Since the arrival of Twin Peaks (TP) in 1990, television has never been quite the same. Its satirical approach towards genre and social commentary raised the bar for quality television. In particular, its combination of the detective story genre and soap opera conventions resulted in an uncanny discovery of the twisted nature of small town America. By defying the mythical tradition of a pastoral life, TP’s distinctive approach on traditional norms resulted in a ground-breaking form of television.
As Marc Dolan highlights, TP’s ‘serialized detective story…served[d] as an expositional framework for the introduction of an off-center soap opera’ (35). Moreover, TP’s take on the aforementioned traditional genres also involved going against them. Undeniably, the series’ incorporation and rejection of classic traditional genres led to numerous ironic readings of TP and the mythical small town itself.
Upon first glance, TP was similar to a ‘reading [of] a detective novel’ (Catherine Nickerson 271). The series’ pilot set the premise of a crime – the murder of a wholesome-looking teenager, Laura Palmer. A detective-hero, Special Agent Dale Cooper, was introduced, and the search for Laura’s murderer began. He displayed characteristics akin to the traditional tough, smart American detective. For example, Cooper uses standard FBI procedures and protocols to assemble his suspects and displayed remarkable deductive skills, such as in discerning who is dating whom in Twin Peaks. His notable ability aligns well with a conventional detective story.
However, the structure of the detective genre quickly begins to disintegrate. Cooper promptly abandons deductive reasoning in solving crime and instead, begins to ‘exhibit[s] only a marginal association with science and reason’ (Judith Grant 65). He derives crucial clues from his dreams and his unorthodox Tibetan Method. Martha Nochimson argues that TP ‘redefines detective sensibility’ (26), which can be seen in Cooper’s preference for mystical intuitions in solving crime. This is a far cry from the logical deduction and rational reasoning of detective genre conventions. Unlike the conventional detective story, by the middle of season two, TP ‘rewrote and erased many of the central plot strands from the first season’ (Dolan 39). The central crime of who killed Laura Palmer became redundant, and hence, defying the traditional detective genre. The most evident disregard of the detective genre is the non-closure of TP. Co-creator David Lynch once admitted, ‘When we wrote Twin Peaks, we never intended the murder of Laura Palmer to be solved’ (Troy Patterson and Jeff Jenson 92). TP was never meant to follow the traditional detective story which ends with the murder solved, the criminal caught and order and stability is restored.
According to Nickerson, TP becomes both ‘a parody of the genre and a celebration of detective conventions’ (271). The series’ innovative approach results in the classic detective genre to be de-familiarised and re-constructed, producing an ironic stance on a tale of crime.
Similarly, TP concurrently pays homage and ironically mocks classic soaps. The overly emotional state of the characters upon hearing Laura Palmer’s death, especially Leland Palmer’s melodramatic breakdowns, is reminiscent of soap opera storylines. Certain visual elements of TP are drawn from soap operatic conventions as well, such as the close-up two-shots and the zoom-ins on characters’ distraught faces. Soaps are commonly stories that are told over a period of time, and sometimes run for decades. Co-creator Mark Frost stated in an interview his original idea for TP: ‘to tell a sort of Dickensian story about multiple lives in a contained area that could sort of go on perpetually’ (Patterson et al 92). The series’strive for a soap opera-esque storyline could be seen clearly. Till the middle of the second season, TP deliberately delayed the solving of Laura Palmer’s murder and accumulated convoluted narrative lines. Its attempt to incorporate this paradigm of an infinite narrative fell short due to network and audience pressures, however its deep influence from the soap opera conventions was still very evident.
On the other hand, TP disrupts soap opera conventions in its unsteady narrative rhythm of each episode. A typical soap opera episode bears numerous scenes but each scene is directly related to what follows, or related to the show’s narrative arc. TP goes against this convention with its interlacing of peculiar motifs throughout its run, such as owls, ceiling fans, doughnuts, and ‘damn good’ cups of coffee. Thompson states that the ‘many signs, symbols, and metaphors remained for the most part indecipherable’ (159). It did not help in propelling the narrative forward and in fact, as Shoos et al argues, these puzzling symbols ‘frustrate[s] the narrative logic…frustrates the viewer’s desire for a coherent narrative world’ (467). Certainly, TP’s integration of these elements momentarily halts the narrative rhythm. By letting the viewer create his or her own meaning (Booker 104), its interpretative openness is far from the straightforward narrative of daytime soaps.
