February 10, 2015
Television in the new millennium can be a glorious place, where boundaries are pushed regularly, often by Hollywood heavyweights. It’s where directors such as David Fincher and Martin Scorsese come to experiment with long-form storytelling, and where renowned actors like Kevin Spacey, Jessica Lange, Steve Buscemi, Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick, and many others are willing to commit their time and talents. Sometimes there’s the allure of a great story that can be told in one season (an enticement that drew bona fide movie stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey to HBO’s True Detective). Other times, there’s the appeal of both creativity and freedom (Kevin Bacon only has to shoot 15 episodes a season of Fox’s The Following, allowing him to pursue big screen roles while also enjoying a steady paycheck). With the advent of edgy original programming across networks like AMC, Showtime, FX, Netflix, and HBO, the appeal of working in television has never been higher.
It wasn’t always like this, though. For decades, television was a training ground for new faces rather than a destination for proven talent. In the 1980s, cable networks had yet to establish themselves as centers of creative activity, and instead mainly filled their airwaves with movies and syndicated reruns. Occasionally you’d see a big name attach themselves to a network show (Steven Spielberg worked with NBC on the anthology series Amazing Stories, which ran for two interesting yet largely ignored seasons between 1985 and 1987), but for the most part, television was home to standard-fare sitcoms, dramas, and nighttime soap operas of varied quality, driven by TV veterans rather than cinematic auteurs.
Then David Lynch showed up.
Collaborating with Mark Frost, a well-regarded writer who’d worked on the critically and commercially successful television series Hill Street Blues, Lynch hit upon a concept that could actually work in a serialized, episodic format. It would be a murder mystery: the tale of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a popular high school girl found murdered, her body washed up on the beach. Wrapped in plastic.
Enter earnest FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), sent to investigate Laura’s death and unravel an increasingly complex and bizarre case.
The basic story was far from original. But in the hands of two visionary creators like David Lynch and Mark Frost, Twin Peaks took the familiar and transformed it into a series no one could have anticipated.
Amid a network schedule that included shows such as Roseanne, Who’s the Boss?, and thirtysomething, Twin Peaks debuted on ABC on Sunday, April 8, 1990, in a two-hour movie-length episode written by Lynch and Frost, and directed by Lynch himself. Nearly 35 million people viewed the premiere, no doubt the biggest audience the notoriously avant-garde David Lynch had ever had for any of his work. Critics were immediately enthusiastic: Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker gave the premiere an A+, while the Washington Post’s Jen Chaney called it “one of the most finely crafted series kick-offs in broadcast history.”
When it moved into its Thursdays at 9 p.m. time slot, Twin Peaks did lose some viewers—not unexpectedly, as it was up against the NBC comedy juggernaut Cheers. However, it still maintained a large audience that was enthralled with the quirky inhabitants of this small Northwest American town, even as the weird touches that were hall-marks of David Lynch’s style increased in frequency. After a short run of eight episodes, the first season of Twin Peaks concluded with a Mark Frost–directed episode full of cliffhangers that left audiences debating not only “Who killed Laura Palmer?” but “Who shot Agent Cooper?” —both slogans that made it onto the requisite t-shirts. I still have mine in a box someplace.
I was 13 years old that summer and, sitting alongside my mother, I voraciously consumed every episode of Twin Peaks. (“You were way too young to be watching that show, my dear,” Sheryl Lee told me with a laugh some 24 years later.) Since I was already a fan of supernatural stories in film and literature, the strangeness that permeated the show captured my imagination. During the wait for the second season, I debated the ins and outs of the series with Mom and a few friends, trying to unravel the multiple mysteries we’d been left to ponder.
