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Twin Peaks, decoded for novices and obsessives alike

Almost 30 years after its debut, Twin Peaks remains one of TV’s most fascinating experiments.

Twin Peaks Showtime

If you’ve never seen it, Twin Peaks isn’t what you think it is.

The show seems to have been filtered down to an essence of weird catchphrases and images over the 26 years it has been off the air. It’s “damn fine coffee” or a dwarf dancing in a red room. It’s the body of a beautiful young woman wrapped in plastic, or an FBI agent coolly dictating memos to an unseen “Diane” on a miniature cassette recorder. Above all, it’s super weird, right? Too weird for network TV, and even too weird for many of its die-hard fans.

But all of the above misses what made Twin Peaks such a lightning bolt when it debuted on ABC — a big, big broadcast network — in the spring of 1990. It misses what made the show such a critical and (brief) ratings sensation, what garnered it tons of Emmy nominations. It’s the surface of Twin Peaks, but not the core.

Twin Peaks changed television history, but almost had to die to do so. It’s one of the greatest TV series ever made, but also way more approachable than you might expect it to be from the years of hype. It’s weird, sure, but it’s also basically a primetime soap with a huge heart.

And now it’s coming back — or, if you’re a Twin Peaks fan, it is “happening again.” But it’s returning as a series that has so successfully permeated the culture that virtually every TV show on the air owes some debt to it. Can Twin Peaks thrive in a world where it’s not the oddball? Or did it gain so much of its power from the simple fact that it aired in 1990, on ABC, where no one would have ever thought to look for it?

No matter your level of Twin Peaks expertise, there’s always more to learn about this infamously intricate show. So please indulge us by allowing us to ruminate on some of the questions you might’ve been too embarrassed to ask, or that have piqued your curiosity about one of TV’s most fascinating experiments.

What is Twin Peaks?

In its first life, Twin Peaks was a murder mystery primetime soap from the minds of Mark Frost and David Lynch that aired on ABC for two seasons, from 1990 to 1991. It dove full force into a small-town whodunit: Murder victim Laura Palmer was (naturally) the town’s most prized blonde teen, and she (naturally) turned out to be hiding some terrible secrets.

From there, things got a whole lot less typical. Special Agent Dale Cooper (the best Kyle MacLachlan there is) investigated the murder with Eagle Scout levels of enthusiasm and dedication that only felt more incongruous the darker Twin Peaks got (and whew, did it get dark). The deeper he and the show got into the mystery, the stranger Twin Peaks revealed itself to be.

The series was full of actors who have since gone on to long-ranging careers — from MacLachlan to Ray Wise to Madchen Amick — and has inspired a fiercely devoted cult of fan followers who have made a sport of dissecting every shot for the potential secrets therein.

Isn’t Twin Peaks super weird?

Well ... yeah. There was really no other way for Twin Peaks to go, given that it’s the product of Lynch — a notoriously surrealist director — funneling his sensibilities through a broadcast network filter. (Or trying to, anyway.)

The world of Twin Peaks is as lush as it is stark, its inhabitants prone to talking in clipped monosyllables, tossed-off non sequiturs, or tangents whose points don’t reveal themselves until their very end, if at all. There’s some lady who walks around town holding a log for seemingly no reason; fans know her, fittingly enough, as “Log Lady.” There are hallucinations that may or may not be hallucinations, an infamous red room in which the dead come back to life (or DO THEY?), and even, eventually, literal demons.

But focusing on the “weird” of Twin Peaks ignores much of what the show actually is: a sardonic twist on the usual murder mystery procedural with a real sense of humor, besides. MacLachlan is a pure delight as Agent Cooper, the Type A FBI agent whose greatest loves are a cup of damn good and/or fine coffee and a fervent dedication to his job. The Twin Peaks locals cover a vast range, from femme fatale Audrey (who usually enters a scene to her own slinky theme music) to lovable doof Officer Andy. The humor is sharp and specific, not to mention integral to Twin Peaks’ success. Without it, the show would’ve careened over the edge much sooner into frantically strange melodrama.

But more on that later.

What’s the deal with David Lynch?

2017 Winter TCA Tour - Day 5
David Lynch at the 2017 Television Critics Association winter press tour
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Honestly, we could write an “[X] questions you were too embarrassed to ask” post entirely about Lynch — and maybe someday we will! — but we’ll try to keep this brief.

