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Audrey Horne

How Twin Peaks set the standard for TV aesthetics

Vintage knits, chocolate bunnies and moody visuals: David Lynch and Mark Frost’s televisual otherworld resonates across years of small screens

That desolate open road with the washed-out welcome sign; the zig-zagged, abstracted oblivion of the Red Room; towering peaks swamped in swirling mist: chances are that you’ve spotted these iconic visual hallmarks popping up on your FB timeline, each tastefully-cropped cover photo and curious meme signposting the imminent return of TV’s quintessential cult phenomenon, Twin Peaks.

Despite this steady salvo of nostalgia worship, the allure and mystique of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s endlessly influential series remains resilient to the cruel whims of televisual time. Aside from being a masterfully surrealist, neo-noir melodrama distilling the hidden doom of modern America via esoteric symbology and batshit plot twists, never before had unease been translated on the small screen in such a visually appealing way. Still very much commanded via a host of S3 teasers, the overarching – and for some, pretty obsessive – appeal of Twin Peaks stems from the execution of carefully-crafted aesthetic principles.

Here, we unwrap the plastic to see what made the serial drama that transformed the landscape of modern TV – from The X-Files and The Sopranos, to Mad Men and Bates Motel – forever.

THE COLOUR PALETTE

The neon green title credits and a broader pastoral backdrop gives Twin Peaks a perfectly jarring air from the off. A textbook example of the Lynchian “state of confusion” is the clash between fluorescence and muted brown and sepia hues, which sets the scene for the ill-fated town’s main locations, such as the Palmer's house and the Great Northern Hotel.

As Kubrick wielded vibrant shades like a scythe, colour palettes often serve as a storytelling device of Lynch’s. On Twin Peaks, the use of soft red tones were used to create an unsettling sense of warmth and homeliness at odds with the constant menace lurking in the underbelly (check how the optimism of Twin Peaks High School’s vivid, modernist tones heavily conflicted with the grim unreality beyond). Having said “when the contrast is great, the elements stand out”, Lynch ensured the show’s rich yet subdued colour palette was kept to, even going as far to oversee the network transfer of the finished programmed from 35mm to ensure those tones weren't altered out of transfer from the print.

Best realised in many two-tone clashes of light and shade, warm and cold, cherry-pie red and growing darkness, Twin Peaks’ stylised colour contrasts – like the ageless battle of good and evil – complemented each other. The influence of Lynch’s brooding, limited palette here is vital to its expansive aesthetic, informing everyone from Wes Anderson to Jean-Pierre Jeunet on the big screen, to the sombre, almost mahogany palette of The Sopranos, the heavy atmosphere and tonal doom of the X-Files, the muted browns and grays of the late Eisenhower-era in early Mad Men and the oppressive brown, beige, rust and green of Bates Motel.

THE FASHION

Envisioning the armies of Log Ladies at the Twin Peaks-themed fancy dress parties come May 21, almost every main character carried with them a distinct physical presence. Guided by the original vision of the show’s pilot costume designer Patricia Norris, Sara Markowitz married ultra-90s slacker wear, retro elegance and brilliantly bizarre pastiche to create an odd yet cohesive ensemble.

From Audrey Horne’s iconic schoolgirl-cum-40s femme fatale look and Dale Cooper's crisp suit, to Nadine’s offbeat, one-eyed cheerleader get-up, Norris and Markowitz made sure the past and present, effortlessly cool and the decidedly outlandish co-existed in a town that, despite reflecting certain trends of the burgeoning, Northwest-derived counterculture, could only ever truly be Twin Peaks. A realm was born where the likes of the Log Lady, Mr Tojamura and David Duchovny's Denise Bryson rubbed shoulderpads with work-a-day characters such as Shelly Johnson and Sheriff Harry S. Truman.

But of course, it’s those Autumnal flannels, plaid and denim looks that carries its status as a seminal small-screen champion of thrifty fashion. Having said, “They were practical, hard-working folks whose money was not spent on expensive clothing. I felt they shopped at local Goodwill stores or at most, Horne’s Department Store. Perhaps they even made their clothing,” Markowitz would help elevate lumberjack chic, paving the way for myriad loose slacker styles of Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life and – most tellingly of all – early Friends. With Nancy Steiner (Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides) on board as costume designer for S3’s revival, a few familiar vintage styles are all but guaranteed to return.

CHERRY PIES AND A FISH...IN THE WHAT?

From glazed rings to freshly-squeezed orange juice, Ben and Jerry Horne's decadent tastes, Double R Diner’s unsurpassable cherry pie, that scene featuring Audrey and a cherry stem and the above-average caffeinated beverages, food and drink plays a deceptively significant role throughout Twin Peaks. Beyond the obvious connotations of gluttony, seduction and reckless abandon, they operate as both thematic and visual signifiers of blind escapism; edible distractions from the much darker bigger picture.

Whether you look to Karen’s ziti, Johnny Cakes and the double-dealings in Artie Bucco’s Vesuvio restaurant in The Sopranos to the smokescreen of Los Pollos Hermanos in Breaking Bad and the marked relationship between the perception of power and sheer alcohol intake in Mad Men (whose prop master Ellen Fruend hired a professional chef to ensure the show’s food was always 100percent), Twin Peaks laid the groundwork for how much symbolic currency food and drink holds in TV where corruption and avarice fuel the main narrative. In these worlds, where there’s darkness and greed, there sure as hell is going to be a lot bingeing as a means to either deflect adversity or heighten it.

While the fish in the percolator scene and Calhoun Memorial Hospital being deemed a dangerous place due its inferior food are examples of Lynch presenting absurdity and almost fetishistic delusion respectively, Twin Peaks’ curtain call “Beyond Life and Death” best captured how, when push comes to shove in the Black Lodge, damn fine coffee is rendered totally obsolete – a token of worldly diversion that carries with it no use when face-to-face with pure evil. Visually, with its close-ups of perfect cherry pie and wide shots of countless donuts, the rife symbolism of food across Twin Peaks proves a potent avatar of all-American self-deception. And at a more innocent level, Dale Cooper’s coffee dependence is often – just like, say, Lorelai and Rory's obsession with food in Gilmore Girls – a charming means to focus on the simpler things beyond the brouhaha.

ANGELO BADALAMENTI’S SOUNDTRACK

Music has almost always played a marked role in Lynch’s work. Where Toto’s lavish soundtrack for Dune fared better than the film, and Peter Iver’s industrial soundscapes helped define the stalking menace of Eraserhead, Angelo Badalamenti flourished in the realms of subtlety and subversion on the TP soundtrack. As he weaved calm with malevolence and melancholy with bliss, he subverted notions of what defined pop and parody, particularly in a small-town world that Lynch insisted was a soap opera.

From that very first twanged chord of the show’s famous opening sequence, Badalamenti contributed to the show’s visual aesthetic, and influenced countless artists. It reverberates through Mark Snow's mysterious soundtrack to The X-Files and the symphonic brood of Chris Bacon's Bates Motel, and Carter Burwell’s close collaboration with the Coen Brothers on Fargo. Now, any time you hear a suggestive jazz cue, menacing synth chord progression or a theme that uses harmonic suspension, there’s a fairly strong chance it can be traced back to the veteran composer.

SET, SPACE & CINEMATOGRAPHY

“The shots of trees blowing in the wind, for instance. I mean, I don’t think people had ever seen that on network television, just the trees blowing. It’s like: What the hell is that?” - The Sopranos’ David Chase on Twin Peaks

The sheer filmic majesty of Twin Peaks' set design and cinematography is a real high point in the visual lexicon of modern TV. But, inimitable and influential in equal measure, Lynch and Frost’s vision of a small logging town possessed by an unknowable force would never have come to such fruition without the show’s production designer Richard Hoover and cinematographers Ronald Víctor García and Frank Byers, running with their own aesthetic savvy and explorative inclinations.

Avoiding the norm of safe medium shots and standard, multi-camera set-ups, Twin Peaks melded stunning compositions and broad exterior shots with long, single-camera takes and the all but Hitchcockian use of shadows and light to signal major doom. There’s the low-angle, recurring staircase shots and ceiling fan motif of Sarah Palmer's visions and the skilfully uncomfortable opening to S2E1. Inspired by the wider lenses and longer takes of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Byers said Lynch “wanted a warm look, because he wanted all of this evil to come from a warm setting.”

It was those otherworldly realms dislocated from space and time that ensured Twin Peaks’ cult status blossomed. One-Eyed Jacks, the Black Lodge and Bang Bang Bar were extradimensional spaces with slow-motion cinematography, reverse-speak and imagistic textures, at odds with U.S shows like Cheers, Roseanne or Seinfeld. Twin Peaks’ cinematographers and set designers masterminded cryptic underworlds that would profoundly influence David Chase’s stellar dream sequences in The Sopranos, the slow-fades and Lynchian limbo scenes in True Detective and the Will Graham’s more surreal hallucinations in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal.

Throw in those low-angle shots that made early Heisenberg look huge and intimidating in Breaking Bad and denoted heroism in Mad Men, the slow-paced doom and leering shadows of Bates Motel and Fargo and that air of disembodied menace strewn throughout everything from The X-Files to Desperate Housewives, and it’s undeniable that Twin Peaks spearheaded a distinct, mood-driven visual identity that lives on in many modern, noir-inclined television shows.

THE NORTHWEST

The idyllic filming locations proved crucial to its sweeping aesthetic. As filming began in 1989, the landscape and ambience of Snoqualmie Valley thirty miles east of Seattle established a perfectly intangible no-man's-land, framed by fog, rain, wood and those famous snowy peaks.

Framed by this seemingly harmless, bucolic terrain, Dale Cooper’s first entrance shows the subtle diminishing of human control by the power of nature – a motif not entirely unlike the opening credits of The Shining. As with many of Lynch’s later creations, serenity and claustrophobia, just like beauty and darkness, are often interchangeable. Production designer Richard Hoover once said: The series is a celebration of the mystical in the midst of the organic woods of the north west with the repeated question: what really lies beneath the comfortable and banal reality of these characters?”

Many shows shot later in the Pacific Northwest didn’t embody the same stifling rural menace, but a few carried the torch. The first five seasons of The X-Files was shot in Vancouver; the brooding woods are as typical of Chris Carter’s seminal sci-fi drama as the enclosing Douglas fir forests of Lynch’s town. Likewise, in the first episode of The Killing, homicide detective Sarah Linden stumbles upon the dead body of an animal on the shores of a lake in the scenic woods of Seattle – echoing Twin Peaks’ Pete Martell’s early morning fishing trip against the backdrop of those famous icy peaks, only to find the body of Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic. As well as its broader aesthetic, the beauty of the surroundings conceals that something – possibly everything – is not quite right.

Twin Peaks will return on May 21 via Showtime