DIRECTED BY: David Lynch (6 episodes), multiple directors
FEATURING: Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Ray Wise, Sherilyn Fenn, Lara Flynn Boyle, James Marshall, Sheryl Lee, Piper Laurie, Richard Beymer, Mädchen Amick, Eric DaRe, Joan Chen, Jack Nance, Russ Tamblyn, Catherine Coulson, Grace Zabriske, many others
PLOT: A mystically-inclined FBI agent investigates a murder in a small town, incidentally
uncovering webs of crime, adultery, and supernatural encounters among the town’s denizens.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a TV series, not a movie. But despite its small screen origins, “Twin Peaks” is far too influential in the weird movie world to escape coverage on this site.
COMMENTS: “Leo Johnson was shot, Jacques Renault was strangled, the mill burned, Shelly and Pete got smoke inhalation, Catherine and Josie are missing, Nadine is in a coma from taking sleeping pills.”
Let’s back up a moment.
Laura Palmer’s body, wrapped in plastic, washed up on the banks of the lake by the Packard Sawmill on April 8, 1990, the date the “Twin Peaks” pilot episode first aired. I was a senior in college at that time and a David Lynch fan; I read in the Dallas Morning News the day before that the Blue Velvet auteur had created a television show and convinced everyone in my circle of friends to watch the first airing. We weren’t alone; thanks to advance buzz and favorable scheduling, the pilot episode was seen by an unheard of 34 million viewers (that figure would be disappointing for a Super Bowl, but for a TV movie it was a phenomenal score).
Based on the pilot’s unexpected success, the series about the murdered homecoming queen, the whiz-kid FBI agent using ancient Tibetan fortune-telling techniques to eliminate suspects, and the small town full of liars, adulterers and backstabbers was picked up for an additional seven episodes. What followed in those seven hours of broadcast television was a soap opera with the depth of an art film and a mystery with overtones of a supernatural horror movie; oh, and it was also a comedy. Over the course of that first season special agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan) must have drank a couple of gallons of coffee and eaten three or four cherry pies (one slice at a time) at Norma’s diner as suspicions about the murderer turned from Laura’s bad-boy quarterback boyfriend to her good-boy biker secret boyfriend to her eccentric therapist to Leo, the wife-beating, coke-dealing backwoods crime kingpin. Laura’s father Leland went insane with grief, began dancing and sobbing in public, and threw himself on her coffin as it was lowered into the ground. Laura’s cousin unexpectedly showed up to console her aunt and uncle–and, except for being a brunette, she was Laura’s exact double. Mischievous teen sexpot Audrey Horne developed a crush on Agent Cooper and set off to solve the mystery of Laura’s murder on her own, an investigation which would lead her to go undercover in a brothel across the Canadian border. In the meantime, in one of the shows many subplots, Audrey’s father, real estate mogul Ben Horne, is scheming with the wicked Catherine Martel to steal the sawmill from Josie Packard. There were almost too many storylines to follow, and the clues piled up, there was a fish in the percolator, and, in the most surreal six minutes of television ever aired, Cooper dreamed of a dwarf in a red room who spoke in riddles pronounced backwards while the ghost of Laura Palmer whispered the name of her killer in his ear. “Twin Peaks” was a surprise ratings hit; it became a “watercooler” show, with people discussing and revising their theories about the murderer the next day at work after each new episode.
All of this climaxed in the humdinger of a season one finale full of a dizzying number of cliffhangers that seemingly landed a third the cast in intensive care, including Agent Cooper, who was shot three times in the chest. When the series went on summer hiatus, “who killed Laura Palmer”? suddenly became 1990′s burning pop culture question. Every major newspaper printed a handy cheat-sheet/rundown of the major suspects in its “Lifestyles” section. It was like the “Who shot J.R.?” craze of 1980, only this time, for cool people.
So “Leo Johnson was shot, Jacques Renault was strangled, the mill burned, Shelly and Pete got smoke inhalation, Catherine and Josie are missing, Nadine is in a coma from taking sleeping pills” was police secretary Lucy’s brief recap of the Season 1 climax, events that occurred in Twin Peaks while Agent Cooper was recuperating from his gunshot wounds. America had waited anxiously for the answer to the mystery of Laura’s murder for four months, and in Season 2′s two hour opener, they expected to find out the answer. They did not. Instead, they got another Agent Cooper dream sequence with more cryptic clues, this time delivered by a giant instead of a dwarf. Although the scene is well done, it seemed as if Lynch was trying too hard to recapture the magic of the “Man from Another Place,” trying to top himself and outweird himself with what he seemed to think the audience wanted. What the audience actually wanted, however, was not to hear that “the owls are not what they seem,” but rather to find out the name of Laura Palmer’s killer.
