Why The Original ‘Twin Peaks’ Still Excites Us All These Years Later

Senior Television Writer
05.16.17 10 Comments

ABC

Look, I have no idea if the Twin Peaks revival is going to be any good at all. David Lynch has insisted that Showtime keep the new episodes under lock and key; even the Los Angeles premiere on Friday night will be embargoed until after the first two episodes air on Sunday night from 9-11. So all we can do is guess.

The case against it being good: TV reunions are almost always disappointments for any reason beyond nostalgia for the original. All the episodes are being directed by Lynch, who’s barely directed anything this century and is also a much weirder filmmaker than the guy who made the TV show with Mark Frost. Lynch has referred to the new edition as “an 18-hour movie,” which even the makers of the most bloated and saggy Netflix drama might find an excessive, bad idea. And the original badly ran out of steam in its second season, even if some of the fault for that lies on ABC’s insistence that Lynch and Frost solve the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer as soon as possible.

The case for it being good: The original Twin Peaks is one of the greatest TV shows ever made — the first season and the first nine episodes of the second season, in particular — Lynch and Frost are very protective of its legacy, have literally been talking about a new season for years, and would likely not do it if they believed the revival would do whatever damage to the old show’s reputation that the haunted drawer knob or the femme fatale didn’t already.

The odds are heavily in favor of this being a mess, but conventional wisdom has never applied to anything David Lynch has done. I’ll be writing up my thoughts on the premiere late Sunday night (and after that, look for weekly conversations between me and my boss Keith Phipps — who recapped the entire series for The A.V. Club — sometime on the Monday after each new episode), but for now all I can tell you is why the original was so strange, so influential, and so mind-blowingly great that everyone has reassembled 26 years later in the hopes that Lynch and Frost have done it again.

So here’s the essay Matt Zoller Seitz and I wrote about the series for TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, where Twin Peaks ranked 24th overall:

Five minutes and fifty-nine seconds. That’s how long it takes for the pilot episode of Twin Peaks to unwrap the plastic sheeting on the corpse of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and reveal her masklike face. Her hair is plastered back against her scalp and there are gritty flecks of soil on her forehead and cheeks.

Who killed Laura Palmer? That was the question in the minds of the thirty-four million people who watched the premiere of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s indescribably original drama, and as the series unfolded over the next two seasons (one and a half, really; the first contained just eight episodes), they grew increasingly frustrated by Lynch and Frost’s refusal to solve it, as well as by the playfully sadistic way the show prolonged the suspense until it began to dissipate. Some viewers started to get annoyed as early as the end of the third episode, when FBI special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) had a dream about a plush red room containing a Laura Palmer look-alike and a dancing dwarf whose cryptic dialogue (“Where we’re from, the birds sing a pretty song, and there is always music in the air”) was recorded backward and then played forward; Cooper woke up and called to tell his partner, local sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), that he’d figured out who killed Laura Palmer, then added, “And yes, it can wait till morning,” but when the morning arrived at the start of the next episode, he said he’d forgotten that part of the dream and that they’d have to recapture it through an intuitive process involving meditation, target shooting, and word association.

Lynch, Frost, and their fellow writers and filmmakers — a formidable bunch that included the brilliant cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion), River’s Edge director Tim Hunter, and future Hall of Fame series TV director Lesli Linka Glatter (Homeland, Mad Men) — continued to test the audience’s patience ever more brazenly. The season one finale showed Cooper getting shot in his hotel room by an unseen assailant, then season 2 opened with a protracted comic bit of business between the wounded Cooper and a shuffling elderly bellhop. When the murderer was finally revealed to be Laura Palmer’s own father, Leland (Ray Wise), under control of a savage woodland demon known as BOB (Frank Silva, a set dresser on the pilot who was cast after Lynch saw his face reflected in a mirror), he committed another killing (of Laura’s look-alike cousin Maddy Ferguson, also played by Lee), and the show spent an entire episode following him as he drove around town with Maddie’s corpse in the trunk of his car.

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