David Lynch is the writer and director behind such lauded (and controversial) films as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Mulholland Drive, and Blue Velvet. He is particular, insular, and relentlessly inscrutable. His work, methodical and aggressive, tends to be divisive. He inspires either total adoration — especially in the actors he repeatedly casts in his work, like Laura Dern — or complete confusion.

But his approach is like no one else’s, full of saturated colors and odd angles juxtaposed with sharp emotional climaxes, and never at the moment you might expect. One of the best descriptions of Lynch’s aesthetic came from the man himself, when he made a surprise appearance at the January 2017 Television Critics Association press tour for Twin Peaks. “I only wanted to be a painter,” Lynch said, “and I got into film because I wanted to make paintings move, and one thing led to another...”

Lynch is also notoriously reclusive. When David Foster Wallace wrote a profile of the director on the set of Lost Highway in 1996, for example, he never even got to meet the guy. But Wallace still tried to define Lynch’s sensibility, or what makes a film “Lynchian.” After struggling to piece together an accounting of how the “macabre” meets “mundane,” Wallace basically threw up his hands and admitted that the paradox of Lynch’s filmmaking is that it’s purposely indefinable — but also immediately recognizable:

Like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that's ultimately definable only ostensively — i.e., we know it when we see it. Ted Bundy wasn't particularly Lynchian, but good old Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victims' various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread, was thoroughgoingly Lynchian.

You get the idea. Or maybe you don’t! Either way, that’s kinda the point.

What shows inspired Twin Peaks?

Even though Twin Peaks was wildly original when it premiered, it didn’t come out of nowhere. In particular, the series traded on the cop show and the primetime soap, two established TV forms that viewers would have already known and loved. Indeed, it was the interplay between TV conventions and Lynch’s wildly imaginative dream logic that made the show as good as it was.

Twin Peaks aired on ABC, which underwent a mild creative renaissance in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The network, which had been mired in third place behind NBC and CBS for much of the ’80s, decided it could do worse than to start embracing the visions of creative producers. That impulse led to series both wildly successful (Roseanne and The Wonder Years) and creatively satisfying if not hits (Thirtysomething and China Beach). It also led to the network being the natural home for Twin Peaks when Lynch and Frost went looking for one.

And it’s important not to downplay Frost’s contributions to the series. The co-creator had worked for several seasons on the early-’80s cop show Hill Street Blues, another TV drama that changed the medium, this time by bringing the idea of serialized storytelling to the normally moribund police show (among other innovations). Frost knew exactly how to structure the investigation into the death of Laura Palmer to keep the plot moving forward, while still leaving room for the weird stuff. (Early Twin Peaks was also subtly influenced by a genre that became very popular in the ’90s: the serial killer thriller.)

Similarly, both Lynch and Frost were influenced by one of the dominant TV forms of the ’80s: the primetime soap opera (think Dallas or Dynasty). What makes Twin Peaks so magnetic is the way it proceeds like a fairly normal small-town drama for much of its running time, but punctuates otherwise typical arcs with flashes of something else entirely — like a story about a love triangle being interrupted by a sudden, shocking vision of a dark horror from beyond time.

By both playing with and subverting the form of the primetime soap, Lynch and Frost invented, more or less, the idea of the “TV mythology” — the more complicated backstory that explains the world their characters live in. But it’s this quality that often leads to confusion over the duo’s intentions. Is the show meant to be campy? Or sinister? Is it a horror show? Or a broad comedy? Or a satire? Thanks to Twin Peaks’ unique blend of influences, the answer to all of those questions is “yes.”

What notable shows were inspired by Twin Peaks?

The Sopranos
Sopranos creator David Chase credited Twin Peaks as an inspiration.

The television landscape of the past 25 years is littered with shows that tried to “do” Twin Peaks and failed utterly. You’ve never heard of most of them, because they ended after a handful of episodes, but the reason for their failure is simple: They boiled down Twin Peaks to what made it weird and missed the forest for the trees.

Yet the show has stood as a notable TV landmark all the same. First and foremost, it helped broaden people’s ideas about how television could be directed and shot. The long takes and static wide shots that Lynch favored, and the murderer’s row of other directors who stopped by Twin Peaks (including future Mad Men and Homeland director Lesli Linka Glatter and Diane Keaton, of all people), transformed the show into something that didn’t look at all like other TV series but could still be pulled off on a TV budget and time frame.

