Showrunners: David Lynch and Mark Frost
Series length: Two seasons and a movie
As the 2017 return of Twin Peaks rolls out to rave reviews, now seems like the perfect time to catch up on the original series. I envy you if you haven’t – the original run of Twin Peaks is arguably one of the most influential forces in the evolution of modern day television. It combined the accessible trappings of soapy melodrama with heavy doses of feverish surrealism, delivering intense and challenging imagery to an unsuspecting commercial audience. While the soapiness of the series has aged quite horribly, its wild forays into the unknown still seem as relevant as ever in the golden age of cable and streaming television. The series is almost at odds with itself, hilariously outdated one moment and viscerally affecting the next. This article celebrates the insane contradictions of the show, and provides somewhat of a roadmap as to what to expect if you’re new to the series.
We are introduced to the small town of Twin Peaks through the optimistic lens of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), investigating the death of local teenager Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Cooper is, in my opinion, the greatest man on television. Not the greatest character, mind you, but the best person. All he needs is a good cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie, and all is right with the world – even when it seems downright evil. While this doesn’t make him the most compelling character from a narrative standpoint, he becomes the perfect focal point from which to view the town. He fits right in with the endearing Twin Peaks police department – the clueless Lucy and Andy (Kimmy Robertson and Harry Goaz), the stoic Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse), and rustic Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) – a group tied together by good intent and a monstrous appetite for coffee and donuts.
Through Cooper’s investigation, we begin to learn the extent of Laura Palmer’s effect on everybody around her, both in life and death. We start to get the feeling that she touched upon the lives of everybody she crossed, and her death has left traces of pain and sorrow all across the town. Her tragic imprint is given a sort of spectral form through Angelo Badalamenti’s masterful soundtrack, full of soft, haunting melodies with heavy bass that evoke a feeling of beauty being lost and rediscovered in the darkness. While it’s ostensibly a show about the entire town of Twin Peaks, every plotline touched by the Laura Palmer mystery seems to have greater artistic energy behind it, and the plotlines that stray further from its touch can sometimes feel more like narrative fluff than they do expansions of the world.
But it’s not until Laura Palmer herself turns up in Cooper’s dream that the show really kicks into gear. Everything about the dream is uncanny and disturbing. Red curtains, jazz, backwards speech – suddenly, you have a completely different kind of show on your hands. The melodrama is kicked out of focus and used instead as a grounding element for a more abstract and compelling mystery. It becomes clear that no one really understands the extent of who Laura was and what happened to her – just that all of the good in Twin Peaks, all of its charms and quirks, seem to have a deep dark reflection in the woods that is incomprehensible and evil.
Season 2, part 1
Where the first season relies on melodrama to balance the show, the first half of the second season leans hard on surrealism. As the central narrative becomes darker and more removed from typical television narratives of the time, characters’ eccentricities become more pronounced, the scene pacing begins to resemble that of Lynch’s strangest films, and many of the new plotlines seem to have a dark shadow behind them. It’s as if the show were recoiling from its origins in accessible television, trading in the soap opera tropes to bring Lynch’s surrealist style and Frost’s penchant for the mysterious and esoteric to the forefront.
The first half of this season ramps up towards the resolution of the Laura Palmer murder investigation, a narrative choice pushed by the network, who, in all fairness, had never dealt with a production like Twin Peaks before. The resolution of the Palmer case was a plot point Lynch and Frost did not want to reveal, and the network’s insistence on going ahead with the decision would eventually lead to Lynch’s disillusionment with the show and decreased involvement. However, the reveal itself is done masterfully and constitutes one of the show’s highlights, an electric sequence of scenes that pierce deeper into the heart of the show than anything previous. Building off of the enigmatic clues laid down in season one, the first half of season two is chock full of payoff that will quench any fears that there is no meaning behind the show’s weirdness.
Season 2, part 2
With Lynch’s effective departure, and his co-creator Mark Frost’s decreased involvement, the second half of the second season temporarily descends into what can only be described as a carnival of absurdity. The show gets mired in a number of low-impact plotlines that celebrate the quirkiness of the show without the narrative momentum or the substance to back it up. The examples are many, but freshest in my mind are when an already over-the-top character reverts to their teenage self and enrolls in high school, and when a multimillionaire loses his mind and rants about the Civil War for three episodes. The entertainment value remains, but it loses direction and becomes harder to buy without feeling just a little bit silly.
