“Fire, Walk With Me”: David Lynch and the American Psyche

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[image credit: Twin Peaks, David Lynch, ABC Television]

As perfect as a great cup of black coffee, Twin Peaks debuted on American television screens on Sunday, April 8, 1990, when the pilot episode aired and soon captivated viewers with the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer.   Preceding Northern Exposure by a few months and The X Files by three years, David Lynch’s psycho-crime-mystery led the way at defining 1990s television as being populated with eccentrics, living quirky lives and surrounded by social dysfunction and political conspiracy.

Set somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, supposedly Washington state, Twin Peaks is the kind of town that could actually exist anywhere in America. Anywhere, that is, where there’s a quiet community, replete with all the trappings of “small town America,” including people with dark secrets that they would presume to keep hidden. Unfortunately for the denizens of this logging community of 51,000 plus, Laura’s byzantine connections to many with reputations to maintain, not to mention business and fortunes to protect, has left them vulnerable and anxious in the wake of her murder. Making things all the worse is the investigative team of Sheriff Harry S Truman (played by Michael Ontkean) and FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan), the former the epitome of honest and dogged law enforcement, the latter the embodiment of criminological acuity and Tibetan mysticism.

Together they set off on an infinitely nuanced yet compelling journey into the shadowy world of everyone whom Laura ever knew in her short life. It is a world in which a one-armed man, “Log Lady” and a sheriff’s deputy named “Hawk” each play a critical role at unraveling the mystery that was Laura Palmer.

Artistically, Twin Peaks is on a spectrum of Lynch’s work that includes Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990). These are stories that reveal an American society traumatized by its own excesses, in which law and order hides an irrepressible desire to rage at an affluent world where everything is consumable yet is completely bereft of meaning. Into that void is unleashed all of the hurt, envy, anger and disappointment that are an intrinsic part of the so-called American Dream.

For me, though, Twin Peaks defined my life in Tucson, AZ, where I had recently moved to from New York. I had a dumpy studio apartment at a joint called The Tucsonian, where I spent my Sunday evenings watching Agent Cooper pursue Laura’s killer with aplomb and a sense of humor, not raucous or sarcastic, but with the subtlety of a man who appreciates the complexities and absurdities of human nature. In the end, re-watching the entire series on Netflix, episode by episode, is like giving yourself a little present each day, like “a new shirt in a men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot, black, coffee.”

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