“There’s a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods. Call it what you want. A darkness, a presence. It takes many forms but… its been out there for as long as anyone can remember and we’ve always been here to fight it.”
Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) – “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”
On this day in 1990, the network ABC broadcast the premiere of Twin Peaks, beginning a story that continues to defy description, convention or resolution. A surface read indicates a mystery/thriller about murder in small-town America but rapidly became a baffling, intriguing and alarming juxtaposition of the real and the supernatural, familiarity and unsettling horror, with characters beloved and feared.
It was the first major TV foray for famed auteur David Lynch, along with veteran writer and producer Mark Frost. Lynch had completed movie projects like The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984) and Blue Velvet (1986) for which he was well-known, whilst Frost had scripted for Hill Street Blues (1982-86) and had worked with Lynch on a couple of projects that hadn’t proceeded.
The formation of the premise of Twin Peaks is indicatively chaotic, seeming to occur to the two creators in fits and spurts, visions and dreams, and all out of recognized creative order.
”We started with this image of a body washing up on a lake,” says Mr. Frost. ”It took us a while to solve the murder. We had to know the town before we could make up a list of suspects. Only after we knew most of its people was the killer revealed to us.”
Agent Cooper would no doubt approve of this deductive method. It is with our bold, genuine and idiosyncratic FBI agent that the story begins. He arrives in the titular town, deep in the forests and mountains of the US North-West, to investigate the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer. In a refreshing rejection of usual cop-procedural tropes, he forms an immediate and warm bond with the staunch and sensible Sheriff Harry S. Truman, who acts as a foil to the cheerfully random Cooper and his unusual methods.
What follows is a descent into surrealism, slapstick clowning and a disturbing type of small-town horror that is Blue Velvet writ large over episode after boggling episode. It is clear that the creators intended to have the murder of Laura Palmer recede and become more of a macguffin to progress the plot – again, a limiting word for the multiple, interwoven and complex storylines, bizarre character arcs and cryptic dream sequences that comprise Twin Peaks.
However, it was never to be. The show had from the very beginning a difficult start, battling nonplussed network executives who were thankfully overruled by non other than current Disney Chairman and formidable media force, Bob Iger. It was tucked away in odd slots on TV schedules, up against daunting and established shows, and had to fight for an audience with a storytelling style that was far more suited to one of Lynch’s cinematic masterpieces. Never mind the critic’s praise or the cult following it amassed, the show would never command the kind of success media executives crave…
“Twin Peaks, which debuts Sunday as a two-hour movie, is like nothing you’ve seen in prime time — or on God’s earth. It may be the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV.”
Richard Zoglin, TIME Magazine, 1990.
Iger ultimately threw the baby out with the bathwater when he pressured Lynch and Frost to resolve Laura’s murder sooner rather than later, and after this occurs early in Season 2, it is clear the energy has gone from the show. Lynch himself had left the project to direct the successful film Wild At Heart (1990) but would return, in force, to script and direct a shocking conclusion to the show that left viewers and fans on one of the most thrilling cliffhangers of fictional history.
It felt like the energy of Twin Peaks had seeped out into the real world, driving the scripts of making the show in a metafictional Möbius loop. Lynch wasn’t finished with the wonderful and strange world he’d created, releasing the feature length Fire Walk With Me in 1992 as a darker and even more confusing prequel/sequel, plagued by the availability of Kyle MacLachlan even as it is blessed by a cameo from the suitably surreal David Bowie. The creator even appeared in his own universe as Cooper’s boss, bureau chief and blunt-speaking, hard-of-hearing Gordon Cole, named after a character in Sunset Boulevard (1950) which was itself referenced in episode 15, season 3 of Twin Peaks – see what I mean about that Möbius loop?
Yes, Twin Peaks returned after the twenty-five years that served as cryptic arc words of the show. Cooper returns from exile to try and right the ultimate wrong done to Laura Palmer – in a world even more fraught with upsetting violence, unique characters, ever more deeper mysteries and secrets.
“From its first frame to its soul-rending primal scream of a conclusion, The Return proved thrillingly baffling, full of indelible images (nuclear explosions, demonic cockroaches, David Bowie as a giant kettle) and dizzying dream logic.”
The 100 Best TV Shows of the 21st Century: The Guardian
Whether or not he succeeded, and what indeed even happened at the end of 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return remains even more hotly debated on the internet, whilst original creator Mark Frost alludes to slightly more prosaic theories (by the standards of this show!) in his book Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier.
Which has ultimately prepared me to be prepared for any possible outcome, including no Season 4. For more than thirty years David Lynch’s storytelling has been at once meticulously detailed, and utterly haphazard. The melding of the quaintly kitsch with the nightmarish otherworldly is but one lens through which he distorts rather than clarifies the narrative. Inexplicable character facets, disconnected plots and lingering shots of a wild and inhuman landscape, an ocean of half-recalled dream-lore on which our story bobs like a bubble…
There is no guide, no structure and most of all no resolution. Lynch has driven this point home time and again, that his stories are night terrors to be awoken from sharply and with a shudder; to escape from, to dwell on warily, and to ultimately try and banish to the shadowy recesses of the mind.
This is how we should process the storytelling of Twin Peaks – fragments recalled by David Lynch, dreaming he is Dale Cooper, dreaming of spirits good and evil, murder and mercy, the real and the other…. coffee and pie.