If you find the dedicated fans of Twin Peaks strange — and are baffled and slightly unnerved by our euphoric reaction to the news that the 1990–91 ABC television series will return in 2016 for a nine-episode run on Showtime . . . we forgive you. Admittedly, there’s a lot of evidence to support your assessment.
Walk with me in an effort to explain the rise, fall, second rise, second fall, and perhaps final rise of one of the most critically acclaimed and indisputably divisive cult hits in television history.
To understand Twin Peaks, begin with its two creators. All too often, the show was referred to as “David Lynch’s Twin Peaks,” in unfairness to the equally vital hand of writer Mark Frost, a veteran television screenwriter and the author of several novels, including fictional adventures of Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.
Filmmaker David Lynch has been described as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” a man of seemingly contradictory passions for old Hollywood, small-town Americana, and the dark and disturbing pathologies of modern evil. His films before and after Twin Peaks are famous (and infamous) for surreal, intense, often fever-dream-like images and mood. Lynch, with composer Angelo Badalamenti providing the score, can make a coffee cup, empty hallway, or ceiling fan seem like the most menacing and unnerving object imaginable.
(In this short video, Badalamenti describes and reenacts their creative process — Lynch describing a scene and mood, and Badalamenti intuitively translating it into notes and music.)
The pair developed a concept for a show with a deceptively simple premise — a small town in the Pacific Northwest is shocked by the murder of the homecoming queen — that would allow Lynch’s cinematic visual instincts and Frost’s intricate plotting and eye for detail to run free. ABC, at that time the lowest-ranked of the big three television networks, was desperate enough to let the pair run free with near-complete creative freedom.
The pilot was filmed in Snoqualmie, Wash., and to hear the creative team tell it, a lot of pieces seemed to coincidentally fall into place. The late-winter weather and heavy fog added to the foreboding atmosphere. A malfunctioning, flickering light during a scene examining the body added the right tone of ominous menace. A confused actor misheard a line and answered the wrong question, and the actors improvised the awkward response. Perhaps most perfectly, the actor playing a ghostly villain — also one of the set decorators — was accidentally visible in a mirror during the closing scene.
“It was one of those serendipitous things where you really feel, some hands were at work here putting this together, so we’re just going to buckle our seatbelts and go for the ride,” Frost said on a documentary released with the series on DVD.
From its opening scenes, Twin Peaks was different from anything else on television in 1990. The first half-hour features the various residents of the town learning of Laura Palmer’s murder, and a particular standout performance came from Grace Zabriskie, playing Laura Palmer’s mother, with increasingly intense panic about her daughter’s failure to come home the previous night. Her reaction, when her husband tells her the police have arrived at his workplace and she realizes her worst fears are realized, her wail of grief is long, lingering, and unsparing. On most television dramas, a murder is a plot device; cynical detectives approach the crime scene and ask over coffee cups, “Whaddawegot?” Within the first 20 minutes, viewers understood, this was the most shocking and horrifying event in this town’s history.
Television critics went bonkers for the pilot in early screenings, and ABC cautiously ordered a seven-episode mini-season. On April 8, 1990, Twin Peaks debuted with an audience of about 35 million people — a strong debut indeed.
The creative team wove together quite a solid first season, full of twists and turns. A key element of the mysterious atmosphere was the notion that a lot of townspeople, even if they didn’t kill Laura, had some terrible secret they were hiding. They behaved increasingly shifty and suspicious with FBI special agent Dale Cooper poking around.
It is hard to overstate how hyped — and overhyped — the show became during that first season and the summer leading up to the second season. Fans threw parties to watch it, and the show became one of the country’s preeminent topics of water-cooler conversation, where viewers traded theories about the clues the day after. The national phenomenon is hard to picture in today’s balkanized media environment. Today’s television offers a plethora of offbeat, dark, and quirky shows, ranging from Lost to Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones, but in 1990, Twin Peaks stood alone, setting up an intense national guessing game.
The hype peaked in fall of 1990. Kyle McLaughlin hosted the season opener of Saturday Night Live, playing Agent Cooper in a parody sketch, and that week, Lynch was on the cover of Time magazine. A week later, the nation tuned in for the premiere of the 22-episode second season, eagerly awaiting answers to the Palmer murder and the first season cliffhanger: Who shot Agent Cooper?
To some fans, this is where things started to go wrong.
Lynch, directing the second season opener, began the episode with an interminably long scene, where Cooper tries to get a senile room-service waiter to understand that he’s been shot. He has a vision of an eight-foot-tall giant, who offers more cryptic clues. Viewers who hoped for quick answers were disappointed, and critics began complaining that the creators were stringing the audience along.
As the second season progressed and audience impatience mounted, ABC put increasing pressure on Lynch and Frost to finally identify the murderer. The creators finally revealed the killer about halfway through the second season, and while it undoubtedly made for some of the show’s most shocking and powerful episodes, it also illuminated that the creators had lured the audience into watching a quite different kind of story from what it expected.