As summer 1990 turned to fall, Twin Peaks mania showed no signs of letting up. Series star Kyle MacLachlan hosted the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, while starlets Mädchen Amick, Sherilyn Fenn, and Lara Flynn Boyle graced the cover of Rolling Stone. The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, penned by Lynch’s daughter Jennifer at age 22, was a New York Times bestseller, and the show’s soundtrack, by composer Angelo Badalamenti, made the Billboard charts and went on to win a Grammy. Damn good coffee and cherry pie were all the rage and, for a brief moment in time, David Lynch was the unexpected face of network television.
It couldn’t last. And it didn’t. Almost as quickly as it had risen to the top of the Nielsen ratings, Twin Peaks managed to lose the bulk of its audience. The first signs of trouble came with its second-season premiere, which aired on Sunday, September 30, 1990, against a Perry Mason movie-of-the-week on NBC. Though “May the Giant Be With You” (2.01) still garnered nearly 20 million viewers, it came in second to Raymond Burr’s venerable and much older-skewing lawyer. Not a good sign.
From there, Twin Peaks settled uncomfortably into another new time slot—10 p.m. on Saturday nights, a dreaded wasteland for episodic television. ABC had hoped that the hype around the show’s must-see first season would translate to viewers on a night that rarely had any, but it didn’t. The audience that originally embraced Twin Peaks actually went out on Saturday nights, and in an era before DVRs, the ratings dropped alarmingly week to week. Meanwhile, those who did tune in regularly were anxious for Laura Palmer’s killer to be revealed, something David Lynch and Mark Frost hadn’t planned on doing—at least, not so soon. However, bowing to network pressure and diminishing returns, the duo bit the bullet, baby. On Sat-urday, November 10, 1990, 17 million people watched one of the most horrific revelations in television history: Laura Palmer’s anguished father, Leland (Ray Wise), possessed by the evil spirit BOB, had killed her. It was shocking. It was upsetting. It was pure David Lynch.
It was too late.
With the mystery finally solved in a manner few could have anticipated, and without an ongoing storyline to captivate audiences, the show that had been lauded for its innovative storytelling and style plunged even further in the ratings. (Frequent preemptions because of the Gulf War didn’t help matters either.) By the time Twin Peaks was canceled toward the end of its second season, barely nine million people were watching. Those of us who stuck around to the last episode were taunted with a cliffhanger that was never resolved.
Countless other short-lived series have floated off into the ether of network television history. But like the best art, not only has Twin Peaks never really gone away, it continues to find a new audience. Fans gather annually, websites are devoted to its characters and settings, video games have been inspired by it. There was even a long-running fanzine that meticulously delved into all sorts of Twin Peaks and Lynch ephemera, with which this book proudly shares a title. And then, in October 2014, after years of denials Lynch and Frost revealed that they were returning to Twin Peaks with a nine-episode series to run on Showtime.
Twin Peaks has been resurrected but the art of television itself had already been irrevocably changed by the show. A program that many perceived as too weird and as a commercial failure became one of the most influential television series of the past 25 years with just 30 episodes. Nothing is ever as it seems on Twin Peaks, and audiences continue to respond to that feeling of disorientation amidst the familiar. The show’s storytelling sensibility, visual language, and quirky tone were once foreign to network television; its most impressive trick was to ensnare audiences with the familiar—namely, nighttime soap opera tropes—before venturing off into the uncharted: taboo subject matter, supernatural dream worlds both hypnotic and horrifying, secrets and double identities. A fish in the percolator.
By wrapping their work in the plastic of conventional television storytelling, and then re-imagining what the medium could deliver, David Lynch and Mark Frost redefined the boundaries of network TV, creating one of the most influential series in the history of the medium; one that, for a brief moment in time, enthralled an audience that hadn’t known they were hungry for something new until they finally got a taste.
Welcome to Twin Peaks.
Excerpt from Wrapped in Plastic by Andy Burns. © 2015 by ECW Press. Used with permission from the publisher.
ANDY BURNS is the founder and editor-in-chief of the pop culture website Biff Bam Pop. His work has appeared in the Toronto Sun and Rue Morgue magazine, while his dreams are regularly haunted by the denizens of Twin Peaks.