Do you remember where you were on June 10, 1991? Me, I was at a Black Crowes concert in Fresno. I remember this because it was precisely where I did not want to be. My girlfriend Kim was a fan and had already bought the tickets, so we went, but why did it have to be the same night as the series finale of Twin Peaks, our mutual favorite show?
We bonded over Twin Peaks early in our courtship, marathoning through the seven-episode first season on my birthday in 1990 while my father was out of town. Admittedly, we were kinda distracted and didn’t start watching it in earnest until Jim and his girlfriend showed up, but hey, I was newly seventeen and Kim was sixteen, and the carpet was quite comfy.
When the series finale approached almost exactly a year later, Kim reasonably pointed out that we could tape it and watch it the next day. Well, yes, sure, I taped every episode of the show for keeps anyway but feh, I wanted to watch it now, or at least as close to now as was possible. It wasn’t out of spoiler fear; school was out and neither us of had to work for the next few days, so there was no buzz to avoid. Semantically speaking, this was before the word “spoiler” was invented. I simply referred to it as “not wanting to know what happens next.” I didn’t watch the previews for Star Trek: The Next Generation, a practice which continues today with the new Galactica.
But this was Twin Peaks, damnit. A teevee show produced by David Lynch, my favorite director, an episode directed by him, those were always the best, and after this there would be no more. Then again, there was no telling when Kim would get another chance to sing along live with Chris Robinson to “She Talks to Angels,” and the correct decision was made. We went to the concert, watched the episode the next morning, and it was all good.
Hardly anybody else watched the show anymore, and those who did were vocal in their disappointment. Most people tuned out by a few episodes into the second season, maybe returning for the heavily-hyped episode in which the Laura Palmer storyline was finally resolved. The result was a major backlash, evolving from the minor backlash which started brewing when the murder wasn’t solved five minutes into the second season.
Conventional wisdom said Twin Peaks was about the murder of Laura Palmer, and they were taking too damned long to resolve it. In truth, Laura’s murder was what film students call a McGuffin, or what civilians call a catalyst: the motivation for the story and the characters’ actions, but not the point of the story itself, any more than the contents of the microfilm are the point of North By Northwest. A far worse crime was that there were other stories, and when the mystery was finally resolved, the show had the temerity not to end.
That the show was a riff on soap operas (Invitation to Love, anyone?) was either ignored or considered a bad thing. Season- or series-long arcs for primetime shows were still frightening and confusing, hence the frequent complaint of “I missed one episode and now I can’t follow it.” Keeping up with the show did require dedication, especially after ABC moved it to Saturday nights. Downloading and TiVo were many moons away and the average VCR was still blinking “12:00”, so watching it later was a technological impossibility for most people.
Thus, Twin Peaks went off the air after two seasons. Lynch and his coproducer Mark Frost made a few more teevee shows, one obscure (On the Air), one really obscure (American Chronicles), and one so mindbogglingly obscure that I wouldn’t expect anyone to believe it existed if I didn’t have a poster for it that I’d scavenged during its brief video release (Hotel Room).
Then came the movie: Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me, chronicling the week leading up to Laura’s death. Released in 1993, some people asked why anyone would make a movie based on a the teevee show which had failed so miserably two years earlier. To me, that was missing the point. A new David Lynch movie was reason enough to celebrate, and that it was related to a teevee show I was still mourning made me all the happier.
We heard that a local radio station was giving away tickets to a preview screening. No doubt it was the sort of deal where you had to be the eight caller or somesuch, but for the hell of it I called and asked if we could just have some. They said yes, and one quick jaunt to the station later, we had a pair of tickets to see Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me.
I don’t remember what kind of radio station it was; probably either Top 40 or Moron Rock. Whichever it was, their listeners had not watched Twin Peaks, nor did they have the attention span and/or taste for absurdist humor so vital to appreciating or even tolerating David Lynch. It was, quite frankly, the single lousiest moviegoing experience of my life. They never shut up, yelling and hooting and hollering the entire time. Two-thirds of the audience left before the movie was halfway over; as he walked out, one wag yelled “Just kill the bitch already!” Ah, Fresno.
Kim and I saw Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me three more times during its brief theatrical run. Hearing the dialogue and music was nice, and we wanted to support it financially; the IMDB says it grossed just over four million meatspace bucks (MS$4M) domestically, but we did our part. Besides, you know, we actually enjoyed it. Those screenings experienced a similar walkout ratio as the preview; six people were there at the beginning, and four would inevitably leave before it was done. They didn’t yell and scream nearly as much, though.
At one of the theaters, I asked if I could maybe possibly get the poster when they were done with the movie. The manager seemed surprised that anyone would want it, and I took the poster home that very night. It’s frequently graced my apartment or office walls, and can be seen behind my desk at my current job, sharing space with (among other things) a poster for David Cronenberg’s Crash. If that isn’t fair warning , I don’t know what is.
