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the twin peaks effect: why tv loves a creepy town

Idyllic town, sinister underbelly, unexplained happenings. Twin Peaks created a genre.

by Caroline Corcoran
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20 May 2015, 8:40am

It can't be a coincidence, can it? Just as Twin Peaks gets set to return next year, the small, sinister town has become somewhat ubiquitous on our TV screens.

This week sees the arrival of Netflix's new dystopian original Between, set in fictional Canadian town called Pretty Lake where everyone over the age of 21 is dying and the government is clueless as to why. It's part horror, part fantasy: what teenager hasn't dreamed of a world without adults?

To try and contain whatever it is that's causing the deaths - which occur with no warning beyond a quick dribble of blood from the mouth - a boundary has been set up so that no one can go in or out of the town. Many of the people in authority are dead so the previously peaceful Pretty Lake has no boundaries; neighbours turning guns on each other, prisoners breaking out of jail, and a suggestion in episode one at least--against type, Netflix are only serving up one a week--that the whole place is about to descend into anarchic chaos.

Between drops on Netflix only a week after the much-hyped launch on Fox of Wayward Pines, the story of secret service agent Ethan Burke—played by Matt Dillon--who wakes up in hospital after a car accident in a town where he has been sent to find two of his missing colleagues.

Ethan is tended to by the disconcertingly Stepford "Nurse Pam"--possibly the last medical professional on earth you'd like to come at you with a needle--before being tipped off about his colleague's whereabouts mid-burger by a barmaid who then ceases to exist. He leaves his wife messages but she doesn't get them. Time seems to move in a different way. In Wayward Pines, even the sound of crickets isn't real: they're piped into the bushes via microphones and until you've seen that happen, we can't explain just how extreme the arm goosebumps will be.

Earlier this year, Sky Atlantic aired Fortitude, a huge A-list cast of a production featuring Christopher Eccleston, Sofie Grabol, Michael Gambon and Stanley Tucci which was set in an idyllic town at the end of the earth where everyone knew their role, society was at its most contented and guns were carried only to protect against the polar bears: there was no crime. Suddenly though, people were dying - sound familiar? - and no-one knew why. The Arctic setting might have been a new variant on the theme, but there was no doubt, Fortitude was very much part of the same genre.

Of course as the creepy town dominates our screens, its founding father looms just out of TV view, right there in the 2016 schedules. This week saw original Twin Peaks director David Lynch confirm on Twitter that he will be returning to the show following his withdrawal in April because he wasn't being paid enough "to do the script in the way I felt it needed to be done." When it looked like Lynch wasn't going to be involved, a campaign to #savetwinpeaks begun on social media and now he's back on board.

A major part of Twin Peaks' enduring appeal was that gap between the respectable small town veneer, and its secret-loaded underbelly, and though that trope might be having a moment right now, since Twin Peaks' first outing in the early 90s it's never really gone away. There's a reason Desperate Housewives lasted eight seasons, despite following a similar format for each one: polite families living in a suburban neighbourhood but with terrible dark secrets was something we couldn't get enough of. The format's been played with in shows like Lost, where the "town" is a different kind of idyll - in that case a desert island - but has the same amount of weird happenings, often of a supernatural kind, lurking just beneath the surface.

"How do I get out of here?" Ethan in Wayward Pines asks the town's sheriff - a guy who calmly licked his rum and raisin ice-cream as Ethan told him he'd found a decomposing body. "You don't," he's told.

As the newcomers catch up on the creepiness, David Lynch, it's over to you. 

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Text Caroline Corcoran