Features

A Guide to Twin Peaks

A Guide to Twin Peaks

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Feature by: Leo Goldsmith, Tom Huddleston, Jenny Jediny, and Rumsey Taylor

Posted on: 20 April 2006

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Features Twin Peaks Character Chart

The implicit requirement for art to succeed, in profit or critical repute, can often prove its greatest hindrance. Risk or innovation in art does not guarantee victory; conversely, it may often result in derision, bewilderment, the perception of failure. American television drama in the late 1980’s may not have epitomised this trend, but it lent the argument a number of unique facets. While small screen documentaries were being admitted to the Library of Congress and sitcom was the subject of academic study, television drama was still marked by derivation, a limited formula endorsed by profit alone, an excuse for grown men in ludicrous moustaches to shoot wildly at one another week after week. The form’s popularity was growing – Hill Street Blues, Thirtysomething and Moonlighting were all massive hits – but it was still considered closer to craft than real art.

Twin Peaks single-handedly enabled this ill-renowned genre to branch out of the temporary mainstream and into the arena of art. For the first time, a TV show was discussed for its technique, its meaning, and its cultural significance. It was the work of a recognised talent, an art school graduate and Oscar nominee, the man hailed as America’s first pop-culture surrealist. And this wasn’t some behind-the-scenes executive producing job; David Lynch’s signature characterises Twin Peaks. Along with producing partner Mark Frost (perhaps the most trusted man in television following his success with Hill Street Blues) he created every character, shaped every plotline, even wrote and directed many of the episodes. Twin Peaks was clearly the work of a moviemaker as opposed to a TV dramatist—the look was classical, utilising the limitations of American television, the indistinct colours and extreme contrast of the NTSC system to create something that looked unique, old fashioned, nostalgic for the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, the spiritual birthplace of the soap opera. The plot referenced multiple genres in a way only movies had previously dared to attempt—the police procedural angle may have been familiar from Frost’s earlier work, but the execution was all Lynch, horror film techniques jostling with broad, almost overcooked romantic subplots, real dramatic conflict and brutal emotional reality intertwined with sly comedy and a coy, high school sensuality. And the show is loaded with movie references: Preminger’s Laura is an obvious one (another character from the same movie, Waldo Lydecker, provides the name for both a mynah bird and his veterinarian), but how about insurance salesman Walter Neff (the hero of Double Indemnity), and the reuniting of a classic screen pair: Russ Tamblyn (Dr. Jacoby) and Richard Beymer (Benjamin Horne), Tony and Riff from West Side Story.

But as much as it plays on cinema history, Twin Peaks is a show in love with the traditions and limitations of the small screen, from Peyton Place to Dallas and Dynasty (both of which are lovingly parodied in Twin Peaks’ show-within-a-show, Invitation To Love), via The Twilight Zone and Dragnet. Amongst the most random and instinctive of American directors, Lynch was able to use the format of the long running series to really work on his ideas, to expand his characters, to explore every potential angle or avenue that a plot could take. Which is not to say that the show is self indulgent—both Lynch and Frost knew and respected the limitations of the form, and, save for the final surrealist blowout, the show largely adheres to the established evening slot formula. In fact, in some ways Twin Peaks is a model of restraint—Lynch and Frost must have known exactly how much weirdness, violence and overwrought emotion a mainstream audience could take without switching over. They prefer to massage the boundaries, drawing the viewer into a world which is simultaneously familiar and strange so that when an extreme or absurd event occurs—a murder, an abduction, a fish in the coffee percolator—we’re somehow prepared, ready to accept all that we see, to digest and assimilate it. In this way they were able to expand the limits of what was acceptable further than ever before and arguably since—the murder of Madeleine Palmer still stands out as perhaps the most extreme, graphic violence ever shown on American television.

And having honoured numerous influences in genre, Twin Peaks remains a brazenly original creation, and introduces an air of ambiguity – of inconclusiveness – that distinguishes none of its precursors (but many of its derivatives). A typical episode is a chronology of interconnected plot threads – Laura’s investigation, some romance, some conspiracy, and some entrepreneurial scheme for good measure – with sparing flashbacks employed to contextualize present action. The viewer is given a vantage point no character in the series has, to observe the entire network and its history. Yet despite such omniscience allotted to the viewer, not everything in Twin Peaks fits together; for every justified clue are several unjustified others, an iterating series of allusions that culminate in more questions than answers. It is as if Lynch and Frost, and their collaborators, are deducing at the same pace as everyone else.

Perhaps the greatest miracle of Twin Peaks is that it got made at all. Lynch and Frost had begun their partnership working on a movie biopic of Marilyn Monroe, and when that fell apart they made the decision to return to Frost’s home base of TV production. The show’s inception stands as the greatest (quite possibly the only) act of creative bravery ever taken by a major American network: ABC funded the pilot episode to the tune of $4 million, and upon seeing the finished product agreed to seven more episodes. When one considers the short shrift given to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive pilot years later, the incredible leap of faith network president Robert Iger took is commendable.

The show began its run on April 8th 1990, and was an instant success. A Newsweek article barely a month later raves about “Twin Peaks mania, ” a “fever… sweeping the land.” The network’s faith was amply rewarded, and a cult was born. The soundtrack album charted, as did the single “Falling,” the Twin Peaks theme with additional vocals by Julee Cruise (whose lush debut album with Peaks-evoking lyrics by Lynch was also released around the same time, and featured regularly in the show). There were two tie-in novels: The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, written by Lynch’s daughter Jennifer, and The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Dale Cooper, also available on abridged audiotape, read by Kyle McLachlan. Although the show never topped the ratings (it was helpless in the face of Cheers’ comedy juggernaut) it was by far the most talked about, argued over, passionately loved television show of the year. And this hype would simmer as quickly as it was stirred.

Devotees argue endlessly about what killed Twin Peaks—network pressure, a sharp drop-off in ratings, poor work from lesser talents, writers and directors with little understanding of Lynch and Frost’s original vision. There’s also an issue in the series’ fundamental collaboration: Mark Frost is earthbound, David Lynch is off somewhere in space. When the two are in harmony the series’ essence is apparent—a heedless balance of surreal comedy, soap-operatic melodrama, procedural crime, and horror. In the later episodes it is perhaps this very dichotomy that pulls the whole edifice apart. But the fact is that the show’s real decline began at a very specific point: when Lynch and Frost, bowing to executive influence, made the decision to reveal Laura’s killer and unravel the mystery surrounding her death. It may have provided a temporary ratings spike, but the show never recovered from this act of unnecessary (though admittedly understandable) artistic cowardice. The motor driving the show was removed, and it limped to the inevitable finish line crippled and unloved, in a slew of half-baked plots and toothless characters, all the threat and all the danger long since gone. (Lynch’s decision to revive Laura for the film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was a shrewd one, but the film passed audiences by, and was largely reviled by critics.)

But the legacy remains, more striking with each year that passes. The immediate effect was very noticeable—for a brief period, surrealism and experimentalism were suddenly acceptable on American television. Shows like Eerie, Indiana and Wild Palms (both overseen by film directors, Joe Dante and Oliver Stone respectively) attempted to cash in on the craze for all things weird, with varying degrees of success. The show that scooped up most of Twin Peaks’ hungry fans must have been The X-Files, shoehorning familiar Peaks-inspired weirdo FBI agent antics into a more straightforward Sci-Fi serial format to enormous popular acclaim. In recent years the genre-blending aspect of Twin Peaks has been felt time and again, in shows such as Chicago Hope (hospital drama/soap/comedy), Firefly (western/Sci-Fi) and perhaps most notably Lost (mystery/thriller/Sci-Fi/etc.).

In the long run Twin Peaks kick-started a revitalisation of the one-hour drama, proving that you could be creative, unique and cinematic without losing the audience’s attention. Television began to draw the sort of artists who previously would not have risked their reputations—Stone, Dante, Michael Crichton (E.R.), Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek), and in recent years Steven Spielberg (Taken), Brett Ratner (Prison Break) and Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing). TV creatives are household names now, in the way movie directors have been since the 70s—the work of writer/producer/directors like Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), JJ Abrams (Alias, Lost) and Chris Carter (The X- Files) is sold, at least partially, on the strength of their names. And although the artistic impact of Twin Peaks may have been regrettably short lived – as evidenced by the failure of Mulholland Drive – its cultural iteration is at no risk of decelerating.

Introduction by Tom Huddleston and Rumsey Taylor


Pilot 8 April 1990

Season One
April–May 1990

Episode 1 12 April 1990
Episode 2 19 April 1990
Episode 3 26 April 1990
Episode 4 3 May 1990
Episode 5 10 May 1990
Episode 6 17 May 1990
Episode 7 23 May 1990

Season Two
September 1990–June 1991

Episode 8 30 September 1990
Episode 9 6 October 1990
Episode 10 13 October 1990
Episode 11 20 October 1990
Episode 12 27 October 1990
Episode 13 3 November 1990
Episode 14 10 November 1990
Episode 15 17 November 1990
Episode 16 1 December 1990
Episode 17 8 December 1990
Episode 18 15 December 1990
Episode 19 12 January 1991
Episode 20 19 January 1991
Episode 21 2 February 1991
Episode 22 9 February 1991
Episode 23 16 February 1991
Episode 24 28 March 1991
Episode 25 4 April 1991
Episode 26 11 April 1991
Episode 27 18 April 1991
Episode 28 10 June 1991
Episode 29 10 June 1991

Fire Walk With Me 28 August 1992

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