The movie having destroyed whatever goodwill most people had towards the name of Twin Peaks, the series faded into fuzzy cultural memory thanks to thoroughly botched video releases. It should have been the first example of a canceled show finding its audience on video, but it never had a chance.
All seven episodes of the first season were released on VHS in individual editions by Worldvision Enterprises. Swell, except for one little problem: the teevee movie which started things out was unavailable on domestic video due to convoluted rights issues. Instead, Warner Home Video issued a “special European edition” which had a different ending purporting to solve the mystery, when in fact it made things muddier even by Lynch standards. (The footage had repurposed into a dream sequence in the second episode, where it made more senseor, at least, as much sense as it needed to.) The net result was that a new viewer couldn’t watch the show as intended unless they knew somebody who’d taped the pilot episode when it was first broadcast. I taped it, but it didn’t make me as popular as you might think.
And what of the second season, the black sheep? It was released, but…first, some history.
VHS tapes came in three different speeds. SP was two hours per cassette, and the quality was about as good as VHS could get. The downside was that it used a lot of tape. LP was four hours; the quality was aggressively mediocre, but you could tape five (cinco!) hour-long shows if you removed the commercials, as I did for the new Star Trek shows and Twin Peaks and whatever else I was obsessing on at the time. (At some point in the nineties, VCR manufacturers stopped including LP as a recording speed on new VCRs. I have it on good authority that this was done solely to piss me off.) And then there was EP. The quality was craptastic, but you could fit six hours onto a tape. Low-budget video labels such as Video Treasures and Star Classics made a tidy profit by issuing public-domain movies at EP speed. They looked horrible, but someone paying three bucks for a copy of the Mr. T vehicle The Toughest Man in the World was unlikely to be a persnickety videophile. EP was the speed I used to record the two-hour Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, because if I did at SP or even LP, I would have gone broke buying blank tapes. I almost did anyway.
Taking a cue from the lower-budget labels, Worldvision released the both seasons of Twin Peaks in a box set recorded at EP. In addition to the shoddy video quality, EP tapes are more fragile and breakable and prone to going kersplooey. This box set went out of print fairly quickly, as did the SP first season set. So. Pilot episode? Not available in its proper, leading-into-the-series form. First season? Okay, they got that more or less right. Second season? Rare, fragile EP tapes. Twin Peaks did appear on Bravo from ’93 to ’96 (with newly recorded Log Lady intros!), but to the best of my knowledge the shownever made it to domestic syndication.
The entire series (sans pilot) was also released on laserdisc, but, well, you know. Laserdisc.
I started going to film school at San Francisco State University in 1994. Pulp Fiction had just come out, and everyone was worshipping at the altar of Tarantino. I didn’t like Pulp Fiction, and I still can’t watch it all the way through. I later discovered that until the semester before I arrived, David Lynch was the idol of SFSU film students. Figures. My timing always did suck.
Meanwhile, Lynch’s career hit some serious skiddiness. A cult figure turned Time coverboy, nobody would return his phone calls after Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me. He wouldn’t make another movie until 1997’s Lost Highway, which, if nothing else, proved that he was following his muse as much as ever. Indeed, for as reviled as it was, Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me was the template for the rest of his work to come (except for the anomalous Straight Story), what I tend to think of as his modern period, and his best. I’d rather watch the elliptical Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr. than Blue Velvet or The Elephant Man any day of the week. But that’s just me.
I should acknowledge that by all accounts (including Jerry Stahl in Permanent Midnight, if memory serves), Lynch was a tremendous flake during the second season. He came and went as he pleased and didn’t fulfill his duties as executive producer, essentially abandoning his baby. So, he isn’t a saintwhat’s worse, this article is me buying into the celebritarian auteur bullshit when in all likelihood Mark Frost and especially Robert Engels deserve much more credit for the success of the show.
When Kim and I went our separate ways in 1999, she got custody of the Twin Peaks tapes. I figured the series, the entire series, would be on DVD soon. Whoops.
In 2001, the same year that Mulholland Dr. hit the theaters, two impossible things happened. The first was that the pilot, the actual honest-to-goodness teevee version that lead directly into the series, found its way onto DVD. Not as a domestic, Region 1 “copy it and you’ll make Jack Valenti cry” DVD, but a gray market region-free disc released in Taiwan thanks to legal loopholes and very available on eBay. I think I paid twenty bucks all told. The quality was not so hot, but it was the real thing, and the timing couldn’t have been better, which leads us to the second impossible thing
The first season of Twin Peaks was released on domestic, fully licensed DVD, looking and sounding beautiful. I bought it the day it came out, and being a glutton, eagerly awaited the surely immiment release of the second season.
And waited. And waited some more. Eventually I stopped actively waiting and switched into passive mode.
