David Lynch, for all that he is said to be (and he is said to be a lot of things), is first and foremost an American director. His films are often cited as surrealistic and dark, to be sure, but Lynch’s bizarre prism is arguably the best lens through which one can perceive the schizophrenic psyche of American mythology. This concept is at its most accessible in Twin Peaks, the short-lived yet much-hyped television series he co-created with Mark Frost.
Twin Peaks first aired in 1990, four years after premiered and marked a creative turning point in Lynch’s career. The 1986 film is worth mentioning, as it established several key motifs that would reappear in Lynch’s later works, particularly in those immediately following it. The first is the setting of the film’s action in small-town America. David Lynch seems to take particular delight in 1950s nuclear family stereotypes, if only to subvert them. This notion leads into another motif, which is that of the surface of things concealing darker, more complex secrets. This is the case in Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey is led into the world of a masochistic lounge singer and a sadist gangster with an Oedipus complex. Certainly, this is the case in Twin Peaks, when Laura Palmer’s body washes up on the town’s shore and forces out many surprising revelations about her life and the lives of her fellow townspeople.
It is this theme of secret lives, of dual identities, that pervades Twin Peaks, especially in the pilot episode. The series opener sees Twin Peaks presented as the quintessential idyllic American small town: birds chirp to a peaceful melody in the opening credits, the town sheriff is named Harry S. Truman and many of the teenagers come from safe, two-parent households. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper calls Twin Peaks, “a town where a yellow light still means slow down, not speed up.” However, perception is not reality in this Northwest community.
Nearly all of the major characters have double lives, to the extent that it’s quite comical. On the one hand, Laura Palmer was America’s sweetheart: she had a football player boyfriend, she was blond and attractive, she volunteered for a charity that gives meals to those who are bedridden, etc. On the other hand, she was juggling several men in her life, she engaged in extreme sexual behavior and she also had a cocaine problem. Bobby Briggs, the All-American football player, was cheating on Laura with a waitress (who is married), is mixed up in drug dealing and likes to channel James Dean in Rebel without a Cause when dealing with his parents. Donna Hayward, Big Ed, Norma Jennings, Benjamin Horne, Catherine Martell and Leo Johnson likewise all have duplicitous, disloyal relationships. Lynch seems to be taking the idea he introduced in Blue Velvet, that a base underworld coexists with quiet suburbia, and exaggerating it to astronomical heights.
In light of this observation, one has to wonder if David Lynch is simply having a laugh at audience expectations. After all, he does show several characters watching scenes from a soap opera, Invitation to Love throughout the series. Are the characters of Twin Peaks replicating the behavior they see on television? Or, is Lynch poking fun at his own creations by implying that they are not aware of their own melodramatic actions? How does this interplay reflect American culture?
Twin Peaks to a large degree is a show about the contradictions between American ideals and actual preferences. Not only do the characters in the series struggle with their roles in these two spheres, but the show itself is constantly wrestling with this juxtaposition. Twin Peaks wants the audience to buy into its setting of the idyllic American small town and its connotations, while at the same time indulging the American people’s enjoyment of murder, salacious affairs and all sorts of illicit activity.
Is it absurd? Yes, but so is the idea of the nuclear family, with its perfectly fulfilled members and neat, safe interactions. In reality, individuals’ relationships with one another are messy, and at times, deceitful. David Lynch is not a cynic, though, and here he does not want to deride humans for their delusional follies. Like other surrealist works, Twin Peaks uses bizarre and hyperbolic imagery to show that our existence is inherently absurd, and that the only rational way to comprehend it is through the lens of absurdity.