Aug 18 2011 11:03am

Twin Peaks: White Knight in a Dark Wood

While 90s groundbreaking television series Twin Peaks doesn’t exactly fit the normal conception of Noir cinema, it certainly has a number of noir elements, despite the northwest small town setting: we might call it noir-west small town, given how little time is spent in the series establishing that no matter how dark the woods are at the edges of the town of Twin Peaks, it’s no match for the hearts of the people who live there. For the neophyte, Twin Peaks chronicles the investigation into the murder of Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen, whose dead body is found at the edge of a lake, naked and wrapped in plastic. The show was one part soap opera, one part crime story, and one part writer-Mark-Frost-mysticism plus director-David-Lynch-weird. Take The X-Files, Lost, and Desperate Housewives, mix well, and wrap in an enigma, and you’re getting close to the town limits of Twin Peaks.

Most people think “hardboiled” when they think Noir cinema. Yet French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified five elements of noir cinema in their work, A Panorama of Film Noir. Among those elements were oneiric (dream-like) and strange. And Twin Peaks was certainly strange and dreamlike, not leastwise due to the prophetic dream-visions of Agent Dale Cooper, the FBI agent sent to investigate Laura Palmer’s murder: dreams that included dialogue spoken backwards, a dancing-dwarf, and a giant hiding in the body of frail old bellhop.

Cooper is the other reason we might miss the noir of Twin Peaks. He’s no gumshoe. He’s more Cary Grant than Humphrey Bogart, and despite Grant being a Hitchcock favorite, we all think Bogie when we imagine the quintessential noir hero. Cooper lacks the requisite cynicism of a hardboiled private eye or victim of circumstance. He’s a white knight with a finely tuned palate for coffee and cherry pie. When femme fatale Audrey Horne as played by 90s bombshell Sherilyn Fenn is found in Cooper’s bed, he sends her on her way with both his dignity and her virginity intact. Cooper is a character beyond corruption, especially if you’re like me, refusing to acknowledge any episode beyond season two’s “Arbitrary Law,” when Laura’s killer is finally discovered.

Cooper’s goodness is the contrast to what goes on behind closed doors in Twin Peaks. Borde and Chaumeton identified cruelty and eroticism as further elements of noir cinema, and both abound in the dark corners of Twin Peaks. Again, we might dismiss the adultery, avarice, and addictions of this picturesque small town, because noir cinema is usually set in overtly urban spaces. Yet Twin Peaks has its bars, and across the lake in the morally bankrupt wilds of Canada, a bordello. The plots and machinations of the power players in Twin Peaks are petty compared to the crime lords of Chicago, but they end in murder, arson, and blackmail all the same.

Yet despite the clear polemic of Cooper’s goodness vs. the evil in Twin Peaks, the series never makes a hard and fast judgment of these northwest deadly sins. Even when the killer is revealed as being the most monstrous of all suspects, Cooper and his compatriots find themselves musing on the nature of evil, unable to draw any final, damning conclusion. They, as the audience, are both horrified by the murderer’s actions, and sympathetic to the killer’s remorse, realizing their role as pawns of darker powers. In this, we find the ambivalence of Borde and Chaumeton’s schema. As with most Noir cinema, the darkness we see onscreen is one we recognize within ourselves.

This was likely a key to Twin Peaks’ success: the unabashed goodness of Special Agent Dale Cooper echoing the optimism and conservatism of the ’80s, a stranger in the strange land of domestic violence and dark sexuality we became so very aware of as North Americans in the ’90s: the perfect soap opera/crime story to mirror the changing zeitgeist from Pretty in Pink to Reality Bites. Twin Peaks is a liminal space, after all, a borderland between good and evil, light and darkness, beauty and horror. The elements of film noir are all there, lurking behind that cup of damn fine coffee, and that lovely cherry pie.


Mike Perschon is a hypercreative scholar, musician, writer, and artist, a doctoral student at the University of Alberta, and on the English faculty at Grant MacEwan University.

