Pop Dialectic: The return of Twin Peaks and the “cult” TV phenomenon

Last week, TV show Twin Peaks cult following created an enormous internet buzz when it was announced that the show would be returning in 2016 for a nine-episode season after an unprecedented 25-year cancellation period. Two of our writers weigh in on the potential benefits and consequences of bringing a dormant show back to life.

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Approach with caution

Chris Lutes

 

First and foremost, let me say that I couldn’t be more excited that Twin Peaks is coming back. But I come to this happy news from a place of cautious optimism. Shows aren’t ‘un-cancelled’ very often—let alone after 25 years of being off the air, and looking at other shows that have come back after periods of cancellation, it’s hard not to be a little apprehensive about Twin Peaks’ prospects.

Shows that have been resurrected from cancellation have generally not lived up to the standards set by their original runs. Futurama started off strong when it came back for its seventh season, but quickly devolved into a pandering shadow of its former self. The fourth season of Arrested Development was intricately mapped out, but ultimately didn’t amount to anything—and limited cast availability constrained the show from being what made it so great in the first place. Community’s sixth season on Yahoo’s new streaming service hasn’t begun filming yet, but it’s lost so much of its original cast that at this point, it’s hard to still be hopeful.

Most of this isn’t the fault of the shows or their creators. They were beholden to impossible standards that they couldn’t live up to, even if the quality of the new season surpassed the previous ones. It will always be different from the show that people were once familiar with. Actors age, sets are broken down and rebuilt, and writing staffs retool. It’s impossible for a show’s voice to stay the same, especially when it has been away as long as 25 years.

Part of the problem is that in the years between cancellation and renewal, there’s nothing new coming from the show, so fan communities have nothing to do but endlessly trade quotes and memes from previous seasons or pick apart any new details about its return. They work themselves up into a fervor and build an echo chamber of how they perceive the show and what their expectations are for the future. If the finished product deviates from what they have in their head, they become disappointed. This kind of build-up puts shows in an impossible double-bind: if they deviate too much from the tone and plot of the original series, then they’re not making the show that fans fell in love with anymore, as in the case of Arrested Development. If they stay too close to the original story, then they aren’t breaking any new ground and there was really no reason for the show to come back in the first place, as with Futurama.

The common denominator with these shows is their cult following, and showrunners are tempted to pander to this demographic, because ultimately, without these fans, the show wouldn’t be coming back at all. The problem is that fans often don’t know what’s best for a show, but show-runners feel a certain obligation to give the people what they want. This can result in a returning show resting on its laurels by cheaply calling back its most popular moments from previous seasons (again, Arrested Development) or devolving into plots that have no purpose beyond fan service.

I’m confident that this won’t be the case with Twin Peaks. This seems vital: It ended on one of the biggest television cliffhangers of all time, and one of the main characters even says, “See you in 25 years,” while looking directly at the camera. Co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost have learned from the mistakes of the show’s uneven second season, and neither of them seems like the type of showrunner who would be pressured into fan service—Lynch especially. A nine-episode limited series gives them exactly enough room to build a new story without any room for filler. On top of that, this will be the first time Lynch has directed anything substantive since the mid-2000s. With prospects like these, it’ll be a long wait until 2016. Until then, see you at the black lodge.

Give the fans what they want

Eric Noble-Marcs

Campy, dark, and deeply weird, Twin Peaks was wildly successful in its first season before declining ratings prompted its early and polarizing demise in 1991. However, this was far from the end of the Twin Peaks story. The show has proven to be one of the most enduring programs of the period. The more time that passed following the show’s cancellation, the more fans clamoured for another chapter—even in the face of writer-director David Lynch’s frequent and persistent refusals. After nearly 25 years, the fans have finally gotten their wish. On Monday, Twin Peaks was confirmed to be returning to the small screen in 2016 for an nine-episode mini-series. Each episode will be directed by Lynch and written by both him and original co-writer Mark Frost.

As I’m a fan, I’m obviously ecstatic about the return of Twin Peaks, but I don’t share the reservations that some fans have expressed about its continuation. Twin Peaks isn’t the first show to rise from the grave, and in his half of the Pop Dialectic, Chris Lutes touched on a variety of resurrected TV shows from Arrested Development to Futurama to Community. What’s interesting is that none of these shows were incredibly successful to begin with during their original television run. Also common to nearly every one of the returning shows is the presence of a cult following: A relatively small but incredibly loyal fan group. It’s important to note that none of the ‘big’ shows of the ’90s, shows like Friends, Seinfeld, or Frasier, have been resurrected since their endings. By in large the extensive fan bases of these shows have been seemingly content to settle with their impressive legacies—although many Seinfeld fans would prefer a do-over on the polarizing trial that closed out the series—lest they be tarnished by ill-advised revivals. It’s the ‘little shows that could’ that are not allowed to die, for better or for worse.

There are multiple reasons for this. For one, popular shows are generally given ample time to exhaust their writers’ creative drive. Seinfeld had nine seasons to entertain its viewers, Friends had 10. In contrast, due to their limited followings cult shows are prone to untimely and unsatisfying cancellations. Twin Peaks notoriously ended on what Chris described as “one of the greatest cliffhangers in TV history.” With this in mind, who can fault the fans of Twin Peaks and countless other shows for longing for closure?

In addition, the issue with mainstream TV shows is that their fans are generally drawn from a wide demographic and are subsequently difficult to mobilize. People from every walk of life watched Seinfeld—some religiously, others casually. This made it hard to concentrate fans around a particular movement. However, cult followings are by definition devoted and obsessive. The inclusion of Twin Peaks’ first two seasons on Netflix also aided the growth and mutation of this cult movement. Though comparatively small, the fan base is more likely to voice concerns on the internet and other social forums—and, ultimately, campaign harder for the return of beloved shows. So why deny them the opportunity to extend the lifespan of the prematurely perished shows they’ve fought for?

Whatever the reason, the return of Twin Peaks—and shows like it—has broad implications for the future of television. Never before has a TV show that has been dead for so long risen from the ashes. Its return makes one question if any show is really dead, if we’re blessed (or doomed) to live in a world where the story of our beloved TV heroes never ends. What the return of Twin Peaks does tell us is that anything is possible, even when a show’s been off the air for nearly 25 years. Twin Peaks’ following never stopped growing and in the end, Lynch and Frost delivered. As for the show itself, it will most likely be like everything David Lynch has ever made: Genius, a trainwreck, or some combination of the two. It will undeniably be interesting. Your move, Firefly.

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