This article first appeared in MyM Magazine – subscribe to MyM here
When Showtime announced it would be airing new episodes of the long-cancelled TV series Twin Peaks in 2016 (now 2017), fans around the world flipped their lids. But those who’d never watched the show were left wondering… what is all the fuss about? MyM’s Jayne Nelson takes a spoiler-free look back at the original Twin Peaks.
Q: What the hell is TWIN PEAKS?
A: The weirdest show US TV has ever seen…
In 1989, David Lynch was riding high as one of cinema’s most deeply disturbed filmmakers, having confused/delighted/freaked-out audiences with a bizarre range of films that lurched from low-budget surrealism (Eraserhead) to devastating drama (The Elephant Man) to overblown FX nightmare (Dune) to cult erotic mystery (Blue Velvet).
Lynch chose to explore Blue Velvet’s lingering themes in more detail on the small screen: the gnawing, unsettling knowledge that behind the white picket fences of small-town America, there lurked a darkness that could leap out and take bites out of an innocent (or seemingly innocent) victim. In Blue Velvet, this manifested when an ordinary young man, played by Kyle MacLachlan, unexpectedly stumbled across an ear lying on the ground. In Twin Peaks, it became the discovery of a schoolgirl’s body, wrapped in plastic and washed up on the shore of a lake one misty, foghorn-filled morning.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out, however, that Lynch’s unapologetic weirdness couldn’t translate directly to television without having input from other creative talents who could smooth off his rough edges and create a serialised, weekly template. Thus Hill Street Blues veteran Mark Frost teamed with Lynch to form a creative dream team. They sold their new show, Twin Peaks, to ABC. The first episode aired on 8 April 1990… and audiences had absolutely no idea what the hell they were watching. Which meant that by 9 April 1990, Twin Peaks had become one of the most talked-about TV shows of all time.
Q: So what was it about?
A: It was a murder mystery that asked: “Who killed Laura Palmer?”
The first episode opens with the discovery of a body. Hardly a revelation, given the number of detective shows that have done the same thing since virtually the dawn of television. And yet the way the episode then goes on to show the reaction to this death is truly unnerving…
It transpires that the corpse is one Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the sweet-looking, dearly-loved homecoming queen of the little Pacific North-Western town of Twin Peaks. Everybody knew her, and we mean everybody. Her death has a devastating impact on the small community, but in a more visceral way than audiences of the time were used to. We don’t sit through the usual scenes of tight-lipped, red-eyed parents in police stations talking about where they last saw their daughter, oh no: we see her mother shrieking and howling with uncontrollable grief as she hears the news in her kitchen. A girl at Laura’s school runs screaming hysterically past a classroom; the school principal is racked with sobs as he makes the announcement over the tannoy. Even one of the policemen bursts into tears as he looks down at her body. The music – a beautiful, yet hauntingly desolate piano riff from genius composer Angelo Badalamenti– builds and builds an emotional signature until it’s almost unbearable to hear. This isn’t an ordinary murder in an ordinary police procedural; this is a tragedy.
It’s also incredibly unsettling and creepy. For viewers at the time, it was a complete and utter jaw-dropper. Never had a show set such a mood in such a short space of time, and it was a skill Twin Peaks utilised over and over again during its two-season run.
But don’t think Twin Peaks is all doom and gloom: far from it. After this sombre opening act, the relentlessly energetic FBI special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, effectively playing his character from Blue Velvet with a love of coffee rather than Budweiser) breezes into town to investigate the murder. In a flash, it’s clear that Cooper is one of television’s greatest characters: part Sherlock Holmes; part cheerful, cherry pie-eating boy scout; part Agent Mulder (indeed, elements of Peaks may even have inspired The X-Files, and David Duchovny himself turns up in the show’s second season).
Coop teams with local Sheriff Harry S Truman (Michael Ontkean) and, through them, we get to know the residents of Twin Peaks, from ’50s-styled sex-bomb Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) to the Log Lady who carries a block of wood wherever she goes (Catherine E Coulson). Over the course of two seasons, we discover that this ordinary-looking town is filled with secrets.
Q: Was TWIN PEAKS really as weird as everybody says it was?
A: In short, yes.