That visual inventiveness opened a door that everything from The X-Files to The Sopranos happily walked through. Indeed, Sopranos creator David Chase frequently listed Twin Peaks as an influence on his similarly groundbreaking series. As he said to Vulture in 2015:

The conversations, the speed of it, could be very laconic. I liked that, while I was watching it, I could have a somewhat spiritual feeling. Lynch calls it his unconscious, not his subconscious. But I think it goes right into the subconscious, and you feel that you’ve been there.

Twin Peaks also — along with CBS’s Northern Exposure, which debuted just a few months later — kicked off an appetite for quirky small-town dramas, one that led to everything from Picket Fences to basically all the programming on the now-defunct WB network (especially Gilmore Girls).

And there are plenty of shows that looked at Twin Peaks’ early experimentation with longform mystery storytelling, with an elaborate backstory for its characters and world, and with eerie shifts into dark, even horrific territory, and said, “I can do that!” The X-Files was the first obvious imitator (right down to casting David Duchovny, who had a small role on Twin Peaks), but the two shows that have best captured this aspect of Twin Peaks without being slavish to it are probably the Damon Lindelof series Lost and The Leftovers, both of which play in the same messy, sorta spiritual playground.

The total number of TV shows influenced by Twin Peaks is incalculable. The show’s intoxicating blend of so many different elements means that even a comedy like Psych could do a full hour of Twin Peaks gags. But it’s easy to see its influence in a show like FX’s Atlanta, which often embarks on cinematic flights of fancy and indulges in a healthy dollop of surrealism with every episode. On its face, a half-hour sitcom about a would-be music manager in the South would seem to have very little in common with Twin Peaks, but the show’s influence is just that enormous.

Commercial break: try some damn good Japanese coffee!

There is absolutely nothing we can say about these commercials the Twin Peaks cast shot to air in Japan except to emphasize that they are absolutely real, and it would be in your best interest to watch them all immediately.

This is all well and good, but people hate Twin Peaks’ second season, right? Why?

The answer to the first question is: yes and no.

What’s often surprising to people watching Twin Peaks for the first time is just how many of its most iconic elements — from the giant who offers Cooper clues in his dreams to the show’s scariest sequences to the identity of Laura Palmer’s murderer — aren’t introduced (or revealed) until season two.

Indeed, the season’s first nine episodes might be the strongest single stretch in the series’ 30-episode run, as Lynch and Frost inexorably unravel their central mystery, while also raising other questions about just what the town of Twin Peaks is and why so many weird things happen there. Episodes seven, eight, and nine detail Cooper figuring out who killed Laura, then chronicle the aftermath of that revelation. They’re devastating, terrifying, beautiful television.

And then the show sort of falls apart. Lynch and Frost get called away from Twin Peaks to attend to other demands, a new team takes over, and the loss of the Laura Palmer investigation as the show’s connective tissue means that Twin Peaks must become, in essence, a straightforward primetime soap, with occasional weird moments. It doesn’t really survive the transition, which leads to stuff like Cooper’s chessboard face-off with his former partner Windom Earle and, um, a character getting trapped in a drawer knob.

Yet these episodes are just bizarre enough to keep you going, even as you realize the series has lost a step. And as season two begins to wrap up, Twin Peaks clearly realizes that it needs to find a new unifying mystery to give the show a new center. The mystery it lands on is one that many other shows (notably Lost) would similarly utilize: What’s the deal with this place, and why do so many weird things keep happening here?

It all culminates in a terrifying series finale that everyone involved in Twin Peaks seemed to understand would be the end of the show overall. Cooper finally gains admittance to the mysterious Black Lodge, located somewhere in the woods outside town (or on some other plane of existence altogether), Lynch returns to direct one last time, and Laura Palmer says she’ll see us all in 25 years. She was only off by one.

So season two is definitely a mixed bag, but the reputation that has come to define it is simply the fallout of a backlash against its defiance of TV expectations. In 1990, nobody had ever seen a series go so long without solving a mystery as Twin Peaks had gone without solving the mystery of Laura’s death. (Lynch and Frost had hoped to never answer the question until the series finale, a battle they eventually lost with the network.)