Yet, as soon as Lynch and the “Twin peaks” crew delivered that pearl to them, they would have no reason to tune in the following week. The producers and the viewers found themselves in a Mexican standoff. Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost tried to keep the momentum going, introducing new characters and twists (an agoraphobic in possession of Laura’s “secret diary”). But the ratings were tumbling with each new episode that failed to solve the mystery. I was “Twin Peaks”‘ target demographic—a dedicated David Lynch fan since catching Eraserhead on VHS as a teenager—but even I assumed the series had jumped the shark when the kid in a tuxedo teleported the creamed corn. (The producers must have agreed with me, because the kid never showed up again after that single scene). Although there had been plenty of dream sequences and paranormal rumblings in the series before, that was the first time the series had stepped into the world of magic. My friends and I started to lose interest in the series. We were not alone; Americans were tuning out of season 2 as quickly as they had tuned in to season 1. ABC panicked and forced Lynch and Frost to reveal Laura’s killer in episode 7 of season 2, which led to a three episode story arc that caused a small ratings spike. But the show was essentially finished. Without Laura Palmer around, storylines meandered in soap opera fashion, and the show limped about looking for direction. One story arc turned into a bad film noir parody, while others turned in to bad absurdist comedies. Guest stars like Heather Graham and Billy Zane were brought in as new love interests, but sparks failed to fly. Then there was the whole “Pine Weasel” fiasco, about which the less said the better.
As season 2 wore on a new main plot eventually emerged, revolving around Agent Cooper’s old partner, Windom Earle, a mastermind turned rogue, and a mystical locus of primordial evil dubbed “the Black Lodge.” Faced with cancellation, Lynch (who had been neglecting the TV franchise as he returned to feature films with Wild at Heart) publicly campaigned for the series’ renewal. Despite not having directed an episode since episode 7 of season 2, he returned for the season finale (which would also prove to be the series finale). “Twin Peaks” did not go quietly into that dark night; like the series 1 cliffhangers, it ended with several characters in mortal danger. Lynch also took us back inside the Red Room, reuniting Agent Cooper with the Man from Another Place and the giant in a backwards-talking, strobe-lit climax that must have been the weirdest 20 minutes put on television. But it was all for naught; none but the most obsessed Peaks Freaks were still tuning in at the time.
Lynch has since said that he never wanted Laura’s murder to be solved; he planned for it to remain an eternal MacGuffin, an unsolved case that haunted the soul of the town like a reprimand. He and Frost blame the TV executives for “Twin Peaks’” failure by forcing their hand and making them reveal Laura’s murder. It’s an interesting thought, but in this case the suits at corporate were actually right. People were already tuning out in droves after the failure to announce Laura’s killer in Season 2′s opener. Naming the murderer kept the show afloat for a little bit longer. What Lynch’s experiment ultimately proved was that you cannot hold out a compelling mystery like a sexy murder before an audience, then refuse to answer it, yet still expect people to tune in.
Those who didn’t experience the Twin Peaks craze of 1990 directly have little idea how maniacal it was. In the late 1980s TV was a wasteland ruled by once-great sitcoms limping along on their last legs (“Cheers” and “The Cosby Show”). “Twin Peaks” shook up the establishment: it was darker, quirkier, and more artistically ambitious than anything on TV. The ground it broke made hit shows like “Northern Exposure,” “The X-Files” and “Lost” possible. Even more importantly, it inaugurated a very brief period of “weird chic”; for a brief moment in time, it was cool to be weird. Audiences who never would have ventured out to see a disturbingly strange art film like Blue Velvet found its close cousin beamed directly into their homes—and they liked it. The adjective “Lynchian” officially entered the lexicon. If you graphed this site’s Certified Weird movies by release date, you’d see a notable spike of six certified movies occurring in 1991, one year after “Twin Peaks” fever peaked. My position is that a lot of offbeat projects like The Dark Backward were greenlit solely because producers were trying to ride the weird wave and find the next “Twin Peaks” before the fad for bizarreness faded.
“Twin Peaks,” which debuted in its first season as the most innovative and impressive shows ever to grace the television screen, ended as one of the biggest disappointments and embarrassments with a second season that was, frankly, abysmal at times. But, this is what happens when you strive for immortality and take a leap into the unknown. Sometimes you soar, sometimes you fall flat on your face. “Twin Peaks” did both in its short life, which is part of its enduring legend.
The ten-disc Twin Peaks Gold Box Edition is the definitive edition of the show, containing every episode, the alternate international pilot, deleted scenes, and a disc full of supplemental goodies including rarities such as Kyle MacLachlan’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live” and the Lynch-directed “Twin Peaks” themed commercials for a Japanese canned coffee product.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: