Today marks the official 25 year anniversary of the series premiere of Twin Peaks, a show that dramatically changed the television landscape, possibly in more ways than we can measure. It is Unlikely that it was known, at the time, just how much the medium was about the change – even with the pop culture phenomenon it became.
At the very start of the 90s – a decade itself that would see drastic change for television, both in half-hour comedy and one-hour drama – Mark Frost and David Lynch officially began this short-run show. Inspired in part by the life of Marilyn Monroe, the show’s two creators and primary writers (serving as showrunners, years before the role was a known entity) crafted a fictional town with a story driven by an opening that asked one of the most memorable questions of the decade: Who killed Laura Palmer?
In part, the show was one of the first to take advantage of the VCR – while few may yet have been able to contemplate how this shift in technology could alter the form’s potential. Where the 70s and 80s still saw self-contained episodes from its show, with little expectation on audiences that had no means by which to return to already-aired episodes, Twin Peaks helped to change that. Because Twin Peaks offered the first real glimpse of serialization.
Rivaling many a day-time soap opera (and paying homage to that fact with its show-within-a-show Invitation to Love) this series possessed an enormous cast of characters, and a revolving door of townsfolk, many of whom were only peripherally connected to Laura Palmer, or even serving as a suspect in her murder. Keeping track of who is who, who is connected to who, and in what way, is daunting, even for more experienced modern day audiences: it must have been, in some respects, overwhelming to audiences at the time.
And yet, the show became a hit almost right out of the gate, largely driven by the question of Laura Palmer’s murder itself – proving that murder mysteries offered in the right context and tone can oftentimes be among the most widespread of audience attractions. The first season of the show is still remembered for its quality, its critical acclaim, and its enormous ratings.
Unfortunately, the second season took a dive in many respects – and it may be fair to chalk much of that up to how much the show was ahead of its time. It faced struggles that are now much more commonplace, as notions such as genre and serialization have become more widespread.
Frost and Lynch contested with a network striving to give answers to an audience who primarily wanted to know the answer to the question of the murder – while the show’s two creative masterminds struggled to get anyone on board with what they really wanted the story to be about: the town itself. Laura Palmer’s murder was originally intended to serve as a backdrop, that eventually led the show into larger stories about the eclectic cast, without necessarily having to focus on the murder itself, or the question of “who did it.”
But audiences, unused to such radical ideas, rebelled; ratings dropped, and the network forced a resolution. Whereby not long into second season, in one of the most disquieting and disconcerting hours of television, we finally learned that Laura Palmer’s father – while possessed by the spirit Bob – was responsible for the death of his daughter.
After that, the show took a shift – many would say for the worse; without that central hook to give it focus, the series struggled through a series of disparately connected storylines that put many a cast member into increasingly bizarre situations, before the show saw its somewhat unanticipated series finale offer up one of the most frustrating cliffhangers television has ever seen. And true to David Lynch form, much of these events were steeped in a kind of surrealism that speaks to many oddball philosophies only a man like Lynch could reliably offer up in an easy-to-digest form.
At its height, the show had an exceptional sense of moodiness to it, with the music and the pacing and the cinematography offering up a slow rumination over the setting itself, never rushing in or out of any important moments. This kind of thought process allowed more than one tangent through Agent Dale Cooper’s primary investigation, while also inserting the audience into side elements such as the machinations surrounding a lumber mill, a complex love triangle, and more than one attempt at murder. And these sides stories in turn became as engaging as the Laura Palmer murder.
The show’s failures are a testament to the newness of what it was attempting as much as anything else – both in its traversal into uncharted waters, as well as the general audience’s lack of experience. In retrospect, given the context of the time period, it’s not a surprise that it was such a cultural phenomenon, or that it ultimately fell short of its goals.
But in its successes and failures, it gave television many new ideas. The X-Files – begun only a couple years later – was one of the first to follow in its wake, and it’s no coincidence that some of the tone and off-kilter approach hold similarities with Twin Peaks (to say nothing of David Duchovny’s recurring role as a transvestite FBI Agent in Peaks’ second season). In turn, X-Files was one of the most important shows of the decade to further challenge the potential of narrative television: with stand-alone fare stacked up against season- (and series-) long stories and questions, being able to reliably expect an audience to engage with and follow along an increasingly complex and very genre-driven story.
Beyond that, the 90s also saw the likes of Babylon 5, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer dive just a little bit further into that well of serialization, paving the way for a true revolution that exploded in the 2000s. It cannot be overstated how important Twin Peaks was in this regard: if not for Mark Frost and David Lynch, it’s likely we would have missed out on everything from Alias, 24, Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Prison Break to Supernatural, Angel, Firefly or any of the myriad of comic book adaptations now gracing our screens. If not for Twin Peaks, we may not have reached this golden age of the television that we find ourselves within.
So on its 25 year anniversary, as we wait with anticipation for next year’s Showtime revival, now is the perfect time to remember all that Twin Peaks brought to television. One of the greatest TV characters ever created in Agent Dale Cooper, and a series that so radically revolutionized the medium, that it ultimately paved the way for the large majority of quality television that we enjoy today.