Twin Peaks (1990)

The Turn and Return of Twin Peaks: A Prolegomenon

twin peaks cooper head sucking into glass box

Showtime’s publicity for Twin Peaks: The Return, the sequel to Mark Frost and David Lynch’s 1990 murder mystery soap opera, emphasizes the notion that the original was the show that changed television. This is largely true: Twin Peaks inexplicably aired on network television, ABC, a network known for Fred Silverman’s “tits and zits” frippery, the likes of Charlie’s Angels and Happy Days.

The closest forebear in terms of complex narration on the network was the comedy detective antics of Moonlighting. The unprecedented experimentalism of Twin Peaks, on the other hand, initiated the third Golden Age of American television in the post-network era, shows ranging from The Sopranos to Lost to Louis C.K.’s second sitcom, which not coincidentally foregrounds David Lynch as a mentor who prepares the comic for taking over David Letterman’s show.

Showtime’s marketing ignores the fact that Twin Peaks was a startling failure as a television show. Partly the result of David Lynch’s Surrealist tendencies, yet also due to ABC’s incompetent handling of the show, by the end of its only full season, viewership had declined so severely that it was brutally and unceremoniously cancelled.

The sparkling pilot, shot by Lynch as a film that screened in Europe with a tight third act in which Laura Palmer’s murderer was revealed to be a grotesque drifter named Bob, aired on April 8, 1990. Throughout the spring, Twin Peaks accumulated a rabid audience, as people delighted in the show’s central mystery, wrapped around quirky genre play, wildly ranging from intense drama to hilarious slapstick.

At the core of this madness is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), a ridiculous figure obsessed with Tibetan Buddhism who also just happened to be a brilliant detective. In the seventh episode, aired on May 23, 1990, Frost and Lynch delivered the best cliffhanger since “Who Shot J.R.”: the murder of Laura Palmer went unsolved, and Agent Cooper was shot by an unknown assailant as he returned to his room at the Great Northern Hotel.

The premiere of the second season the next fall was wildly anticipated. However, Frost and Lynch had something planned beyond the straight-forward revelation of Laura’s murderer. At the opening of the season premiere, first aired on September 30, 1990, Agent Cooper, lying wounded on the floor of his hotel room, is visited by a cryptic Giant who speaks to Cooper in riddles.

twin peaks giant

This maneuver stands in stark contrast to Dallas, where the revelation of J.R.’s assailant (his sister-in-law, Mary Crosby’s Kristin Shepard) occurred in the fourth episode of the fourth season, a tidy ending to the third season finale, the most famous cliffhanger in the history of television. For its part, Twin Peaks did not reveal Laura’s murderer—her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise)—until the ninth episode of the second season, aired on December 1, 1990.

ABC had incompetently bumped the show in numerous weeks in October and November, resulting in a precipitous decline in viewers, as episode after episode refused to reveal the solution to the mystery. The installment in which Leland comes to realize his possession by the spirit, Bob, and his incestuous relationship with his daughter, Laura, is one of the greatest single episodes of American television. In his cell, Bob forces Leland to smash his head into the cement wall repeatedly. Cooper rushes in and, in a startling turn of mood, his Tibetan mysticism turns deadly serious, empathically guiding Leland’s tortured soul into the afterlife. It is a sequence that haunts me to this day.

And thus, so many of the people who desperately wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer were no longer watching the show when the full complexity of the murderer’s identity was finally revealed. Second-hand, the fact that it was her father inhabited by a demonic spirit, seemed completely anti-climactic, and without the emotional resonance delivered by actually watching the episode.

Furthermore, Frost and Lynch seemed uninterested in the mystery: they were merely setting up the show’s mythology, an eternal conflict between the White and Black Lodge, otherworldly locations of good and evil, populated by spirits who may or may not be extraterrestrial. In the wonderful finale of the original Twin Peaks, aired on June 10, 1991, Agent Cooper looks into the mirror of his hotel room bathroom, only to see the face of Killer Bob staring back at him.

twin peaks cooper as bob

With the premiere of Twin Peaks: The Return, under the smoke screen of Showtime’s celebration of Twin Peaks as a groundbreaking event in American television, the show’s failures at keeping an audience have been replaced with the audience’s fond memories of the first nine episodes of the show, dominated by a traditional murder mystery and quirky comedy. As of my writing this, the first five hourly installments of the new show have aired. Shockingly not having learned their lesson about how American television works, Frost and Lynch have doubled down on what made Twin Peaks fail. And, of course, as a result, they have created a show which artistically far surpasses that show entirely.

— Walter Metz