With the network’s relentless “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” marketing, a good portion of the viewers thought they were playing in a giant, fun national game of “Clue” — was it Professor Plum in the Conservatory, or Leo the drug dealer at the Roadhouse?
[SPOILER ALERT. COME ON, YOU’VE HAD 25 YEARS TO WATCH.]
But the reveal was not “fun” to watch in the slightest, as viewers learned that Laura Palmer had been murdered by her father, Leland, in part to hide a long history of sexual abuse. Even worse, immediately after the revealing scene, Leland murdered Laura’s visiting cousin, in what is largely agreed to be one of the most disturbing and violent scenes ever to be seen on network television. The viewing audience demanded their answer, and got it, in a vivid lesson of “Be careful what you wish for.”
Actress Madchen Amick on the DVD describes the reaction: “As much as I heard, everywhere I went, ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ I don’t think anybody was very happy to find out who it was. They liked to want to know, not necessarily to know.”
The killer was brought to justice two episodes later, along with strong evidence that Leland’s demons were not merely metaphorical.
During the second season, Lynch went off to direct Wild at Heart and Frost went off to direct Storyville. Able lieutenants Harley Peyton and Robert Engels tried their best to keep the ship sailing, but even diehard fans will admit that most of the second half of season two is a mess, featuring plotlines quickly introduced and quickly abandoned, and way too many guest stars playing self-consciously weird characters. The creative team seemed to realize that with the Laura Palmer murder resolved, they didn’t know what to do with half the townspeople. Many of the television critics who built up and hyped the show as a cultural phenomenon tore into it with relish.
And then, with cancellation looming, it was as if someone had flicked a switch; Twin Peaks picked up momentum in its final three episodes. Agent Cooper is stalked by an old mentor who has gone insane and seems to know way too much about the supernatural phenomenon lurking in and around the town. The “weirdness” becomes less self-conscious and cutesy and more deliberately ominous — townspeople begin developing shaking hands, and the town’s doddering, seemingly senile mayor begins rambling that something is wrong, speaking over images of the town’s locations, silent and abandoned.
The final episode took all of the show’s quirky, ominous, dreamlike traits and turned them up to eleven, and the final scene of the final episode ranks as one of the greatest unresolved cliffhangers of all time. With one unnerving image in his own reflection in the mirror, our hero, Dale Cooper, appears to have utterly failed in his attempts to save all that he holds dear; instead of his saving the day, everyone in the town is in more danger from evil than ever before.
The prequel movie that followed, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, is a useful illustration of what happens when Lynch tells the story of Twin Peaks without the calming, clarifying influence of Frost: The coherence of the narrative rapidly deteriorates, the weirdness gets turned up to eleven, the lurid sex and disturbing violence are too much for most audiences, the powerful symbolic visuals pile up, and viewers are increasingly left asking what the hell they’re watching. Some contend that Fire Walk with Me is a misunderstood masterpiece, others find it an unwatchable train wreck.
For most fans of the show, the movie is a hard lesson that the creative energies of Lynch and Frost combined are greater than the sum of their parts. In interviews, Lynch is very hesitant to explain where his ideas come from or analyze what they mean; he seems to transmit the visions and dreams within his head directly onto the screen. Frost, meanwhile, brings encyclopedic knowledge and references within references, rewarding the obsessive viewer’s detective work: “A-ha, owls are a symbol of evil, death, and bad omens in Native American mythology,” “Ah, that element of the supernatural is borrowed from theosophy,” and so on.
So why has the show retained its dedicated fan base, passionate and perhaps crazy enough to attend an annual Twin Peaks festival, dressing up like characters and touring the filming locations around Snoqualmie? Why the demand for unused movie scenes to be released on the Blu-ray release? Why has the show garnered a tribute episode of Psych and seen its characters referred to in Fringe and pop up in a Scooby-Doo cartoon?
Michael Anderson, the actor who plays the surreal backward-talking Little Man from Another Place, said simply, “Twin Peaks is not a fiction.” Lynch, speaking at a film festival in 2013, concurred: “It’s a real place. All the characters are real. And the place is real.”
If these men mean that literally, there are some disturbing theological implications. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that something in the show’s dreamlike world seems to represent some truths about our real-life world more accurately than most fictional works on the large and small screen.
What truths are those? Appearances are deceiving. The world is a lot more than it seems at first glance, for good and for ill — simultaneously warmer and more loving and inviting than one would ever hope, and darker and more menacing and dangerous than we fear. In one of the DVD commentaries, Frost says that Twin Peaks was “really an examination of the nature of good and evil in people’s hearts, and how you don’t have to go to a big city or have famous characters to find that kind of divide. The human heart is capable of incredible goodness and remarkable darkness.”
With the writer, director, and at least some of the cast reuniting, there will be at least one more journey to that small town in the woods.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO and is probably a little too obsessed with Twin Peaks.