It’s both unsurprising and in retrospect, kind of astonishing, that David Lynch is the series creator often credited with changing television. The series in question is, of course, Twin Peaks, which premiered April 8, 1990 on ABC and which is receiving a much-publicized reboot on Showtime. Mark Frost co-created the episodic small-town murder mystery that gripped viewers for several months running with the question of who killed teenage beauty queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). But it’s Lynch, who also directed the Twin Peaks pilot and several other episodes, and whose distinctive retro-avant-garde sensibility infuses the entire series, who is most associated with it.
The filmmaker would not have seemed to be a natural for TV, especially network TV in a pre-cable-and-streaming-service-dominant era. Prior to the show’s premiere, Lynch’s film output included several experimental shorts and four features distinguished to varying degrees by their creator’s not necessarily linear approach to narrative. The first, Eraserhead (1977), took place entirely inside a black-and-white nightmare landscape of industrial decay, populated by an assortment of id-driven oddballs and a perpetually squalling mutant baby. The fetid atmosphere wormed its way into Lynch’s more conventional studio debut, The Elephant Man (1980), while the sandworms of his big-budget flop Dune (1984) were like the Eraserhead baby grown large and overtly malevolent.
Blue Velvet (1986) brought all of Lynch’s previous obsessions and visual motifs together, but set in relief against a wholesome small-town setting. That template — a white-picket-fence-and-cherry-pie top layer peels back to reveal a cesspit — is the signal characteristic of Twin Peaks. But the show’s DNA is complex. Here are a few of the key elements at work:
David Lynch’s peripatetic American childhood. Born in 1946 in Missoula, Montana, Lynch moved a lot as a child due to his father’s series of postings as a United States Department of Agriculture research scientist. (Lynch senior’s specialty was trees, so perhaps the Log Lady in Twin Peaks was a tribute to Dad). He lived in towns and small cities like Sandpoint, Idaho and Spokane, Washington, which are in the same geographic region and boast a similar topography to the fictional town of Twin Peaks.
The director’s equally influential years as an art school student in Philadelphia. He, his wife, and young daughter lived in a crime-ridden neighborhood that apparently inspired, along with his domestic situation, real fear and loathing. In Lynch’s work, exposure of the primordial stew is a constant threat. Witness in the original Twin Peaks the transformation of Laura Palmer’s loving father into the malignant figure of Bob. Creepy dream sequences were woven into the fabric of the show, which seemed to add to its appeal (at first).
The unsolved murder of Hazel Irene Drew. Lynch’s co-creator Mark Frost brought his own childhood lore into the show’s narrative development. Spending summers with his grandmother in the upstate New York community of Sand Lake, he heard stories dating to 1908 of a beautiful young woman whose body, like Laura Palmer’s, was found floating in a nearby pond, her skull crushed by a blunt object. The identity of Hazel Irene Drew’s killer remained a mystery, and Lynch, at least, wanted to retain this lack of resolution in the case of Laura Palmer. He eventually bowed to pressure to solve the mystery in the show’s second season, which proved to be the beginning of the end for Twin Peaks.
A Tarantino-esque shout-out to minor stars of yesteryear. Peggy Lipton of Mod Squad fame was an original cast member, as were Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn, who played Tony and Riff in the film version of West Side Story. (Tamblyn was also in the movie version of Peyton Place, a small-town soap opera that was another Twin Peaks influence). These veterans were cast along sexy young actors like Sherilyn Fenn, Lara Flynn Boyle, James Marshall, and Madchen Amick, with guest appearances by a motley crew including former film noir vixen Jane Greer, a pre-X-Files David Duchovny, and Lynch himself as a hard-of-hearing FBI agent.
Kyle MacLachlan! The most important character was MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper. The actor, a native of Yakima, Washington, had come from nowhere to star in Dune and then Blue Velvet, and he continued to embody Lynch’s authorial voice in Twin Peaks. Agent Cooper’s buttoned-down appearance and gee-whiz manner are all Lynch—you can’t believe this friendly Middle American could come up with this perverse stuff.
Consistency of artistic vision. Whatever the dichotomies in Lynch’s work, the best of it, including the first season of Twin Peaks, is remarkably of a piece. That may be partly because his artistic reach extends beyond film writing and directing into realms that recall his training as a visual artist. (He’s said to design his own furniture, and certainly the wooden finishes on the Twin Peaks sets look ready to sprout seedlings). Working with frequent collaborators Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise, he also contributed to the show’s eerie, ethereal music tracks.
Once viewers found out who killed Laura Palmer, the series’ ratings dwindled (from first place to 85th, eventually). There was arguably a creative petering out as well, along with a loss of some of the aforementioned virtues. The last episode aired June 10, 1991. It was a swift decline, and Lynch’s follow-up feature, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) failed to reignite interest. The film’s reduction of Agent Cooper to a subsidiary character didn’t help matters.
Lynch, of course, continued to make movies — Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive (from an aborted television pilot), Inland Empire, even a G-rated Disney film, The Straight Story — that could not be mistaken for anyone else’s. And while Twin Peaks as a series was short-lived, its narrative, thematic, and visual influence was felt in everything from The X-Files to The Sopranos (dig those surreal dream sequences) to every procedural on TV.
The key elements seem to be in place for Showtime’s revival of Twin Peaks, which is set 25 years after the events of the original series. Lynch and Frost are once again at the helm as writer-producers, and Lynch is directing at least the first few episodes. And a number of the original characters and cast members are back, most crucially MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper. Will one of the television’s most innovative series now look quaint? My log says don’t bet on it.