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

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.

After that, the ratings plunged, and in the spring of 1991, ABC pulled the plug; by that point the series had moved on to other, less compelling plotlines, delving into the paranormal aspects of the show’s mythology (including a puzzle box, a possible UFO, and the Black Lodge, where evil doppelgängers of all the main characters dwelled) and tying up loose ends. A good case could be made for the idea that Twin Peaks should have been a self-contained miniseries rather than an ongoing series. (Years later, Frost acknowledged that he and Lynch never expected the show to succeed, and that they’d therefore have to resolve those story lines.)

But if you go back and watch that pilot again—or other Lynch films, notably his 1986 thriller Blue Velvet—you can see that Laura’s murder was merely the clothesline along which the show’s writers and directors could string a nighttime soap opera that was more perverse, frightening, sensual, and self-aware than most, but that still owed much to the daytime and nighttime soaps that it mocked in its show-within-a-show, Invitation to Love.

Like most Lynch, Twin Peaks was at once a deconstruction and parody of the genres it invoked (the police procedural, the horror movie, the gothic-inflected small-town potboiler) and a satisfying example of same. The show could be silly in one moment (Lynch gave himself a recurring role as Cooper’s hearing-impaired supervisor, who would shout things like “COOPER, YOU REMIND ME TODAY OF A SMALL MEXICAN CHIHUAHUA!”) and shockingly violent in the next. The casual portrayal of casual teen sex with multiple partners, cocaine use, incest, rape, corpse mutilation, and other cable-ready material was shocking by 1990 broadcast TV standards (though no big deal in the post–Law and Order: Special Victims Unit era); Lynch and Frost’s goofy humor etched the darker elements in even sharper relief.

Cooper is both a sincere, square-jawed hero and a Lynchian weirdo, a smile plastered across his face as he extolls the virtues of the local food and drink (“Damn good coffee! And hot!”) and dictates his thoughts into a tape recorder for transcription by an unseen assistant (“Diane, I’m holding in my hand a box of chocolate bunnies”). Half the town’s population seems borrowed from a swoony ’50s melodrama, the other half from a mental hospital. Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie), wife of gas station owner Big Ed (Everett McGill), is obsessed with inventing silent drape runners, then falls into a coma, only to wake up acting like her teenage self. Leland Palmer’s overwhelming grief was contrasted with the hammy scheming of his business partners Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) and Ben’s brother Jerry (David Patrick Kelly). (The two acting styles cross paths when Leland seemingly overcomes his pain and bursts into Ben’s office singing “Mairzy Doats,” inspiring the brothers to start break-dancing; it’s possibly the pinnacle of Western television.) Truman wouldn’t seem out of place as a sheriff in a John Ford Western, even as he takes the community’s eccentricity at face value; when Cooper wonders about the woman (Catherine Coulson) who carries a small log around town, Truman deadpans, “We call her the Log Lady.”

None of these elements—not to mention the slow and mournful score by Angelo Badalamenti and the fusion of hard-boiled crime fiction and talk of demons and parallel dimensions—had any business working in concert; but in the show’s first half, with the Laura Palmer investigation as a unifying element, it did. Lynch and Frost constantly went for big moments, knowing that the feelings they evoked would make complaints about consistency seem petty: teen siren Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) dancing provocatively around the jukebox or tying a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue; or Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) screaming at the at the sight of BOB lurking behind Laura’s bedpost; sensitive, dim-witted Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) crying at the sight of corpses.

It’s not only the strangest show to ever air on US network television, but the strangest one to (briefly) become a hit. The larger audience lost interest when they figured out that solving Laura’s murder wasn’t high on Lynch and Frost’s to-do list. But the show’s commitment to its passions and eccentricities left a mark, becoming a clear influence on more mainstream-oriented series like The X-Files, The Sopranos, and Lost, and inspiring such a devoted cult that Showtime belatedly commissioned a follow-up miniseries, with Lynch set to direct every episode. Originally the resurrection was scheduled for 2016, a quarter-century after the finale, which saw the spirit of Laura Palmer promising Agent Cooper, “I’ll see you in twenty-five years.”

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com