It’s been nearly 26 years since the last episode of Twin Peaks aired on ABC. In that quarter century, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s drama — a bizarre murder mystery set in a small Pacific Northwest town where the corpse of popular teen Laura Palmer is found wrapped in plastic — has acquired a two-pronged reputation that goes something like this:
1) The first season is an utter masterpiece, and among the most influential TV dramas ever made, with the creators of shows like The X-Files, The Sopranos, and Lost all pointing to it as an inspiration;
2) The second season is an utter disaster, with which Lynch and Frost were barely involved, and should be avoided at all costs.
The truth is, appropriately for a show like Twin Peaks, stranger and more complicated than that, and it makes a rewatch before the series returns to life on Showtime on May 21 a tricky thing. Lynch has remained mum about how much of the original series he thinks might be useful for viewers to watch (or rewatch) before the new episodes begin, though he did note at the Television Critics Association press tour that the prequel movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me would be valuable, since it chronicles the final days of Laura Palmer’s life.
As for the original series itself, the first season more than lives up to its reputation. It’s a seemingly incongruous mix of tones, in which each cast member seems to be starring in a different kind of show, but the strange parts and the raw emotional honesty somehow tie everything together, and Frost (a veteran of more conventional TV shows like Hill Street Blues) was able to provide just enough narrative unity to make Lynch’s trademark weirdness feel coherent. Those eight episodes are incredible, and more than worth revisiting before the Showtime revival.
But so, for that matter, are the first nine episodes of season two, which bring the Palmer investigation to a conclusion. In fact, making my way through the series on Netflix over the last couple of months, I was startled to realize how many of the show’s most iconic moments — both my favorite piece of odd Twin Peaks humor and the show’s single scariest scene — take place over that nine-episode stretch. The Twin Peaks that lives in the collective memory of all who experienced it requires those nine hours, not just to bring closure to the Palmer case, but because this was the series with all its elements working in stunning harmony.
And then… well, that’s where season two’s reputation comes from. Lynch wasn’t involved for a long stretch, other than a few appearances in his recurring role as hearing-impaired FBI boss Gordon Cole, and the difference between genuine Lynch weirdness and the other writers’ imitation of it was palpable and awkward. And without the murder case as a spine for the whole series, many of the characters who had functioned perfectly as bizarre side dishes were suddenly being treated as main courses, without being remotely complicated or interesting enough for it.
It’s possible that the revival may refer to some post-Palmer storylines, but that seems unlikely, and most of those later episodes are so dire that any viewer (newcomer or alum alike) would be better off jumping straight from that ninth episode to the finale. Lynch returned to direct it, and while not all of it works (there’s an interminable scene with Audrey chained to a bank vault door), there’s a dazzling sequence where Cooper finally gets inside the mystical “Black Lodge” that’s worth the price of admission, and among the strangest things ever put on network television. (At close to 10 minutes, it’s longer than the bank vault bit, but earns its duration, as well as the amount of time within it that’s just Cooper going in circles trying to find a way out.) And the ending will almost certainly be a part of the new episodes, so it has more utility than what came before.
But if you’re going to skip everything from “Dispute Between Brothers” through “Miss Twin Peaks,” here are some of the stranger — and usually very badly-done — things that happened in between. (Now, some of these stories began during those first nine episodes, but nearly all the ones that did continued past the end of the Palmer case, and no longer had its shadow to hide their ridiculousness.)
Nadine went back to school.
Big Ed’s wife was already one of the first season’s more cartoonish figures — a one-eyed paranoiac obsessed with inventing silent drape runners — but she was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, especially with that short episode order. Season two, though, spent a lot of time on a traumatized Nadine regressing to her teenage self — while also becoming super-strong due to her adrenal glands going into overdrive — going back to high school, joining the wrestling team, and pursuing football star Mike Nelson, who initially wanted nothing to do with this creepy old lady (who kept inadvertently injuring him), then became sexually infatuated with her. This is one of many season two storylines that feels like it was pitched as a writers room dare, then somehow made it into the final product and hung around for a loooooong time.
Leo needed a new pair of shoes.
Leo Johnson was a menacing part of Twin Peaks’ criminal underbelly in the first season, and one of many red herrings in the Palmer case. But he was so relentlessly strong, stupid, and cruel that there was nowhere to go with him that didn’t result in the deaths of either his wife Shelly or her boyfriend Bobby. Rather than kill him off or send him to jail, the Twin Peaks writers instead rendered him catatonic for much of the season, occasionally squeaking out snippets of his season one dialogue (“New shoes!”) and drooling a lot while Shelly and Bobby took advantage of his incapacitated state. When he finally woke up, he was almost immediately taken prisoner by Windom Earle (more on him in a bit), kept in line with a shock collar, and still treated as a joke.
Catherine Martell became a Japanese man.
