This week marks the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Twin Peaks, an occasion marked by, among other things, a live-tweet by Kyle MacLachlan on Wednesday afternoon of the series pilot (beginning at 4:20 p.m. … nice) and a raft of pieces about what David Lynch and Mark Frost’s wildly ambitious, maddeningly inconsistent, and incomparably odd mash-up of social portraiture, police procedural, unhinged soap opera, swooning romanticism, supernatural horror, Bobby soxer nostalgia, Civil War fetishism, taboo smashing, and unrepentant pro-log propaganda really means—both in terms of its endlessly teeming subplots and subtexts and as a larger cultural phenomenon.
At once an object lesson and cautionary tale in the benefits and perils of letting an eccentric genius run wild on corporate prime time—the series’ two-season run included a lifetime’s worth of behind-the-scenes controversy and in-fighting, to the point that Lynch angrily bailed on the project save for a few key late episodes—Twin Peaks is a relic of a monocultural moment of appointment television and largely analog fan communities. The triumphant 2017 release of Twin Peaks: The Return, besides filling in the blanks of what it would look like if something so weird was being watched and recapped weekly (it was the best summer ever), played provocatively with the show’s mythology and enduring popularity, hinting, in the bleakest, most heartbreaking terms possible, that as much as we want to, we can’t go home again.
As original as Twin Peaks seemed—and was—in 1990, it was the sum total of a series of inspirations, which it in turn seeded into several subsequent generations of film directors and television showrunners—some behind the heaviest hitters of their eras like The X-Files, True Detective, and Hannibal. It’s almost easier to count the shows that don’t have a little bit of Twin Peaks in their creative DNA. Still, in honor of the series’ birthday, it’s worth putting together a syllabus of post–Twin Peaks movies and series that, taken together, suggest the scope and diversity of its seismic influence and impact.
Streaming on Netflix
“We pretty much ripped off Twin Peaks,” joked Bates Motel’s producer Carlton Cuse in 2013. “They only did 30 episodes … [we] thought we’d do the 70 that are missing.” If you buy the idea that one of Lynch’s biggest influences was Alfred Hitchcock—from the dream-logic menace of Spellbound to the romantic dread of Vertigo and the shock tactics of Psycho—then Bates Motel’s attempted shotgun marriage of the two master filmmakers is not only logical but a perfectly postmodern proposition. Of all the prequels that proliferated on big and small screens in the 2010s—from Prometheus to Better Call Saul—Bates Motel may have had the highest degree of difficulty, attempting to personify and humanize Mrs. Bates, the structuring absence of the most famous horror movie ever made, and the highest compliment you could pay Vera Farmiga (an actress who is always up for anything) is that she played the pre-pickled version of Norman’s mom with no inhibitions or regrets.
Streaming on Kanopy
Earlier this week, MUBI held a tweet-along screening of Richard Kelly’s wildly polarizing 2006 dystopian satire Southland Tales, which is, depending on whom you ask, either the Showgirls of the 2000s—i.e., a subversive cult classic that’s endured beyond its negative original reception—or a mere juvenile millennial footnote (both camps have a point). But nobody would have cared either way about Southland Tales if it hadn’t followed Kelly’s striking 2001 debut Donnie Darko, a film committed to a Lynchian vision to the point of outright theft; when the camera prowls through the hallways of Jake Gyllenhaal’s high school to rest on a character snorting coke, the callback to Fire Walk With Me is loud and clear. Kelly’s willingness to craft a sci-fi mystery pivoting on a string of non sequiturs—a movie that stops making sense early and often—suggests a Twin Peaks superfan inspired and emboldened by the show’s example.
Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime
Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 classic owes no direct debt to David Lynch, or really to anybody else; if Fargo rerouted the brothers’ career trajectory upward after a series of increasingly annotated meta-movies, it may have been because its snowbound, blood-soaked story line was so bereft of references. Nevertheless, there’s still plenty of tonal crossover between Twin Peaks’ procedural elements and Fargo’s crime-and-punishment narrative, with Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson splitting the difference between straight-arrow Dale Cooper and folksy Sheriff Truman, and William H. Macy’s skeezy used-car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard, mining an only slightly less depraved vein of father-knows-worst malevolence than Leland Palmer. What truly unites Lynch and the Coens, though, is their mutual insistence on cultivating an all-American sense of place that, regardless of the actual topography, exists somewhere between a Norman Rockwell painting and The Twilight Zone.
Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime
The existence of The Blair Witch Project means that every found-footage horror movie made in the past 20 years has been playing for second place in the genre. But I’d like to propose an underdog contender in Australian director Joel Anderson’s sadly underseen, emotionally overwhelming ghost story Lake Mungo, which nods to Twin Peaks in a subtle, heartbreaking way by saddling the story’s central casualty—a teenage girl who tragically drowns while swimming on a family vacation—with the surname “Palmer.” While Anderson dramatizes devastating grief and its fallout in a very different way than Lynch, the film conjures up a similar sort of melancholy, gradually delving into the psychology of the dearly departed to reveal unsettling contradictions reminiscent of Laura Palmer’s desperate double life. Brilliantly assembled and acted to resemble a real television documentary, Lake Mungo also contains one of the most terrifying scenes in any movie, a late-night, face-to-face encounter with the same uncanny power as any of Killer BOB’s appearances in Twin Peaks. You’ll know it when you see it.
Streaming on Netflix
David Fincher’s second foray into home-viewing entertainment after House of Cards has proved to be a far better fit for his style and obsessions: Mindhunter is at once a companion piece to Se7en and Zodiac even as it loops back around both of them to depict the real-life primal scene of serial-killer profiling. And, of all the recent shows to utilize what Sarah Marshall acidly and observantly identified in 2014 as the “dead girl trope”—the use of a mutilated female body to catalyze a narrative à la Laura Palmer’s posthumous entrance in the Twin Peaks pilot—it’s arguably the only one that doubles as an autocritique. The prurient fascination of all those mangled, forlorn corpses is variably withheld from the audience and thrust in our faces, while the running subplot in Season 2 is that the grotesque details of its protagonists’ beat transform them into departmental superstars and dinner-party raconteurs (like when Tench holds court talking about meeting Charles Manson), leaving exactly the kind of bitter, toxic aftertaste it should.
Streaming on Netflix
It’s an open secret that the most rewardingly ridiculous teen soap opera of its era takes its cues (and at least one cast member) from Twin Peaks; enough has been written about how the series’ creators pilfered enough ideas and images from Lynch’s work to fill a graduate-school syllabus. Rather than just inventorying its various homages, however, it’s interesting to contrast the way Riverdale grins through its various byzantine convolutions (I don’t remember Archie getting mauled by a grizzly bear in the comics) with Twin Peaks’ trademark earnestness. Lynch and Mark Frost may have been pushing the envelope in terms of prime-time form and content, but there was rarely—if ever—a sense that they, or we, were meant to be in on some kind of collective joke. Their series’ brutality and sadness coexisted with its absurdist comic sensibility instead of being absorbed into it. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but that doesn’t make it art; on the other hand, it’s not like Riverdale is pretending to be art, so no harm done.
The Silence of the Lambs
Available to rent for $1.99 on Amazon Prime
FBI iconography dominates in The Silence of the Lambs, which pits Quantico’s star trainee Clarice Starling against a pair of serial killers: the remorseless Buffalo Bill, who’s abducted a politician’s daughter, and the remarkable Hannibal Lecter, who’s been enlisted to help the young agent track him down. The setup of Jonathan Demme’s multiple-Oscar-winner evokes Laura Palmer’s murder, switching out the question of whodunnit for a ticking-clock setup in which the missing girl’s life hangs in the balance, and there’s more than a little bit of Lynch in the film’s various insect motifs and aura of sustained dread. Even if Demme’s conception of evil is more psychological and less metaphysical, a case can be made that Twin Peaks’ cultural mainstreaming of serial-killer tropes helped pave the way for Lambs’ box office success, which in turn helped to green-light titles from The X-Files to True Detective to, um, Hannibal.
