Why Twin Peaks is a bad mystery but a great soap opera

Let's talk about Laura Palmer, the hardest-working dead girl in TV history

"A dead girl. This is what got us going, me and Mark," says David Lynch of co-creating Twin Peaks with Mark Frost. The show — which went up against Cheers in 1990 and which, like Cheers, had an uncannily perfect pilot — caught fire. Everyone wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer. The show produced delicious strings of questions that proliferated and rambled as amiably as Agent Dale Cooper. Why was Josie sad? Who is Diane? Why is it so hard to get cherry pie these days? And most importantly, what is this show?

In a cagey interview this week in which he manages to say nothing about the upcoming revival, premiering Sunday on Showtime, Lynch told Rolling Stone: "I like a film that holds different genres. Just like life." Twin Peaks bears out that maximalism: The show has been hailed as a police procedural, a mystery, a cult classic, a dark comedy, and the mother of all Dead Girl Shows. But its track record with all the various genres it juggles is mixed. As a mystery, it's unforgivably bad. But as a soap opera? It's truly transcendent.

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Not a parody of a soap opera, mind you — as Lynch himself was at pains to point out — but the genuine article, with all its spurious connections and silly excesses. And that's all thanks to Laura Palmer, the hardest-working dead girl in TV history.

Consider Laura's life before her murder. As the mystery unfolds, we learn she was popular at school — so popular that she was voted Homecoming Queen. That's not especially noteworthy until you consider that she worked at the perfume counter at Benjamin Horne's department store when she wasn't going to high school, tutoring Johnny Horne three times a week, tutoring Josie in English twice a week, founding a Meals on Wheels program and making daily deliveries, hanging out with Harold Smith, and keeping not one but two diaries (one for appearances, since everyone in Twin Peaks keeps two ledgers.) The other diary, which was so secret she carefully wrote "this is the diary of Laura Palmer" in big loopy handwriting on the inside cover, she kept at Harold's orchid-filled house. (Why? Secrets!)

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In her free time, Laura moonlighted as a prostitute at One-Eyed Jack's, posed for Fleshworld, did BDSM with Leo and Jacques, and recruited the captain of the football team to sell drugs for her. She developed a cocaine habit, rented a safe deposit box (as a minor!), picnicked in secret with James and Donna, and swapped sexual partners with Shelly.

But two boyfriends and two lovers weren't enough. She struck up an affair with Benjamin Horne, the sociopathic owner of the Great Northern and proprietor of One-Eyed Jack's. Now this guy is a genial cynic. He sleeps with every new girl at that establishment and can barely be bothered to care about his own daughter. But Laura cracks him easily: Questioned by Audrey, Horne breaks down crying and admits that he loved her.

Oh, and she's also secretly seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Jacoby, seducing him and creating a third diary, this one tape-recorded. This teenager kept better records than James Comey.

And yet, the line is that her life is filled with secrets. The mystery coasts on the need for there to be more we don't know, and there just isn't room for much more. One of the show's best scenes has Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) visiting her dead friend's grave and griping that, in death as in life, all anyone ever does is solve Laura's problems. It's an emotionally wrenching scene containing an amusingly apt complaint. Laura, being dead, accumulates layers of increasingly unlikely back story the way the show's second season acquires magical characters whose respective systems don't quite add up.

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That's where the soap opera steps in to save us. Soap operas are filled with asserted connections and imposed dichotomies and unlikely kinships. Everyone is connected to everyone: Josie is confiding in Harry, befriending Pete, and secretly plotting with Hank. Catharine is working with Ben, who's working with Hank, who took the fall for Josie. Think about that set of incentives too hard and you'll go in circles: Why did Laura decide to die at Bob's hands? Because it was the only way to stop Bob from getting her. Why did Andrew fake his own death and effectively end his life by dropping out of it? Because people were trying to kill him.

Then there are the secret twins. Twin Peaks is awash in soap opera doppelgangers, and usefully so: The show's evocative but fragile dream logic is bolstered by these soap opera shenanigans. There's Madeline and Laura, of course, and the love-diamond formed between them and Donna and James. There are visual echoes between the old waiter and the giant, the fact that Mike and Bobby share names with One-Armed Mike and Evil Bob, and the fact that Mike and Bob's back story — partners-cum-enemies — matches Cooper's history with his partner, Windom Earle.

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The fun of pairing soap-logic with dream-logic is how perfectly the former — with its pedantic and petty sets of causes and effects — buttresses the latter. The result, at least for Twin Peaks' first season, is an exceptional (almost Nadine-like) form of hybrid vigor. Dreams are confusing and free-associative. They can sink plots. In contrast, for all their silly brain-swaps and twins, people in soap operas do things for recognizable reasons: Jealousy. Spite. Love. Those ordinary human considerations help anchor the amusingly unmotivated proliferation of evil principles that plague Twin Peaks' second season. (It's an artifact of these blurry mythologies that so many of the show's evil dudes end up fighting each other: Earle takes Leo hostage and is defeated by Bob.)

In the second season, the show's connections start to become unhinged and spurious: Bob is evidently spelling out Robertson — the name of the family next door to Leland's grandparents and a reference to Mike's comment that the people Bob inhabit are his children (son of Robert). Ben Horne, according to Dr. Jacoby, must achieve a Confederate victory in his Civil War re-enactment to get back to normal. Sure. Why not.

The show's heart is coffee and cherry pie and how everyone feels about coffee and cherry pie (and each other). It includes a variety of perspectives that clash in interesting ways that add up to something like a consensus. But its mystery-solving brain bounces around between Black and White Lodges, the Bookhouse Boys, the Roadhouse, One-Eyed Jack's, and a dozen other sinister locales that never quite meet on the same cosmic plane to duke things out. For better or worse, that aspect of the show narrows more and more until it's mostly Cooper's story. The soapy aspects of the show that work best — the ones where people are self-serving and petty and kind and horny and eat at the Double RR — don't thrive alongside the Good vs. Evil business that takes over.

I hope the new season brings more of the former than the latter. Twin Peaks got better the closer its surrealism hugged the ordinary.

For all that the Dead Girl ended up screaming in a magic room by the end of the series — thanks in part to the many hats she was forced to wear — the original Twin Peaks was most magical when it explored the weirdness of the people it left alive: Shelly, and Audrey, and Donna, and the roles the try on, and the things they fail at, and what kind of doughnut everyone likes.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"192025","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"448","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]] (Screenshot/Twin Peaks/Netflix)


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