From Twin Peaks to American Gods: how strangeness has bled into primetime TV.
We are living strange days: A reality TV celebrity and real estate mogul is the 45th president of the United States. The King of the Netherlands revealed he has been leading a secret second life as a commercial airline pilot for the past 21 years and an intergalactic space lord won 249 votes in a national election in the UK. With such odd events happening in the real world, it is not a stretch to think about returning to the Black Lodge 25 years later or to entertain the idea of an ancient goddess swallowing a middle-aged man with her vagina in the middle of a sex scene from one of the most acclaimed TV shows of the year.
Eccentric TV productions seem to be reaching a high point with the return of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel ‘American Gods’ to the small screen. Both were well received by the critics and the public: Bryan Fuller’s take on Gaiman’s mythological world was renewed for a second season, while the two-hour premiere of Twin Peaks’ long-awaited third season/reboot received a five-minute standing ovation at Cannes.
However, this moment of glory in the history of television has been nearly 30 years in the making and it entailed a string of short-lived shows for Fuller and an alleged booing after the screening of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me at the very same film festival for Lynch. Its roots can be traced back to 1990 and its creeping influence can be found in different shows produced in the following decades, from The X-Files to Black Mirror.
It all started in a small fictional town in the American Northwest. Mark Frost’s and David Lynch’s serial drama about the mysterious murder of the local homecoming queen, Laura Palmer, premiered on April 8th, 1990 on ABC. Against all odds, the unusual show quickly gained popularity and earned 14 Emmy nominations and Golden Globe for Best TV series. 27 years later, it is still considered one of the best shows of all time and its cult following remains faithful and passionate.
What set Twin Peaks apart from every other show was its weirdness. The murder mystery-cum-soap drama blended the ordinary and familiar with offbeat humor, surreal elements and unsettling strangeness – dancing dwarves, garmonbozia and doorways to alternate dimensions – and it set the foundations of the tone, style, and tropes of future TV series.
As Matt Zoller Seitz points out, the return of Twin Peaks draws a narrative full circle: “We truly are back where we started. The arty, boundary-breaking drama as we now know it wouldn’t exist without Twin Peaks. Everything from The Sopranos to American Horror Story owes it a debt”.
It’s true: it generated narrative tropes like the death of a young woman as a triggering incident – the starting point of shows like The Killing, Top of the Lake, Broadchurch, True Detective and even Veronica Mars – or the lurking evil in a suburban town full of secrets – found in Desperate Housewives and modern-day Archie adaptation Riverdale; while its cinematic visual style allowed shows outside the realm of sci-fi or fantasy, like The Sopranos, to explore the psychological depths of its characters through dream sequences with talking fish.
However, it was its uncanny tone that truly opened the doors to new possibilities in TV. It gave way to the successful paranormal drama The X Files (1993) – which made a star out of David Duchovny after he played the cross-dressing FBI Agent Denise Bryson in Twin Peaks. It has been quoted as inspiration by Fringe writers and creators Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and J. J. Abrams and it marked a precedent for shows that left their audiences uneasy and/or confused, yet craving for more, a principle which helped establish Lost (2004) and American Horror Story (2011).
The creators and writers of Netflix’s Stranger Things, twins Matt and Ross Duffer, also wrote for Wayward Pines, a mystery thriller in which a Secret Service agent investigates the disappearance of two fellow agents in a seemingly idyllic small town, and showrunner Noah Howley includes a creepy and unexplainable entity constantly showing up, a psychic limbo and an unreliable narrator in Legion.
Concurrently, Bryan Fuller’s career started dabbling in a surreal territory with Wonderfalls and its talking animals (2004) – canceled after one season – and his Burtonesque mystery comedy Pushing Daisies (2007) – which lasted two seasons. But it was with Hannibal (2013) that he nailed down his trademark visual style for representations of violence, nightmare and hallucination sequences and use of symbolic animal entities.
The appeal and merits of these eerie and baffling shows can also be understood by their avant-garde heritage. Their interest in dreams and the psychological dimension of the characters stems from the influence of Surrealism and Dadaism. They pick up the surrealist tradition of creating unnerving, illogical images with unexpected juxtapositions, and reclaim some Dadaist values by rejecting logic and reason while championing nonsense and irrationality.
Twin Peaks’ triumphant return and American Gods’ success are the result of the creative freedom that the former provided to TV shows after its original run, and the sometimes subtle, but persistent trend of incorporating the surreal and the uncanny in new narratives has helped audiences acquire a taste for weirdness (or at the very least, be able to accept it and broaden their suspensions of disbelief).
Beyond the fascination and intrigue they may cause, weird TV shows have been able to – in true avant-garde fashion – depict and deconstruct contemporary culture and have allowed us to explore complex issues using absurdity as a vehicle. From the path that Twin Peaks laid down nearly 30 years ago, more refined expressions of surreal TV have developed, leading up to series like American Gods: shows that, through all their oddities, compel their viewers to question their own values, beliefs, and sense of reality.