The moment when Laura Palmer’s body was discovered by Pete Martell at the beginning of Twin Peaks wasn’t just a moment that changed the lives of everyone in the titular town; it was the moment that television would be impacted considerably.
David Lynch and Mark Frost’s mystery drama has always been hard to lock down in terms of genre. It’s a mystery series, with comedy, drama, soap opera elements, film noir and horror, and its influence can be felt in nearly every television series to follow that would feature murder mysteries, cops, FBI agents, anyone investigating the supernatural, and sometimes even smaller scale soap opera-esque shows, with the series itself being paid tribute to by various other shows over the years.
The truth of the matter is, no show has ever truly been like Twin Peaks. And that goes for Twin Peaks itself when it came to 2017’s revival series, which instead of simply doing what it did before, went off in a completely wild, fever dream of a direction, doubling down on the surreal storytelling and moments that made you go ‘huh’.
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The original series itself might seem pretty straightforward, if such a term could ever be used in describing the world of Lynch and Frost, but in 1990, thirty-four million viewers were watching a type of American television that US TV networks seldom took a chance on.
Ongoing serialised mysteries are pretty much a dime a dozen now, but back then, asking an audience to stick with a series for a long term narrative like this seemed like a big ask and might explain why Twin Peaks quickly fell more into the realm of a cult show instead of a sustained commercial top ten hit (poor scheduling by ABC, who put it up against NBC’s super strong comedy line-up didn’t help).
Nowadays one can see the influence of the show on Veronica Mars, Lost and Broadchurch, which took the audience participation that came with a show like it and ran with it in a less surreal style. While Veronica Mars was a cult hit and never a huge ratings one, Lost and Broadchurch became phenomenal hits. JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof’s desert island drama became an ongoing mystery about its very setting, as opposed to murder complete with plot elements that audiences and fans debated over; while Broadchurch pretty much played in the realm of a British police procedural mystery drama, but in a small-town setting, albeit starring a long list of big-name British stars including Olivia Colman, Jodie Whittaker and David Tennant, with future Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall as the creator. Interestingly Broadchurch is a British series that had wide international appeal. It was gorgeously filmed, with sweeping cinematic shots of its town, and that last element is also a subtle aspect of Twin Peaks that has come into play with future generations of television.
in 1990, cinema and television seldom crossed over. Sure, big-name creatives like Steven Spielberg might put his name as executive producer on an anthology series like Amazing Stories, maybe even direct the pilot, but Lynch was coming off the back of Blue Velvet, his controversial but critically acclaimed thriller that pushed surrealism and sexual violence to extremes. Of course, there are carry-overs from that movie into the world of Twin Peaks: a central mystery and the involvement of teenage characters; Kyle McLachlan, Laura Dern, and a villain dredged up from the very worst nightmare you can think of, but it was all made ‘safer’ for a network television audience – at least in the first season before a more surreal, nightmarish quality crept into the second, and with it some of the most disturbing storytelling ever shown on television.
That Lynch was heavily involved in a network television series seemed strange. How his branch of weirdness would translate was a question asked by many, and yet not only did it work, it influenced the next set of television writers. An immediate influence could be seen on The X-Files, Chris Carter’s phenomenally popular sci-fi/horror procedural, that took the FBI element and the weirdness but applied it to a monster-of-the-week format. That show had its own complicated mythology and ongoing storyline, but instead of devoting every week to it, instead returned to it every couple of episodes (usually during the all-important sweeps period) while mixing genres and tones in each episode with confidence and bravado.
The X-Files managed to sustain itself as a commercial hit, running for nine seasons, two feature films and subsequently two revival seasons, and while a truly wonderful show it was a safer show than the world of Twin Peaks. Some episodes could push the horror and the gore quite considerably (‘Irresistible’, ‘Home’ and ‘Via Negativa’ have their own brand of intense horror, the latter especially pushing itself with a final act that feels like something Lynch would come up with).
When it comes to 90s genre television and many supernaturally inclined series beyond, The X-Files is frequently mentioned as a major influence but it was very much Twin Peaks that opened the door to a more intense level of weirdness, the surreal, and an acceptance of horror and monsters into our living rooms.
Even a network like The WB and subsequently The CW have seen their output influenced by it: Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have been a spin-off of a failed movie, but its central setting of a small town, Sunnydale, and even its dream-based episode ‘Restless’ have the influence of Lynch on them, while Gilmore Girls‘ Stars Hollow comes with a cheery, upbeat, coffee-dominated environment that recalls the world Dale Cooper finds himself in (and he’d probably fit in and annoy the hell out of Luke if he lived there). Most recently, The CW’s Riverdale, based on Archie Comics, is coated with a Twin Peaks-vibe. The dreamy opening scene in its pilot is one of the most arresting openings to any network television series in recent memory. A murder mystery drives the first season, while the Pilot almost feels like someone has decided to remake Dawson’s Creek but give it to Lynch to direct. Even Madchen Amick shows up as Betty Cooper’s mother.
While Dale Cooper’s investigation into Laura Palmer’s murder opened the floodgates and allowed the weird and strange to be unleashed into our sitting rooms during prime time, many of the shows clearly influenced by it have never quite gone as far or at least allowed themselves to venture into the daringly weird as Lynch and Frost did.
When they were in charge of the series it was dazzling, but of course, their more diminished involvement in the second half of season two saw it go off the rails, which may explain why shows such as The X-Files and Lost found more commercial ways to explore those themes; they share good looking casts, but also an ability to pull back before things become too alienating.
It was really cable television and the lack of executive censorship that saw some of the more out-there elements of Frost and Lynch thrive. HBO series such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under were unafraid to devote themselves to strange dream scenes and fantasy sequences that played with the form of television and storytelling, while Carnivale shared a sense of the strange, surreal and the unsettling while not being afraid to devote itself to being a challenging series for viewers, so challenging in fact that even in the space of HBO it was cancelled after two seasons.
In bringing a singularly charged and surreal nature to its own story, and one that was pure Lynch, the influence of Twin Peaks is still felt, even in the most popular of shows, even if tangentially. But because of its unique approach to story and tone, it still remains one of a kind.
Twin Peaks celebrates its 30th anniversary on 8th April 2020. Check out the rest of our Twin Peaks @ 30 coverage, with more coming soon.