With the return of the hit TV show Twin Peaks bordering on the horizon, I would imagine there are people around the globe questioning ‘What on Earth is Twin Peaks and why is it coming back after so long?’ I would also imagine that most of these people are fans of popular TV shows in what we brand ‘The golden age of quality TV’, and are younger members of the audience (under 25). Like any cultural movement, there has to be an originator, something that breaks the mould and influences others to follow suit. In the case of series based television, Twin Peaks is that originator.
There is a strong argument that Twin Peaks changed the way that we, as an audience, consume television content. The effect that it had on audiences and Television networks alike turned TV into a medium for quality art entertainment. The question is how? What was so special about it?
The truth is there are a fair few reasons for the phenomenon of Twin Peaks. Think of when two planets align and it creates an effect that can only be seen once every blue moon (excuse the expression). So let’s provide some context into TV in the early 90’s. TV as a medium has now been around for a good 30/40 years depending on how rich your family was. Most of that time had seen television shows expanding from your average soap opera into more episodic and high budget drama. By the time the 1980’s came around, more and more people began to take a keen interest in TV over other visual entertainment such as cinema and theatre. It’s merely a combination of accessibility and trend. Everyone wanted to watch the same thing as their friends or colleagues at work.
So by the late 1980’s after all the great pop music and weird fashion trends, we have seen TV evolve from soap to drama. Popular shows such as The A-Team, Miami Vice and Night Rider often reflected trends and popularity of the public eye. They presented viewers with a catalogue of culture that they could pick and choose to associate themselves with. Also at this time, music and its various subcultures were still very much a main inspiration to people’s sense of self identity (New Romantic, Goth, New Wave etc…) So TV still had a long way to go to get to the forefront of modern culture.
Enter Mark Frost and David Lynch. By the late 1980’s, the pair were introduced to each other and asked to come up with a new television show for ABC. David Lynch had just come off the back of success in Hollywood with Blue Velvet. So how does renown, Oscar nominated director go about writing for the small screen? At the time, this was completely unheard of. Many of this calibre would consider it a demotion. So this is completely new territory for both David Lynch and the medium of TV itself. Mark Frost had previously been recognised within the world of Television with Hill Street Blues, but collaborating with such an avant-garde, non-linear director such as David Lynch must have been a scenario he did not see himself getting into.
The pair started writing the pilot episode and it got backing for production, thus Twin Peaks was born. A mystery drama revolving around the fictitious murder of high school prom queen Laura Palmer, set in a small, friendly town in which the tragedy would resonate deeply with its inhabitants. The show included many traits of David Lynch, from the eerie surrealism and melodrama to the extensive use of music scored by Angelo Badalamenti. The pilot episode aired and TV was never the same again.
The show’s pilot was much better received in ratings than the network or anyone else would have expected, allowing Twin Peaks to be green-lit for seven episodes. Week after week, viewers tuned in to decode the mystery behind Laura Palmer’s death. Audiences became investigators, similar to the shows main protagonist Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by frequent Lynch collaborator Kyle MacLachlan. The element of surrealism within the show gripped audiences and made them question exactly what they were watching, maybe more than they ever had for any other television show. ‘The Red Room’ in which we see a dancing, backwards talking dwarf confused and shocked viewers to the point that they simply had to tune in next week to gain some clarity on what the hell they just watched.
But the mystery of each episode did not finish with the end of the episode. In fact it grew larger. This was aided by the scheduling, broadcast on a Thursday night meant viewers would go into work the next day and chat to colleagues about it around any communal area such as the watercooler or coffee machine. The show cemented this as an aesthetic for TV shows for years to come. It got audiences talking about TV in a way that they had ever engaged with the medium before. Twin Peaks allowed so much conversation and discussion as it was shrouded in secrets. Each character had a mysterious story or background that intrigued everyone watching.
Week after week these mysteries got deeper. The show was not one linear story, yet a web of strange and fascinating storylines that gripped viewers. It was in a way similar to the average soap operas seen around that time, only with a lot more depth, mystery and general quality of writing. The surrealism propelled the show, as certain storylines crossed with each other and it became an often bizarre string of coincidences. As I write this paragraph, I am writing it exactly 27 years to the day of the original broadcast of the pilot. A perfect example of how the world of Twin Peaks works a surreal string of coincidences or ‘happy accidents’ as David Lynch calls them.
These ‘happy accidents’ allow that sense of surrealism to project and often shock or surprise audiences. The show is loaded with them, especially in the episodes that Lynch was involved with. They have been a trademark in his work, embracing moments of spontaneity that simply could not be recreated. The alpaca moment is a perfect example of this.
Though the main reason that viewers maintained interest was the way in which the show never wanted to reveal its secrets, and if it did then it took its time. But it’s not necessarily the reveal that generates, more the ‘need to know’. This is eventually what led to the show’s demise, but while it kept that ethos, people were hooked. The question of ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ was being asked by everyone. It created a phenomenon. People were engaging with the show on a completely different level. Dale Cooper’s extensive love for ‘damn fine coffee’ and cherry pie had viewers everywhere consuming copious amounts. Some diners in the U.S even ran Twin Peaks inspired sales on coffee and cherry pie to cash in on the show’s influence.