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11 TV shows that wouldn't exist without Twin Peaks

Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks
Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Blu-Ray release of David Lynch and Mark Frost's ingenious, seminal mystery series Twin Peaks on Tuesday and the attendant hoopla (deleted scenes! a new take on the famously enigmatic series finale!) reconfirm something many TV fans have known for a long time: Twin Peaks is one of the most influential shows in the medium's history. There are maybe a handful of dramas that can be pointed to as dividing lines for TV, where it's easy to recognize shows that came before the series' time on the air and shows that came after. Twin Peaks was one of them.

That we would be saying this in 2014 is something that just wouldn't have occurred to viewers of the program in 1991, when it was canceled in the midst of its famously troubled second season. The show debuted in the spring of 1990 to a wave of critical acclaim. It became a sensation, with viewers trying to unravel the show's central mystery: who had killed homecoming queen Laura Palmer? Spinoff merchandise was spun off. The show received awards nomination after awards nomination. And the media went a little bit nuts.

But here's the thing about being a legitimately groundbreaking work of art: sometimes, people don't know what to make of you. And as the Laura Palmer mystery entered its second season, many wondered just when the show would resolve its central case. Lynch (best known for dark, surreal films like Blue Velvet) and Frost initially intended to only reveal the answer in the series finale, but finally bent to public pressure. The identity of Laura's killer was revealed in the 14th episode (which turned out to be almost exactly the midpoint of the show), Lynch left to make another film, and the show's ratings continued their downward trend.

But if the audiences of 1991 weren't quite sure what to make of the show - cue Homer Simpson: "Brilliant! I have no idea what's going on" - those who wrote, directed, and produced television were paying lots of attention, and now, the show's influence can be felt in damn near every show on the air. (Should you want to see its own ancestors, look no further than The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, thirtysomething, and Moonlighting.) But rather than list every show that's come since Peaks left the air, we thought we'd focus on these 11, which all point to specific ways Peaks has influenced television.

1) Northern Exposure

Though largely forgotten today, this contemporary of Twin Peaks made that show's weirdness more palatable to a large audience. Where the odd center of Peaks was often terrifying and threatening, Northern Exposure subsumed its own literary weirdness under bundles of quirk. Both shows were filmed in Washington state (among the earliest TV shows not to film in Los Angeles, New York, or Hawaii), and both shows were fond of long digressions that had nothing to do with the main plot. But by leaning more toward overt comedy, Northern Exposure managed a six-season run and won the Emmy that eluded Twin Peaks. The two were compared so often while both on the air that Northern Exposure actually filmed this weird tribute to its competitor/cousin.

2) The X-Files

If there was a show that "mainstreamed" the Twin Peaks sensibility, it was the ‘90s mega-hit The X-Files, without which Peaks might have become a curious footnote in television history. Twin Peaks was built around one central mystery? Well, The X-Files was, too. Twin Peaks was filled with suggestions of the weird, terrifying corners of the American imagination? The X-Files would have that in spades. Twin Peaks had David Duchovny for a while? The X-Files would pick that up as well. The stroke of genius that made X-Files run for nine seasons, however, was that not every episode was about the central mystery (which involved aliens visiting the Earth). Some were standalones, and that gave the show license to spread its Peaks-y vibe in every direction. At its height, it was one of the most experimental shows in TV history, deeply indebted to Lynch's weird art film for TV.

3) The Sopranos

When HBO was carefully choosing which series it would go forward with to follow up its initial drama series, Oz, one of its candidates was this mob drama that was really more of a drama about psychology. It was created by David Chase, a man with Northern Exposure roots who had been offered a job on The X-Files should HBO decide to pass. And when HBO did pick up Sopranos at the last minute, Chase immediately began delving deep into the Twin Peaks back catalog. In its ability to find menace amid American normalcy, the show definitely had a Lynchian vibe, but its most direct link to Peaks is likely in its use of dream sequences, which it used to plumb the depths of its main character's subconscious. Peaks had loved dreams, too, but Sopranos took them to a whole new level.

4) 24

The central problem of Twin Peaks was that it wanted to tell one story, but it became far too difficult to keep the audience (at least at the time) invested in that story over the course of an entire series. Though 24 is perhaps the series with the least direct debts to Peaks on this list, it did tackle that same problem and inadvertently solve it by basically ignoring normal story structure. Every season of 24 purported to be one story, but it was actually many smaller stories, and with every episode, its momentum carried it forward, faster and faster, all involved hoping the train wouldn't leave the tracks. Want to avoid the kind of backlash Peaks encountered in its second season? Simply move too fast for anyone to think.

