While it’s feasible that there’s the odd person over thirty years of age out there that didn’t see the Twin Peaks series when it was first televised in 1990, it’s unlikely that they are unaware of the cultural run-off from the groundbreaking show. Catchphrases like “She’s dead – wrapped in plastic” and “Who killed Laura Palmer?” adorned T-shirts, fans held coffee-and-doughnut parties, and large sections of the world went quiet for an hour every week. There were also several books published, some extremely funny and knowing indeed, like the Twin Peaks Tourist Guide with an ad for the local taxi service with a blind driver who always travels with his psychic brother (in actuality David Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost).
Those who saw Twin Peaks when it was first televised disagreed about its prime-time prospects, but everyone agreed that the grim mystery thriller was one of the most moody and offbeat series to be ordered by a network. The very notion of Lynch – a film director described as bizarre, iconoclastic, provocative, mischievous and lurid – working on a television series was enough to set the speculation machine turning: Could Lynch find a satisfactory outlet for his odd vision in the restrictive world of network television? Would the networks be comfortable with the director’s handiwork? Rumours suggested Peyton Place as seen through the eyes of Franz Kafka or Rod Serling.
Two decades later, Lynch’s freak-fest is as effective as ever. The cinematography is absolutely breathtaking, and the series is worth buying just for the haunting opening credits. Those who watched the show when it aired all those years ago will be surprised just how familiar some of the scenes are, and for good reason: Television has not been blessed with anything as strange as Twin Peaks since The Prisoner from 1967. Dancing dwarfs talk backwards, seizure-inducing flash edits, strange dream sequences and even stranger real-life characters – it’s the stuff of nightmares. The series eases into the freak show carefully, at first seeming like a high-concept soap opera before descending into the glorious madness of later episodes.
The cast, many of whom are stunning beauties in tight sweaters, include Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn, Lara Flynn Boyle, Joan Chen, Peggy Lipton and Piper Laurie, all of who have done nothing as inspiring since. Kyle MacLachlan, it can be safely said, will never see another role which is so well suited to his wooden delivery, barring his portrayal of the awkward alien cop in The Hidden (1987). MacLachlan plays an FBI agent sent to Twin Peaks – a Northwestern city with a population of about 50,000 – to investigate the murder of seventeen-year-old high school homecoming queen Laura Palmer. When not commenting about the aroma of Douglas fir trees, this federal agent is sniffing out clues and compulsively feeding the results into his pocket tape recorder.
The amazing collection of character actors in support include Madchen Amick, Michael J. Anderson, Royce D. Applegate, Richard Beymer, Don S. Davis, David Duchovny, Miguel Ferrer, Heather Graham, Michael Horse, David L. Lander, Everett McGill, Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Olkewicz, Ted Raimi, Charlotte Stewart, Carel Struycken, Russ Tamblyn, David Warner, Kenneth Welsh, Clarence Williams III, Ray Wise, Grace Zabriskie, Billy Zane, and David Lynch himself as FBI chief Gordon Cole. He told Empire magazine in December 2001: “Twin Peaks is my best work as an actor. It wasn’t going to be a character at all, but there’s a scene where Kyle – Agent Cooper – talks to his boss, and the character was sort of born because I needed to have him talk to somebody, so I did the voice he talked to, and I talked loud, because I sometimes talk sometimes loud on the phone, so it just happened like that. And then it became a character. It was really fun, and also the mood on the set of Twin Peaks was – at least from my point of view, I wasn’t there when others were working – was so fantastic, so there was a lot of experimenting and a lot of just good will, and just a great working atmosphere.”
The mystery begins with Laura’s body, wrapped in plastic, washing up on shore. Trying to solve the case, FBI Agent Cooper runs into a typically oddball assortment of Lynch characters: A handsome young sheriff named Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), a slightly senile resident (Jack Nance), a beautiful Chinese woman (Joan Chen) who owns the local sawmill, and a deputy sheriff (Harry Goaz) who breaks into tears when confronted by an emotional situation. By the end of the pilot episode, Laura Palmer’s murder remains unsolved, which leads us into the series.
Indeed, Lynch seems to be taking dead aim at Peyton Place, Falcon Crest and every other prime-time soap opera in between, and there’s no shortage of eerie scenes: A deer’s head on a bank’s conference table, jailed juveniles howling like wolves, creepy mists rising from the forests. Melodrama is too tame a word to describe the emotional tone – every aspect of the story and style has been heightened. Twin Peaks probes a quiet town and finds layer upon layer of ghastly undercurrents, even the overcurrents have a spooky perversity. It is one of the most intoxicating combinations of grimness and giggles ever made for television, or for anything else for that matter.
The DVD set I recently viewed also adds to the experience, enabling a lot of Lynch’s subtle sound editing and subliminal weirdness to become obvious for the first time. Back-to-back episodes may lessen the impact of the series for some viewers, and those wishing to avoid brain-fry should avoid the tempting marathon. However you choose to watch it, this is essential and frightening viewing indeed. This comprehensive DVD collection boasts director commentaries for every episode – with so many different versions of the Twin Peaks story on offer, it’s impossible not to get a rounded overview of the series and, as you can imagine, some very odd anecdotes. There is also An Introduction To David Lynch, interviews with Mark Frost and many of the writers, directors, critics, script notes, guides and rare archival material from the Twin Peaks fan magazine Wrapped In Plastic, plus optional Log Lady introductions to each episode.
While Lynch’s films have won cult followings worldwide, the networks were after many more viewers than just the director’s fans. Twin Peaks was lucky to get as far as it did due to the patience of the networks with what was obviously a ‘sleeper’ with a slow build. Lynch’s task was formidable: In a prime-time atmosphere that demanded quick success, he had to find a mainstream audience for a project that is anything but mainstream. It’s with this thought in mind I’ll ask you to please join me next week when I have the opportunity to scoop out your brain and drop it in a bucket with another spine-tingling journey to the dark side of…Horror News! Toodles!