Like most college students, I spent my winter break recuperating from months of productivity by spending four weeks doing, well, nothing. I hung out with a few friends. I ate a few burritos. And for an embarrassingly large portion of my day, I lay in bed, working my way through my Netflix instant queue.
Once I’d torn through the obvious college-student shows—30 Rock lasted me less than a week—I was at the mercy of Netflix’s notoriously arbitrary recommendations. Flipping past Happily Divorced and Ultimate Fighting: Fistful of Dollars, I hit on Twin Peaks, a show that ran on ABC for two seasons in the early ’90s. I’d seen screenshots floating around the Tumblrverse and decided to give the series a shot.
Twin Peaks doesn’t sound like much on paper. The series begins with the murder of Laura Palmer, the generic prom queen-type of Twin Peaks, Wash. Squeaky-clean FBI agent Dale Cooper arrives to investigate, and the murder mystery plays out alongside scores of soap opera-esque subplots of small-town drama.
But what makes Twin Peaks so memorable isn’t the basic who-what-where, but the fascinating disconnect between the everyday subject matter and its eerie, suspenseful tone. The haunting soundtrack transformed doctor’s office scenes into a demented parody of General Hospital. The idiosyncratic script turned Laura’s behaved attorney father into a lap-dancing, scene-stealing wreck; bizarre characters just as likely to carry around a sentient log as carry on an affair. The contrast with today’s formulaic, uncomplicated major network shows was jarring. Series like Gossip Girl and Grey’s Anatomy, with their limited repertoire of plot twists (cheating, pregnancy, and the occasional fake death) and bland, uncompelling dialogue, now felt like a serious step down.
The more I thought about Twin Peaks, the more impressed I was with ABC circa 1989. David Lynch, the show’s co-creator and driving force, was a television rookie when he wrote the pilot. Before Twin Peaks, he was best known for directing Eraserhead (Wikipedia describes it as “a cult classic on the midnight movie circuit”) and Blue Velvet (“a neo-noir crime film”). Shonda Rhimes he was not. The choice to give a notoriously obtuse art house director control over his own show was a risky decision—and unfortunately, today’s network executives are not big fans of risk.
With 30 Rock off the air and Community in seemingly permanent danger of cancellation, intelligent and inventive shows are increasingly harder to find on major networks. Of course, premium networks like HBO and Showtime have big budgets, no commercial breaks, and brilliant shows like Game of Thrones. But the vast majority of viewers don’t have ready access to an HBO subscription. It’s not enough to create a channel or two with a monopoly on provocative or high-budget programming; in fact, it risks creating separate spaces for “good TV” and “profitable TV.”
At its best, television allows viewers to share in a common experience; that’s why it’s called “popular culture.” And what pop culture needs right now isn’t a ninth season of Grey’s Anatomy or one more brilliant HBO miniseries. It’s another Twin Peaks.