Spooky 90s – Twin Peaks

Created by David Lynch & Mark Frost
Seasons : 3
ABC (Seasons 1-2), Showtime (Season 3)

It’s may not have seemed like it on the 8th of April 1990, but when Pete Martell discovered Laura Palmer’s body wrapped in plastic, American television was forever altered. It would, however, be a subtle change ricocheting through the airwaves, rippling out ever more forward over the next decade, but the seeds of change were sown. 

The idea of David Lynch creating and directing something for network television must have seemed like a strange and idiosyncratic choice, even in the late 80s and early 90s when Twin Peaks entered production. Up to this point in his career the surreal auteur had made a name for himself with his cult debut Eraserhead, following it up with the somewhat more mainstream, but still critically acclaimed and artistic achievement of The Elephant Man, a black and white Oscar-caliber prestige picture produced by Mel Brooks no less, before stumbling a little with an attempt at mainstream glory with sci-fi epic Dune. The latter had come about after having previously failed to find some sort of creative wavelength with the Star Wars series, having met with George Lucas about the possibility of directing Return of the Jedi

The failure of Dune saw Lynch be handed a smaller budget and complete creative freedom by its producer Dino De Laurentiis for his next project, and it was a film that would cement what we would all now think of as Lynchian. Blue Velvet begins with a grisly discovery in a none more mainstream community of white picket fences and blue skies, but which opens the gates towards a darker and more surreal undercurrent to that very world. With Kyle McLachlan as the lead, music by Angelo Badalamenti and the late, great Julee Cruise, not to menton a darkly violent sexual predator as its main antagonist, one could argue the film was a blueprint of sorts for the story that Lynch was about to help shepherd on television which makes the existence of Twin Peaks on the ABC Network in 1990, a network that would a few years later be owned by Disney no less, all the more astonishing.

Perhaps the aspect of what would help sell it as a television series was the presence of co-creator Mark Frost. 

Sometimes it feels as if Frost gets lost a little in the Twin Peaks conversation, but it was his know-how of television having been part of the writers’ room of Hill Street Blues, an early example of developing how serialized storytelling could work on prime time American television, that perhaps allowed Twin Peaks to function as successfully as it did.

Visually the series is pure Lynch; TV was all about pace and squeezing in as much story as you could in an hour (forty-five minutes for commercials), but running for ninety minutes in its pilot form, the Twin Peaks pilot episode Northwest Passage takes its time, slowly pulling you in as Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic and haunting score plays mournfully over the soundtrack, the discovery of Laura Palmer taking on a near Hitchcockian level of suspense when one rewatches the opening episodes. There is a specter of something just a tad unnatural hovering over the periphery as Pete Martell gets ready for his fishing trip, coming so soon after a credit sequence that felt so different to anything else on the air at the time.

Nowadays audiences are used to elongated cinematic credit sequences that play longer than thirty seconds, but the green text that plays against a picturesque background of Americana imagery of factories, green forests and rippling water on lakes feels both normal and yet otherworldly, Badalamenti’s iconic theme giving it a touch of art-house movie atmosphere that would be more common today but which felt incredibly groundbreaking and original on a small screen production in 1990. 

One of the most iconic moments in television history, the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body in the first episode of Twin Peaks is as a catalyst for not only the series itself, but also in many ways the direction of American television.

It takes even longer for the iconic lead character of the series, FBI Agent Dale Cooper, to show up, his first scene showing him driving into town, talking to assistant Diane via dictaphone and extolling the virtues of cherry pie as fine food and staring in wonderment at the trees (Douglas Firs) around him. 

Where most television detectives were hard-boiled types like Jim Rockford or scruffy bags of irascible energy like Columbo, here was a detective who was almost childlike in his wonder of the world, but charming in a way like no other. The case might be a disturbing one, but McLachlan taps into something quirky but charming, finding positivity in his surroundings and using intuition and sensitivity a world away from more toxically masculine characters that were a dime on a dozen on the small screen.

the heavily promoted pilot episode drew in large ratings upon its premiere on ABC and there has always been a perception of the series being amongst the biggest to ever air, and yet that’s kind of embellishing the past. Sure, the pilot got what Mark Frost described as ‘Super Bowl numbers’, but in the end the series would only appeal to a cult following and would find itself increasingly leaving its network and its executives confused about the whole endeavor. Its Thursday night time slot in America perhaps didn’t help where it found itself competing against Cheers.

Producing a little over thirty episodes, the first two seasons are easily split in half; the Palmer investigation and everything after it. Those first fifteen episodes are truly amongst the greatest television ever produced. Sure, the writers were very much making it up as they went along, and even by their own admission never really wanted Laura’s murder to be solved. It was a golden goose that laid golden eggs that could drive the story on seemingly forever, but it was almost meant to be the launching pad for the rest of the show, the investigation receding into the background as it continued, or at least that was what the series had in terms of anything approaching a plan. 

Instead, the audience loved the chase of the mystery, but they also wanted the answers that were never planned to go with it. It was something that would also give the likes of Chris Carter, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse headaches when The X-Files and Lost were driving the cultural conversations at their own peaks when they were originally broadcast and which also had a spiritual predecessor in Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, whose ending was so controversial at the time legend has always had it that McGoohan, creator and star of the series, had to leave the UK in order to ignore the fall-out. 

Serialization was something that American network television frequently wanted to shy away from; how can you syndicate something that demands that the audience watch every episode, every week at the same time? It maybe explains why the series didn’t become the ratings juggernaut that it sometimes is believed to be and why a large chunk of the  audience that tuned into the first and second episodes started to drift away.

