‘Twin Peaks,’ A Cultural Phenomenon


By Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)
Every so often, something comes along and goes from being merely a TV show and into being an event. Back in the Spring of 1990, “Twin Peaks” became just that, a phenomenon that captured the nation and one that people still talk about some 27 years later. “Twin Peaks” made such an impression that it is making a comeback with a limited run third season on Showtime in May – a full twenty-six years after it went off the air. This will be the first part of a three-installment series where I look back on each of the two seasons of the show and concluding with the 1992 feature film spinoff and the franchise’s longevity and future. But let’s start at the beginning:


Director David Lynch has always been a weird one. Already by this point, he was known for his visionary feature films like Dune, Blue Velvet and Eraserhead. His work can be seen as bizarre, brilliant, creepy, but always memorable. But when word started to spread that he wanted to bring that polarizing style to network broadcast television, it made heads turn. Keep in mind, this was back in 1990 when there were only three major television networks – a pre-NFL Fox Network was just starting to find it’s footing at this time and only available in 89% of the country – and cable channels like AMC and HBO weren’t an option for a big audience. Heck, this was back when AMC still aired American Movie Classics. Putting that vision into a weekly series was indeed buzzworthy.
Casting would bring about many veteran actors to the small screen, including Academy Award nominee Piper Laurie, Richard Beymer, Grace Zabriskie and Ray Wise. The breakout star, however, would be actor Kyle MacLachlan, whose signature role as Special Agent Dale Cooper – sent to Twin Peaks to investigate the murder – would be so popular and iconic that it would eventually become a hinderance on the franchise. But more on that later.
The series would be set in a fictional town in the scenic Pacific Northwest, and each episode would represent a single day in life of the residents of Twin Peaks. In reality, the pilot would be filmed in the greater Seattle, Washington, area, including locations in North Bend and Snoqualmie Falls. All it would take would be a body – wrapped in plastic – washing up on the shore of the town’s mill that would send this sleepy town spiraling out of control with secrets and intrigue.


The murder victim would be identified as Laura Palmer, the high school Prom Queen who was the epitome of Small Town Innocence – she was well liked, lived clean, and even volunteered at Meals on Wheels. Everyone was a suspect as the mystery began to unfold in almost a dream-like state. People walked around to a light jazz music soundtrack, danced with photos while screaming in grief, always slept with one eye open and drank copious amounts of damn fine coffee and ate lots of cherry pie. But as the show went on, things would not be what they seem – starting with the owls.
The murder mystery would not be solved in its two-hour pilot episode – although if you look closely in the mirror on the wall towards the very end, a production error of a crew member’s reflection will give you a big clue for future twists – and the show would settle into its weekly series rhythm. Every week, the show would get more and more bizarre, with casket riding, dwarf dancing, backwards talking, a woman walking around talking to a log, and blatant audience trolling – the actress who played murder victim Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) would show up in the series as Laura’s identical cousin. Every week would be directed by someone with chops in feature film making – creator David Lynch only directed the pilot and third episode – and made this a series like nothing else where each show felt like its own mini-movie. It truly was like nothing else at the time. By the time the abbreviated first season ended, faithful viewers were expecting some answers, but what the writers did instead caused more damage than good to the overall brand. Again, more on that in my next essay that documents season two.


The pilot episode debuted in April of 1990 with a genius marketing campaign. ABC, knowing that David Lynch’s reputation preceded him and that not much was known about “Twin Peaks” prior to debut, most ads focused on the buzz, claiming that if “you miss it tonight, you won’t know what everyone is talking about tomorrow”. The two-hour debut pulled in over 25 million viewers, winning its time slot easily and was an instant smash hit. The series settled into its regular time at 9PM on Thursdays – at the height to NBC’s “Must See TV” era and directly against “Cheers”, TV’s No. 1 show at the time. “Twin Peaks”, however, thrived in the slot, benefitting from what became known as the “Water Cooler Effect”, whereas people would gather around the office the next day to talk about what happened on Thursday night. People would hold viewing parties every week, cosplaying and dressed in plastic, eating pie and drinking coffee, and taking notes on clues the show would drop.
And the popularity would stretch beyond the TV screen. The soundtrack from the series was commercially released and quickly landed in the Billboard top-10. A book based on the fictional “lost diary” of Laura Palmer became a New York Times bestseller. Even an audiobook called “Diane, the Twin Peaks Tapes of Dale Cooper”, a recording of Kyle MacLachlan reading text in the iconic style that his character would often be seen doing, generated lots of revenue. “Twin Peaks” swept the nation by storm, and the question “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” became part of the industry’s most remembered catchphrases in history.


This was a quote that ended episode three, trailing perhaps the series’ most infamous scene – the Dream Sequence of the aforementioned dwarf dancing and backwards talking. Agent Cooper called the Sheriff and claimed he knew the answer that was plaguing the country, and pretty early in the show’s run. Problem is, he actually didn’t – and neither would the audience for months. And thus began the undoing of “Twin Peaks”.
In my next article, I will go over season two – what was good, what was bad, and what was so awful that it killed the show deader than Laura Palmer ever was.

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