Brow Beat

How Takeout Culture Has Changed Twin Peaks’ Relationship to Coffee

Agent Cooper sure hopes there’s something in those cups.


Although Twin Peaks ended 25 years ago, the David Lynch/Mark Frost series has lived on as a cult classic, immortalized through the fervor of its fans and its influence on countless films and television shows in the last quarter-century. And while various symbols from the show have grown to carry significant cultural capital—the Red Room, for example—the most significant is also the most unassuming: coffee.

It’s not unusual for TV characters to savor a hot cup of joe, but coffee doesn’t just appear in Twin Peaks. Coffee is revered in Lynch and Frost’s series; Agent Dale Cooper’s insistence that the Great Northern had a “damn fine cup of coffee” became the equivalent of an internet meme before there was truly an internet. It became such a synecdoche for the show that when the 2017 revival was announced, Mark Frost used the hashtag #damngoodcoffee, Showtime revealed a poster that was just a picture of cup of coffee, and Kyle MacLachlan confirmed his return by appearing onstage with Showtime president David Nevins to serve him—you guessed it—a cup of coffee.

Showtime’s focus on Twin Peaks’ association with coffee is pure nostalgia marketing, converting fan videos collecting the show’s references to coffee into advertisements for its return. But television has changed in the 25 years the show has been off the air, and so has coffee.

I created the Empty Cup Awards—first a hashtag, then a video essay on Slate—to draw attention to the fact that television is littered with actors carrying around empty cups that are supposed to contain liquid but clearly don’t. The primary offenders are takeout cups from Starbucks or similar establishments, usually added to scenes as a way of making characters seem more down to earth. Sure, Supergirl’s Kara can melt steel with her eyes, but she fumbles with a 20-ounce cup and a stack of papers just like the rest of us.

But on Twin Peaks, those now-ubiquitous takeout cups are absent. Even when he’s outdoors, Agent Cooper drinks from a mug, and the camera dwells lovingly on the mechanics of coffee-making: the percolators, the pots, the pours. Coffee in Twin Peaks isn’t just a matter of sticking a paper cup in an actor’s hand the instant before the cameras roll: The rituals of coffee are part of the scenes, and they feel more tangible thanks to the natural heft of the mugs.

Twin Peaks escaped the Empty Cup Awards in its original run, but takeout coffee culture has expanded dramatically in the years since. What does Twin Peaks’ relationship with coffee look like in 2017? TV critic Emma Fraser wrote in advance of its premiere that “the true test for the new Twin Peaks is if it can manage to avoid the #EmptyCupAwards” It’s hard to even imagine takeout cups in the Twin Peaks universe, where coffee is meant to be savored, not swigged. But when the revival began airing, the tweets started coming in: Empty cups had infiltrated Twin Peaks.

Takeout cups make their first appearance in “Part 1,” when Tracey (Madeline Zima) shows up with two lattes, hoping to get a glimpse behind the scenes of the mysterious glass box experiment. So far, so (apparently) full. But on her second visit, she and Sam (Benjamin Rosenfield) start drinking them, and the telltale problems emerge: erratic arm movements, unconvincing sips, an all-too-casual “cheers,” and then the dreaded hollow sound when Sam puts his cup down to focus on their makeout session.

But that’s only a small preview of the Empty Cup minefield in this week’s “Part 5,” when a confused Dougie (MacLachlan) arrives at work and finds his co-worker Phil (Josh Fadem) holding not one but two trays of extra-large coffees, one stacked on top of the other.

It is a truly insurmountable task to expect any actor to achieve realism with two trays of empty—or at the very least mostly empty—cups, but it plays out even worse than I could have imagined. Phil casually does a full 360 with them as he waits for the elevator. They tilt back dangerously as he stands beside Dougie, but nothing spills. Once inside the Lucky 7 office, he briefly carries them both trays with one hand, the top teetering precariously but with no sign of real weight. Later, when Phil and Frank pass an allegedly full cup of tea back and forth, it seems light as a feather. MacLachlan, at least, does solid work: He takes his cup eagerly, but his sips are small and careful, without the other actors’ uneven movements. But as the whole, the scene a prime example of what happens when empty cups make their way onto set: On Twitter, it was promptly nominated for the Empty Cup Awards “hall of fame.”

As always, I point this out with the caveat that most people don’t care about empty coffee cups and knowing that it would be unrealistic for productions to prioritize verisimilitude over the potential risks presented by spills or to choose scenes with better cup acting but worse performances overall. Until someone funds my Interlocking Adjustable Coffee Cup Weight invention, this problem is going to persist.

In the case of Twin Peaks, though, it might be a mistake to chalk the weightless cups up to logistics. Perhaps David Lynch is too focused on making the show as weird and unsettling as possible to bother thinking about coffee cups, and I certainly wouldn’t be the one to point out the mistake to his face. Or maybe the empty cups are there on purpose. Perhaps the cups are part of the show’s surrealism, their obvious emptiness a direct contrast to the weighty mugs of the original series and scenes like the diner in “Part 2” or Dougie’s kitchen in “Part 4.” It’s notable that both instances of flagrantly empty takeout cups take place outside of Twin Peaks itself, isolated in urban spaces and, in the case of “Part 5,” within a purposefully uncanny environment for Dougie and the audience alike. Will takeout cups emerge in other locations, or are their appearances in these early episodes a commentary on the way contemporary coffee culture has gone astray from the days of damn good black coffee served in mugs at roadside diners?

While I’ve learned the hard way that there is no situation where my obsession with empty cups will be truly socially acceptable, Twin Peaks might be the rare show where such deep reads are justified. Coffee matters on Twin Peaks, and this shift in its appearance points to how a quarter-century of takeout coffee ubiquity contrasts the beverage’s place in the show’s legacy and how a revival actively asking the audience to question its reality would naturally inspire a new landmark case study for the Empty Cup Awards.