Kyle McLachlan’s performance as Special Agent Dale Cooper became an instantly iconic one, bringing not only a quirkiness to the lead detective of Twin Peaks, but also an inherently sensitive quality that was the complete opposite to so many male detectives on the small screen up to that point.

Yet, it’s easy to see how a section of the audience became so transfixed with the whole thing. Laura Palmer herself is amongst television’s most engrossing characters, one whose presence haunts every part of the series and yet she is only present in flashbacks and dream sequences. The only time we ever see Sheryl Lee play the character in the present day of the series is either as her corpse or in the iconic Black Lodge sequences. Lee’s impact in the role, despite being limited in the pilot, was so impressive to Lynch that he created the character of Maddy, Laura’s cousin, just so he could keep Lee on the series.  The famed homecoming photograph of Laura that recurs throughout the series and which is present in the end credits sequence of the majority of most episodes in the first two seasons hides the horrifying backstory lying in wait, while memory, nightmares and dreams haunt every aspect of the series. 

While the series flits between tones in mesmerising fashion, with its copious consumption of cherry pies, coffees and the loving friendship between Cooper and Sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean), it’s decorative tissue for an investigation that will lead to some genuinely disturbing revelations regarding the murder, not to mention the twisted soap operatics playing out within the rest of the town. 

For a long time, you could have easily gotten to the resolution of the Laura Palmer story and left Twin Peaks there and missed nothing. The second half of its initial run is messy and nowhere near as interesting, but then you’d be missing out on the season two finale, a darkly thrilling slice of surreal horror that ends in a cliffhanger that was designed to set up an intriguing third season but which wasn’t to be. A movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, followed a year later, but took a prequel course that at the time left audiences bereft in confusion and hatred because of its prequel status and the fact that it unflinchingly decided to explore the murder of Laura in graphic detail as a result of Lynch no longer being handcuffed by network television restrictions, a fact made abundantly clear by the opening shot of the film being a television blowing up.

Its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival was infamously met by a booing audience and critics reviews at the time, with the exception of a scant few, were overwhelmingly negative. Time has been good to it and it has come in for reappraisal as the years have gone on, not least being helped by revival series Twin Peaks: The Return which opted to unflinchingly connect everything in it to the events of the film on top of the first two seasons.

When the revival topped many film critics Top Ten lists at the end of 2017, there was understandable controversy due to the fact that it was a television series and not a film, but then it was understandable to be excited- it wasn’t just the return of Twin Peaks; it was also the fully fledged return of Lynch himself eleven years after his last feature length film Inland Empire. The 2017 revival was an eighteen hour odyssey into the heart of the Twin Peaks world, but which also dared to venture away from the confines of the town itself and which brought the Peaks flavour to other locations, other story strands and which rejected easy going nostalgia in favour of Lynch and Mark Frost being let loose from the shackles that came with producing the series for network television in favour of something daringly avant-garde since it was now being broadcast on cable giant Showtime. 

It was a different beast of a series compared to the one it was following on from. Being a Showtime Original meant that like the feature film prequel it didn’t have network television restrictions to fall back on; it was very much an R-rated affair filled with blood, guts, graphic violence, sex and nudity, and daringly opted to have Dale Cooper stricken with amnesia for most of it, while at the same time having McLachlan play an evil doppelgänger version of himself, picking up with disturbing ferocity the cliffhanger ending of the original series but one which didn’t shy away from the amount of time that had passed in real-life.

While the first two seasons might have had certain restrictions, Lynch and Frost still broke the mould in bringing surreal scenes that flitted between humorous and chilling, not to mention increasingly dark themes, into the living rooms of audiences that were more used to a sense of the safe and comforting in their television viewing during prime time. When the moment came to reveal the killer, Lynch, Frost and the writers didn’t hold back, bringing a level of intensity that was more akin to an R-rated horror film than anything else you could dare imagine. 

The character, or entity, of BOB is amongst not only one of television’s most frightening characters, but one of the most horrifying figures in all of the horror genre. The story of the casting of BOB actor Frank Silva is one of those stories that could only have come from a Lynch set; Silva was a set decorator who was accidentally caught in a reflection in a mirror during the filming of the pilot episode’s final scene and during prep for another nearly got stuck while moving furniture, all of which led Lynch to create the series’ main antagonist and harbinger of so much of its threat and distressing menace. 

It wasn’t just enough to have a villain of this nature on television; Lynch even daringly tried to make the character an invasive one not only in terms of his actions of the town of Twin Peaks itself, but also in one of its most iconic moments a scene where he is framed in a point of view shot that almost makes it feel as if the character is trying to crawl out of the television set itself and into the real-life space of the viewer.

The sequence of episodes that revealed BOB’s connection to Laura’s killer are the series at its absolute peak, and while it’s easy to be dismayed that the series couldn’t do anything else but go off the rails thereafter, the three episodes that deal with the murderer’s reveal, the ensuing chaos brought about by a second murder and the moment are heroes finally figure it all out are amongst some of the most magnificent television ever produced. 

Yes, the killer makes their confession in an interrogation room, but the setting is as far as the series goes to making things clear-cut and reliant on cliche. The confession itself is awash with notes of distressing horror, with a revelatory backstory that is once again seeped in a cycle of abuse and possession and a performance that is one of the most committed portrayals of psychosis ever captured on film. You would never get any of it on an episode of Law & Order.

NEXT ON SPOOKY 90s: IT and the phenomenon of the Stephen King mini-series.

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