Fans of David Lynch’s cult 1990-91 primetime television show celebrate February 24 as Twin Peaks Day—the day FBI Agent Dale Cooper comes to town to investigate the death of Laura Palmer. Superfans will have scheduled their marathon series rewatch to commence at 10:55 this morning, to synch with Cooper’s arrival on the woodsy scene around 35 minutes into the first episode, “Northwest Passage”, dictating the above into his ever-present microcassette recorder for his far-off assistant Diane to someday transcribe. Many make the pilgrimage to the town of Snoqualmie, Washington, where the show’s exterior scenes were filmed, including the iconic opening shot of the crashing Snoqualmie Falls set to Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting theme. Cherry pie will be enjoyed, along with many damn fine cups of coffee, as the mystical whodunit unfolds. In the months leading up to its debut, a blitz of coverage tried to drum up viewership with the doubtful hyperbole that Twin Peaks would be ‘the show that changes television forever’. But it did, and it still does.
The Twin Peaks pilot episode hit the small screen on Sunday, April 8, 1990. Intrigued by the potential genius and/or trainwreck potential of ABC giving America’s premier weirdo auteur free rein to create a primetime thriller, some 35 million viewers tuned in, a tremendous market share. Lynch was still notorious for the imagery of Blue Velvet, especially the severed ear; he and co-creator Mark Frost had filmed an alternate ending for their pilot, ready to be added just in case ABC balked at airing their creation and it had to be released as a stand-alone movie in theaters instead. Viewers like me hoped for dark, arty surrealism, and indeed we got some, especially in later episodes, but the pilot was not what we expected. It opens by gradually drawing us into its haunting, watery Northwest world, where a fisherman discovers the plastic-shrouded body of a young blonde on a rocky shore. This sets off a slow-motion tidal wave of shock and grief: shots of her empty desk as Laura’s classmates begin to understand, the high-school principal who can barely get the words out over the intercom, the crushing anguish of her mother, a frantic call to her father at the Great Northern Hotel, whose face goes ashen when the police truck pulls up and Badalamenti’s score swells. The favorite daughter is dead, and for the entire town, it is a death in the family, that all know will soon spill out its dark secrets. I had gathered a group of friends with a case of beer to my college dorm room to pile onto my ratty couch and tune in, and we were primed for fun. By the closing credits, we sat in silence. Twin Peaks is remembered for its Log Lady and its red curtains and its backward-walking dreamland; the pilot should also be remembered as one of Lynch’s most emotionally powerful creations, taking the melodrama of the classic TV soap opera to a stunning new level.
David Lynch sometimes says in interviews that he never intended to become a filmmaker; he wanted to be a painter, but he wanted to make the paintings move. Impressed by his bizarre 1977 art film Eraserhead, Mel Brooks’ production company hired him to direct the relatively straightforward historical drama The Elephant Man, which did well at the 1980 Academy Awards. George Lucas then tried to get Lynch to direct Return of the Jedi, but he was recruited instead to direct a different big-budget space-capade, Dune, the resulting weirdness of which probably reassured Lucas that he had dodged a surrealist bullet. Lynch cast Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides after they bonded over their shared Pacific Northwest background. He went on to make him the lead in Blue Velvet, a masterpiece that many rank with Citizen Kane and Vertigo, as a kind of avatar of innocent young manhood, traumatically unearthing the sado-sexual darkness behind the bland American small-town exterior and possibly within. For one scene Lynch wanted to use This Mortal Coil’s glacial cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren", but it was too expensive; instead, he had composer Angelo Badalamenti write “Mysteries of Love” with Lynch’s lyrics sung by Julee Cruise. They liked the result and went on to record an album of songs with Cruise in 1989, Floating Into the Night; one of its singles was “Falling”, the instrumental version of which was later repurposed as the Twin Peaks theme.
