Before Their Time: Twin Peaks

Hawk (Michael Horse) should have won an Emmy for that side-eye.
Hawk (Michael Horse) should have won an Emmy for that side-eye.

Lately, pop culture has begun to feel like a series of reboots and sequels. As more studios embrace the financial security of nostalgia over the risks of new material, every medium from film to TV to video games has been mining old classics for new hits. As you might have guessed, my chief problem with this phenomenon has been its ongoing omission of my dearly departed shows (too soon, Deadpool!) – until now. Twin Peaks, that patron saint of the visionary and prematurely cancelled TV show, will air a third season next month.

If you haven’t seen it, Twin Peaks aired in 1990 and 1991, and might succinctly be described as a portrait of a small town convulsed by an unthinkable crime. A succinct description, however, is hardly adequate: The brainchild of David Lynch and Mark Frost, Twin Peaks pushed against the boundaries of genre and medium. It united mystery, horror, soap, drama, comedy, and supernatural elements, defying easy classification. And its use of the sophisticated writing, acting, cinematography, and music previously reserved for movies laid the groundwork for the prestige television of today. Before Lost, Breaking Bad, or Fargo, Twin Peaks was the original riveting and unsettling story about the people of a beautiful and dangerous place.

The story begins on a gray morning, when Laura Palmer’s body washes ashore near the local sawmill. Her sleepy hometown is shaken as much by the murder itself as by its victim: An all-American girl in an all-American town, Laura (Sheryl Lee) was the homecoming queen who volunteered for everything from tutoring locals to delivering Meals on Wheels. The flummoxed sheriff (Michael Ontkean) requests federal assistance with the investigation, and the FBI dispatches Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) – pie aficionado, coffee lover, and damn fine detective – to Twin Peaks.

Using a peculiar (but effective) mix of police work and intuition, Cooper reconstructs Laura’s final hours. His investigation uncovers a secret life, one paradoxically rooted in a darkness that pervades the whole town and lived in plain sight. It’s not that Laura’s neighbors are bad people; but Twin Peaks, like many small towns, harbors secrets that no one wants to see. Laura’s death is as much the result of a single brutal act as the culmination of a thousand overlooked evils. Coop gets to the bottom of it because, as an outsider, he’s willing to consider the unthinkable.

…in which Funko also considers the unthinkable.
…in which Funko also considers the unthinkable.

Although he’d determined the identity of Laura’s killer while writing the series, Lynch wanted to leave the mystery unresolved, preferring to use it as a springboard into the other characters’ inner lives. However, pressure from viewers and ABC executives forced the reveal. Lynch, convinced Twin Peaks was irrevocably diminished, basically withdrew from the series. (Frost, who had always maintained viewers’ right to know, stayed on.) Lynch’s departure marked a shift from which the series never entirely recovered. The subsequent decline in tone and quality saw a corresponding drop in ratings, and not even Lynch’s return late in the season could save the show. The cancellation fell maddeningly just as Twin Peaks was getting good again, on a Lynch-written, gut-churning cliffhanger.

It’s useful to think of Twin Peaks as two shows: The “grownup” version – Lynch’s vision – mined television for previously unsounded depths. It boasted an ensemble of tangible, memorable characters and pitch-perfect story pacing. Its dreamlike logic, although baffling, never felt gratuitous. And it afforded a comparatively fair portrayal to people who, in the 90s, still had to endure being referenced with unkind whispers. The “kiddie” version – not so much a vision as a regurgitated pastiche – mined TV tropes for tediously predictable plots. Practically a soapy spinoff, kiddie Twin Peaks forced viewers to watch the local teenagers – who, except for Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), are the town’s least interesting characters – flirt, mate, break up, and play out every soap trope from amnesia to deadly love triangle.

In case the bias isn’t screamingly obvious, I’m Team Grownup, and not just for the excellent performances and storytelling. I love stories about what happens when we confront long-denied truths, and there are few small-town truths more chilling than that the conviction that something “Can’t Happen Here” is precisely what makes it possible. Lynch’s Twin Peaks is a moral (but not moralistic) exploration of a fallen world struggling through the realization that it was never Eden. What sets Laura and Cooper apart from most of the denizens of Twin Peaks is that, faced with evil, neither sought refuge in reassuring illusions. Both refused to capitulate or look away, and this steadfastness is the link that enabled Laura to help Coop’s investigation. ABC’s executives failed to grasp this. They threw a bunch of crime and melodrama into Kiddie Twin Peaks without understanding that the show’s fans were there not for lurid sensationalism but for a meditation on the existence and nature of evil. Absent a moral center, this version could only lurch from one bad, poorly explained plot point to another, a cautionary tale about chasing ratings.

ABC executives recommend change of course halfway through Season 2
ABC executives recommend change of course halfway through Season 2

Twin Peaks showcased all the potential and constraints of network television. In a kind of meta-macrocosm to Twin Peaks the fictional place, Twin Peaks the show explored the great and terrible possibilities throbbing under the bubbly laugh-track façade that had previously defined its medium. Unfortunately, it also demonstrated how easily gun-shy execs can bury something great under tropes that all but obliterate its original vision and its viewership. Thus it ended before its time not once but twice: first, when it was reduced to a puling shadow of its former self, and again, just after Lynch reassumed the reins.

If this were a typical Before Their Time column, I’d be inclined to say something about adding insult to injury. Instead, I’m happy to report that Twin Peaks will enjoy the distinction of being the first show featured here to get a second chance. David Lynch and Mark Frost have written 18 new episodes, all directed by Lynch and featuring much of the original cast. This third season will air on Showtime in May, finally releasing fans from two decades on tenterhooks. Twin Peaks was never going to last forever, but starting May 21st, it looks like we might finally get some closure.

HOW TO WATCH: Seasons 1 and 2 are available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

MUST WATCH: The show is such a slow burn that it’s hard to recommend a single episode; start with the feature-length pilot.

FAVORITE LINES: “The owls are not what they seem.”

“That gum you like is coming back in style.”

“Harry, I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”

“One day my log will have something to say about this.”

“The only thing Columbus discovered was that he was lost!”

PAIR WITH: Coffee and cherry pie

AFTERWARDS: Twin Peaks’ influence is so broad and established that choosing similar shows is a matter of identifying which elements of the show spoke to you. I’m partial to Fargo and Carnivàle, but have seen everything from The X-Files to Lost to Riverdale recommended to scratch that Twin Peaks itch.

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