I feel like I grew up in Twin Peaks, the fictional Washington logging town that gave its name to David Lynch’s iconic TV series, which aired on ABC from the spring of 1990 to the spring of 1991. Twin Peaks has one of the best pilots in television history, which was followed by an abbreviated first season of seven episodes. A second season of twenty-two episodes was produced before the series was canceled.
Twin Peaks was a surprise smash hit and developed a fervent cult following. But few people seemed to really understand it at the time. Coastal urbanites thought Lynch was mocking wholesome hicks, when, in truth, in the character of Albert Rosenfeld—an arrogant Jewish urbanite from back East—he was mocking them.
Since its cancellation, Twin Peaks has receded behind a haze of nostalgia for cherry pie, damned fine coffee, cool jazz, and swaying pines, to the extent that few people seem to remember how painfully bad the series became not even halfway through its second and final season. When ABC axed the series, Lynch returned to direct the last episode, a 50-minute “fuck you” to the network, the critics, and unfortunately the fans as well.
Twin Peaks will always be David Lynch’s baby—and we know from Eraserhead how perilous parenthood can be. Although Lynch co-created Twin Peaks with Mark Frost and was one of fourteen directors who worked on the pilot and twenty-nine episodes, Twin Peaks is recognizably Lynch’s vision. This becomes clear when one compares it to the movies that came immediately before and after it: Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), projects where Lynch had complete creative control.
I read Twin Peaks as a sequel to Blue Velvet. Both are set in quaint, overwhelmingly white logging towns: Lumberton, North Carolina and Twin Peaks, Washington. Both towns are brimming with quirky Americana, much of it with an anachronistic 1950s flavor. The lead characters in both movies are played by Kyle MacLaughlin: Blue Velvet’s callow college-boy Jeffrey Beaumont and Twin Peaks’ FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper.
Both stories are set in motion by a shocking crime that reveals evil forces beneath the idyllic surface of small-town life. Both movies involve (metaphorical and real) descents into the underworld, in which the hero encounters evil and vanquishes it—although not completely in Twin Peaks.
Both stories give prominent and positive roles to law enforcement in fighting evil: in Blue Velvet, the Lumberton police, in Twin Peaks the local sheriff’s office, plus the FBI, the US Airforce, and a secret society called the Book House Boys, who go outside the law when justice requires.
Both stories also involve young amateur sleuths: Jeffrey and Sandy in Blue Velvet, Donna Hayward, James Hurley, Madeleine Ferguson, and Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks.
In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey is mentored by Detective Williams, and after his successes as an amateur detective, it would be quite logical for him to go into law enforcement once he learned of the dark side of life and what is necessary to preserve order and goodness. Thus it is tempting to view FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper as what Jeffrey Beaumont might have become just a few years later.
Both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks have elements of the supernatural. In Blue Velvet, this is merely hinted at with the surging electricity that accompanies Frank Booth’s death. In Twin Peaks, it is quite explicit: killer Bob is a possessing demon. In both stories, evil is strongly connected to sexual desire and drugs, both highly addictive pleasures. (Caffeine and sugar are the addictions of the wholesome characters, while smoking straddles the line. It’s only a bit naughty.) In both stories, dreams are also prophetic, very much so in Twin Peaks. Finally, both stories make a great deal of mysteries and secrets: mostly criminal and sexual, but also supernatural.
Kyle MacLaughlin was not the only Blue Velvet cast member to appear in Twin Peaks. Jack Nance and Frances Bay also had roles, although in all fairness, Lynch liked working with them. (Nance also had roles in Eraserhead, Dune, Wild at Heart, and Fire Walk with Me; Bay was in Wild at Heart and Fire Walk with Me.) More significantly, Isabella Rosselini was originally going to play Joan Chen’s role of Josie Packard. (Her name was originally to be Giovanna Packard.)
Composer Angelo Badalamenti and singer Julee Cruise first worked with Lynch on Blue Velvet and then went on to define the sound of Twin Peaks. It was their best work.
Many of Blue Velvet’s staff and crew also worked on Twin Peaks, but the only one who had a creative impact on Twin Peaks was video editor Duwayne Dunham, who also directed three episodes.