Streaming on HBO Now
“As human beings, we all have these things—probably from our animal days, I guess—that scare us, delight us … [and David] Lynch seems to go straight into that,” said David Chase in a 2015 interview about the links between The Sopranos and Twin Peaks—a link that lies, as Chase suggests, in both shows’ willingness to plunge deep into their characters’ subconsciouses. There are plenty of other interesting equivalences between the last (only?) great network television series of the 20th century and the standard-bearer for the prestige-era of the 21st: Where Twin Peaks adopts the point of view of an avatar of law-and-order to interrogate Dale’s—and our—sense of normalcy and relationship to evil, The Sopranos uses Tony to access a world where everyone’s moral compass is already demagnetized, tempting us with the possibility that his own may yet still point true North. Satriale’s or the Black Lodge—pick your hangout spot. And while you’re at it, respect two divergent but equally impressive truths: Chase and his collaborators were able to sustain the intelligence, inventiveness, and intensity of the best Twin Peaks episodes for 80-plus hours, and that for all their missteps, Lynch and Frost built a narrative universe as epic, complex, and revisitable as The Sopranos in a fraction of the on-screen and off-screen time.
Too Old to Die Young
Streaming on Amazon Prime
A couple of asterisks here, as (1) Nicolas Winding Refn is a filmmaker who—for better or for worse—does his own thing to the point that he doesn’t need to copy anybody, and (2) if there’s any Twin Peaks influence on his insane, inflated, 13-hour streaming neo-noir Too Old to Die Young, it’s mostly courtesy of 2017’s The Return—the only true reference point I can think of for Refn’s experiment in stretching his audience’s faith, patience, and gag reflexes to a collective, simultaneous breaking point. Last year, The Ringer’s Miles Surrey offered a detailed, persuasive primer on Refn’s confrontational form of directorial self-indulgence, and even if I didn’t exactly enjoy Too Old to Die Young, there’s no denying the power of its slowed-down, hollowed-out cop movie tropes, or the way it creates a kind of all-enveloping psychic space that collapses the difference between living-room viewing and lucid dreaming. Whether or not a roomful of uniformed LAPD officers brightly chanting “fascism” in unison during a staff meeting qualifies as trenchant sociopolitical commentary, a snarky cheap shot, or the funniest friggin’ thing I saw in any movie, television show, or viral video in 2019, is hard to say for sure. If there are any answers to be found in Refn’s ecstatically abject masterpiece, they’re all probably multiple choice.
Top of the Lake
Streaming on Hulu
In 2017, Cannes hosted the parallel premieres of Twin Peaks: The Return and Top of the Lake: China Girl, welcoming back two filmmakers who’d previously won the Palme d’Or—Lynch with Wild at Heart and Jane Campion with The Piano—to showcase projects conceived for exhibition outside of cinemas. The first season of Top of the Lake had already been compared to Twin Peaks based on its remote, idyllic setting and the way it kept splashing eccentric local color all over its plot about a pregnant detective (Elisabeth Moss) investigating an abduction. The way its second cycle opened with a scene of a body washing up on a beach—crammed into a suitcase rather than wrapped in plastic—only threw fuel on the fire. Generic trappings aside, it’s not right to say that Twin Peaks and Top of the Lake are about the same things: Campion’s show is made under the sign of realism, commenting on social and cultural divisions in Australia and New Zealand and more generally on gender dynamics and divisions, while Lynch keeps his intentions (and ideology) more veiled. What unites them is the thrill of seeing distinctive artists migrating to another medium—although in Lynch’s case, it’d sure be nice if he decided to make at least one more movie at some point …
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.