From what I heard, the second season wasn’t going to be released anytime soon because the first season didn’t move many units, possibly because it was overpriced for a seven episode set. Wasn’t for lack of me doing my part, but my repeated attendance at Fire Walk With Me didn’t keep it from being a financial flop, either.
In November 2005, I drove to Washington State and back. The only real demand I made of my traveling companions was that we detour slightly between Olympia and Seattle to North Bend, so we could stop at Twede’s Cafe. Formerly known as the Mar-T cafe, it was used as the Double R diner in Twin Peaks. Both the exterior and interior were used for the pilot episode and Fire Walk With Me, though only the exterior was used in the series proper. It was easily the high point of an otherwise unremarkable trip, and my cohorts were very tolerant of my enthusiasm over a footnote to a long-forgotten teevee show. (Sadly, there wasn’t time to visit Snoqualmie, on which the town of Twin Peaks was more directly based.) I was happy to discover that the building had survived a fire in 2000, and a little sad that in its new incarnation the diner had taken on an unfortunate Tweety Bird motif. I don’t like cherry pie and I wasn’t drinking coffee yet, but the rest of the food was solidly above-average diner fare. And, of course, I left with the official Twede’s Twin Peaks frisbee.
So the years went by, the second season remained steadfastly unreleased, and rumors came and went: rights issues, Lynch wanting to remaster and clean it up, everybody remembering how much money they lost on the first set and calling it off, “It doesn’t matter because it sucked anyway,” et cetera. Meanwhile, America lost its innocence.
Which is to say, by the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, teevee shows became a huge part of the DVD market. Sporadic episode releases and theme compilations had been around since the beginning of home video, including a noble attempt to release every episode of Dark Shadows on VHS (thus taking up the better part of a wall at the Video Zone in Fresno), but the DVD proved a perfect fit for releasing entire seasons at a time.
Hell, if a show didn’t make it past a single season, it could be marketed as “The Complete Series,” thus making it seem like all the more of a bargain. In cases like Firefly and Futurama (which made it to five seasons), the DVD sales lead to revivals of the show, usually in other formats. (One can only hope that the feature film version of Far Out Space Nuts is in production as we speak.)
I’m speculating here, but I suspect that the recent release of the sixth season (the complete sixth season, no less!) of The Jeffersons is why the second season of Twin Peaks finally made it to DVD this past week. Teevee shows on DVD sell. Sorta. At the moment. The market is actually declining due to oversaturation, perhaps on the verge of re-creating the video game crash of the early eighties. But, for now, it’s created the perfect environment for Twin Peaks to get another shot. Money, kids. It’s all about money. That’s why anything happens in the entertainment industry.
The more philosophical (but less financially likely) reason is that teevee storytelling has caught up with the show, and the second season is finally ready to get the respect it’s always deserved as part of the series as a whole.
Twin Peaks was the most influential hour-long drama of the early nineties. Aside from such obvious clones as Northern Exposure and Picket Fences, there wouldn’t have been an X-Files without it, and without The X-Files it’s a safe bet that Buffy the Vampire Slayer wouldn’t have happened, and without those, would you kids have your Lost or your Heroes? Not damn likely. Certainly the “throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks” school of plot development which Twin Peaks engaged in is popular with the aforementioned Lost and Battlestar Galactica. What’s more, you can bet that Chris Carter and Joss Whedon didn’t get cranky and stop watching because Laura’s murder took too long to resolve, or they didn’t like the the story arc of James Hurley and the older woman.
Unsurprisingly, some people who bitched about the second season at the time have gotten all retcon and say they always loved it. Whatever. I’m certainly not denying that it was flawed, and not everything worked. There was clunkiness. That’s the nature of life and existence and art, especially commercial art. (Three words: The Woman King, though my own fallibility prevents me from sharing Jacob’s zero-tolerance attitude towards imperfection.)
So the circle’s complete now, more or less. It’s all out there, ready to be found by a new audience and rediscovered by the old one. Some will love it, some will hate it (a brand new backlash is always possible), and some won’t give a damn. I obviously fall firmly into the “love” category, and I’m glad to finally have the entire series on DVD and in (mostly pristine) quality, meaning I can inflict it in on new people and watch that last half-hour of the final episode, still one of the spookiest and unsettlingest things I’ve ever seen, whenever I want. Which will be often, I suspect. Though I’ll always be sad that we’ll never find out how Annie is.
- Twin Peaks – The Second Season (DVD)
- Alfred Hitchcock film techniques: The McGuffin
- Worldvision Enterprises
- A visual history of video companies in the 80s: Low-budget video labels
- Twin Peaks: Pilot (import)
- TIME Magazine Cover: David Lynch – Oct. 1, 1990
- Twede’s Cafe
- The Video Game Crash of 1983
- Television Without Pity: The Woman King