This article is part of Noir Week on ‹ previous | index | next ›
Rich Bennett
1. Neuralnet
LOL - I think I still have VHS tapes of this series somewhere.. The first season was so good... like nothing I had ever seen on TV before. then the second season was a runaway train going off the tracks... too bad. I still wonder what the writers were thinking in the second season, the show just kind of went insane.

Great characters in Twin peaks... I think that is what made it such a good show.
2. gibsonjd
I have been planning a re-watch of this series...I think you just clinched it!
john mullen
3. johntheirishmongol
Twin Peaks was so fun and so different to watch. David Lynch is somewhat of a freak, as you can tell from his movies. I was in Hollywood to be an actor at the time he was at his peak, and like most, waiting tables, and he was a regular where I worked. He seemed like a regular guy who was just a little off. If you want something even a bit more noirish by him, I recommend Blue Velvet, which is a very weird movie but very good.

My issues with Twin Peaks are that I never really bought Kyle Mc as being an FBI agent because he never seemed competent enough. I also never got the midget and dancing bit.
4. outsidecounsel
Noir doesn't have to be urban-- plenty takes place in rural settings. Red Harvest, for example, or much of James M. Cain. Twin Peaks fits in that tradition, although I would argue that it is also a sort of magical realism.
5. Nicholas L. Garvery
I remember watching this as a kid. At school they warned us if we watch Twin Peaks we'll go to hell! I stopped watching sometime during the second season when it got too weird and illogical. I always disliked illogical stories.

Time for a re-watch!
Tucker McKinnon
6. jazzfish
Neuralnet @ 1: "I still wonder what the writers were thinking in the second season"

Mostly they were thinking "they want us to do an episode a week instead of one every two weeks? we're doomed."

(I did like David Lynch's "if I can't have Twin Peaks then no one can" final episode, though.)
7. Raskolnikov
Loved Twin Peaks, including the final episode. Having Cooper be overwhelmed like that at the end was a very powerful twist, in keeping with Lynch's take on playing with normal boundaries.

Not sure how much I buy the larger ethos of the show as noir, though. It's not just Cooper, the moral categories in the work seem starker than noir often allows for. Part of the difference may be from my reading of Leland Palmer, which is informed more by Fire Walk With Me than the remorse scene. For all the brilliance of the character, and perhaps because of the order that I saw things in, it's difficult for me to see him as other than wholly monstrous. "I thought you always knew it was me!' in particular.
David Thomson
8. ZetaStriker
I'm not sure if it's the torrential downpour of procedural crime shows that have flooded the genre since Twin Peaks aired, but when I tried watching it on Netflix for the first time a few months ago I found myself unable to sit through an entire episode. I watch half of the pilot, then skipped to episode and watched half of that to see if it was improving . . . and all I caught was a long-winded investigation that I was frustrated didn't manage to go anywhere. I felt it had all the weaknesses of your average CSI show, drawn out over one long investigation. It was probably fresh and original for its time, but it didn't seem so to me now.
9. mojave_wolf
I *love* Twin Peaks and unlike many here loved the second season as much as the first, but I can give at least the rumor mill answer to why it veered off in the particular way it did. Supposedly, a few fan sites had, through extensive internet and library research, figured out the direction the plot was going to take (which would also have been highly mystical and dark and "weird", as some of you put it, which, well, so was the first season), so, there was a lot of last minute rejiggering as an owl cult (based on a supposed real world owl cult with a bit of Satanism) led by Benjamin Horne was jettisoned, even while the rest of the original concept. This led to spaces and detours and gaps and things. (sorry for my own gaps and spaces, but it's been 20 years)

I know some people were turned off by the more overt supernatural elements in the second season, too, and for some reason that completely escaped me the movie wasn't a hit, not even a universal hit with fans, but if you liked the show I highly, highly, highly recommend it, and the novel "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer" by Jennifer Lynch.

And Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet were totally noir. I'd vote for "Wild at Heart" and "Lost Highway" fitting this category too.

re: noir and magical realism - these two art forms have essential element in common, imo, that makes overlapping a natural process-they both view the world as having a deeper level of meaning and a more "real" reality than what most people perceive, but this deeper level doesn't require any mysticism or supernatural aspect (though it can have one, as in Twin Peaks), it's right there in front of us, even though most people aren't aware of it and are more focused on shiny surfaces (and without even getting the full impact of the shiny surfaces, which is a shame).
Lianne Burwell
10. LKBurwell
I still remember watching the finale and thinking that it was straight out of one of those bizarre dreams you have when you're almost awake, and outside noises impinge on your dream, but twist things in ways that make no sense at all.

And don't forget, this is the series that gave us David Duchovny (before X-Files) in drag!
11. mojave_wolf
@Zeta Striker - Your dislike could be an expectations issue, as Twin Peaks was never (nor ever supposed to be) anything like a straight police procedural or cop show of any sort. It was originally advertised as "David Lynch (then best known for Blue Velvet and Eraserhead) does a prime time soap opera, centered around a murder mystery". The initial buzz was all about David Lynch doing a mainstream TV show at all, cause we're already getting into crazy territory there, and in particular David Lynch + soap opera = WTF? The mystery was the heart of the show, but if you were expecting it to be all about that, I could see a major "huh?" factor upon viewing.

Or it could be Lynch's particular style of directing and pacing just isn't for you; it's certainly not the norm, and during Twin Peaks he was at his most stylistically quirky. (note: I don't mean that to come off all "only silly people who can't stand something different won't love this!"; I worked in the entertainment industry at the time and my business partner, who was more a student of film history and especially cinematography and directorial techniques than I, was iffy re: Lynch and didn't like TP much at all. I thought the final epsiode was brilliant; he watched it with a producer friend of his and said they were both laughing at all the way through).

If it works for you, though, you'll soon be watching every gesture, facial tic and shot of wind blown trees with rapt attention, breathlessly waiting for what comes next, fully immersed in what's happening now (even when it's pretty much nothing) and occasionally thinking Lynch and Frost have somehow hidden the keys to a more sublime understanding of the universe in every shot and motion. (I'm not even exaggerating much; either my own reaction or that of many fellow fans).

So, yeah, think "The Prisoner meets Blue Velvet meets Dark Shadows" or "surrealism meets film noir meets soap opera meets mysticism meets extremely quirky stylistic choices" and you'd have a better idea of what to expect than anything informed by modern (or even past era) law-enforcement focused crime shows.
Mike Perschon
12. Mike_Perschon
Well said, Mojave Wolf. I love your combos. I think that's the only way to describe Twin Peaks: "It's this, plus this, and then some of this," without being able to explain it fully, followed by, "Just watch it."
13. graftonio
While it had a short run without Twin Peaks I have a hard time picturing X-Files or Lost or several other shows turning out the way they did. This show was so far ahead of it's time you always expect Harry to pull up in a DeLorean with a Mr. Fusion strapped to the engine.

I watched the whole series years ago with my girlfriend who was a huge fan and the last episode was just shocking to me how it ended with Coop laughing at his reflection in the broken mirror. Lynch definately took his ball and went home but it was a hell of a way to go out.
j p
14. sps49
I thought Twin Peaks (and some other series) should've been structured like a novela- somebody should have the overall plot roughed out in some form, and a commitment to producing the ending episodes.

Most US TV series are run until it is uneconomical to produce the next season, due to either declining ratings or rising expenses. Twin Peaks was presented as the story of Laura Palmer's murder, with Agent Cooper dispatched for that case. This is a closed- ended story, and should've been presented that way. What we got was, after the murder was solved and Cooper hanging around without purpose, was crap filmed just to keep the show going to sell commercials. And it didn'tt work.

Novelas are planned with a beginning and end. Although there will be extra episodes to pad out the series length for a hit show, plotlines and arcs are usually resolved at the end. I wish somebody in Hollywod would greenlight something similar (but longer than a miniseries).

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment