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A history of Invitation To Love, the soap opera within Twin Peaks

David Lynch’s cult show was a meta-exploration of the medium of TV itself – and this soap opera is the show all its characters adored

Blue satin. A beautifully manicured hand reaches into a white envelope and delicately places a card atop its folds. “‘Invitation to Love’” a voice booms over swelling music.  “Each day brings a new beginning and every hour holds the promise of an Invitation to Love.” A hulking diamond ring flashes beneath soft studio lighting as the beautiful, disembodied hands move out of frame.

And so each episode of Twin Peaksshow-within-a-show, Invitation to Love, begins. The brainchild of David Lynch and Mark Frost, Twin Peaks first aired in April, 1990, was cancelled in 1991 due to poor ratings, and revived 25 years later in 2017 for Twin Peaks: The Return. In case you aren’t a fan of the cult show, the programme follows the investigation of FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) into the murder of a beautiful all-American teen, Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, Washington. At a time when American television fell into only a few formulaic genres, Lynch and Frost’s deeply complex, philosophical, and often dizzying series broke the mold. Heady genre-defying shows like True Detective, Dark, or Mr. Robot simply would not exist without Twin Peaks. But what really set the show apart was its self-awareness – for all its seeming rejection of classic TV motifs Twin Peaks was, in many ways, an exploration of the medium of television itself. Nowhere is this made more apparent than in its Invitation to Love device.

Constantly blaring from the shoddy TV sets of characters like Shelly Johnson, Lucy Moran, Nadine Hurley, Leland Palmer, and Dr. Jacoby, the announcer of Invitation to Love invites its viewers into a glamourous, parallel world – where things are somehow more simple than the goings-on of their deceptively-sleepy Northwestern town. With just six minutes of screen time in season one, if you blinked you might have missed co-creators Lynch and Frost’s nod to the Shakespearean play-within-a-play trope. But in spite of its brevity, Invitation to Love is an important, and often overlooked, aspect of Twin Peaks, one that was left out of the show’s return in 2017.

It’s Lucy, the donut and coffee carrying receptionist of the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department, who summarises the complex plot of the soap opera to audience, one that simultaneously parodies and parallels the inner workings of the town. In the fifth episode of the first series she explains to Sheriff Truman: “Thanks to Jade, Jarrod decides not to kill himself, and he's changed his will leaving the tower to Jade instead, but Emerald found out about it and seduces Chet to give her the new will so she can destroy it. Montana is trying to kill Jarrod at midnight so the Tower will belong to Emerald and Montana, but I think she's going to doublecross him, and he doesn't know it yet. (Pause) Poor Chet.”  

Invitation to Love serves as an uncanny mirror to the surface plot of Twin Peaks, inserting a powerful meta element into scenes. For example, the first time it appears in episode three, season one, Shelley, a beautiful waitress abused by her violent husband Leo, watches the opening credits of Invitation to Love with a dejected look on her face. Suddenly, her lover, Bobby Briggs, her one chance at love and happiness, enters through the front door and kisses her passionately. This scene, along with several others throughout the show, seems almost incited by the presence of Invitation to Love, as though the television transmission somehow has some spooky control over the small town’s residents. “I think that watching television is a big part of people’s lives in this country and you very rarely see that treated in television.” explained Frost in an interview with People. Brad Dukes – a writer on Twin Peaks – even spoke about a scrapped storyline which would have involved the Invitation to Love actors coming to town for a promotional tour – which would’ve added an extra layer of meta-ness to the device.

“I think that watching television is a big part of people’s lives in this country and you very rarely see that treated in television” – Mark Frost

But to fully understand the importance of Invitation to Love, one must look to its filming process. The show-within-a-show was shot over a 24-hour period at the iconic Ennis House in Los Feliz, California. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1923, the property is no stranger to the big and small screen having been used in Blade Runner, The Day of the Locust, the House on Haunted Hill, and the series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among others. “It sits on a hillside overlooking all of Los Angeles,” remembers Erika Anderson, who played both the demure Jade, and her evil twin Emerald. “It was a stunning place to work.”

The cast remembers the day fondly as one of laughter and experimentation with Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost behind the camera. For Peter Goetz, aka Invitation to Love’s suicidal patriarch Jared Lancaster, the filming was a happy reunion. “I’ve known Mark since he was a baby,” Goetz explains. Lance Davis, who played the wormy bespectacled Chet, also had a connection to Frost. “His father (Warren Frost, who also plays Twin Peaks’ Doc Hayward) directed me while I was in grad school at the University of Minnesota, and Mark was kind enough to remember me and give me the part.”

The actors played to a conventionally soapy script laced with surrealist dialogue. All the traditional day time drama elements were in place: a spurned lover in the form of Chet, a family inheritance up for grabs, an evil twin, a bad boy outlaw with a winning smile manifested in Rick Giolito’s character Montana. But certain lines snap the viewer out of the familiar formula, like Emerald’s command: “Chet, shut up and get Montana a drink! He must be absolutely parched after 18 months in the rainforest.”

However, it is the actors’ improvisations that truly bring forth Invitation to Love’s campy surrealism. Subtle movements and bizarre reactions reveal a Lynchian awkwardness that seems to rain down from the surface plot of Twin Peaks. “At the end of one scene, a very important one in which my ‘daughter’ Jade, stops my character from killing himself,  I pick up her braid and look at her barrette.” remembers Goetz. “Suddenly, a mystery is introduced – the scene becomes entirely about that moment but no further explanation is given, and the screen fades to black.”

“Suddenly, a mystery is introduced – the scene becomes entirely about that moment but no further explanation is given, and the screen fades to black” – Peter Goetz

Apparently, Lynch himself was disappointed by this aspect of Invitation to Love. In a private interview with cinema academic and author of 1997’s The Passion of David Lynch, Martha Nochism, Lynch reportedly expressed surprise over Frost’s parodic treatment of Invitation to Love – something that was never his intention. Erika Anderson confirms, “I actually spoke to David after (the filming)  and he intimated to me that it wasn’t exactly what he would have done. It’s hard for me to figure out what he really meant by that but I think he might have thought it was a little too campy.”  

Lynch’s displeasure with Frost’s treatment of Invitation to Love might signal an artistic discrepancy between the creators’ visions of the show itself. For his part, Lynch has always held that in his mind, Twin Peaks is a television show like any other. During an interview with People magazine in 1990, Lynch stated, “I still don’t see what the great difference is, to me it’s a regular television show.” 24 years later, when The Guardian asked if Twin Peaks was a parodical exploration of the soap opera, he maintained “No, no, no, no, no. It is a soap opera.” So, whereas Frost perhaps wanted to highlight the differences between a run-of-the-mill television drama and Twin Peaks, Lynch might have wanted to use Invitation to Love for the opposite purpose.  

During Twin Peaks’ initial run, a large swathe of the public seemed to agree with Lynch. The show was wildly popular, and certainly not relegated strictly to the viewership of academics and arthouse film buffs – everyone from blue-haired little old ladies to bikers gathered around dive bar TV wanted to know the answer to the show’s tagline “Who killed Laura Palmer”, itself a direct reference to Dallas’ “Who shot J.R.” Articles on Twin Peaks appeared alongside shows like Dynasty and Days of Our Lives in the pages of Soap Opera Digest.

The brilliance of Invitation to Love as a device, is that it at once highlights the similarities and the differences between itself as a representation of the soap genre and Twin Peaks. This perhaps, is a direct result of Lynch’s and Frost’s conflicting visions.

“The brilliance of Invitation to Love as a device, is that it at once highlights the similarities and the differences between itself as a representation of the soap genre and Twin Peaks”

Invitation to Love undoubtedly serves to reveal the stereotypically soapy aspects of Twin Peaks, the most obvious of which is that of the evil twin; Emerald and Jade are uncanny mirrors to identical cousins Maddie and Laura Palmer. In fact, a scene from Invitation to Love, in which Jade confronts her father plays in the background during Maddie’s first scene. Jade’s voice can be heard from the television saying “Daddy, it’s Jade. Let me in. I know you’re in there” as Maddie walks in to meet Leland Palmer. Furthermore, the white-eyed doppelgangers central to season two, are little more than Lynch-ified manifestations of the evil twin trope. Even the show’s name echoes the soapy premise central to its plot.

But unlike in Twin Peaks, appearances in Invitation to Love, and in most soaps for that matter, are never deceiving. Evil twin Emerald has wild hair and wears a trashy dress while good twin Jade sports a modest braid and clothing to match. The scoundrel Montana wears a leather jacket and is almost never seen without sunglasses, while nerdy Chet has comically large glasses and a snappy bowtie. Compare this characters like Audrey in Twin Peaks, who in spite of her sultry attire and mannerisms is in fact one of the purest figures in the show. In fact almost nothing is as it seems in all of Twin Peaks.

Taking this into account, it seems Lynch was being coy when he asserted that Twin Peaks was simply another soap opera. In a move characteristic to the auteur, he took something familiar and corrupted it, turning the mundane into the magical.