went into the studio where we were shooting and they showed me this stack of papers that was from the internet, this brand new kind of thing. There were no pictures, there was just typing,” he says. ”And the papers they showed me, it was just people talking about the show. People talking, thinking, sharing ideas, being like detectives, seeing what they make of certain things, trying to figure things out and to share ideas. It was a beautiful thing.”
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Today, cultural conversation about television is as voluminous and instantaneous as TV itself, if not more so. And all that typing takes many different forms: reviews, recaps, hot takes, close-reads, and miscellaneous geeking. We even have pictures! Viral videos, GIFs, flotsam and jetsam of appropriated images tagged with salty snark; I believe the kids call these “memes.” With podcasts, the TV talkback industrial complex has entered the talkie era. Coming soon to EW.com: James Hibberd’s Smell-o-Vision VR recaps of Game of Thrones. Can’t wait to get a deep whiff of The Hound!
But not all analysis is equal. And with all due respect to Mr. Lynch, there are some who think one of its most abundant expressions is no beautiful thing. As serialized sagas, mystery-driven dramas and surreal TV have exploded in recent years, the amount of theorizing – predicting developments, speculating solutions, interpreting dreaminess – has mushroomed, too. Last year was a banner year for theorizing, with shows like Mr. Robot and Westworld inspiring their viewers to obsessive forensic engagement. They also triggered a backlash, with critics like Matt Zoller Seitz and Willa Paskin voicing concern that producers who cater to the market for big twist TV risk doing at the expense of their artistry or the best possible articulation of their story.
As someone who writes traditional TV reviews and concocts recaps messy with predictions and conjectures, I’ve had a complicated and inconsistent response to complaints about theorizing. I believe another word for this is “hypocritical.” My attitudes tend to shift when I’m under the influence of some intoxicating mystery. When connections get made and an epiphany hits, no matter how lunatic, my aspiration to smart, respectable cogitation vaporizes into laughing gas. Doc Jensen emerges, more drunk nerd-clown than detective. I THINK WHITEROSE WAS HACKING INTO ALTERNATE REALITIES AT THE WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP POWER PLANT AND I MUST INFORM THE INTERNETS IMMEDIATELY.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong or base about responding to mystery, ambiguity, and surrealism with questions, speculative answers, and “theorizing.” The exhortation to just absorb mystery, not solve it, is one of those arguments that makes a certain amount of sense until you think about it. How do I do that? Should I take that posture with any story? Are you actually encouraging me to be a couch potato? The argument that people should be passive consumers of storytelling designed to entertain by stimulating curiosity is a paradox I can’t quite reconcile. Playing detective with mystery fiction is part of the enjoyment of the genre. Just as romance fans ‘ship, mystery nerds theorize.
Still, I should allow the critique of theorizing to sear me, a journalist, without defensiveness because it contains valid ideas that can only improve my work and fandom. (Yes, I consider fandom an improvable discipline.) Beyond diminishing the quality or quantity of more elevated critical discussion, theories have the potential to be spoilers if they happen to be correct. And theories that are wrong? They clutter the viewer’s mind with junk analysis and cloud their view of a show at the risk of diminishing their enthusiasm for it. If people read theories (and write them) to make sense of baffling or frustrating narratives, then bad wrong theories can confound people even more. I loved Lost to pieces, and I often broke it to pieces, with crushing overthink and reckless playfulness that got in the way of serving readers who wanted clarity, not entertaining crazy, especially in the final season.
Now, the show that inspired in many a zeal for mystery and theorizing is back. Twin Peaks is returning on May 21 with an 18-episode series on Showtime, written by creators Mark Frost and David Lynch and directed entirely by Lynch. One major meta-storyline about this pop culture event that I’ll be tracking is how today’s TV watching culture, high and low, processes it. While Lynch and Frost refuse to say much about the show, they definitely seem interested in giving people something to talk about. Lynch won’t say if the new Twin Peaks will be like the old Twin Peaks, a “mystery that holds other mysteries.” (“It could be,” he says coyly.) But he does differentiate between two different kinds of shows: “Some shows, there’s not much room for the viewer to move within. It’s a surface thing. You watch it, bang, you’ve got it. Then there are other shows where there might be things to wonder about.”
I asked Lynch if he has any concerns about fan theorizing – if he worries about theories that might misrepresent his work, if he worries bad theories might clutter minds and lead people astray. “This whole thing of leading people astray is interesting,” he says. “But I always say, we all see something different in a story, and I love that. If things like this happen with Twin Peaks, it’s a great thing.” He understands that not everyone enjoys the kind of mystery he makes, particularly films like Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, or Inland Empire, in which experiences are to be interpreted, where certainties are elusive. “Some people don’t like not knowing things. They like a concrete thing, something that is what it is,” he says. “Other people love room to dream. They don’t mind getting lost in a mystery. It makes them think and feel, and this is a beautiful thing.”
We at EW think talking, wondering, and theorizing about Twin Peaks is a beautiful thing, too. We intend to do a lot of it over the next several months, and hopefully do it well, beginning with our latest podcast launching today, A Twin Peaks Podcast: A Podcast About Twin Peaks. (Listen to the first episode, above). Over the next three weeks, Darren Franich and I will be looking back on and puzzling over the first two seasons of the show and the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Then, beginning May 22, we’ll be posting a podcast recap of each new episode of the revival. We don’t just want to vent and discuss our loopy ideas about the episode – we want to air and celebrate your inspired thinking as well. If you have theories, tweet us at @EWDocJensen and @DarrenFranich, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to taking the journey with you. Let’s rock!