Last night, I finished Twin Peaks, a show that is the textbook definition of a cult classic. The Sopranos shouldn’t get sole credit for its challenge toward TV audience expectations and use of talismans as a storytelling device or shorthand for character development, nor should Lost get singled out for its complex narratives, limitless paratexts (open Laura Palmer’s diary to page 3), spirited online discourse, and fervent aca-fandom. It’s clear that televisual generic experimentation the and conceptualization of creator/showrunner as auteur gained ground with this show. Twin Peaks sharply divided audiences while also providing intrigue for late adopters–something I’ll keep in mind when I get around to watching The Killing (I’ll also reread Kristen Warner and Lisa Schmidt’s great rebuttal toward the backlash against the season finale and Veena Sud). I’m not a TV historian, so I hope I’m not overlooking other shows that accomplished what Twin Peaks did. But it seems obvious that Twin Peaks changed what could air on American television and how audiences related to it.
But how do I feel about Twin Peaks as two seasons of television? To borrow from the schlemiels on Stella, Twin Peaks ”is, like, whatever dude.” There are indelible moments that I can’t and wouldn’t want to unsee–a surprising amount of them from the lesser-regarded second season, even if James Hurley is given entirely too much screen time. I certainly understand why it’s become such a cultural touchstone. Yet I was often bored and unmoved, though never when Frank Silva was on screen. YIKES.
I should admit that I’m not a big David Lynch fan. Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Mulholland Drive all have great, unsettling moments. I may take for granted the sociohistorical context in which his best-regarded work was originally received, but Lynch’s curdled nostalgia and deliberate weirdness seem too obvious to me. Lynch is a deft surrealist. He certainly can set and shoot a scene, and is smart enough to get Angelo Badalamenti to score it. But his gender politics undercut his work’s transgressive potential. I don’t want to dismiss the predominantly white women of Twin Peaks as sweetie pie damsels and she-devils. Actually, my favorite characters on the show are women: Audrey Horne, the Log Lady, Super-Nadine, Donna Hayward when she isn’t written and played as a sultry bad girl.
I might include Lucy Moran, if only because I’m surprised that future Fox News enthusiast Victoria Jackson didn’t play her in an inevitable SNL parody because Kimmy Robertson could be her sister. I’d include Catherine Martell because who doesn’t love Piper Laurie, but any business with the mill bored me. Also she hoodwinks Ben Horne by posing as a Japanese businessman, so ugh. I can’t include Shelly Johnson because, while at first her abusive marriage to Leo elicits terror and sympathy, she and her lover Bobby Briggs made so many stupid decisions that I stopped caring about their arc. Then there are plenty of women I don’t have a read on–Josie Packard, Norma Jennings, Annie Blackburn, sudden junkie Blackie O’Reilly . . . Laura Palmer isn’t Twin Peaks‘ only mirror onto which men reflect themselves.
But there’s one lady I wish I saw and heard more: Julee Cruise. I wish the theme song wasn’t the instrumental version of “Falling” because I treasure what Cruise brings to it. Actually, I pretend all of the show’s musical flourishes include Cruise breathily cooing about love’s rainbow or something. All of the opaque, murky, strange humanity I’m supposed to get from the show I hear in Cruise’s voice. I’m sure plenty of people want to cast Cruise as Lynch and Badalamenti’s ingenue, the M.I.A. to their Tarantino. They’d probably point to their songwriter and producer credits as evidence. They might also dismiss Cruise as a cheaper substitute for Elizabeth Fraser, since they worked with Cruise on Blue Velvet after they couldn’t get This Mortal Coil’s cover of “Song to the Siren.”
But Lynch and Badalamenti clearly needed Cruise’s voice to guarantee the emotional responses they sought to engender in their audience, and they weave magic together. We never actually meet Laura Palmer, the show’s dead catalyst. She’s intercepted and interpreted by friends, townsfolk, law enforcement, and her damaged parents. Thus I think Cruise comes the closest to embodying Palmer as a fragile dreamer wrecked by evil circumstances who willed herself to survive for as long as she could.
Cruise performs in my favorite episode, the Lynch-directed “Lonely Souls.” She demonstrates Palmer’s charm in “Rocking Back Inside My Heart” and stops time with “The World Spins.” Paired with the horrifying scene that reveals Palmer’s murderer, Cruise’s performance of “The World Spins” is part of the best sequence in the series’ run. I cry right along with Donna, both for who was lost and what could have been.