TWIN PEAKS is probably the most important television show of the 1990s, its byzantine exposition and use of dream logic made it the most watched TV show week-after-week for the better part of a year. Even after the series’ decline and demise its dark tone and mysterious aesthetic helped create the idea of Event Television, and birthed copycats for years. But for all of Twin Peaks’ lauded experimentalism and high-art aspirations, the public—and even some hardcore aficionados—forget that a big part of its formula is borrowed from the basest broadcast trash: soap operas.
Twin Peaks is the child of Dallas and General Hospital, with The Twilight Zone as its wary but encouraging stepfather. If you pay attention too intently, too seriously, Twin Peaks is a nightmare full of monsters and unfathomable imagery, where inscrutable gods rain mayhem upon a small town, leaving misery in their path. If you put the show in context as an ongoing serial drama with an ensemble cast of impeccable beauties, though, its oversized characters and tangle of quick-changing wacky plots, the [original] series adds up to a pretty frothy but conventional soap opera. There isn’t a plot that Twin Peaks used that hasn’t been done by some network or premium drama.
When asked by The Guardian if his show was a parody Lynch obstinately replied, “No, no, no, no, no. It is a soap opera. Soap operas grow out of life and because they’re continuing stories you get to go deeper into the characters’ lives.”
Similarly, The Simpsons, for all its vaunted skewering of cliché TV tropes, works very well as a conventional family sitcom. What made the FOX show stand out in 1989 was the high quality of the writing, with the novelty of animation sprinkled atop. Matt Groening has said on episode commentaries that he didn’t want to exploit the latitude offered by cartoons in a way that’d prevent viewers from identifying with the family and their world. As bright and colorful as The Simpsons is, there isn’t much Looney Tunes-style reality defying, or Flintstones-esque anachronistic mise-en-scene (at least, not much of that at the height of the series run).
Fans of Groening’s LIFE IN HELL comics know he’s an astute observer of parent-child dynamics and the stress of modern life. Simpsons stories and humor come from observations of a very contemporary family (based loosely on Groening’s own home) and the community they live in, instead of recycling the bland jokes found on Family Matters, or the sunny platitudes of The Cosby Show.
Twin Peaks and The Simpsons seem wildly different from each other, as certainly as they were different from anything else on television in the early 1990s. Where the two
programs grow together though, are their well rendered casts. The leads in Twin Peaks and The Simpsons are compelling and iconic, they’re designed to be understood quickly. We can identify Bart’s spiky silhouette and Cooper’s mannequin-like beauty, Marge’s beehive hairdo and Audrey’s classic glamour on sight. It’s the minor cast members though who carry the weight of bringing their small towns to life, making an impact and remaining memorable after just a few appearances. Springfield would feel barren if Moe’s Bar didn’t have a constant handful of worn down patrons, or if Grandpa Simpson didn’t have a Jasper to gripe with. Bit players, like Disco Stu, Prof. Frink or Hans Moleman, make Springfield come alive when they kick in a punchline and fill out the scene backgrounds. Similarly, the malevolence acting upon Twin Peaks wouldn’t stab with such intensity if the cast didn’t feel not just quirky, but like real people you might know.
Both David Lynch and Matt Groening come from “Small Town America.” Lynch was
born in Missoula, Montana, but moved around the Midwest a lot due to his father’s job with the Federal Department of Agriculture. He went to college in Philadelphia, PA, a culturally rich city with deep working class roots, where he lived in a rough industrial part of town. Groening grew up in Portland, Oregon when it was still a sleepy burg surrounded by the logging industry. His father, a graphic designer, and mother, a teacher, exemplified the practical application of creativity for their era. Matt didn’t leave home until after college, relocating at age 23 to Los Angeles.
Lynch’s public persona is that of a wide-eyed innocent, affecting a strong midwestern accent that contrasts the tropes associated with a contemporary artist or Hollywood elite. He dresses with cartoon-character-like consistency in a neat but drab black suit, hair puffed in a dated pompadour. Lynch is reluctant to talk about the personal meaning of his films, and once famously stalled an interview after declaring “Eraserhead is my most spiritual film,” then refused to elaborate why.
Aside from their very different aesthetics, Groening and Lynch really aren’t that different. Both were Boy Scouts. Their art is grounded in an affectionate recollection of the small town America they grew up in—and both critical of it too, the shows share a core interest in examining the values and failings of the family in community life. Both creators never stop working. They are auteurs able to wield tremendous power over their projects even with creative partners and within the cautious Hollywood system. They’re clearly the force behind what we see after their name comes on screen.
It’s 2017, and this year Twin Peaks has returned to television as a premium event with David Lynch still the central creative force and final word. Interestingly, it is competing against other prestige television such as Game of Thrones and Mr. Robot,
the very kind of must-see event shows he laid the groundwork for 25 years ago. Matt Groening is also creating new television, having spent the past year developing DISENCHANTMENT, a cartoon that sounds like a richer take on Rocky & Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales. It will premiere on Netflix late next year. He’ll be reentering a field now filled with a generation of creators who were inspired by him, like Bob Wakberg’s Bojack Horseman, Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe, and Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time. Goening and Lynch’s strong personal vision, and restless creative energy suggests that both are still innovative, and that they’re going to be well suited to the contemporary landscape they helped create.