Sawmill owner Catherine Martell appeared to die in a fire late in the first season, and Piper Laurie’s name disappeared from the show’s credits for a bit. Meanwhile, a soft-spoken Japanese businessman named Mr. Tojamura arrived at the Great Northern and began attempting to buy a piece of property owned by Ben Horne, who had been Catherine’s lover. After a few episodes, Tojamura was revealed to be Catherine herself, in trans-racial drag, working out an overly complicated revenge plot against Ben.
David Duchovny played a trans woman.
Compared to the Tojamura silliness, casting Duchovny — in a role that helped get him The X-Files a few years later — as DEA agent Denise Bryson, formerly Dennis, who discovered she preferred dressing and presenting as a woman during an undercover assignment, was actually way ahead of its time. Cooper accepts his old friend’s change of name and dress almost instantly, which meant the local cops followed his lead, and even Audrey Horne mistaking Denise for a cis woman — and proof that Audrey herself could become a federal agent one day — wasn’t played as a joke at Denise’s expense. In many ways, Denise is the highlight of the post-Palmer stretch of the season, even if she appeared in three of the show’s worst overall episodes.
James got played by a femme fatale.
Many of the stories discussed here were instances of the writers going for something intentionally comic, or just weird, and it not working out for one reason or another. But this film noir pastiche — James Hurley (trying to escape Twin Peaks and its many tragedies) becomes the patsy of an icy blonde looking to murder her wealthy husband — is played absolutely straight, and is probably the single most boring thing Twin Peaks ever did. At least Nadine or some of these other stories — including one with Robyn Lively as the black widow of Twin Peaks, who keeps marrying much older men right before they die — could be occasionally laughed at for how silly or wrong-headed they were; this was just community theater The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Ben Horne became a Civil War general.
Nadine wasn’t the only character who mentally went back into the past in season two. In fact, Ben Horne went all the way back to another century, as various business failures caused a mental breakdown that convinced him he was, in fact, General Robert E. Lee, leading the Confederate army against the aggressors from the North. As with Nadine, Dr. Jacoby instructed everyone around Ben to play along with the delusion until it ran its course, leading to multiple episodes with miniature Civil War re-enactments inside Ben’s office.
Ben Horne tried to save the pine weasel.
Every now and then, writers will craft storylines entirely because they want to see an actor do something, or hear them say something. I don’t know for sure if that was the genesis for Ben’s post-Civil War arc, where he took on the guise of an ecological crusader to try to stop Catherine’s big real estate project, but it’s hard to watch those episodes and not think that someone on the writing staff really liked hearing Richard Beymer say the words “pine weasel” — the endangered local animal at the center of Ben’s campaign — as often as possible. Less ridiculous than the Confederate story, it still included a fashion show where Lucy and Deputy Andy modeled flannel ensembles, while an actual pine weasel ran amok through the Great Northern’s banquet hall.
Windom Earle played the flute.
There were worse individual stories over the latter two-thirds of season two, but the show’s overall crumbling can be laid largely at the feet of Earle, Cooper’s former FBI partner, now a rogue madman on a homicidal, chess-themed rampage inspired by both the death of his wife and his desire to access the Black Lodge. With Laura’s murder solved, and her killer vanquished (for the moment, at least), Twin Peaks desperately needed a compelling central storyline and villain to make all the eccentricity on the fringes work properly. Instead, Earle was such a drag — quirky rather than scary, including the scene where he played a flute in his longjohns to entertain (and then abuse) the captive Leo — that all the sideshows had to unfortunately function as the main event.
Little Nicky was maybe a murderer.
Deputy Andy and Lucy’s seemingly chaste courtship turned into a love triangle in the second season involving Dick Tremayne, the smarmy men’s clothing salesman from Ben Horne’s department store, who appeared to be the father of Lucy’s unborn baby, since Andy believed himself to be sterile. This led to Harry Goaz saying “sperm” a lot (again, you could kind of tell the writers enjoyed hearing him do it), and then to a rivalry between Dick and Andy over who might be the better father figure. To prove their worth, both took a keen interest in orphan Little Nicky Needleman, then briefly became convinced the boy was a budding sociopath and killer. But at least he and Dick got to wear matching outfits for their drive in the country!
Shelly kissed Gordon Cole.
Again, I don’t know the actual inspiration for this random, and almost immediately forgotten, development — Cooper’s supervisor returns to town, is smitten with Shelly, and his flowery oratory is enough to get her to make out with him a bit — but it sure comes across like the show’s co-creator wanted an excuse to kiss one of his young stars and got someone to write it into the story.
Josie became a drawer knob.
Yes. This is a thing that happened: Sheriff Truman’s lover Josie Packard, cornered after many bad decisions, collapsed and died, followed by return appearances by both Killer Bob and the Dwarf, followed by… Well, describing it makes it sound unbelievable, so just watch for yourself:
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com