And really, how many TV shows have there been that felt like skyrocketing success stories in their first seasons, only for audiences to grow dissatisfied in season two? There are bad episodes — and even bad stretches of episodes — in season two, but it’s not so much worse than season one as to defy description.

This was just a particularly nasty case of a show’s backlash coinciding with a ratings swoon, leading to a “bad second season” narrative that would persist until the series finally became available on DVD in the 2000s.

There was a Twin Peaks movie too, right?

Yes. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me debuted in 1992 at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was booed. (Director Quentin Tarantino has said it proved Lynch had finally “disappeared so far up his own ass.”) It came out in the US later in the year, where it was mostly ignored.

This is too bad. Fire Walk With Me isn’t as good as Twin Peaks — and it really is mostly just the weird stuff, rather than the show’s unique blend of the conventional and the bizarre — but it’s a compelling prequel that deals with two of Lynch’s favorite themes: the collapse of American innocence and what happens when women attempt to define themselves in a world that would rather define them on their behalf. It is, in some ways, a dry run for Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive.

In Laura Palmer, he sees a kind of sad mirror of America, and he infuses her final days on earth with a sense of gorgeous, poetic tragedy. But if you were a fan of the non-Laura Palmer aspects of the series, you might find the movie wanting, as it eschews many cast members and reduces Kyle MacLachlan’s screen time (reportedly at his request).

Also, David Bowie is in it.

The movie is probably best viewed by Twin Peaks obsessives, especially if they’ve never seen it. One of the few things Lynch has allowed about the upcoming Showtime miniseries is that having seen Fire Walk With Me before watching it would be a good idea.

What do we know about the new Showtime miniseries?

Surprisingly little!

We know it will be 18 episodes long. We know pretty much everybody who’s starring in it (though we don’t know who many of the new actors, like Dern and Naomi Watts, will be playing). Most of the series’ original cast — with the notable exception of Lara Flynn Boyle, who played Donna — is returning. And Lynch and Frost have reunited to bring the world of Twin Peaks back to the small screen.

But other than that, we have a handful of cryptic trailers, some even more cryptic episode descriptions, and little else. Even Showtime president David Nevins has stayed mum on what to expect, saying to reporters at a press conference, simply, “It’s the pure heroin version of David Lynch.” That either has you on the edge of your seat in anticipation or absolutely horrified.

Does Twin Peaks “hold up”?

The infamous Red Room.

One of the most intriguing things about the famously inscrutable and odd Twin Peaks barreling right into our current media landscape is that many of the publications discussing arts and culture right now are obsessed with “figuring out” TV shows and movies that might otherwise prefer to stay ambiguous. Even something as seemingly straightforward as the final shot of the most recent season of Master of None has had multiple posts devoted to what “really” happened in it.

And if you wanted to, you could go back to the original Twin Peaks and dissect its politics, or its cultural footprint, or its use of tropes like the Beautiful Dead Girl. You could, in other words, hold the standards of the present against something from 1990, and you might even find the series wanting in that regard. Visuals that felt striking and original in 1990 — like that red-curtained room with the black-and-white zigzag floors — have been so thoroughly subsumed into the culture that they might feel, perversely, like copycats to those just watching Twin Peaks for the first time in 2017.

But what’s beautiful about Twin Peaks, what makes it “hold up,” is that it both allows for and resists both of the above readings. Any time you think you have the series pinned down, it slips away from you. It doesn’t want to be explained so much as it wants to be experienced. Lynch often talks about how much he likes to disappear into the world of Twin Peaks, and that feeling is conveyed, beautifully, to the audience. If you can’t lose yourself in it, you’re not quite watching it right.

In rewatching it for this article, I (Emily) kept finding myself sucked in by its rhythms all over again, even in episodes I knew weren’t that great. Is it imperfect and occasionally difficult to sit through? Sure. But that only made the series more impressive to me, on the whole.

There were artistically ambitious and cinematic TV series before Twin Peaks, and there were many after as well. But what still feels most radical about the show is how it lets you bring whatever you want to it, lets you read it however you like. Whatever escape you find in it is enough, the series insists. And that open-hearted generosity of spirit is why it endures. Which leads us to...

Twin Peaks is influential, but why is it important? Why do I need to watch it?

twin peaks
Either you’re now hearing the theme music for Twin Peaks or you’ve never seen Twin Peaks.

