When it comes to television shows that changed the way episodic narratives are presented, Twin Peaks is right up there with the very best. The Sopranos is often credited as the masterpiece that combined the best of TV and cinema, but David Lynch was already presenting his own surreal answer to the urgent question: how can a television show reach the philosophical apotheosis of cinema without being hindered by the drawbacks of the medium? On the 31st anniversary of the show’s debut, we take a look at the history of the show and the things which make Twin Peaks one of the most influential television series of all time.
The result of a collaboration between the director of cult-classics like Eraserhead and American novelist Mark Frost, Twin Peaks would go on to redefine the television experience for good. Before the commencement of this monumental project, Frost worked on a police drama called Hill Street Blues and was hired to produce a biopic of Marilyn Monroe with Lynch. Although the project never really took off, they remained friends after that and were convinced by Lynch’s agent Tony Krantz to “do a show about real life in America— [Lynch’s] vision of America the same way [he] demonstrated it in Blue Velvet.”
Despite Lynch’s reluctance to venture into television, the duo decided to have a think about the project and decided to approach ABC with just an image of a body washing up on a lake’s shore and Frost’s concept: “A sort of Dickensian story about multiple lives in a contained area that could sort of go perpetually.” They pitched it as the intersection of a murder mystery and a soap opera, but Twin Peaks would go on to achieve much more, constantly challenging the voyeuristic expectations of the viewer. While Frost was responsible for most of the characters, Lynch focused on the development of Agent Dale Cooper because he felt they were very similar: “He says a lot of the things I say.”
Portrayed by Kyle MacLachlan, Agent Cooper acts as the interpreter who conveys the eerie atmosphere of Twin Peaks to the viewer. The show starts off with the premise of the unusual murder case of a young Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee), lulling us in with a false sense of familiarity but quickly jarring us with the dreamlike vision that we have come to associate with Lynch. In many ways, Frost keeps the show tethered to the mystery genre without letting it completely spiral into Eraserhead’s existential despair. Angelo Badalamenti’s brilliant score and the modernist symbolism of Twin Peaks elevated the show’s vision to new heights, keeping the viewer guessing what was going to come next in a completely unpredictable universe.
In the oneiric tradition, Lynch blurred the lines between dreams and reality by aiming his investigation towards the hidden recesses of the human psyche instead of the mundane details of the external world. By gazing inwards, the show’s questions become cosmic in nature. Through recurring symbols of trees, cherry pies, ducks and the inclusion of elemental forces like water and fire, Lynch successfully constructed a visual grammar with which the viewer slowly decoded the impenetrable mystery of Twin Peaks. As Agent Cooper says, “In the heat of the investigative pursuit, the shortest distance between two points is not necessarily a straight line.”
At the end of the day, Twin Peaks’ most significant achievement is its brilliant way of converting us into detectives as well. Unlike most mystery shows, it does not waste our time by forcing us to put two and two together in order to find a cleverly hidden four somewhere. To partially quote the great Latvian chess Grandmaster Mikhail Tal, Twin Peaks takes us “into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5” and it’s majestic. By the end, we are no longer asking the same questions that the show deceptively started with. Instead, we are forced to confront the limitations as well as the liberations of the human condition. Twin Peaks ends up becoming a spiritual journey to the incomprehensible world of dreams, which is somehow more real than the reality we know.
Although the show was cancelled in 1991, Lynch directed a bizarre follow-up film in 1992 titled Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which divided fans of the show. Lynch defended his art, stating: “I love the film. With Dune, I sold out on that early on, because I didn’t have final cut, and it was a commercial failure, so I died two times with that. With Fire Walk With Me, it didn’t go over well at the time, but I loved it so I only died once, for the commercial failure and the reviews and things. But, over time, it’s changed. So now, people have revisited that film, and they feel differently about it.”
He added, “When a thing comes out, the feeling in the world—you could call it the collective consciousness—is a certain way, and so it dictates how the thing’s going to go. Then the collective consciousness changes and people come around. Look at Van Gogh: the guy could not sell one painting and now nobody can afford them.” The third season of Twin Peaks aired in 2017 and was unanimously welcomed by everyone. Many of the original cast members returned for this glorious revival, and seeing them after so many years in those familiar roles invoked interesting questions of human mortality in the third season’s thematic approach.
Despite the 31 years since Twin Peaks’ iconic debut, the world that Lynch and Frost created together is still fresh and just as perplexing. Like its hallucinatory visions, the show has defied the effects of time that most cultural artefacts are subjected to. It has claimed its rightful place as one of the greatest television shows ever made and has inspired several others to experiment with the conventions of the medium. Lynch has even teased fans with the possibility of a fourth season, promising to contribute even further to the enormous legacy of Twin Peaks.