Watching Twin Peaks today, it’s difficult to recollect just how thrilling it was when the show debuted 26 years ago on ABC. No film director of David Lynch’s stature, both as an artist and as an eccentric, had ever helmed a dramatic series before. The lushness of the series’ cinematic photography was intoxicating compared to the uniformly flat, bright appearance of everything else in the medium; Dallas was on the air back then, and Beverly Hills 90210. Twin Peaks was unsettling, its tone and purpose perplexing and enigmatic. The characters were so peculiar, even when that peculiarity took the form of a flagrant normality. Now most of those qualities are, if not exactly commonplace on television, hardly remarkable.
But one Lynch trait remains relatively rare on TV: his willingness—and sometime his determination—not to explain and resolve every mystery he raises. Lynch’s creative method is famously intuitive. He once told interviewer Chris Rodley that he got the idea for Agent Cooper’s famous dream sequence while leaning against a hot car. What that experience might have to do with a red-draped room and a backward-talking dwarf is … well, your guess is as good as mine.
Lynch never wanted to reveal who killed Laura Palmer, but his collaborator on the series, Mark Frost, felt they “had an obligation to the audience to give them some resolution.” Frost, a veteran of Hill Street Blues, the epitome of quality television in the pre–Twin Peaks era, tethered Lynch’s dreamlike aesthetic to the practicalities of broadcast network storytelling. They wouldn’t be the first or the last creative duo whose complementary gifts generated a fruitful tension. But unlike, say, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, whose post-Beatles careers never quite equaled the best of what they achieved together, Lynch is perfectly capable of making a great film without Frost’s stabilizing influence. Frost’s solo record is more uneven.
Let’s hope that Showtime’s revival of the series on May 21 maintains that old tension. At times, the mercurial Lynch has seemed to have one foot out the door, but he’s still reported to have directed all 18 projected episodes. The degree of his involvement is crucial, because to judge by Frost’s recently released book The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Lynch’s partner could pose a real threat to the quality of the reboot if given too much influence.
The Secret History of Twin Peaks presents itself as the contents of a “dossier” found in an undisclosed “crime scene” encased in a carbon steel box. Consisting of semi-censored intelligence reports, 19th-century diary entries, newspaper clippings and other forms of mock documentation, it purports to place “the unexplained phenomena that unfolded” in the original series within “a vastly layered, wide-ranging history, beginning with the journals of Lewis and Clark and ending with the shocking events that closed the finale.”
Sadly, that history consists of a farrago of all the most threadbare fetishes of 20th-century conspiracy theory. The detritus that Frost tosses into his stale mix ranges from the death of Merriwether Lewis, the Illuminati, and the Freemasons to the Kennedy assassination, Scientology, and Richard Nixon. Even Bigfoot makes a cameo. But above all, the eerie events and motifs of the 1990 series get attributed to UFOs. Those owls that are not what they seem? They’re nothing more interesting than the bug-eyed aliens beloved of supermarket tabloids.
The Secret History of Twin Peaks drapes its tired schtick in lot of portentous allusions and foreshadowing. Much is made of the need to discover the identity of the person who compiled the dossier, even though his name (which anyone familiar with the series will have guessed almost immediately) is revealed in the final chapters. The documents have been annotated by an FBI analyst who acts the Dana Scully part: the skeptic slowly won over by the weight of evidence to the belief that everything ominous and disturbing in the world is covertly connected and all of it can be traced back to Twin Peaks.
Much of the spell cast by the original series lay in its isolated Northwestern small-town setting. (Those shots of the lonesome traffic light swinging by its cables over an empty road by night!) The woods around the town represented everything incomprehensible about humanity’s place in the world and about the deepest recesses of our own psyches. The creepy power of Lynch’s vision comes from the ready access he seems to enjoy not only to his own unconscious mind but to his viewers’ as well. What a bummer to see all of that reduced to the banal fantasies of a garden-variety paranoid.
In a note of unwitting irony, Frost has the “archivist” who compiled this dossier elaborate on his theories about the differences between secrets and mysteries:
… a secret is only a secret as long as you keep it. Once you tell someone, it loses all of its power, for good or ill. Like that, it’s just another piece of information. But a real mystery can’t be solved, not completely. It’s always just out of reach, like a light around the corner. You might catch a glimpse of what it reveals, but you can’t know the heart of it, not really. That’s what gives it value. It can’t be cracked. It’s bigger than you and me, bigger than everything we know.
Exactly. And that explains why The Secret History of Twin Peaks turns out to be the perfect title for Frost’s book. There’s not a drop of mystery left in it by the time he’s done.