The pilot of Twin Peaks first starts off with the body of Laura Palmer being found by a riverbank. From that single shot, viewers would have expected for Twin Peaks to be a mystery TV show. But Twin Peaks was also a soap opera and a sitcom. A strange combination indeed, but this formula allowed Twin Peaks to thrive and become one of the most popular TV series of the 90s.
Famed surrealist director David Lynch and Mark Frost created Twin Peaks. Their partnership began after they attempted to collaborate for a film based on Goddess about the life of Marilyn Monroe. While the movie was never made, Lynch and Frost’s friendship was born. When Lynch’s agent, Tony Krantz, approached the director to create a TV series about society in America like Blue Velvet, Lynch and Frost went to work and pitched the idea to ABC during the 1988 writer’s strike. ABC accepted the idea and hired the two to write a screenplay for the pilot. The series aired in 1990.
The massive popularity of Twin Peaks must have come to a surprise for everyone, but no one more than Lynch himself. The director is the master of repulsiveness. Films like Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, and Lost Highway, all of which I consider masterpieces, are hard films for audiences to digest. But while Twin Peaks dealt with grave subjects such as rape and murder, it was also lighthearted in tone. It was a TV series about smiling villagers, hot coffee, and cherry pie.
The protagonist of the series, Special Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan, who starred in Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Dune) embodied the giddiness of Twin Peaks. Cooper, assigned to discover who killed Laura after a similar murder occurred, was a friendly, oddball guy. In one episode, Cooper uses a Buddhist technique in an attempt to discover Laura’s killer. Cooper ranks with Frank Booth as one of the director’s best characters.
Twin Peaks is a satire of American society. Like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks mocks American dreams, hopes, and desires. It portrays the townspeople as happy and pleasant while beneath the surface there’s blackmail and betrayal. It portrayed the lives of these characters in the fashion of a soap opera (the series even mocked this element by having a show within a show called Invitation to Love).
But the closest element of Blue Velvet was the wildness of humanity. In Blue Velvet, Frank Booth symbolized evil. He was more of an animal than a human, ripping and tearing anything that got into his way. Twin Peaks used Killer Bob as the means of conveying inhumanity but Lynch displayed Bob as a supernatural being. It probably made Twin Peaks easier for audiences to digest (SPOILER: it’s too disturbing of a thought that Leland Palmer would rape and kill his own daughter) but also added a whole new thrill to the series. In almost everyone of Lynch’s movies, the supernatural plays in shape in one way or another. Who is the Mystery Man in Lost Highway? What was behind the dumpster in Mulholland Drive? What is the baby in Eraserhead? Lynch gives audiences these questions but never directly supplies the answers. He’s too smart to do so and the thrill of his movies is for the audience to uncover the mysteries.
And the supernatural is what elevated Twin Peaks. The Red Room became a recurring segment on the series, featuring the Man From Another Place (played by Michael Anderson), as well as the Giant and the Unicorn. Lynch presents these staples to viewers and asks them to uncover the cryptic narrative. What makes Twin Peaks different than Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway is that it transitions slowly giving audiences more time to understand the narrative.
The series starting flailing when Laura’s killer was revealed, due to ABC’s demands and Lynch’s loss of control of the show. But even while Season 2 loses much of the series’ edge, it still has the great mystery, further pushing the role of the Red Room. The underrated prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me attempts to tease at the series’ mysterious cliffhanger. Lynch hoped to create two more movies but due to the overwhelming failure of Fire Walk With Me cancelled them.
What Lynch accomplished with Twin Peaks is stunning. He translated his surrealistic, cunning edge to TV and lost none of his grit. It ranks among The Sopranos and The Wire as one of TV’s best dramas.