Here’s another remarkable thing about Twin Peaks in 2017: In its examination of the crumbling edifice of Americana and all of the myths Americans have built up around their country, the show only becomes more vital with every passing year, as America’s influence slips a little more and some Americans become more and more obsessed with holding on to a dying way of life.

Think about it. Twin Peaks itself is a dying industrial town — a logging town, no less — that just happens to be positioned at the center of some massive supernatural battle between good and evil, where evil is represented as pointless destruction and good is represented as simple, gentle kindness.

Twin Peaks a show about what’s good about the United States, while also being about the dark things the country tries to keep deeply buried, and it never once calls attention to those aspects of itself, because it tells that story through the language of dreams. After all, aren’t the myths we tell about ourselves — the perfect small town, the beautiful homecoming queen, the virtuous law enforcement official, the devil himself — just dreams we’re trying to make reality?

Twin Peaks is important in 2017 because it’s always important, but also because right now, of all times, it feels vital to examine why we believe so strongly in some of these myths and not in others.

The reason Lynch is held up as an American auteur is both that his films feel like no one else’s (to the degree that “Lynchian” is now an adjective that many spell checks won’t flag) and that his concerns are so uniquely related to the particular strengths and pathologies of America itself.

Twin Peaks, then, isn’t a mystery to be solved. It’s one to attempt to understand. And every time you plunge through another layer of mystery, still another will be waiting for you.

You can find out who killed Laura Palmer, but it will only open up more questions, because, in the end, all that any of us are trying to understand is why we’re here, what we’re doing, and where we’re going next. Television peddles certainty. Twin Peaks knows many questions are unanswerable. Embrace the mystery.

Here comes a spoiler section. Turn back if you’ve never watched the original Twin Peaks but would still like to.

Can you tell me what I need to know to watch the new series in 350 words or less?

Leaving aside that you’ll probably miss a bunch of references and stuff, the basic “plot” of Twin Peaks is this...

When beautiful homecoming queen Laura Palmer is discovered dead, wrapped in plastic, the ripples of grief from her death consume the small town of Twin Peaks. The case indirectly brings FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper to town, and he promptly begins trying to solve the murder — which may have links to a serial killer — with the help of Sheriff Harry Truman. Cooper grills the locals (including the famous, mystic Log Lady) but also uses a weird series of investigative methods that involve consulting his dreams to crack the case.

Meanwhile, the people of Twin Peaks are dealing with Laura’s death in their own ways. These include numerous characters, but most notably Laura’s friend Donna Hayward and her classmate Audrey Horne, as well as her two love interests Bobby Briggs and James Hurley. All of these characters have families, but for the purpose of this plot summary, we’ll primarily focus on Audrey’s dad, Ben, a local business magnate, and Laura’s parents, Leland and Sarah, who seemed to have the perfect American family until they didn’t. (Oh, and Laura’s doppelgänger cousin Maddy comes to visit.)

Eventually, Laura’s killer is caught (more on this below), but it becomes more and more obvious that Twin Peaks is a nexus for some sort of supernatural war, represented by the mostly good, one-armed spirit Mike and the horrifying, murderous Bob, who was instrumental in Laura’s death.

As Cooper digs deeper, he learns of a mysterious Black Lodge in the woods, which seems to contain the Red Room (populated by the Man From Another Place — a.k.a. the dancing dwarf — and the Giant, who visit Cooper in his dreams). In the series finale, he goes there, only to find himself possessed by Bob. We’ll see you in 25 years, Laura’s spirit says. And here we are.

Who killed Laura Palmer?

You really want to know? All right.

As revealed in the second season’s seventh episode, Laura was killed by her father, Leland, who had been abusing and molesting her for years. He was under the influence of Bob, and at times seemed as if he didn’t know what he had done while possessed by the spirit. And yet Cooper points out that Bob might just be a manifestation of the evil Leland was always capable of (even though enough people have seen Bob for police to be able to make a sketch of him).

The unraveling of this case is the most horrific and strangely poignant section of all of Twin Peaks. Like the best of Lynch, it pulls apart an American myth to reveal the dark, unpredictable heart at its center. No matter their facades, people are capable of great horror and great kindness. Through the answer to this mystery, Twin Peaks expresses that as best it can.

Twin Peaks returns Sunday, May 21, at 9 pm on Showtime.