It’s fairly normal for television shows to be weird these days: hell, even The Sopranos featured a talking fish. But back in the early ’90s, such deviations from the norm were virtually unheard of on primetime. And so when David Lynch decided to sprinkle some of his customary madness over Twin Peaks, he blew everybody’s minds.
Those secrets hidden by the residents of the town? We’re not just talking all the usual bog-standard soap-opera-style extra-marital affairs. We’re talking prostitution, drug-running, serial killers, secret societies – stay with us, it’s gonna get weirder – parallel dimensions, demonic possessions, messages from space aliens and, on top of all of that, owls who, we’re repeatedly told, “are not what they seem”. The show’s central question of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” turns out to be far, far weirder than anything viewers could have expected from that extraordinary opening episode.
We could choose many examples of crazy Peaks moments, but the one that has become truly legendary – if by “legendary” you mean “so famous it was even spoofed on The Simpsons” – was the scene with the dancing dwarf (Michael J Anderson). Occurring early on in season one, it’s a dream sequence in which Coop finds himself in a red room with a living Laura Palmer and a dwarf who talks backwards (subtitles are thoughtfully provided). Laura leans in to tell him who the killer is… and then Coop wakes up.
This iconic scene is just as insane as the hype would lead you to believe. Lynch has often been accused of being weird for weirdness’s sake, and this can be true, but thanks to the team of showrunners keeping the day-to- day plotting of Twin Peaks on track, these moments of lunacy are somehow given coherency… albeit, we admit, a little strained at times.
Q: So we’ve established it was different – but was TWIN PEAKS actually good?
A: Mostly, yes. But it had issues.
There’s no denying that the show’s first season is excellent, compelling viewing. Season two, however, suffered from the pressures of keeping a “whodunnit?” mystery going for longer than the audience wanted: everybody wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer, including the network – and to their eternal regret, the showrunners caved. The murderer is revealed halfway through the year in a devastating and strangely satisfying piece of writing, but after this, things go badly downhill. The introduction of a new villain is a bit of a misfire, there’s too much comedy and the show loses its way big time. Luckily, it eventually gathered itself together for what ended up being an absolutely sublime series finale. The cliffhanger nature of this final episode is the main reason fans are so excited about the show returning in 2016. It was evil!
Oh, and it’s at this point we should probably mention that there was a Twin Peaks movie, Fire Walk With Me, in 1992. This was a prequel to the TV show, dramatising the events leading up to Laura Palmer’s murder. While it’s certainly intriguing (not least for David Bowie’s bizarre cameo and Lee’s excellent central performance as the doomed Laura), it didn’t help wrap up the show’s loose ends, and actually left many fans more frustrated than if it had never happened.
Q: What’s next, then?
A: In the words of TWIN PEAKS’ very own giant*: “It is happening again.”
Many members of the original show’s cast will be filming the new series this year, but despite a few teaser trailers and images there’s little advance word yet on exactly what we have to look forward to. David Lynch is apparently directing all the episodes and there will be more than nine, though exactly how many is still yet to be determined (at a Twin Peaks panel in Seattle, cast members Sherilyn Fenn and Sheryl Lee claimed it would be 18 episodes but at the moment this is just speculation). Some reports suggest that Lynch is directing it as one mammoth movie that will be edited in episodes afterwards which may explain the vagueness as regards the number of episodes.
Who’s back? Here’s a checklist of those confirmed so far: Kyle MacLachlan, Sheryl Lee, Richard Beymer, Dana Ashbrook, Mädchen Amick, Everett McGill, Sherilyn Fenn, Wendy Robie and David Lynch (yes, he acted in as well).
New actors for the 2017 series include Amanda Seyfried, Balthazar Getty, Robert Knepper, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bailey Chase, Jim Belushi, Ashley Judd, Naomi Watts, Tom Sizemore, Patrick Fischler, Laura Dern and David Dastmalchian.
Can Twin Peaks: 2017 recapture the shock and awe that was attached to its original run? Or will be a poor imitation? It’s hard to know. But with so many of the original creative team in place – including, fascinatingly, Sheryl Lee herself (will the dead Laura Palmer pop up as a ghost?) – we have high hopes. If nothing else, the new series should prompt those who’ve never stepped foot in Twin Peaks to explore that little town, and they won’t regret it.
(* Yes the show had a giant as well as a dwarf.)