Reflections on Twin Peaks

Reflections on <em>Twin Peaks</em>

Why You Should Watch It, And Why Season 3 Matters

Kyle MacLachlan stars as FBI agent Dale Cooper. [Property of Universal]
Kyle MacLachlan stars as FBI agent Dale Cooper. [Property of Universal]

I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”

– Special Agent Dale Cooper


For the uninitiated, Twin Peaks was the pop culture phenomenon of 1990. The very definition of ‘water cooler’ fodder, it premièred on ABC to a massive 35 million viewers. Part mystery, part soap opera, it was immediately embraced by America, praised for redefining network television drama and fondly lampooned on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. However, its commercial success was short lived and it barely made it to the end of its second season; but it inspired a fan devotion that’s rarely been equalled. It’s been so accepted into pop culture that you may have quoted it unwittingly, and have almost certainly seen its influence in the many high-quality, offbeat, ongoing series that have blessed our TV sets for over two decades. In short, Twin Peaks probably made TV drama as we know it – so the news that a third season is on its way in 2016 should have us leaping for joy. Don’t believe me? Allow me to state my case…

Martin Scorsese may be America’s greatest living director – but David Lynch is America’s greatest arthouse auteur. Hollywood can keep its Jarmusches and Soderbergs – there’s a reason that Lynch’s unique talent is best described as ‘Lynchian’. He simply is beyond compare.

The problem is, his films are so unique that they can be alienating, and it can be hard to see their considerable influence on cinema as a whole. The same can’t be said for Twin Peaks. Lynch’s first foray into the world of TV drama was so ahead of its time, so groundbreaking and so wonderfully off-the-wall, that not only is it frequently cited as the progenitor of the current golden age of serial drama, but it also sits comfortably alongside anything that’s been produced since The Sopranos ushered in the era of Great Television. Be it compared to The Wire, Game Of Thrones or Breaking Bad, the power of Twin Peaks‘ dark and imaginative storytelling has not diminished one iota in nearly 25 years.

That alone might be reason enough to persuade you to watch it. But if you’re still in doubt, don’t worry, there’s more. Twin Peaks isn’t simply An Important Show – those types of programmes can become dated and stale as scores of imitators repeat and refine what was once refreshing. No, Twin Peaks is also damn good entertainment. It boasts gorgeous copper-hued imagery, a near-perfect cast of characters, and of course one heck of a central plot. Who killed Laura Palmer? I promise you won’t be able to resist finding out.


Sheryl Lee's has an iconic place in TV history as Laura Palmer. [Property of Universal]
Sheryl Lee has an iconic place in TV history as Laura Palmer. [Property of Universal]

It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly makes Twin Peaks so startlingly fresh even after all these years. Its peculiar blend of police thriller, soap opera, supernatural mythology, side-splitting humour and outright horror has never been matched in its perfection, though many shows have borrowed from it (Northern Exposure and Carnivale are just two examples that spring to mind). The characters are adorable and fully-formed from the get go: Kyle MacLachlan in particular is a shining light among TV heroes and a rare breed of do-gooder, being true and complex without also being a troubled antihero like nearly all of today’s central characters. A lot of this is obviously Lynchian, and the best episodes credit him as director or writer. But many of the best moments don’t belong to Lynch’s episodes, so credit must also go to co-creator Mark Frost and the impressive team of directors and writers who were so inspired by the world of Twin Peaks they immersed themselves in a way never seen on TV before or since. By spending days on set before their turn to take the helm, and by overseeing every element of principal photography and post-production, the show’s directors really pour themselves into each story, displaying a creativity and eye for detail that we now take for granted on television’s biggest series. It was Lynch who afforded them this opportunity for creative control, and he hand-picked his directors to best match his style and vision. But it is really the great art direction, the tremendous performances of a cast full of now-famous faces, and the hauntingly beautiful score by Angelo Badalamenti that lend Twin Peaks the consistent tone it needs to bring those disparate genre elements into a cohesive whole – and it is the genius of Lynch that turned a potentially hokey idea into a compelling work of fiction. He didn’t just bring cinematic values to the small screen, he also brought art.

Viewers like the series for its strengths, but fans love it for its flaws. Despite my ravings above, Twin Peaks is often quoted as the textbook example of a TV show that has an amazing first season but declines in its second. Apologists usually blame this on ABC, the network that pressured Lynch into revealing Laura Palmer’s murderer halfway through season two, thereby removing the show’s impetus and forcing the creators to tell their story without its main motivator. Laura’s killer was never meant to be revealed until the very last episode, and the fascinating mythology of Twin Peaks was designed to be illuminated by the circumstances surrounding her death. The truth is that though Laura’s killer is revealed too early, it’s only by one or two episodes; otherwise the show would have become deeply dissatisfying had they continued to spin out the mystery over several seasons. Think of Lost and you’ll know what I mean.

So, in defence of Twin Peaks‘ apparent decline, I offer this argument. Season two is simply too long for its own good. Lynch and Frost conceived the first season as a mere eight episodes, or nine including the pilot. Its phenomenal success led ABC to commission another 22 episodes including a feature-length season opener, requiring over twice as much drama to fill the gaps between the Laura Palmer plot developments. Without the time to fully concentrate on delivering a tight, high-quality story at its own pace, Twin Peaks had to find ways to fill far too many episodes. The result was that from the very beginning of season two the show began to emphasise the numerous subplots and side characters over the central hero’s investigations into the multitude of mysteries, both natural and supernatural, that embroil the titular town. The story lost focus and the pace began to drag, until it suddenly had to speed up in order to resolve the central mystery on ABC’s orders, after which the show floundered a little as the writers found their feet again. This brief period of treading water had a sharp impact on the viewing figures, which led ABC to mess around with the show’s schedule – Firefly fans know that pain – which soon killed Twin Peaks and caused its cancellation before its many questions and subplots could be wrapped up in a third season.


David Lynch multitasks as FBI agent Gordon Cole. {Property of Universal]
David Lynch multitasks as FBI agent Gordon Cole. [Property of Universal]

The irony is that ABC unwittingly divided the thirty episodes into three neat arcs, so they’ve effectively given us three seasons already. All the same, they did not provide a closed ending and the past quarter of a century has been a sad, speculative time for Twin Peaks fans, especially after Lynch defied expectations (of course he did!) with his 1992 prequel film, Fire Walk With Me. It is tremendously exciting, then, that Showtime recently announced they’re picking up the series for an (official) third season, which will have only nine episodes, all to be written and directed by Mark Frost and David Lynch, and which will air in 2016 on the show’s 25th anniversary.

Not only does this mark Lynch’s first directing gig since his retirement in 2006 – which is something to get excited about in and of itself – but it promises to allow one of the greatest directors and storytellers of all time to reimmerse himself in the wonderful world he created, free of the interference and pre-watershed pressures of executives tied to ad revenues. More importantly, it promises to finally tie up all those loose ends in a short self-contained season, allowing time to be taken to create a piece of living art that only has to tell its own story at its own pace. Sure, enthusiastic fans like me may be inviting disappointment in 2016, but we’ve been there before with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Arrested Development. I choose faith in Lynch and Frost over scepticism.

Most excitingly for fans, the new season coincides beautifully with a prophetic line from episode thirty, which is a contender for the best season finale of all time. When Kyle MacLachlan’s heroic FBI agent chillingly meets the ghost of Laura Palmer, she says just one thing: “See you in 25 years.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the genius of Twin Peaks.

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