You can probably find some graying, decrepit 35-year-old to explain to you how, for several months in 1990, America was obsessed with a dead, fictional homecoming queen wrapped in plastic. But why not let the extras on this orgasmworthy collection of David Lynch’s signature TV series do the talking? Here’s a strange artifact: a skit from Saturday Night Live. Our host, the square Kyle MacLachlan, jabbers inane comments into a microcassette recorder. (This was funny?) Phil Hartman, bless his heart, yanks out his hair, screaming about his dead daughter. Mike Myers sashays around like a demented dwarf. None of this is explained. Then, huge laugh: Kyle can’t accept that the mystery is finally solved. Or is it? When? Um, wha?
Such were our concerns. And if none of this makes a splinter of sense to you (much less a whole log), now would be the time to recommit yourself to Twin Peaks, the first great media phenomenon of its decade. (All of that Northwestern flannel would come in handy a year later.) It was a show that placed its chief visionary on the cover of Time magazine, and introduced millions to the suburban strangeness they hadn’t dared try with 1986’s Blue Velvet. Moreover, here was a modern myth in prime time, a waking dream—or nightmare, depending on your mood. Quentin Tarantino was just around the corner, but the real revolution was playing out on network television. This exemplary box set contains all 29 episodes, two versions of the pilot, a full disc of new interviews and minutiae, and most important, a peephole into a seismic shift in pop culture.
Overstatement? Not really. Even now, submitting to the pilot means first and foremost a gut punch of grief, plunging its viewers into deepest, purest melodrama. Twin Peaks is a ghost story about a beautiful girl (Sheryl Lee) who is lost to us before we ever know her. Lynch and his cowriter, Mark Frost, tapped into the bruised poses of Rebel Without a Cause and teenage disillusionment, of cinema, soaps and small-town community. A father flings himself onto the coffin, descending into the ground with it. A principal weeps in his office. You can’t overstate the contributions of series composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose retro twang traverses heartache to menace in the space of a measure. The soundtrack became a worldwide code of commiseration.
Then, just as crucially, came the quirk—or maybe the dork. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan, in a career-defining turn) is so much more than a parody of investigative uptightness. Actually, he’s our way in, our connection to Lynch himself and a constant spur to our curiosity: “Diane, I’m holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies.” Cooper comes to love the wounded town, its pie and coffee, which was a brilliant dramatic strategy, smuggling in both an off-kilter spirituality and post-Reagan decency. Twin Peaks brought the strange in a big way, but never to mock. “Who’s the lady with the log?” Cooper asks a colleague of a severe woman flicking on and off the lights in a town hall. “We call her the Log Lady.” So was born reverence and respect.
Of course, there was nothing else on TV like this. But the deeper accomplishment might have been the opposite: How close was Twin Peaks to reality? The American appetite for surrealism is not born of artiness, but rather an intimacy with the randomness of daily life. Here were teens on coke, teens killing time in bordellos and tying cherry stems in knots with their tongues. (Sherilyn Fenn’s Audrey is the harbinger of Lynch’s darkest fantasy, Mulholland Drive.) The women of the show made the cover of Rolling Stone in denim and eyeliner, but in a way, we already knew them—they were us, in our high schools, and much truer to life than MTV let on.
It couldn’t last. When we speak of Twin Peaks, we really mean its perfect first season and change, until national grief or an especially dunderheaded executive forced closure. (Lynch, as ever, rues the decision here, calling the mystery of Laura Palmer the “goose that laid golden eggs.”) Afterward came a parade of weirdness that tried way too hard, echoing in the din of multiple sharks being jumped. All of it is here for the curious; all of it is worthy to some degree, the spectacle of a network losing its nerve. Until then, you could pretend that the mainstream was going to be a beautiful place to visit.
Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition is available now from Paramount Home Entertainment for $99.99.