In TP, the ‘normal’ has collapsed – it does not have a ‘normal’ detective storyline or a ‘normal’ soap opera narrative. Its challenging of well-known genre conventions results in the destabilizing of familiar concepts, and above all – the American idea of small-town respectability. Simplicity, charm and serenity are several quaint characteristics often attributed to small town America. However, with normalcy absent, the myth is questioned and is exposed for the sham it is (Shoos et al 470). As Norman K. Denzin points out in TP, the myth is indubitably a ‘fairy-tale town[s]’ where ‘individuals meet and confront problems that old-fashioned law and order policemen still help them resolve’ (79). The facade of a peaceful rural town frequently embodied in television fiction soon fades, and law and order cannot help in saving Twin Peaks. In addition, Shoos et al make the following argument: (470)
Whereas in soap opera we have come to accept – and thereby no longer question – the flaws of individual lives, in Twin Peaks simple corruption pales in the face of what seems to be a far-reaching, inexplicable, even unstoppable evil. And whereas in soap opera love conquers all, in Twin Peaks the evil cannot be redeemed. Thus, the Lynch-Frost creation does not simply debunk that myth and thereby do away with it, but rather continually confronts viewers with its inadequacy.
The mythical genre archetypes – law and order prevailing in the detective genre, soap opera’s overarching theme of love triumphing over all – are debunked and unable to redeem the town. By doing so, the abhorrent violence and morbid absurdity in TP gradually rises above and it implies the ‘perverse knowledge that beneath the surface…evil lurks’ (Grant 65). Nochimson reinforces this, that in TP, ‘banalities tragicomically mask strange forces’ (26). For example, the demon BOB that haunts the town, though terrifying and malevolent, still holds a seemingly dull name. The Log Lady, at first look, appears trivial but instead has an uncanny power in dispersing cryptic messages. By blurring the boundaries between its naturalistic elements and supernatural presence (Holt 254), the normal is associated with the abnormal. Similarly, the like and unlike nature of traditional genre conventions parallels the ongoing tension between the natural and the supernatural. Hence, the veneer of small town gentility has cracked, resulting in a disturbing portrayal of Twin Peaks.
In conclusion, TP skilfully intertwines the detective story genre and soap opera elements within the show and by being both like and unlike the aforementioned genres. TP’s ironic stance challenges television norms and social myths as well, in particular the mythical American small town. It unravels horrific, gruesome secrets that lie in the underbelly of the seedy Twin Peaks. TP exposes the notion of small town respectability and frequently presents the myth’s denunciation to its audience. TP’s ironic commentary on this social myth allows it to transcend its medium and ultimately, become a piece of outstanding television.
Booker, Keith M. “Strange Reganism: Ludic Postmodernism as Cold War Allegory in Twin Peaks.”
Denzin, Norman K. “Wild about Lynch: Beyond Blue Velvet.”
Dolan, Marc. “The Peaks and Valleys of Serial Creativity: What Happened to/on Twin Peaks.”
Grant, Judith. “Prime Time Crime: Television Portrayals of Law Enforcement.”
Holt, Jason. “Twin Peaks, Noir and Open Interpretation.”
Nickerson, Catherine. “Serial Detection and Serial Killers in Twin Peaks.”
Nochimson, Martha. “Desire under the Douglas Firs: Entering the Body of Reality Twin Peaks.”
Patterson, Troy, and Jeff Jensen. “Our Town In 1990, director David Lynch took a twisted look at cherry-pie America with Twin Peaks–and television has never been the same.”
Shoos, Diane, Diana George and Joseph Comprone. “Twin Peaks and the Look of Television: Visual Literacy in the Writing Class.”
Thompson, Robert J. “Quality Goes Quirky: Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure and Picket Fences.”
Note: I wrote this essay for my Television Studies class last year. This is an edited version. Do not plagiarise, thank you.