‘Twin Peaks,’ A Cultural Phenomenon: Part 2
By: Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)
Heading into its second season, the ABC series Twin Peaks had everything going for it. The first season was a resounding success, it had chart-toppers on both the New York Times Bestsellers list and Billboard, and the show was nominated for a record 14 Emmy Awards. The buzz couldn’t be higher, so what could possibly go wrong?
Well, almost everything.
As a side note, I’ll try to keep this major spoiler-free for those who have not seen the series in its entirety, but I will inevitably speak about certain plot details in the second season – but I will never give away storyline resolutions or twists.
Big Expectations, Small Returns
After garnering 14 Emmy nominations, Twin Peaks was shut out of every major category, winning only minor trophies for costumes and editing. A few days later, the much hyped season premiere aired and the results were even more mixed.
While the charm of Twin Peaks was still present – creator David Lynch directed this episode as well as three more that year – there were signs of trouble right out of the box. The first ten minutes for those who wanted answers to its main mystery of “Who killed Laura Palmer” – a major cliffhanger at the very end of the last season – were excruciating as not only no resolutions were offered, the series seemed to be trolling its very fanbase with a new character that moved at an oblivious snail’s pace while a key cast member hinged on life and death. Over the next two hours, the show basically resumed its crawl that was established in the first year – but it felt different now. The very end of the episode, which was perhaps the most dramatic of the series up to that point, did something that was infuriating: it told us who was the murderer without actually telling us. And what’s more, it opened the door to the supernatural and the previously hinted-at demonic elements were now in the limelight.
Twin Peaks would be moved to Saturday nights at 10:00 PM, the lowest rated hour of broadcast television all week. Ratings began to dip due to this and increased frustration of viewers being endlessly strung along. It also became evident that the writers didn’t know where to take the show at this point – I mean, once you lift the lid on the supernatural aspects of a show, it’s really tough to come back from that in a coherent way. Some minor but important characters were set up to be a major part of the mystery only to be dropped and not heard from almost until the end of the series. Personalities of characters changed overnight – I’m looking at you Maddy Ferguson – as well as their appearances. The Laura Palmer story was the focus still, but you began to see other elements begin to creep in, such as the goofy story of a middle-aged woman with superhuman strength who thinks she is in high school. Core characters such as Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) were high school girls, but rarely seen there, while other teens like Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) drank openly in bars. It was clear Twin Peaks wanted to be a series filled with offbeat characters and put them in adult situations, but struggled with the fact that they were aged as teenagers. One storyline, a proposed romance between FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Audrey Horne was scrapped due to the creepiness of the age difference between the characters, although it wouldn’t have seemed weird to the viewer, as Audrey wasn’t in high school situations for quite some time.
The Payoff and the Downfall
Eventually, ABC mandated creators David Lynch and Mark Frost to reveal a killer, despite neither of them wanting to do so. In episode eight, they did just that, in a powerful hour of television that remains a franchise high watermark. It was this reveal, though, that began to sound the death knell for the series.
The revelation of the murderer demonstrated a high level of violence – brutal for network television even by today’s standards. According to lore, the episode wasn’t screened at ABC until roughly two days before airing, leaving no room to yank or edit the very highly publicized episode. Executives at ABC were furious, and, after the final resolution of the Laura Palmer story two weeks later, began to pre-empt Twin Peaks and it rarely aired without a week or more off in between episodes. In a serialized drama in a transitioning phrase, this was lethal.
Also lethal was the lack of focus the show had during the middle string of episodes. New characters were introduced with shoehorned-in backstories, annoying kids that make Problem Child seem like a dream began to show up, hints of aliens, and more began to drag the show down to a muddled mess of confusion. Longtime cast members such as villain Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) were reduced to being a joke, intriguing stories including Jean Renault (Michael Parks) were unceremoniously wrapped up in very unsatisfying ways, and some even core cast were even written out before the season ended. Storylines that were merely annoying in the background were just insulting when pushed to the forefront. The show, in my opinion, was so unbearable that when watching the Blu-ray boxset, I can skip entire episodes during this stretch and be much better off for it. Before Twin Peaks went on a four-week hiatus, it ranked #85 out of #89 programs – quite a fall from the top ten placing the season premiere had.
Back on Track and Back in the Black (Lodge)
The show returned to ABC in its original Thursday night timeslot after an organized letter writing campaign by a group called Citizens Opposed to the Offing of Peaks (known as “COOP,” named after Agent Cooper) convinced the network to give it one more shot. While ratings improved a bit, it finished not only behind its old nemesis Cheers on NBC, but also up-and-coming hit Beverly Hills, 90210 on Fox.
Dramatically, however, things really started to get back on track. The show wrapped up a lot of the most loathed stories of the series and shifted the focus on a new villain, a dangerously unhinged adversary of Agent Cooper’s named Windom Earle (played brilliantly by Kenneth Walsh). Earle would target the women of the town, as well as Cooper’s new love interest (Heather Graham) – reasons for which were unknown at the time. The series jettisoned a bunch of the secondary characters and the show was getting good again, although the damage had been done as it could never recapture the magic with viewers at large.
The series finale would air in the dog days of summer and featured a showdown between Agent Cooper and Windom Earle in the Black Lodge – a mysterious place in the woods that was first seen in Cooper’s dream in the first season. In a most bizarre hour, the final half hour played as a “who’s-who” of the series with even long dead characters (and long forgotten ones, too) making brief cameos. To its credit, the underlying threads of the major story would buck the Twin Peaks trend and reach a decent conclusion. However, a polarizing decision left diehard viewers – who have put up with months of awful scheduling and horrendous stories – with a cliffhanger that would be seen by some as brilliant and others as a slap in the face. Nonetheless, by this point, everyone and their mother knew for months the show wouldn’t be coming back for a third season, so they left viewers with a cliffhanger that they had no intention of resolving.
Coming Back in Style
The second season of Twin Peaks is one that leaves me in wonder. It starts off slow, but settles into the show that I loved from the first season. The resolution of the Laura Palmer story is still among my absolute favorite hours of television. But the show’s decline from that point on was swift and as shocking as the killer himself. I would have no closure with certain characters to whom I had grown to love throughout the course of 30 episodes. And in the end, I was certain that Twin Peaks would be no more than a blip on the radar of pop culture history.
That was, until I heard rumblings of a full-length feature film being floated around. Like that old waiter at the beginning of season two had promised, that gum I like was coming back in style!
Fire Walk With Me
In my final editorial next week, I’ll go over my thoughts on the 1992 R-rated feature film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It was controversial then – but what about now? And what about the owls?