Lynch remains bitter to this day about his lack of final cut control on Dune. So why was he willing to take his ideas to network television? He had creative control of the pilot, but if the series were picked up, he could hardly have expected to control its subsequent development.
I think the connection with Blue Velvet throws some light on this. Lynch made Blue Velvet exactly as he wanted it. He made the Twin Peaks pilot exactly as he wanted it. Thus he could risk letting others make their mark, knowing that any subsequent developments could not change the originals.
What’s so great about Twin Peaks?
First, there is a compelling story that arcs through the pilot and the first sixteen episodes: discovering who killed Laura Palmer.
Second, this serious story is counter-balanced by warm-hearted Americana, quirky side characters, and some genuine hilarity: Audrey Horne’s cherry stem stunt, Mr. Tojamura, Leland Palmer calling out “Begin the Beguine,” any scene with David Patrick Kelly as Jerry Horne or Russ Tamblyn as Dr. Jacoby, and the fact that practically everyone smokes, even in the hospital.
Third, there are a lot of interesting, well-drawn characters, some of them horrible, some of them quite likeable. My favorites are Kyle MacLaughlin as Dale Cooper, Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Truman, Ray Wise as Leland Palmer, Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer, Peggy Lipton as Norma Jennings, Jack Nance as Pete Martell, Piper Laurie as Catherine Martell, Dana Sahbrook as Bobby Briggs, Don Davis as Major Garland Briggs, Warren Frost (father of Mark Frost) as Doc Hayward, and Catherine Coulson as the Log Lady.
Fourth, there is a great-looking cast, including Lara Flynn Boyle, Mädchen Amick, Sherilynn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Peggy Lipton, James Marshall, Dana Ashbrook, Gary Hershberger, Kyle MacLaughlin, Michael Ontkean, and Billy Zane.
Fifth, there is some excellent acting, especially by Ray Wise (Leland Palmer) and Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer). Dana Ashbrook as Bobby Briggs is also surprisingly good, something I appreciated only on a recent viewing.
Finally, there is the series’ metaphysical depth. For Lynch, good and evil are not merely social or merely human. They are metaphysical forces. This is what the urbanites and Leftists cannot understand about Lynch: he is a fundamentally religious and conservative filmmaker with a strong populist bent.
What went wrong?
The serious and comic elements of Twin Peaks existed in a delicate balance through the end of episode sixteen (episode nine of season two), when the murder of Laura Palmer was solved. At that point, there was no reason for agent Dale Cooper to stay in Twin Peaks and nothing to counter-balance the goofier elements, which rapidly became tiresome: Remember super-strong Nadine Hurley, with amnesia, going back to high school and joining the wrestling team? Ben Horne reenacting the Civil War? David Duchovny in drag? Dick Tremaine and little Nicky? The little pine weasel? Dougie, Dwayne, and the seductive Lana? The Miss Twin Peaks pageant?
(Even at its worst, though, Twin Peaks was un-PC: for instance portraying the South winning the Civil War as therapeutic and showing how sociopathic businessmen use environmentalism as a weapon against their rivals.)
The writers contrived ways to keep Cooper in Twin Peaks: first a DEA/FBI investigation then the return of Cooper’s old nemesis Windom Earle. There were lame attempts to add some drama and romance to the silliness, usually in the form of useless new characters. Remember James Hurley and Evelyn Marsh? The return and death of Josie Packard? Sheriff Truman’s bender? The return of Andrew Packard? Thomas Eckhardt and his assistant Jones? Donna Hayward wondering if Ben Horne is her father? Billy Zane and his screamingly gay jumpsuit?
Some blamed the death of Twin Peaks on schedule changes and the Gulf War, which preempted a lot of programming. But these explanations don’t wash. People would have followed the show to new days and times if it had remained compelling, and pretty much all shows got preempted by the war, but not all of them failed.
