Aug 24, 2012
When the death of Laura Palmer sent the fictional town of Twin Peaks into turmoil, it also stirred television audiences around the world. It heralded a new era of US drama in the 1990s and took viewers to strange, unfathomable places. For all its cult status today, it did it in a prime-time slot with massive acclaim from the mainstream press. But what was the secret behind the show’s overnight success, and why did it burn out after only 30 episodes?
Twin Peaks begins with the discovery of Laura Palmer – murdered, wrapped in plastic and dumped in a lake. As the news spreads through the town, it becomes clear that many of its inhabitants are linked to Laura in a variety of ways. As Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) arrives on the scene, it becomes clear that everyone is a suspect. As Laura Palmer’s double life is revealed, events go from the bad to the downright strange. During the 30-episode run, Cooper finds himself plagued by visions of deranged killers, dwarves talking backward and helpful giants. The only thing between Twin Peaks and strange worlds of shadow are the mysterious, whispering woods that surround the town.
Twin Peaks wasn’t the first time that prime-time drama had skirted the unexplained and the bizarre. In 1987, The Colbys finished a two-season run with Fallon Carrington Colby abducted by aliens. The character was later dropped off intact in Dynasty, the soap’s parent show. Later that year, Miami Vice also encountered UFOs and, bizarrely, an alien played by soul singer James Brown. The following year, St Elsewhere pulled its plug by suggesting the events within the series occurred in the imagination of an autistic child.
US Daytime television was subverted by the strange as far back as 1966 when ABC’s 6-month-old soap Dark Shadows added ghosts to its melodramatic knot of stories. During its five year run and 1,225 episodes, the serial featured vampires, zombies and time travel among its spooky plot twists. Over the next twenty years, science fiction and fantasy infiltrated many soaps, from magical diamonds in General Hospital to trips to the other side and time travel in One Life To Live. All of this was before Twin Peak’s Agent Cooper took his first taste of cherry pie. Since then, clones, curses, vampires, witchcraft and demonic possession have become mainstays of the daytime schedule.
From its outset, Twin Peaks compared itself to soaps. The most serene US shows have a long tradition of scheming, love triangles and murder sprees. In Twin Peaks’ first season, characters are often seen watching An Invitation To Love, a soap-within-a-soap that eerily reflects the tragedies of the stricken lumber town.
While it might seem that US Television had been waiting for David Lynch and Mark Frost to bring all these threads together, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Shock supernatural storylines were reserved for sensational goodbyes to prime-time shows, low-budget daytime drama and series running out of ideas. It took unsuspecting viewers by surprise when Lynch and Frost successfully wove the bizarre into the fabric of serious television from the outset of the series.
Twin Peaks’s take on the supernatural was far from cliched, taking as much from Franz Kafka and Magical Realism as from existing television shows. The battle of good and evil took on a unique face through a mysterious and totemic world. For a viewer, there’s the unsettling notion that at least some of the strangeness exists only in the heads of the characters, who themselves seem prone to this inclination. Just like Dale Cooper asks the Twin Peaks police department to suspend their disbelief and follow his unorthodox methods and ideas, Lynch and Frost ask us to do the very same thing.
As well as a baffling mythology, the show’s creator’s brought a brutality and sexuality normally reserved for cinema. This trinity underpins many of Lynch’s feature films, such as the noir nightmares of Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. The cinematography of Twin Peaks took its lead from the big, rather than the small, screen. This, combined with the show’s originality already marked it as a television event. But the easiest sell to audiences a Trojan horse into the mainstream which came in the form of a simple question: Who killed Laura Palmer?
A murder in a small community is a trope that occurs frequently in thrillers. Seeing some of the early advertising for Twin Peaks might lure the unsuspecting viewer with just another murder mystery. The slogan also echoed the hugely successful “Who shot J.R.” campaign that tantalised viewers of Dallas a decade earlier.
Before the pilot aired, the press buzz built around the new drama. On 8 April 1990, the show’s premiere attracted a US audience of 34.6m. Not only was their initial pilot made into a full prime-time series, but Lynch and Frost had conquered the mainstream.
Before the internet arrived and sent entertainment viral, broadcasters relied on the so-called “water cooler effect” to create word-of-mouth success. Twin Peaks twisted take on the whodunnit provided plenty of chatter during office breaks. As ABC put it in their advertising campaigns: “If you miss it tonight, you won’t know what everyone’s talking about tomorrow”.
The first season of Twin Peaks was a mini-series. Perfectly balancing its drama, thriller, soap and supernatural elements, this initial eight-episode saw its creators handling a large portion of the writing and direction duties. The final episode was a cliffhanger, introducing a second mystery rather than revealing the identity of the town’s murderer-at-large. Fortunately for fans, Twin Peak’s massive success led to the commission of a second, full season of 22 episodes. It was during this second season that things began to go wrong.
Laura Palmer’s killer was never meant to be revealed. Frost and Lynch had decided who the murderer was at the outset, but the show’s deadliest secret was intended to remain that way. Pressure to resolve the mystery came from the show’s network ABC, and the audience got their answer in the seventh episode of season two. In interviews, David Lynch has described that initial mystery as “the goose that lays the golden eggs”, asking “why anyone would want to kill that?”.
With the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death solved and the show’s creators lured back to the big screen, Twin Peaks began to falter. The town’s inhabitants were no longer under scrutiny as potential murderers, and plots began to diverge and fragment. New characters and situations were often caricatured, comical and whacky. The series moved from telling a thriller in the format of a soap to become closer to a soap itself. Regular villains were de-clawed, with antagonistic characters becoming less dangerous with every episode. In the second half of season two, rogue agent Windom Earle arrived as a new nemesis, with all the evil genius and campness of a Batman villain. With the mouth of madness at a much safer distance, the unsettling world of the first season felt far away.
Water-coolers no longer rippled with talk of the Palmer mystery and the show was shunted around schedules. US ratings for Twin Peaks sank and the show was eventually cancelled. A return to its original, iconic storyline at the end of season two and another cliffhanger ending couldn’t save the show. The tale of Twin Peaks ended, fittingly, with more unsolved questions that it started with.
It’s easy to blame network decisions for Twin Peak’s demise. Perhaps the audience would have tired of the unresolved murder of Laura Palmer. Maybe the chain of unresolved mysteries and new ideas proved distracting. The credulity of the average viewer might have been stretched beyond patience. But Twin Peaks left a legacy that can be traced through US television from the surreal dream sequences of Ally McBeal to the other-worldliness of the X Files or the mysterious island of Lost.
Twin Peaks wrestled the format – at times self-consciously – from soap operas and chose to tell the long version of a story. It’s in this respect that it was most ahead of its time. Modern US TV shows often thread plot arcs reminiscent of Lynch and Frost’s grand mysteries into procedural, syndication-friendly formats. But in this century, these formats are changing along with viewing habits. HBO’s successes of the last decade show that less traditional season lengths can work, an approach much more congruent with what Twin Peaks tried to achieve two decades ago. If created today, Twin Peaks may have flourished beyond its initial mysteries and maybe its creators would have been allowed to keep their secrets. Or perhaps TV needed Twin Peaks to show the way.