On May 21st, “Twin Peaks,” one of the most celebrated and influential television series of all time makes its return to the small screen. On a surface level, this does not seem that out of the ordinary, what with series such as “Full House,” “The X-Files,” “24” and “Prison Break” all making their return after years of cancellation in hopes that networks can latch on to old fans. Yet, “Twin Peaks” is something different. It was a series that, for better or worse, ended after just two seasons. However, the series was vastly ahead of its time, feeling more in line with today’s prestige TV than that of the early 90s.
When “Twin Peaks” debuted in the spring of 1990, TV was largely dominated by soapy dramas and laugh track sitcoms. Few, if any, programs drew out story lines over multiple episodes and visuals were kept basic. Simply put, television was not on the level it is today with series that play out like novels with visuals straight out of a movie. But “Twin Peaks” would shatter all those conventions and re-write the rulebook on what a TV show could be; no longer mindless entertainment but rather a piece of high art.
The show began as the brainchild of television writer Mark Frost and filmmaker David Lynch. Frost’s career at that point had included work on series such as “Hill Street Blues,” “The Equalizer” and “Six Million Dollar Man.” However, it was Lynch who was the real wild card in the mix. The filmmaker had become a cult sensation for films such as “Eraserhead,” “The Elephant Man” and “Blue Velvet” which displayed a unique surrealist style, along with a taste for the bizarre. His most recent picture at that time, “Blue Velvet” was widely acclaimed but highly controversial due to dark themes and graphic sex.
Together, the two would craft a series that mixed together murder mystery, soap opera, quirky comedy and fantasy horror. “Twin Peaks” would center around the investigation of Laura Palmer; a high school beauty queen in a small Washington State town who is brutally murdered. The series would focus on local law enforcement, with the help of a quirky F.B.I agent played by Kyle MacLachlan, along with close friends of Laura attempting to solve the mystery of her killing.
However, the Laura Palmer mystery would only be a jumping off point, similar to the plane crash in “Lost,” to wide array of themes along with a larger world to play with. What Lynch and Frost explored was a seemingly perfect small town community with dark forces, both criminal and supernatural at work underneath the surface.
The series debut season contained just eight episodes, yet it instantly became a cultural phenomenon. Television audiences had gotten their first taste of cinematic television as well as the kind of water cooler talk the next day that would shape the medium in the coming years. That water cooler talk would largely be fueled by “Twin Peaks”‘ complex storyline, surrealist imagery and soapy structure that allowed for numerous cliff hangers. Viewers were often left to generate their own interpretations as to some of the show’s more surrealist elements.
However, into the series second season (which was exponentially longer at 22 episodes) the ever expanding world of “Twin Peaks,” which seemed to introduce more questions that it did answers, began to raise eyebrows. Fearing that audiences would begin to lose interest, ABC pressured Frost and Lynch into wrapping up the Laura Palmer mystery. This would, of course, cause a wrinkle in the two’s larger plan for the series. Lynch himself has since said that the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death was never supposed to be solved. Describing the initial mystery as a massive tree, Lynch stated that Laura Palmer was merely a base for other branches containing other mysteries to grow off of.
Nevertheless, Frost and Lynch brought the Laura Palmer mystery to a shocking finish midway through season two, as viewers learned that her own father (a terrific Ray Wise) committed the crime under the possession of a demon named Bob. However, while viewers at home got the satisfying end to a mystery that had plagued them for months, it left the series in a difficult spot creatively. For much of the second season’s later half, there arose a lack of focus. It also didn’t help that both Frost and Lynch decided to embark on other projects; with Lynch writing and directing “Wild at Heart” while Frost wrote and directed “Storyville.”
But without it’s two chief creators, “Twin Peaks” began to take take a dip in quality as the remaining writers struggled to find a new focus. Viewership quickly took a dip, which led ABC to shuffle the series’ time slot around so often that even the most die-hard fans had trouble knowing what night it was on. Eventually it landed on a weekend time-slot; typically death for network series. Fearing the series would be canceled, Lynch and Frost returned to the show, just as it was beginning to zone in on a conflict between MacLauchlan’s Agent Cooper and a former partner, now gone insane.
In its final few episodes, season two of “Twin Peaks” did manage to retain some of its original spark. Lynch himself directed the final episode, which featured a dreamlike climax that would be on the extreme in even today’s television climate. However, by the time the season aired its final episodes, the damage was done; ABC had canceled the series. Despite this setback, Lynch himself remained determined to revisit the world of the show, this time on the big screen.
Ironically, despite its Lynchian climax, the ending of season two largely played into Frost’s own interest in the series. For him, the most fascinating aspects of the show became the eccentric characters of the town itself along with a mysterious ancient mythology that laid within the surrounding woods, similar to the island on “Lost” years later. However, for Lynch, the most fascinating aspect of the show had always been Laura Palmer.
Co-writing with Robert Engles, Lynch crafted a movie prequel to the series that would explore the final week in the life of Palmer before her death. The film would showcase the character’s duality; a blonde beauty queen with her own dark secrets of drug addiction and sexual abuse. Laura was, after all, a physical manifestation of the show’s idea that a peaceful small town could have dark secrets underneath. The film would also eliminate the show’s comedic element of the series, instead doubling down on the darkness and surrealism.
“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” would become one of Lynch’s most divisive pictures, even amongst fans of the show. At it’s premiere at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, the film was booed with many walking out entirely. Yet, in the years since, the film has garnered a strong cult following and is now seen as an essential part of the “Twin Peaks” experience. While certainly dark and extremely unsettling, the film does offer actress Sheryl Lee a chance to dive headfirst into the character of Laura and deliver a truly haunting performance.
In the 25 years since “Fire Walk Wit Me” hit theaters, “Twin Peaks” influence has been widespread. Fans have often pressed Lynch about returning to the series and it seems we’ve reached a moment where television seems rightfully fit for the series to exist. Television itself is more cinematic than it was in the early 90s and shows such as “Legion,” “Mr. Robot” and “The Leftovers” have excelled on the same kind of surrealism and ambiguity that made “Twin Peaks” infuriating to some.
However, there is still much unknown about the show’s return. Viewers are only three short weeks away and all anyone really knows is that Lynch is reportedly directing all 18 episodes (his first time directing in roughly 10 years), much of the original cast is returning among many others of notable fame, and that the story is to take place 25 years after the original series run. Other than that, no one knows anything, which is perhaps the most exciting aspect. Showtime, who is airing the episodes, has stated that the series is a “pure heroin version of David Lynch,” which means anything is fare game and viewers shouldn’t expect to fully understand everything presented. That being said, it’s sure to be unlike anything else and as MacLauchlan’s Agent Cooper said in the series original run, be a “world both wonderful and strange.”