5) Lost

Many have tried to nail the "one central mystery over the course of a show" vibe that Twin Peaks was going for; none have wholly succeeded. But Lost came closer than many, even if its ultimate solutions frustrated many fans. And in its ability to turn the deserted island where its characters made their new home into a place of almost unbridled, unchecked menace, the show tipped its hat toward Peaks. Here was a world with one level, then a deeper, far more terrifying and primordial level of shadow and horror. At its best, Lost suggested some lurking terror that awaited at the heart of the island. That was a page straight out of the Peaks playbook. (Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof's current series, The Leftovers, owes a fair amount to Peaks as well.)

6) Desperate Housewives

It's easy to forget now that the show is mostly known for its serialization and its moments of existential dread, but Twin Peaks was also a wickedly funny soap opera deconstruction that simultaneously functioned as a darn great, straightforward soap all on its own. It's also easy to forget how well Desperate Housewives managed this trick in its first season, especially since the show spent seven more trying to find its way back to that place and often failing. But at its best, Housewives was a primetime soap that carried with it the acid bite of satire and the sense suburbia might boil over with demons at any moment. Also worth noting: both this and Lost debuted on ABC, the same network that briefly aired Peaks, in the same season. Maybe someone was trying to atone for Peaks's cancellation? (And if you want a far more overtly Peaks-like soap, try Mike White's short-lived creation Pasadena. It's darkly wonderful.)

7) John from Cincinnati

What if you took one of the greatest TV writers in the medium's history (this series' creator, David Milch), then turned him loose in a surf noir playground and asked him to make a series that was Twin Peaks informed by end times Christianity? Well, you might end up with something like this famous flop series from HBO (which debuted immediately after the finale of The Sopranos). John is messy, unfulfilling television, but it's also deeply fascinating, capable of sequences more weird and moving than anything any of Peaks's other imitators attempted.

8) Forbrydelsen/The Killing

"One season covering one case" has basically become a cliché now, with its own expected dramatic beats and predictable reversals. Yet the roots of that movement can be traced directly to Twin Peaks, which, after all, solved its central murder in 14 episodes, one more than the typical cable episode order. And if you ever need proof that any series' aesthetic can be anesthetized and dulled down for mass consumption, look at how badly the AMC (now Netflix) series The Killing longs to copy Twin Peaks, right down to the Pacific Northwest locations. But not only does it miss the mark of that program but also the series it was based on, the Danish drama Forbrydelsen, which wedded the "case of the season" format to some of Peaks's consideration of grief, domestic melodrama, and Danish weather patterns. Forbrydelsen was so successful that it kicked off an entire subgenre known as "Nordic noir," which essentially codified many of Peaks's chief achievements – a love of melodrama, extreme coincidences, a menacing atmosphere and tone ­– into clichés of their own.

9) Louie

Peaks's influence is so pronounced now that it's even reaching out to affect comedies. FX's terrific Louie – itself hugely influential in its own right – has taken the idea of TV driven by an auteur involved deeply in both writing and directing (often seriously discussed in the context of Lynch's work on Peaks) and turned it into the center of a meandering series that doesn't much care for continuity or having every episode even occupy the same universe. Louie has a fuzzy, dream-like relationship with reality that crystallized in its recent, much-discussed fourth season. Plus, Lynch himself was a guest star in a key third-season arc.

10) Pretty Little Liars

Okay, yeah, nobody is going to mistake this show for the slow, menacing world of Peaks, but it does eerily resemble what might happen if you tossed Twin Peaks into a blender with a full bag of damn fine coffee beans, then fed it intravenously to a bunch of teenagers, before writing down whatever came out of their mouths after consuming it. This is not a very smart show, but it reveals how fully the Peaks template ­– central mystery, elements derived more from horror than anything else, intentionally campy melodrama – has touched all of television. Even TV aimed at teenagers is making use of it.

11) Gravity Falls

Really, any of the huge surge of "quirky small-town shows" could stand in for the way Peaks has become such an accepted part of the TV landscape, but let's look at this Disney Channel series about kids spending their summers in a mysterious small town, where all the paranormal beasties from The X-Files are real. Though the show doesn't revolve around a murder, its first season did have a central mystery, of sorts, and it's not all that hard to trace all of the characters back to rough Twin Peaks antecedents. Plus, seeing the influence of Peaks on a weird kids cartoon should, if nothing else, prove just how far the show has come from the days when it suffered ignominious cancellation. Fans of Twin Peaks have long hoped for some sort of revival of the series, but they needn't require such a thing. All they have to do is look everywhere else on the programming grid ­– even the Disney Channel.