Twin Peaks was a cult television show that was the brainchild of Mark Frost and David Lynch. Lynch was better known at the time for his films, which include The Elephant Man, Dune and Blue Velvet. The programme aired from 1990-91 and spanned two series totaling 29 episodes.
The basic premise of the show was a sleepy and beautiful Washington state town which becomes gripped by the threefold concerns of murder, mysticism and doughnuts. FBI Agent Dale Cooper is called to the town of Twin Peaks to investigate two brutal murders, particularly the second, that of homecoming queen Laura Palmer. He is aided in his investigation by the local sheriff Harry Truman and his deputies Andy and Hawk. Soon, the intrigue becomes too much for even these lawmen to unravel, as the mystic world clashes with the mundane.
A Brief Synopsis
The show begins with Cooper arriving in Twin Peaks to assist the investigation of the murders of Teresa Banks, a local waitress, and more recently, schoolgirl Laura Palmer, who had been found dead and wrapped in plastic on a riverbank. In this town, Cooper discovers corrupt hoteliers, not-so-innocent high-school kids, drugs, murder and damn fine cups of coffee. Not necessarily in that order.
At the story's outset, Cooper is investigating an apparent serial killer. He discovers that Laura Palmer was involved with drugs, prostitution and pornography through her connections with the local underworld. Her double life affected her family and school friends, especially her two boyfriends, James and Bobby. Coop, as he is known, manages to unravel the events surrounding her death, and through the intervention of surreal and supernatural dreams, visions and omens he discovers the extent of the influence of the paranormal on mundane life in Twin Peaks, and eventually he is able to confront the killer.
However, this is not the conclusion to the series, and despite being the basic storyline of the show, it is only one of many plot lines. One of the glorious aspects of Twin Peaks is the fact that the town really feels like an organic entity, in that all the characters, no matter how minor, have genuine depth and fully realised motivations and plot lines.
Coop goes on to investigate the occult nature of the killer and the murders, and reveals a hidden world of mysticism and menace, coupled with the appearance of his ruthless and homicidally-crazed former mentor, Windom Earle. This mystic world centres on a yin-yang dichotomy between two metaphysical places which embody evil and good, called the Black and White Lodges. The Black Lodge becomes the focus of the later storylines, as access to it promises some sort of unholy power to the finder. Coop has to struggle not only to prevent Earle from discovering the Black Lodge, but also to retain his own soul in the process.
The Atmosphere of the Show
Twin Peaks represented a departure for Lynch from the rigid constraints of the movie format. As a TV show, the cast list could be so much bigger, the action more spread out and the mystery fully developed. Twin Peaks is in itself something of a self-referential spoof, in that it parodies soap opera storylines and even has a mock 'soap-within-a-soap' called Invitation to Love, which features characters with names like Jade, Emerald and Montana.
It is also purposefully cool, playing to stereotypes of ultra-smooth FBI agents and moody James Dean-clone bikers. Rarely do any TV shows exhibit the breadth of tone that Twin Peaks does. It switches effortlessly from Lynch's trademark 'white picket fence' homeliness to genuinely unsettling menace, and that's before the opening titles have ended. The excellent and much-imitated score by Angelo Badalamenti, a regular Lynch collaborator, contributes greatly to this tonal variety.
Surreal farce plays a big part in Twin Peaks, with regular bouts of comic relief from the intensity of the serious plot lines. Characters such as hapless Deputy Andy, the wonderfully droll FBI forensic specialist Albert and Nadine the eye-patch-wearing super-strong amnesiac provide moments of pure hilarity. The unlikely sights of David Duchovny in drag and Ray Wise doing song and dance numbers like a manic, white-haired Gene Kelly are worthy of special mention. Even the ostensibly serious characters get great lines, though1:
Cooper: In another world he might have been a seer or a shaman priest... here he's just a shoe salesman who walks with the shadows.
Albert: I performed the autopsy on Jacques Renault. Stomach contents revealed, let's see, beer cans, a Maryland license plate, half a bicycle tire, a goat, and a small wooden puppet. Goes by the name of Pinocchio.
Cooper: You're making a joke!
Albert: I like to think of myself as one of the happy generations.
However, Twin Peaks also obeys the classic Lynch motif of the small town whose veneer of cute and cosy familiarity hides the sordid and corrupt truth. This is best illustrated by another of Lynch's works, Blue Velvet, in which the opening scene of a beautiful suburban lawn crawling with beetles proves a visual metaphor for the underlying darkness which grips the town of Lumberton. In Twin Peaks, there are a few clues to this hidden side of the town and its inhabitants:
Judge Sternwood: So, Agent Cooper, how are you finding our little corner of the world?
Cooper: It's heaven, sir.
Judge: Well, this week heaven includes arson, multiple homicide, and an attempt on the life of a Federal agent.
Cooper: Heaven is a large and interesting place, sir!
Twin Peaks proved such a cult success on both sides of the Atlantic that the town of Snoqualmie2, situated 28 miles from Seattle, Washington, now derives a hefty amount of income from Twin Peaks fans on pilgrimages, visiting the place 'where pies go when they die'. These fans are also still embroiled in critical and narrative discussions of the show, a decade after the event, which is a clear demonstration of how Twin Peaks has created a dedicated following to a degree not seen since The Prisoner or Star Trek.