How should you approach Twin Peaks if you’ve never seen it, or want to see it again? My recommendation is simply to watch the pilot and the first sixteen episodes (all of season one and the first nine of season two). Then stop. You’ll enjoy everything quintessentially Twin Peaks. The Laura Palmer story arc will be resolved. And you’ll miss almost all of the bad and boring stuff, including the absolute nadir of the series: episode twenty-two, directed by Diane Keaton with such poisonous contempt for the bumpkins that it might as well have been directed by Woody Allen.
Here are some highlights to look for. The best part of the pilot is everything up to the introduction of Dale Cooper: the discovery of the body of Laura Palmer; the exquisite tension and pathos of the scene in which she is rolled over, unwrapped, and recognized; cut to Laura’s mother Sarah calling her to get ready for school, discovering she is missing, and with mounting anxiety calling around to track Laura down; Sarah talking to her husband Leland as the sheriff’s truck pulls up at the Great Northern Hotel to tell him the terrible news; Leland realizing something is wrong as the sheriff approaches, while his wife melts down on the other end of the phone. Another brilliant sequence is the word of Laura’s death spreading at the High School. It is exquisitely heartbreaking. Aside from Blue Velvet, the Twin Peaks pilot is Lynch’s best work and blows away anything on television before or since.
Another highlight are episodes seven through nine, beginning with the brilliantly constructed cliffhanger at the end of season one and continuing into the first two episodes of season two. Episode seven is directed by Mark Frost, episodes eight and nine by David Lynch. They are wonderfully bizarre and imaginative.
Also outstanding are episodes fourteen through sixteen, directed by David Lynch, Caleb Deschanel, and Tim Hunter respectively. In this sequence we learn who the killer of Laura Palmer is and see him brought to justice.
The Lynch-directed episode fourteen is one of the best in the series, and one of the most difficult to watch as it ends with the murder of Maddie Ferguson.
Episode fifteen is an utterly creepy game of cat and mouse as the killer covers up his crime and disposes of the body. It brilliantly portrays a combination of madness and cunning. It ends with the discovery of Maddie’s body.
Episode sixteen begins the morning after Maddie’s discovery. Dale Cooper, Sheriff Truman, Deputy Hawk, and agent Rosenfeld are walking after a sleepless night at the crime scene. Once the killer is caught, the episode ends with Cooper, Rosenfeld, and Truman meeting Airforce Major Briggs on a path and discussing their common commitment to the fight against evil. It is a fitting end to the whole series.
Don’t be tempted to watch further thinking that certain plot lines might be resolved, because they won’t. You’ll just be strung along a bit more, as television is wont to do. You’ll sit through hours of crap and then be left hanging anyway because the series was canceled. So you might as well just accept that you’ll be left hanging and avoid the bad stuff. Or, if you can’t resist looking at the later episodes, give yourself a week or ten days break, then go back to it with the idea that you are just watching outtakes and deleted scenes. It will make it easier.
Twin Peaks is not free from the farcical and manipulative elements of television. Certain conceits are repeated to the point of absurdity. For instance, in total of thirty episodes, there are eleven murders and at least ten attempted murders—in town of 51,120 people. (By the way, that number seems high for the area. Perhaps it was inspired by the Hindu idea that when a town has more than 50,000 people, decadence is inevitable. Sadly, even much smaller logging towns are now rotted by drugs and deindustrialization.)
There are a lot of stupid plot elements and lapses of continuity. The business intrigues of Ben Horne, Catherine Martell, and Josie Packard don’t really make sense. Agent Cooper asks a lawyer to represent the man he is arresting for killing the lawyer’s own daughter—and the lawyer agrees. Court hearings and other important community events are held in a dive bar. Ben Horne is allowed to wear a tie in his jail cell, where he is being held on suspicion of murder. Then he is magically released even though he is known to have been involved in racketeering, arson, and attempted murder. The show is set in February and March—April at the latest—but people go deer hunting and autumn leaves litter the ground in several scenes.
At its worst, Twin Peaks is just a prime-time soap opera. It keeps you watching by stringing you along with various unresolved subplots, especially romances. Because soaps lack finite stories with dramatic closure, the whole medium is empty and unrewarding. But at its best, Twin Peaks is better than anything on TV.
In upcoming articles, I will discuss Lynch’s prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and his sequel, 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return.