Since Twin Peaks first aired in 1990, it has become a cult classic, and rightly so. But more often than not, the show is commonly referred to as “that strange show from the ’90s”. But Twin Peaks was much more than just a surreal mishmash of styles. It became the progenitor of modern serialised TV, and in many respects, was way ahead of its time.
In 2014, co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost confirmed that the show would return for a new season in 2016, but that was later delayed to 2017. Revivals are nothing new. But the news of Twin Peaks’ return stood apart from other shows coming back, in part because of Twin Peaks’ cult status, but also because of the 25-year break between seasons.
At the end of Twin Peaks season two, Laura Palmer tells Agent Dale Cooper “I’ll see you again in 25 years”, so whether the gap of 25 years in real time was David Lynch’s plan all along is unclear. But once it returns, Twin Peaks will hold the record for longest break between seasons. Whichever direction the new season will take, the impact that the original show had on the future of TV dramas in unmistakeable.
Silver Screen and Small Screen Collide
In 1988, Hill Street Blues writer Mark Frost and director of surreal indie films Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, David Lynch, pitched a show to ABC. The show was about a murder in a small town that serves as the base mystery, but this would all fade into the background amidst the police investigations and soap-like plotlines. Had Lynch’s experimental creative style not been part of the driving force behind Twin Peaks, TV execs might not have been so receptive to the idea. At the time, big name directors “graduated” from TV to movies, so the notion of someone making the jump from film to TV was unusual.
Twin Peaks had a vision, and for the most part, season one and the start and end of season two stuck to that vision. Lynch and Frost not only wrote the show, but they also established the language, style, and feel. They created something that was unmistakably Twin Peaks. As a result, not only did Twin Peaks not feel like a regular TV show, it also didn’t look like one either. With Lynch at the helm, the show took a more filmic approach by using “Auteur Theory” which suggests that a film is the result of a director’s singular vision.
However, unfortunately for Twin Peaks, Lynch and Frost did not write and direct every episode so the pair couldn’t always control the singular vision. Despite the show’s fall in quality a little too often that lead to its cancellation, the groundwork was always there.
Film Directors Like TV, Too
True Detective is a prime example of a show with a singular creative vision. With every episode in season one written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga, the show ends up feeling more like an eight-hour movie rather than eight individual episodes.
Now, big-name directors are involved in TV all the time. Steven Spielberg has served as producer on several shows over the years, Martin Scorsese made the jump to TV with Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl, and most recently, Jonathan Nolan and JJ Abrams teamed up to create Westworld. These days, film directors moving to TV is commonplace, but Twin Peaks was the catalyst that showed that the creative process could crossover to a different medium and not be a step down in their career.
Besides its quirkiness, Twin Peaks also stood out from the crowd with its strong ensemble cast. Some very talented and recognisable faces have taken up residence in the town of Twin Peaks and coexist perfectly with a handful of fresh faces. While viewers stayed for the coffee, they ventured into Twin Peaks because of the townsfolk.
Before Twin Peaks, TV, of course, had some big names. But that’s what they were – TV stars; it was the show that brought them to the public’s attention. Twin Peaks, on the other hand, had big names from the get-go. It starred a regular of Lynch’s films, Kyle MacLachlan, as well as, West Side Story stars Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblin, as well as Carrie star Piper Laurie. Although the show had some big-hitters, these stars didn’t overshadow the talents of their lesser-known cast members. Actors like Heather Graham, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Billy Zane had an opportunity to shine and became stars in their own right.
Twin Peaks was also notable in its wide-ranging guest stars. Everyone from David Bowie and Joan Chen to pre-SNL Molly Shannon and pre-X-Files David Duchovny appeared in an episode or two. However, while there was a big focus on an exceptional cast, the actors were actually secondary to the plot. It was the unusual story and distinct style that kept viewers returning rather than the all-star cast.
Quality Attracts Talent
The line between TV and film is now blurred beyond the point of recognition. No longer is there a divide between “film stars” and “TV stars”. Hollywood is bleeding into our living rooms; you just have to look at the biggest shows around right now to see it. Kevin Spacey plays the scheming Frank Underwood in House of Cards, Mads Mikkelsen played the titular Hannibal, and most recently, Sir Anthony Hopkins, played Dr. Robert Ford in HBO’s Westworld.
However, networks would often use that kind of star-power in a show as a selling point. Today, this trend has thankfully receded, and although big-name film stars are crossing over to TV, shows are no longer relying on their star power to get audiences excited for a new series.
Why are big names making the jump to TV? The answer is simple: it’s the talent behind the camera and the writing. We don’t watch Game of Thrones because it has big name actors; we watch because of the enrapturing power struggles. In fact, Game of Thrones is the perfect example, as we don’t see actors Kit Harrington, Lena Headey or even Sean Bean, we only see Jon Snow, Cersei Lannister, and Eddard Stark. Cast, crew, and audience all share one thing – they are attracted to a show because of its quality, allowing for more ambitious storytelling with each passing year.