Lynch originally had no interest in making a television show. He started developing one to humor his agent, who insisted that something like Blue Velvet would make an effective series. He partnered with his friend Mark Frost, who had just finished a successful run on Hill Street Blues, and now wanted to weave a Dickensian world of small-town characters, inspired by the 1908 murder of Hazel Irene Drew and its aftermath near the upstate New York town where he had grown up. Their project was originally called North Dakota. Lynch often finds his way into stories intuitively, jumping off from a striking image, in this case, the body wrapped in plastic discovered on a foggy shore. Lynch and Frost united disparate elements of police procedural, soap opera (a running show-within-a-show is called Invitation to Love, which Twin Peaks residents sometimes watch in the afternoon), horror and comedy, as well as nods to classic shows like Peyton Place and The Fugitive. They cast a lot of middle-aged actors better known for their 1950s and 60s work. Solving the murder of Laura Palmer was never a priority for Lynch or Frost; when they finally bowed to pressure from the network and solved it in the middle of the second season, the series declined drastically in interest. Unfolding ever-deepening layers of mystery and otherworldliness was their novel aim. One ABC executive who pre-screened the series memorably called it Norman Rockwell meets Salvador Dali. As Jen Chaney wrote for Vulture in 2017, Americans had seen whodunit detective TV shows before, but they had not yet seen one in which an FBI agent interviews a witness who is a log.
The visual imagination of David Lynch guided the series overall, but apart from the pilot, he only wound up directing one other episode in the first season, and four more in the second, including the brain-melting finale in the Red Room and the Black Lodge. He had many other interests at the time, including finishing Wild at Heart. I remain in the fanbase minority that finds Lynch’s episodes the primary ones worth watching. Many other episodes drag interminably or abound in silly ‘Lynchian’ quirkiness (including one directed by Diane Keaton, which recalls the visual style of the music video she previously directed for Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth”). Lynch’s are among the finest, most arresting achievements of his career, and still resonate. But even at its low points, Twin Peaks was a weekly lifeline for freaks like me, long before the golden age of prestige television we are presently enjoying. I am also sympathetic to critics like David Thomson who find Lynch’s oeuvre to be a mixed bag between hours of total genius and longer hours of tedious, jittery, awkward inscrutability, which is how Lynch’s 1992 ‘prequel’ feature film, Fire Walk With Me, struck many viewers. Did David Lynch’s obsessive vision ‘drift into clarity’ for Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, he asks, or did America drift into Lynch’s dimension at just the right moment?
At his best or at his worst, Lynch always stays unerringly true to his muse, from Lost Highway to Inland Empire and beyond. In 2017 he and Frost produced a whole new run of episodes called Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series for Showtime. Although MacLachlan and several other original cast members returned, Lynch’s interest in plot seemed to have receded even further toward an already distant horizon. Many of the visuals and the sound design are spectacularly strange, but it’s hard for me to say how most of it connects to anything. For many other viewers, it was a wondrous return to the show’s beloved world.
Though canceled by ABC two seasons after a very strong start, when it eventually dwindled in viewership (despite the efforts of a write-in campaign by COOP, Citizens Opposed to the Offing of Peaks), Twin Peaks was vastly influential on what followed. This included the wildly popular FBI-vs.-supernatural theme of The X Files, a run on quirky small-town characters in the Northwest in shows like Northern Exposure and movies like Fargo, and of course, the very idea of making television with masterful cinematography, elaborate, subtle plotting, and visceral emotional punch like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
But what makes Twin Peaks unique among these is its open-ended strangeness, its total commitment to chance and dream logic. David Lynch lets accident and intuition guide his work with admirable fearlessness. A malfunctioning fluorescent flickered during a take of the autopsy scene; Lynch liked it and kept it in. He originally thought to save money by hiring a local girl to play dead Laura Palmer on the beach; when he found out Sheryl Lee showed promise as an actress, he created flashback scenes for Laura Palmer and cast her as a whole new character, Laura’s cousin Maddy Ferguson. When a camera accidentally caught a reflection of set dresser Frank Silva’s face in a mirror, he built around it the entire character of Killer BOB, who inhabits Leland Palmer, and put Silva in what became an important role. "Things like this happen and make you start dreaming,” Lynch wrote in Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, “and one thing leads to another, and if you let it, a whole other thing opens up." Cooper’s dream in the third episode, in the Red Room with BOB and Mike and Laura Palmer, came to Lynch fully formed in a flash one day when he touched the side of a hot car left out in the sun. Twin Peaks spins a web that can go in any direction and incorporates levels of reality from the mundane to the mystical. In this way, it is as much a television show as it is an approach to meaning and existence. Happy February 24 to you all.