It spurred the Enlightenment Age for the sitcom era
Breakfast can start revolutions. It’s widely believed that it was the cultural shift from alcohol to coffee that spurred the social, intellectual, and artistic movements known as the Age of Enlightenment. Similarly, in the early 1990s, it took a surreal, coffee-obsessed breakthrough series called Twin Peaks to kickstart a ground-roasted zeitgeist, one that would change breakfast on TV forever. Twin Peaks tells the story of a quirky FBI agent named Dale Cooper who arrives in the eponymous Pacific Northwest town to investigate the bizarre murder of local high school homecoming queen Laura Palmer. As the show unfolds, the seemingly straightforward mystery soon devolves into a dark, surreal—and often hilarious—nightmare filled with extra-dimensional demons, riddle-espousing giants, and women who talk to logs.
Twin Peaks was unlike anything that had been on network TV. The definitive “water cooler show,” it baffled viewers with its wacko characters and borderline dadaist plot twists. Much of this had to do with the show’s creator, legendary art-house weirdo David Lynch (himself a militant coffee connoisseur, and maker), who, with help from TV veteran Mark Frost, imbued Peaks with his trademark mix of horror and humor, as well as the show’s signature fixation: breakfast.
Breakfast is all over Twin Peaks. In almost every episode you’ll find some nod to the most important meal of the day. There are doughnuts, pies, griddle cakes (great with maple syrup and ham), as well as coffee, coffee, and more coffee, typically guzzled at near-toxic levels. To Cooper and the denizens of Twin Peaks, the ritual of eating is something more than a bodily necessity, or social convention. Breakfast is revered, preached, and fetishized. It’s even called upon as a crime-solving aid.
The breakfast of Twin Peaks is distinctly American—sugary, sweet comfort foods, endless refills of coffee—and plays into the show’s thematic exploration of the seedy underbelly of Norman Rockwell-esque America. A common presence in the show is food that, on the surface, is bright and immediately pleasure-giving, yet is also highly processed, sugary, or fatty. “Granulated happiness,” Lynch has said. They’re also the quintessential foods of noir, a film genre that Peaks draws on heavily. Diners often being the only places open 24 hours, keeping the minds of up-all-night detectives alert with sweets and stale coffee. Hyper-specific peculiarities of taste are often distorted to lyrical, cartoonish ends. Cooper requires his bacon “cremated,” his coffee “black as midnight on a moonless night.” In fact, Cooper’s obsession with “damn fine coffee” speaks to a kind of ’90s all-American optimism. He has a bold, go-getter attitude, but one that is offset by New Age curiosity—mirroring coffee’s dual role as a means of increased productivity as well as a gateway to more heightened levels of consciousness and creativity. The Double R, the ’50s-style diner where most of the show’s breakfasting takes place, like the coffeehouses of the Enlightenment era, provides a venue for social connection and stimulating thought, as well as a space where people from all walks can come together in the righteous pursuit of nosh.
Two decades later, with Twin Peaks set to return on Showtime in 2017, the show feels more relevant than ever. Not only can the aesthetic and spiritual influence of Twin Peaks be found in everything from the X-Files to Lost and True Detective, it also helped to usher in a new era of breakfast TV. Gone were the the bar-centric sitcoms of the ’80s, like Cheers, Archie Bunker’s Place, and Three’s Company, with its Regal Beagle Lounge. In their place arose a bright new epoch of shows primarily set in coffee shops, like Friends, Seinfeld, and Frasier.
This shift can be attributed to economics and class. Up until the mid-late ’80s, TV—sitcoms, especially—had been rooted in a mostly populistic, working-class medium. Characters tended to have blue-collar jobs: bartenders (Cheers), police officers (Hill Street Blues), cab drivers (Taxi). Series that portrayed upper-class worlds, like Diff’rent Strokes, tended to do so through the eyes of outsiders. But this was changing. The ’80s and ’90s also signaled the end of the TV of the Baby Boom, and “the Friends generation,” buoyed by new economic comforts and shifting social norms, tended to feature characters that reflected this. Unlike previous generations, young characters were less likely than ever to be married or have children, and could afford to kick it at a coffee shop for a few hours every day with friends.
Twin Peaks bridged this generational gap like no other show did at the time. It did so by “activating a nostalgia in the boomer generation” for an earlier time—“a semiotic wonderland” of American hallmarks like cherry pie, soap operas, and rockabilly guitar—while also drawing in a hip younger generation with its non-traditional storytelling, postmodern irony, and cynical undercurrent. It was the diner from Happy Days with a sinister twist, a way of gesturing towards nostalgia and simultaneously questioning its underpinnings. The past only looks airbrushed and idyllic from the future.
Twin Peaks was also different in that its director came from film, not TV. “I didn’t watch much TV as a kid and I don’t watch it now,” says Lynch. A major film director working in TV wasn’t as common back then as it is now. The show’s directorial vision and instincts were ingrained in a medium that allowed for a more open indulgence of its eccentricities without having to answer to a network, or commercial ad breaks. Film isn’t bound by half-hour scheduling blocks, and might therefore explain the narrative space Peaks allowed for characters to wax poetic on the majesty of coffee and pie for entire minutes of valuable primetime screen time.
As a result, much of the comedy and dramatic tension of shows after Twin Peaks were derived from the neuroses of anxious, caffeine-addled minds, rather than from the misgivings of intoxication. Nowhere was this changeover more apparent than Frasier. A spinoff of Cheers, Frasier literally leaves the old bar behind (across the country, as far away as possible—a deliberate choice by the producers, who were eager to portray Seattle’s burgeoning new coffee scene) in favor of the aptly named Café Nervosa. Frasier’s brother Niles contains shades of Agent Cooper (especially in terms of slightly OCD food orders), though he lacks Cooper’s cheerful, childlike wonder.
Expanding on what Twin Peaks had begun, characters’ quirky relationships to food became a TV mainstay. Take the sandwich freak-outs of Ross on Friends. Or, later, Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope’s worship of bacon and waffles on Parks & Recreation (whose showrunner, Michael Schur, has professed his longtime obsession with Peaks, and cites Cooper as the character he most wishes he would have created). Or Gilmore Girls’ coffee mania. Or Jerry Seinfeld, and his odd preoccupation with breakfast cereal.
Though Seinfeld debuted slightly ahead of Peaks, the two shows shared both a slew of actors and an attitude towards the importance of breakfast. Almost every other scene in Seinfeld takes place around a table (Monk’s Cafe, primarily), and plots were often centered around table etiquette, filled with mundane conversations on the daily absurdities of food. Like Peaks, its characters seemed driven to create an obsessive, social taxonomy of the minutiae of breakfast—whether eggs count as a lunch item, the risks of bringing your own maple syrup into a diner, or the dangers of flying grapefruit pulp.
Twin Peaks was onto something. Not just in TV, but in the culture at large. The dream of the ’90s—a decade defined by its prosperity, New Age optimism, and food culture—couldn’t have been more noticeable than it was with breakfast. A decade (the best ever?) that included “The Golden Age of Cereal,” the continued proliferation of “breakfast” morning news programs, and the coffee chain boom (started in the Pacific Northwest, obviously—something that Peaks was clearly tuned into).
“Every day, once a day, give yourself a present,” says Agent Cooper, early in Peaks’ first season. From then on, TV did just that.