Spin-offs and Subsequent Developments
Spin-offs from the series proved popular, with David Lynch's daughter Jennifer writing an accompanying book The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, as well as one by Frost's nephew Scott called The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes. Twin Peaks has also proved to be a profitable video series, mainly because it was too long for many people to have taped at the time and for schedulers to find that much listings space for a re-run. The UK's Channel 5 made a half-hearted attempt to screen the whole series again, but only managed a few episodes before removing the show from its programming. The pilot episode was released in Britain on video with a different ending so that it became a complete film, which was unfortunate, because most of the magic of the show was due to its on-going serial nature, which allowed genuine plot, character and thematic development.
A movie prequel to Twin Peaks was made in 1992 to universal critical disappointment. Despite featuring Chris Isaac, Kiefer Sutherland and Harry Dean Stanton in addition to most of the cast from the show, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was a shining example of Lynch at his impenetrable worst. The critics hated it, audiences couldn't understand it and even hardened Twin Peaks devotees felt let down by the film. The humour of the TV show was lacking, and the pacing of the plot was much too drawn out for a film. It feels very much like Lynch was trying too hard to create an atmosphere of enigmatic menace and ended up with a portentous and ultimately meaningless narrative. However, parts of the film did sparkle, such as Isaac and Sutherland's characters' meeting with Gordon Cole who uses a girl's body language as a coded message. This role was played by Lynch himself. Cole is the Regional FBI Chief, who is extremely hard of hearing, and so shouts nearly everything he tries to say.
Badalamenti's soundtrack to the first season sold well as an album in its own right, and the singer featured on certain of these tunes, Julee Cruise, had a serious career boost herself. Her syrupy and breathily-soft singing style was a perfect mismatch for the Roadhouse setting in which she appeared on the show.
The influence of Twin Peaks cannot be underestimated. Subsequent shows such as The X Files, Roswell High, and even perhaps Buffy derive their mixture of cosy ordinariness, deadpan dialogue and flights of esoteric fantasy from Twin Peaks. The Angel character in the latter show is extremely reminiscent of the brooding, downcast biker James - dark, cute and physical - but light on the detailed characterisation. It launched, boosted or refreshed the careers of many of its principal cast members, especially Kyle Maclachlan, Sheryl Lee, Heather Graham, Lara Flynn Boyle and Sherilyn Fenn. And it made navy-blue anoraks with 'FBI' printed on the back in big yellow letters cool, if only for a little while.
Lynch went on to make films that achieved great recognition, such as Wild at Heart, which won the Palme D'Or at Cannes, and Straight Story, which gained a Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, among other prestigious awards. As for the characters he and Mark Frost created, they ended the second series with a proper soap opera-style shock ending, leaving life in the quiet town of Twin Peaks forever altered and forever lodged in the imaginations of its admiring audience. However, its creators had intended that Twin Peaks should run for at least another season, but its ratings had dipped to the point where it was scrapped in a rather ignominious fashion. This left plenty of loose ends, and many online fan sites continue to debate these 'what ifs and 'what happened nexts'.
FBI Agent Dale Cooper - Kyle Maclachlan, a 'Lynch-mob' regular best known for his roles in Blue Velvet and Dune.
FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield - Miguel Ferrer, a Hollywood stalwart who specialises in brash and obnoxiously sardonic characters, best known as the fatally pushy executive in Robocop, which also featured Ray Wise (Leland Palmer) as a gang member. Wise also starred as a corrupt and slightly loony official in Rising Sun.
DEA Agent Dennis/Denise Bryson - David Duchovny, pre-X Files. His role in Twin Peaks is essentially identical to Fox Mulder, but in stockings and long hair. Has to be seen to be believed.
Laura Palmer and Madeleine Ferguson - Sheryl Lee, last seen in John Carpenter's Vampires, and seemingly destined for a distinguished TV movie career.
Donna Hayward - Lara Flynn Boyle, who probably became better-known for dating Jack Nicholson than her acting career, which has rather stalled despite a stirling appearance in Todd Solondz' Happiness.
Major Briggs - Don Davis, who plays an identical role in Stargate SG-1.
Ed Hurley - Everett McGill, and Pete Martell - Jack Nance, both Lynch regulars. Nance, who starred in Lynch's first major motion picture Eraserhead, died in 1997 following injuries sustained in a fight in a doughnut shop.
Audrey Horne - Sherilyn Fenn, whose sirenesque good looks and steamy demeanour should have guaranteed her further success. She managed to land the nightmare role of the limbless Helena in Boxing Helena. Her career does not appear to have recovered yet.
Catherine Martell - Piper Laurie, a three times Oscar nominated actress (The Hustler, Carrie, and Children Of A Lesser God).
Annie Blackburne - Heather Graham, whose film career is currently thriving, despite a relatively minor role as Coop's love interest. Notable subsequent roles include Swingers, Lost in Space, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and most memorably as Rollergirl in Boogie Nights.