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  • “The Series That Changed Television”?Twin Peaks, “Classic” Status, and Temporal Capital
  • Ross P. Garner (bio)

At the launch of the Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery Blu-ray box set, actor James Marshall (who played the series’s James Dean–esque biker teen James Hurley) responded as follows when questioned about the program’s enduring appeal:

I think it’s a timeless quality that David Lynch has … there’s a lot of movies that stand the test of time because it seems to be that certain directors are gifted with a certain magnetism and a certain sense of visual poetry that most people don’t get. I think it’s true art. I think truth always stands the test of time.1

On the one hand, the themes employed here are familiar, as discursive bids for status and prestige—what Pierre Bourdieu names “symbolic capital”—made by a particular consecrating agent via associating Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990–1991) with culturally valued concepts such as authorship and, within the context of television, cinema.2 However, Marshall’s engagement with the term “classic” is also interesting, as this label is employed with increasing frequency across a variety of contexts relating to television at present. These range from everyday talk among audiences to continuity announcements introducing typically older rerun programming and promotional campaigns. Twin Peaks is a prime example of this, as recent articles announcing the program’s return on Showtime positioned the series as “cult classic drama.”3 Whereas cult is a concept that has generated much academic discussion, the mechanisms underpinning “classic” status have received less scholarly attention and, when this has occurred, have been approached in a problematic way. For example, although the UK BFI TV Classics range has seen academics outline the “classic” status of series including Edge of Darkness (BBC, 1985) and Doctor Who (BBC, 1963–1989, 1996, [End Page 137] 2005–), these studies typically demonstrate what Jason Mittell has named a “textualist assumption” by assuming that “classic” status can be objectively identified by analyzing the program itself.4 Such approaches overlook how the term “classic television” can be analyzed “as [a] discursive practice[,] … as a property and function of discourse” that becomes meaningful according to the requirements of multiple interpretive communities—a point noted elsewhere in some overlapping discussions of televisual “golden ages.”5 Through adopting a discursive approach, this essay challenges text-based understandings of “classic” television by considering how Twin Peaks has been industrially positioned as “classic TV” in paratextual sources produced for the Blu-ray release in 2014 and to announce the program’s forthcoming return.

The discussion also draws on Bourdieu’s ideas concerning field and capital to argue that Twin Peaks’ “classic” status arises from consecrating agents making appeals on behalf of the program to forms of symbolic and/or temporal capital.6 “Temporal capital” here refers to the length of time that Twin Peaks has spent within the televisual field, and so it differs from Matt Hills’s use of the term, which concerns the status that TV studies scholars accrue from being up to date and debating new programs and technologies over historical equivalents.7 In contrast, this essay argues that Twin Peaks’ “classic” status is constructed by discursive appeals to longevity and an enduring reputation—discourses that frequently recur in previous studies of TV “classics.”8 Straight away, though, two possible criticisms to this approach require addressing: first, I am not arguing here that TV shows generate “classic” status independently and so demonstrate agency. Instead, I posit that Twin Peaks’ reputation arises from discursive statements proffered by agents operating within the TV field at specific sociohistorical moments, which bestow symbolic and temporal capital. Second, although this essay focuses on paratexts, I am not arguing for a complete rejection of the text. Both Mittell and Hills have rightly discussed “text functions” and how audience subcultures, including academics, produce textual readings to support certain classifications.9 Such constructions of the text do, however, need to be read reflexively to recognize the discursive trajectories through which such classifications arise.

The official press release for the Twin Peaks Blu-ray set promised to potential buyers “hours of never-before-released material that dives...


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pp. 137-142
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