Twin Peaks: 20 Years Later
"Who Killed Laura Palmer?" This was the phrase David Lynch and Mark Frost placed on the lips of their rapt audience across the country (and around the world) a mere 20 years ago today. Over the course of two seasons in the early 1990's, television viewers got a weekly hour-long glimpse into the turbulent and twisted lives of the residence of the small Washington State milling town of Twin Peaks, which was shrouded densely in equal parts mystery, Douglas Fir trees and donuts.
Twin Peaks mixed suspense, horror, comedy and surrealism into a heady cocktail of darkly mythic drama. Unlike anything on television at the time, Twin Peaks was cult TV at its most accessible; a dark soap opera that pulled its viewers deeper into its harrowing vortex, week after week. The eccentric, neo-noir template established by this show paved the way for worthy disciples such as The X-Files, Northern Exposure and Lost, as well as a handful of poor imitators like American Gothic, Wild Palms, and Push, Nevada.
Twin Peaks was a town that, on its surface ,seemed like idyllic slice of Norman Rockwell-ian Americana. Under the hamlet's quaint veneer however, lurked secrets, lies, betrayal and murder. This, of course, wasn't new territory for Lynch, who had covered this subject years earlier with his brutally perfect film, Blue Velvet. But where that film gave us a tiny cabal of murderous drug dealers headed-up by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) and his violent, psychotic gang - which trolled the seedy underbelly of an otherwise innocently naive Lumberton - Twin Peaks exploded its dark and devious mushroom cloud to include nearly every resident in the dubious town's Dante-like sphere. As the tagline for the motion picture follow-up, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, put it so succinctly: "In a town like Twin Peaks, no one is innocent."
FBI Special Agent, Dale Cooper (a brilliantly wide-eyed Kyle MacLachlan), is dispatched to the Pacific Northwest town to investigate the grizzly murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Twin Peak's seemingly innocent and picture perfect prom queen. As Cooper's investigation progresses, he learns that Laura, much like the town she lived in, harbored dark secrets underneath that squeaky clean sheen. Back-stabbing, double crossings, blackmail, drug dealing/using, murder for hire, and exposure to a deep, dark and penetrating evil; all par for the course for Laura Palmer and Twin Peaks.
MacLachlan's Cooper grounds the show - we see Twin Peaks through his eyes. And conversely, he seems like just the savior the troubled little towns needs. Cooper is chipper and enthusiastic, but sharply intelligent and cunning at the same time. He's a no-nonsense, by-the-books Federal agent, with the squeaky-clean optimism of a straight-A Boy Scout... who studies Buddhism. Cooper is the positive node in a town where optimism has slowly started to dim.
Twin Peaks, as Cooper soon discovers, is populated by a dense cauldron of eccentric characters. There's The Log Lady (Catherine Coulson), The One Armed Man (Al Strobel), Killer Bob (the too-perfect-to-be-real Frank Silva), and the Little Man From Another Place (Michael Anderson). Then there's the subtle insanity of drug dealing truck driver, Leo Johnson (Eric DaRe), the sociopath-in-training high school quarterback, Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), megalomaniac entrepreneur Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer), his jail-baiting sexpot daughter Audrey (Sherilyn Fynn), and his mill-managing mistress, Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie). Swirling around them are a cast of near-innocents such as Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick), Donna Hayward (Laura Flynn Boyle), James Hurley (James Marshall), Pete Martell (Eraserhead himself, Jack Nance), the honest and homespun Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Onktean), Laura Palmer's manically grieving father, Leland Palmer (played to perfection by Ray Wise), and dozens and dozens more.
Season One of the show was an inspired sojourn that was at once dramatic, comical, frightening and (always) captivating. Lynch, Frost and their inventive production company always kept the viewer at the edge of their seats with each episode. The first season of Twin Peaks was inspired television of the highest order. By Season Two, however, things went slightly south. With the exception of the first couple of heart-wrenching episodes - wherein we learn just who Laura Palmer's killer truly is - the second season of Twin Peaks sputtered under the weight of its own irrelevance (once the killer was was revealed, Special Agent Cooper's reason for remaining in the troubled town seemed both sadly shoehorned and pointless). When ABC didn't renew Twin Peaks for a third season (the network canceled the show due to low ratings, which it helped create by insisted that the production finally solve Laura Palmer's murder, thus causing audience interest to wane), an angry and frustrated Lynch penned and directed a finale that left nearly every character emotionally scarred, heartbroken and defeated. The follow-up film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which was a prequel to the events of the television series, raised more questions than it did provide answers to the events leading up to the end of Laura Palmer's troubled existence.
Given that, however, Twin Peaks was - and still is - one hell of a great show!
Twin Peaks enduring legacy stems from the show's dream-like quality. Though filmed in the early 90's - with clothing and hairstyles reflecting as much - Lynch and Frost crafted a show that seems as if it was (and still is) trapped in amber; in another place, at another time. Everything from the dialogue, to the production work and (especially) Angelo Badalamenti's brilliantly moody, haunting and, at times, playful soundtrack lend Twin Peaks its stasis-like quality. The cult fervor of this show gave us books, soundtracks, comics and a fan-made magazine, Wrapped In Plastic, which is still published today. Snoqualmie, WA, the town where the show was filmed, still draws fans from around the world. Twin Peaks gave American audiences its first taste of avant-garde serial television, the ripple effects we now see in mainstream programs such as Desperate Housewives, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
Twenty years may have passed through the curtains of Twin Peaks' Black Lodge, but this show is still as vital as it was when it premiered in 1990. The coffee is just as fresh, the cherry pie will still "kill ya," and those damn owls will never, ever be what they seem.
"Now it's dark."