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October 10, 2015

'Twin Peaks' 20 Years Later: How the Show Changed Television

by Jason Newman, posted Apr 7th 2010 5:50PM
Dwarf on Twin PeaksMy girlfriend woke up screaming last year.

I could vaguely hear cries of "No!" and "Get Away!" through my sleep before she arose panicked and disheveled, sweat beads glistening off her forehead. We had just watched an episode of David Lynch's cult classic 'Twin Peaks,' and she'd had a nightmare that she was brushing her teeth, looked up into the mirror and saw the image of BOB, the show's psychotic murderer, maniacally rushing up on her.

Twenty years after the influential cult television show began, David Lynch's sci-fi, absurdist murder-mystery soap opera continues to scare and befuddle legions of viewers. Without it, there would be no 'Lost', 'The X-Files' or any of the countless serials habitually labeled "quirky" and/or "weird" since the show's debut on April 8, 1990.

The show, which only ran for two seasons on ABC, remains unlike anything else produced before or since. Though it was ostensibly a whodunit about the murder of a popular 18-year old girl in a small, logging community in Washington, Lynch and his co-conspirators used the killing as a springboard to delve into the town's erratic, bizarre characters that included an one-armed man, a giant, a dwarf, a cross-dressing DEA agent, a psychic, a Log Lady and a slew of drug-runners, pimps, prostitutes, and other assorted miscreants.

Kyle MacLachlan in Twin PeaksWith Lynch, the dirt always lies beneath a tall patch of lush grass -- what author David Foster Wallace called the "unbelievably grotesque existing in an union with the unbelievably banal." Angelo Badalamenti's soothing, meditative opening score would set the tone for the gloss that existed over the whole town, a place where the diner's cherry pie is always fresh and the high school quarterback is as well-known as the mayor.

When Laura Palmer's body is found washed up ashore wrapped in plastic, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is brought in to investigate a possible connection between Palmer's death and another recent murder. To reveal anything more to non-viewers is sacrilege, as the fun lies in gradually revealing the motives and eccentricities of the town's residents and their connection -- explicit, implicit or non-existent -- to the murder.

At the time, 'Twin Peaks' was unprecedented in television. Any semblance of chronological narrative arc--the standard pre-'Peaks'--was replaced by a baffling, meandering plot that constantly detoured in new directions and threw out as many red herrings as actual clues. You could almost see Lynch laughing maniacally at the thought that, right when you think you have the show figured out, along comes the Black Lodge, or a possible alien abduction or, well, you get the idea.

Leland Palmer on Twin PeaksBut 'Twin Peaks' became more than a show. It was a phenomenon, a cultural marker, a national discussion. For a while, the entire country had at least heard of the phrase "Who Killed Laura Palmer?", if not rabidly discussed the answer at work or school the next day. The show spawned a cottage industry of T-shirts, lighters, trading cards and books -- which included an audiobook read by MacLachlan as Agent Cooper, a travel guide to the town of Twin Peaks and 'The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer,' written by Lynch's daughter Jennifer. 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,' a prequel and sequel to the show, was released in 1992.

What the creators of 'Twin Peaks' proved, which persists to this day, was that television no longer had to be cinema's slower and simpler cousin. It took more than an hour to sort this show out; if you missed one episode, subsequent episodes could be virtually indecipherable (though sometimes they were even if you saw them all). Consequently, viewers reveled in the mystery, ending each episode more frustrated and perplexed than they began but always returning the next week. Sound familiar, 'Lost' fans?

Then there's BOB. Lynch teased and taunted the audience by revealing Laura's killer early on in the show (trust us, that's not a spoiler), though the real mystery lay in who BOB is and what his connection is to everything else. It was scenes like this one that caused my girlfriend to wake up sweating, and that remain among the scariest and audacious ever shown on television:

(Warning: Do NOT watch this if you're interested in seeing the show. MAJOR spoiler contained. And sadly, the only video available is in Italian, but we think it still gets the point across.)

David LynchMidway through the second season, ABC foolishly forced Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost to reveal Laura's murderer, thus causing a steady decline in the ratings -- and quality -- of subsequent episodes. But cultural impact takes time, and looking back 20 years, it's hard to overstate just how different 'Twin Peaks' was than anything else on television. Lynch, whose films 'Eraserhead' and 'Blue Velvet' would both influence 'Peaks' with its eccentric characterizations and evils in a small town, didn't let the medium dilute his vision. Instead, he saw TV as an extension, rather than a compromise, of his films; a forum that allowed him to make what was essentially a 30-hour soap opera noir. Rather than reining back his ideas, he sought to see how much he could get away with with a mainstream audience, injecting the show with paranormal activity, Native American philosophy, Buddhism, possession and alternative worlds that made zero sense and all the sense in the world. Visually, in stark contrast to the grainy, cheap quality of other 1990s shows, 'Twin Peaks' looks just as beautiful now as it did when it first premiered.

What 'Twin Peaks' said to a generation of television writers, editors, cinematographers and directors was a simple statement: Step up your game. Television would never be the same again. Now it was okay for Michael Crichton to create 'E.R.,' for Steven Spielberg to produce 'Taken,' for Oliver Stone to produce 'Wild Palms'. Kimmy Robertson, who played Lucy Moran on the show, recently told The Guardian, "I know J.J. Abrams and he loved 'Twin Peaks.' I'm sure we inspired J.J. – he's a smart man."

And that may be the enduring legacy of a show that never hit 'Cheers'-esque ratings but whose work inspired heated debates, passionate defenses and previously unseen levels of dedication. For any fan of smart television that tries to puzzle rather than pander, who goes on websites and forums to argue the meaning of certain events, who watches episodes over and over again in search of new clues ... the Rosetta Stone is found in Twin Peaks, Washington.

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