Cooper’s story is largely hamstrung as well. While this section of Cooper’s story does lead to the wonderful performance of David Duchovny as transgender FBI agent Denise, it ends up feeling more like a stalling tactic than a satisfying continuation of the main plotline. A darker overarching story slowly brews throughout these episodes, which eventually blossoms into a serviceable plotline towards the end of the season that has Mark Frost’s fingerprints all over it – still, it never quite feels as compelling as Cooper’s involvement in the Laura Palmer case. But we do see hints of military investigations into the supernatural side of the town, and delve into the Native American mythology behind certain spiritual elements of the show, both of which become lynchpins of the mythos taken up in the revival.
But from a scene-to-scene perspective, this stretch of television seems quite lost after departing from its core concept. If you find yourself unable to get through these episodes, that’s perfectly normal – David Lynch himself stopped watching the series during this period, and he was still working on the show as an actor (playing the hilarious Gordon Cole) at the time. Still, I’d argue that this part of the series is worth at least one watch, just to witness the insanity of it all.
Season 2 finale
I don’t want to say too much about this episode, except that it gets its own section in this article for a good reason. The short explanation is that Lynch returns to the creative fold for the final episode and things go bananas. The catalyst for Lynch’s creative resurgence seems to be a narrative paradigm shift from the investigation of Laura Palmer’s murder to the exploration of the abstract supernatural world behind that murder – the larger mystery at hand. This episode proves how important the intersection of David Lynch and Mark Frost are to the recipe of Twin Peaks; originally penned by Frost and longtime Twin Peaks writers Harley Peyton and Robert Engels, David Lynch significantly revised the finale’s script so that it fell more in line with his vision for the show’s aesthetic and tone, while maintaining the structure of Frost’s narrative and lore.
The result is riveting and affecting. It’s good to keep in mind that this episode of television aired in 1991, because it’s easy to forget given its pure cinematic quality and intensity. If I can be so bold, this would have made a 1991 television audience shit their pants. The imagery is quickfire and surreal, the content is haunting, and its execution will make you feel like you’re having the best kind of stroke. If you enjoyed any of the surrealism in the series until this point, you owe it to yourself to watch the finale.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
With the television series officially wrapped up, Lynch returned to the project a year later to say goodbye to the series on his own terms – and in his preferred space, the cinema. Fire Walk with Me is a welcome return to the narrative core of Twin Peaks, going back in time to tell Laura Palmer’s story firsthand. It breaks away from the rest of the series in that it is not an ensemble piece about the town as a whole; it focuses very narrowly on Laura Palmer and the FBI investigation on the murders preceding hers. In many ways, it’s the inverse of the first half of the original series. It’s something that we always knew was there from the dark imprint left by Laura on the lives of everyone around her, but something that was hard to fully comprehend without its direct depiction. This is a venture that I feel retrospectively strengthens the original series, despite the fact that it was reviled by critics upon release for its jarring change of tone.
Unlike the original series, which is creepy and disconcerting but balanced with an outwardly sunny tone, Fire Walk with Me embraces the horror aspect that always seemed to lie dormant behind the story. Lynch brings his A-game, producing some horrifying and emotionally draining scenes that bring Laura’s last days into hideous clarity. Sheryl Lee finally gets to sink her teeth into Laura as a living character, and she plays her out in a chilling fashion. The imagery is still very surreal, and though it’s par for the course at this point, it exceeds even the strangest moments of the original series.
The film presents a few nagging inconsistencies with the series, which may be intentional changes to allow for a standalone interpretation of the film for cinema-goers who hadn’t seen the series. Other than that, it’s one of the best additions to the series, and required viewing if you want to get the most out of the Twin Peaks revival. (Also, there is a magical David Bowie cameo, which is probably reason enough to watch the film.)
If Twin Peaks has you hungry for more Lynch content, here are some honourable mentions: Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), and Mulholland Drive (2001) will all provide some intertextual background for some of Lynch’s artistic choices in the Twin Peaks revival, and shed some light on some of the key casting choices, Naomi Watts and Laura Dern in particular.