It’s hard to imagine a time before Twin Peaks existed. What was television like then? It was a medium that had produced some brilliant shows, and some of them had been game-changers in their own way.
Twin Peaks, however, was the one that ripped up the rule book. It was a mystery, but it was also a horror, while also being a comedy, while also being a prime-time soap, while also bringing the surreal into our homes – particularly American homes – in a way that the medium had never done before.
The marriage of writing that came from Mark Frost and David Lynch might have seemed strange, but theirs was a perfect creative marriage. Frost brought the television know-how, Lynch brought cinema and the arthouse, and not until Twin Peaks had television felt as cinematic as this did. We now think of television as being the equal of cinema, and we argue the merits of which show started that trend: The Sopranos, maybe The X-Files. But it actually started innocently enough, with Pete Martell (Jack Nance) leaving his house to go fishing and finding Laura Palmer’s body, wrapped in plastic.
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At ninety minutes long, it could have been a feature film, and in fact, an ending was filmed just in case the pilot didn’t get picked up. Elements of that ending made its way into the show itself, particularly the infamous BOB, but for the ninety minutes of television that aired that night of April 8th 1990, millions of viewers in America watched, wrapped in awe or confused by the whole thing. And what an audience it was, of over 34 million viewers.
Twin Peaks is generally thought of as a pop-cultural phenomenon, or at least it was during those first eight episodes, and yet the truth is that general audiences turned away almost immediately. But how could it not have gained a dedicated cult following that would watch and re-watch every element of it, trying to gain clues, enjoying the characters, enjoying the mystery and atmosphere of it all? The only other show that had a similar effect in the years prior was Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, while fourteen years later, Lost would be the next to invoke a sense of mystery and audience devotion.
Pilots, and in fact first seasons, can be interesting things. Some shows take time – they need to – and yet Twin Peaks did the opposite of many television series; it started brilliantly, built its world and its characters so well, but instead of gaining more creative freedom as it went on, the network (headed at the time by future Disney CEO Robert Iger) forced its hand and made it reveal the murderer at the heart of the central mystery.
The pilot plays out like nothing that had ever been attempted on American television. The way it combines the surreal, mystery, the inclusion of its own theme music within the fabric of the show (Julee Cruise sings it on stage at the Road House, the bar everyone frequents in the series) could almost be something from a Dennis Potter series airing on the BBC.
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There was an atmosphere to the world that Lynch and Frost created that went beyond that of other small towns in American television. The world feels so perfectly formed even from the very first shot, even before the arrival of the show’s iconic and popular lead character, with the characters having felt lived in even before we see our first glimpses of them. No wonder when Lynch took the story to the silver screen he opted to go to the past instead of continuing on; Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me explored the seven days leading up to the events of the pilot, and with it some of the most distressing horror ever put to screen.
The image of Sheryl Lee wrapped in that plastic tarp and the reveal of her face to camera is as haunting and memorable as anything ever shown on television. Lynch took great care in putting what is almost death as art on screen, even being meticulous about the small specks of stones dotted around Lee’s face. There is a gorgeous, glacial pace to the pilot as it explores the impact of this discovery on every aspect of the town.
The first act of the episode must surely be the most tear-strewn drama ever produced for any medium; it feels like everybody cries: Laura’s parents, her friends, Deputy Andy, and even the Principal. The juxtaposition of the image of Laura’s body and that of her Homecoming photo are made apparent, the latter haunting every aspect of the series within, not to mention its end credits, and being a strangely haunting image too in a way that is unexplainable. Television had dealt with murder before, dead bodies were a fact of life if a show had a cop character, but here death was something haunting and to be mourned over.
The eventual series that got picked up would base its production in Los Angeles, but the Pilot feels genuinely earthy and green given that it made the trip to Washington State, specifically the town of Snoqualmie, which has become the site of many pilgrimages taken by fans of the series. The never-ending hills and trees hint at darker mysteries to come, with the wind quietly howling over the soundtrack, and if it isn’t that then Angelo Badalamenti does it just as well with a music score that became instantly memorable; not just in the main theme but in Laura Palmer’s theme as well, which would be a constant presence in the show, to remind you that when it wasn’t dealing with her death, it was the primary catalyst to the other events of the series.
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Then there’s Dale Cooper. We are so drawn into the intense atmosphere of it all that the arrival of Kyle McLachlan comes as a lovely relief. Here is a character who takes the loss and investigation seriously but knows how to appreciate and enjoy the nicer things in life: coffee, cherry pie and Douglas Firs. Here is an investigator who is kind-hearted, sensitive, and takes his work seriously. Right from the opening bars of the music to McLachlan’s delivery of the words into his Dictaphone, there is a lightness of step that is charming and unmissable; he is kind to Laura’s friends, becomes instant BFF’s with Sheriff Truman (the ultimate 90’s male on-screen bromance), quirky to the point of being strange and yet so damn brilliant that you cannot help but just fall in love with the character right away.
Then there’s the ending: a happy accident that would lead to the realisation of the most frightening character ever created for any on-screen work. The story of how Lynch came up with BOB is perhaps the most famous story to come from Twin Peaks, and the final image of the show, with its now infamous accident of Frank Silva, caught in the mirror, says a lot about why it is that Twin Peaks is as frightening as any horror you can name. Sarah Palmer’s screams are as haunting as anything you can imagine and yet what the show would do next would take horror on television to a level unlike anything the medium had ever done before. Television would never be the same again.
Twin Peaks celebrates its 30th anniversary on 8th April 2020. Look out for the rest of our Twin Peaks @ 30 coverage, coming soon.