Twin Peaks is one of the all time great television dramas. Even though the original run was only two seasons, and we were lucky to get that, it cemented itself as one of the biggest cult hits ever. Mistakes were made, lots of them, some by creators Mark Frost and David Lynch, others by the ABC Network, but nothing can take away from the legacy that Twin Peaks left in its absence. So, let’s explore what it did right, what it did wrong, why it got cancelled after only two seasons, and why fans have been clamoring for more for over 25 years.
When Twin Peaks hit television in 1990 there had never been anything like it. Television drama at the time consisted of shows like Law and Order, In the Heat of the Night, and L.A. Law. Comedies ruled the roost, with Cheers, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, and the very popular TGIF lineup of Full House and Family Matters. 90210 also made its debut in 1990 as the icing on the cake. Like I said, Twin Peaks was light years beyond any of that programming. This was a blessing and a curse for the show in the long run, but during its initial season Twin Peaks was the number one show on television, pulling in the Emmy for Best Show – Drama, and best actor in a lead, and best supporting actress.
So, what made Twin Peaks different from all these other shows? Twin Peaks brought dark, sometimes risky, adult themes to television….network television, at that! It wasn’t episodic, and by that, most shows were self contained stories. An episode of Law and Order would be about a case, a mini-story if you will, and it would be over. The characters continue on and there might be a reference to that case in a later episode but for the most part you could jump in anywhere and figure out what was going on. Not so with Twin Peaks. There were no recycled stories and each episode told a part of the larger story. I know this seems crazy now, but at that time television shows didn’t do that. Twin Peaks paved the way for every television drama that followed in this respect.
Twin Peaks also worked as a study on subtlety in television. Sure, you’ve got the main story, and if that’s where you want to stop digging you should be satisfied. But if you’re willing to notice the little things there are tons of little nods throughout the series. From tongue and cheek references to the current state of television, to the way light and music are used to enhance scenes. It used humor and candor create bonds with characters who are immediately likable, instilled a sense of dread around characters who were potentially dangerous, and an air of mystery around others. For long time fans it’s more about the characters and their little stories, whether they’re part of the over-arcing story or not. This was something else that was new to television drama and further set Twin Peaks above shows that came before it.
The main story of Twin Peaks revolves around Laura Palmer, whose dead body is found, wrapped in plastic, in the very first episode. 1990 became the year where everyone wanted to know…”Who killed Laura Palmer?” FBI Agent Dale Cooper is called in to help the local sheriff solve the mystery and television would never be the same. As I mentioned earlier, the show caught the attention of most of America as everyone tried to figure out who could have killed Laura. The show was nominated for 12 Emmy Awards, winning the aforementioned three, including Best Drama. Just as things were looking up, this is also where the show started to tailspin, partly under the lofty weight of its own ambition.
America wasn’t ready for this type of television yet. Yes, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” was water cooler talk every single week, but by the end of the first season the show hadn’t answered the question. This was not only unheard of but it started turning casual viewers off of the show, especially those who were unfamiliar with the darkness that Lynch brings along to all of his projects. Again, this seems crazy in 2016, but in 1990 American viewers wanted their mysteries solved in fast fashion. The problem is that Lynch honestly never intended to reveal the killer. He knew who the killer was but intended Laura’s murder to be the key that opened the door to the seedy underbelly of Twin Peaks. On the surface it was a pleasant mountain town with “damn good coffee” and cherry pie you couldn’t get enough of. The death of Laura Palmer revealed that there was a darkness in the woods and had been for a long time, a theme that is very common in Lynch’s work……unseen evils lying beneath ordinary beauty.
During the show’s second season viewers continued to get impatient about the unsolved murder. ABC pressured creators Mark Frost and David Lynch into revealing the killer at the midway point of season two. This is where things take a marked swing downward for a couple episodes. You can tell that Lynch didn’t really have a plan for this course of action and the show floundered under sub-plots and a few minor character stories that just weren’t very interesting. While the network got their mystery tidied up they’d also just crippled one of their flagship shows. As viewers fled the show, their mystery solved, ABC bounced the show around to different nights of the week several times. One of the time slots was directly competing with Cheers, which had the same demographic of viewers as Twin Peaks. Unfortunately for Twin Peaks most fans chose Cheers. After the 15th episode of season two, ABC put Twin Peaks on indefinite hiatus. Twin Peaks appeared to be done for good.
Thanks to a successful write in campaign by die-hard fans using the name of COOP (Citizens Opposed to the Offing of Peaks) ABC brought the show back to finish the second season. The show finished strong and totally redeemed the few episodes where it floundered but it was too late. The show was bounced around to varying time slots yet again and after the show finished on a cliffhanger, Twin Peaks closed up shop, this time for good (or so it seemed at the time). Fans would have to wait for 25+ years to get more Twin Peaks, which has been picked up by Showtime to continue the story.
So, what happened to the second season? Why were story arcs changed? Was it all the studio? Was Lynch and his eccentricities to blame? Lynch was obviously thrown by being forced to bring Laura Palmer’s killer to light. He also entrusted other people, some without the same level of talent to direct a great deal of the episodes in season two, a decision he has since admitted was a mistake. As such he is helming all episodes of the third season. Why did Coop stop his storyline with Audrey Horne? Well, that would be because he was dating Lara Flynn Boyle in real life and she was upset about how much screen time they were getting together. She forced writing changes that led to the introduction of Annie out of nowhere at the end of the second season. I place most of the blame for the second season issues with ABC. In fairness they didn’t truly know what they had on their hands. They had a show that was a critical darling but the American public wasn’t ready for it. They tried to balance appeasing fickle public opinion while retaining the core of the show and you just couldn’t do both.
I’m of the opinion that Twin Peaks is one of the best things to ever happen to television. It was endearing, hilarious, heart warming, mysterious, dark, mean, horrifying, and strange. The characters were deep, well written, and had lives beyond what happened on screen, which again, just didn’t happen at that time. Twin Peaks was compelling television when it came out in 1990 but the fact that it holds up to this very day is a testament to the brilliance behind it. I’m excited to revisit my old friends in Twin Peaks in May. It’s been far too long.