Lynch at the Water Cooler
Water cooler moments are what TV shows live and die by. All the fan speculation and conversations about what a cliffhanger meant or when twists and turns are going to come are what make or break a series. The conversations that happen between episodes is just as important as watching an episode. TV extends beyond its runtime, and it prompts speculation. “Who killed Laura Palmer?” was one of the original water cooler questions and it seeped into the ’90s zeitgeist.
Murder mysteries weren’t new to TV. Shows like Columbo, Hill Street Blues, and Law & Order all took a small mystery or crime and solved it by the closing credits of the episode. On the other hand, Twin Peaks took one crime and let Agent Cooper discover the truth at his own pace. This allowed the show to delve deeper into Laura Palmer’s murder. The show was more about how the crime affected those closest to the victim and the community as a whole.
At the time, viewers were not used to this method of storytelling on TV, particularly in murder mysteries. When an episode finished, the mystery had not been solved. It left more questions than answers. The format took Twin Peaks and elevated it from the shows that you would watch every now and then into an obsession. Audience participation and speculation drove Twin Peaks’ popularity. TV had suddenly become an event.
Water Coolers Moments in a Streaming World
In today’s TV landscape, shows like The Walking Dead, Westworld, and Game of Thrones all heavily rely on these water cooler moments. While the face of TV viewing shifts from traditional weekly episodes to that of streaming entire seasons and bingeing the entire thing in one go, water cooler moments are crucial in sustaining buzz and excitement while developing a loyal following. However, water coolers, too, have changed, with social media largely taking its place.
David Lynch was never going to follow any rules. As such, Twin Peaks is a bit of a tricky show to pin down. On one hand, it’s a murder mystery, but on the other, it’s a supernatural thriller that’s also a soap opera. These drastic changes in tone kept the audience guessing from week to week. Twin Peaks could go from a quirky comedy scene directly into something sinister and horrific. Even now, these tonal shifts are jarring, but they were exceptionally so when airing alongside shows like Star Trek, Hill Street Blues, and Columbo.
Confusion and Riddles
For most shows, confusing your audience isn’t a particularly smart move – if nobody can follow what’s happening, people are going to get bored and move on. Lost was notorious for this, and fans dedicated endless threads and forums to arguing about what was going on and what went over everybody’s heads. Twin Peaks managed to toe the line between being compelling and becoming too confusing. You can’t give the audience exactly what they expect because that would be boring, but you can’t bamboozle them either. Instead, you need to find that balance between giving them all the answers and leaving some things for them to discover for themselves. That way when the big reveal comes, you have an “Ahh!” moment as opposed to a “Huh?” moment.
Agent Cooper’s first night in the Great Northern Hotel has him dreaming about the red room and the man from another place who talks backward. The man gives Agent Cooper a series of riddles that have no context for what we have seen in the show so far. Confused? You’re supposed to be. Luckily, as the next episodes unfold, Agent Cooper discovers facts about the crime that relate to the cryptic riddles from his dream and he realises, along with the audience, that the answers were staring him in the face the whole time.
Changing the Rules For the Future
Twin Peaks played with audience expectations on what a detective drama is supposed to be about and in many areas, bent and broke the rules in such a way that these have now become accepted rules for TV.
Westworld stirred up attention when it played with the rules and broke them in all the right places. Like Twin Peaks, HBO’s Westworld revolved around a mystery. How that mystery was presented and resolved, however, was very different. Go to any Westworld forum and you will be inundated with theories about almost every aspect of the show.
Westworld is a show about mysteries wrapped within mysteries, and each episode requires repeat viewings to pick up on all the minute details. That’s a lot to ask of an audience and would only be possible now thanks to the way we consume media. Streaming services mean we can rewatch to our heart’s content while social media gives us instant access to the watercooler chat. All of these are necessary to keep ahead of Westworld’s mysteries which require close attention on the audience’s part. This method was a resounding success for the show. Without the foundation Twin Peaks laid out, it’s possible that audiences wouldn’t be as receptive to this style of TV.
Like a drop of water in a lake whose ripples can be felt all the way to the shore, Twin Peaks has profoundly affected television and its evolution. Twin Peaks wrote the modern TV rulebook without even really meaning to, and with its return later this year, it will be interesting to see whether it can stand shoulder to shoulder with giants like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.
Without Twin Peaks, we may never have had another hugely influential show The X-Files. The X-Files, in turn, paved the way for Fringe from JJ Abrams and Alex Kurtzman which came back and paid its own homage to Twin Peaks. One such reference actually puts Fringe and Twin Peaks in the same universe when Fringe’s Dr. Walter Bishop dons a pair of red and blue-tinted glasses and claims that they are a gift from a colleague and friend at Washington State, Dr. Jacoby.
The effects of Twin Peaks on modern television are staggering. At the time, David Lynch and Mark Frost would have had no idea just how influential the show would become. The journey TV has taken since the show first premiered in 1990 can be perfectly summed up in a quote from Agent Dale Cooper: “I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange”.