The cinema-quality television that’s all around us today started in a strange little town in the Pacific Northwest.
So when the iconic “Twin Peaks” returns as a Showtime series in 2016, it will fit right in.
“Twin Peaks” was the unlikeliest of success stories when it debuted on ABC in 1990.
Grisly, quirky and glacially paced, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s whodunit demanded viewers’ attention as it meagerly parceled out clues about who killed troubled teenager Laura Palmer, whose body was found washed up on rocky banks, wrapped in plastic.
The show drew huge ratings at first, revealing itself as something vastly different from a regular crime procedural. It looked at the ripples the murder sent through the secluded Washington town and the lives of the oddballs who lived there: the terse and poetic Log Lady, always carrying her signature chunk of wood, or middle-aged Nadine Hurley, with her eyepatch, superhuman strength and a delusion that she’s back in high school.
“Twin Peaks” was also deeply steeped in the supernatural. Laura’s murderer was revealed as Killer Bob, an evil spirit possessing her father. Bob was somehow connected to a race of nefarious creatures inhabiting a dark parallel universe, manifested as the disorienting, velvet-curtained Red Room. Cryptic petroglyphs, disappearing giants and omnipresent owls suffused the show with an unearthly atmosphere.
But its popularity faded quickly in the second season. After the initial mystery was solved, the series meandered. Audiences lost interest amid too many plotlines and abrupt shifts in tone: a slapstick beauty pageant, a major character’s spirit trapped in a wooden drawer knob, lots of soap-opera melodrama.
A shocking season finale cliffhanger left the hero, FBI Agent Dale Cooper, locked in the mysterious Black Lodge, with his evil doppelganger unleashed in the real world. Things seemed poised to take a turn for the worse in Twin Peaks.
But then ABC canceled the show. A subsequent feature film, 1992’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” jumped back in time as a prequel instead of revealing what happened to Cooper. It was famously booed at its Cannes Film Festival premiere, and it flopped with critics and audiences alike.
As quickly as it had burst into the public consciousness, “Twin Peaks” had fizzled.
Why, then, the seemingly universal rapturous response to Showtime’s announcement this week that Lynch and Frost will bring the show back for nine new episodes in 2016? What has increased the series’ estimation in the quarter-century that it has been gone?
Melissa Lenos, assistant professor of English at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan., thinks the newly piqued interest goes beyond the current wave of ’90s nostalgia.
“For those of us old enough to remember the original airing, it marks a very specific change in the way we thought about television,” she wrote in an email interview. “There was simply nothing like it on TV at that time.
“If you remember what else was on television in 1990 — well, it was a pretty bleak time, in terms of ambition, creativity and experimentation. ‘Twin Peaks’ wasn’t just ‘different.’ It was cinematic at a moment when television was rarely that. It was slow and it didn’t wrap up story lines from week to week (or even season to season, some would argue).
“Besides that, it was dark, both thematically and in terms of visual style, and frequently extremely disturbing and confusing.”
Today’s TV audiences have grown accustomed to a wealth of grim, violent crime narratives that must be watched sequentially: “True Detective,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” “The Sopranos.”
And popular shows such as “American Horror Story,” “True Blood” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” have proven that the supernatural and the humorous can live alongside serious, character-driven drama.
In our heavily referential, post-postmodern media culture, nods to “Twin Peaks” abound. Some of those tributes are overt, such as the 2010 episode of USA’s “Psych” titled “Dual Spires.” It cast “Twin Peaks” actors Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn, Dana Ashbrook, Catherine Coulson, Ray Wise and others in a story that paid direct, always-winking homage. “The Simpsons,” “Fringe” and even “Sesame Street” have inserted “Twin Peaks” references through the years.
It also inspired a new wave of paranormal activity on ’90s television: “The X-Files,” “Millennium,” “Roswell.”
No show flattered by imitation more than the ’90s series “Northern Exposure.” Debuting three months after “Twin Peaks,” “Exposure’s” entire premise and mood — a New York doctor hangs out his shingle in a remote Alaska town filled with weirdos and crackpots — was similar. “Exposure” ran for six seasons, and many credited its success to Lynch and Frost’s creation blazing the trail.
But none of these shows is “Twin Peaks.” The idiosyncratic David Lynch comes by his quirks honestly. His films such as “Eraserhead” and “Blue Velvet” are populated by eccentric characters who inhabit their own little worlds along with the one we all share.
“He has a point of view that’s both skewed and pretends to be without comment,” said Eric Rosen, artistic director of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. “It’s not like some other directors, like (Quentin) Tarantino, who create these odd characters. Those directors, they show their directorial point of view all the time. With Lynch, we’re meant not to feel that heavy hand. His particular style is to treat the bizarre as though it’s completely normal.”
Kyle MacLachlan’s performance as coffee- and justice-obsessed Agent Cooper is perhaps the quintessential example of Lynch’s version of reality. At once overtly mannered yet emotionally naturalistic, it has become MacLachlan’s signature role (and one he hinted on Twitter that he will reprise: “Better fire up that percolator and find my black suit :-) #Twinpeaks”).
“He got Lynch’s style so well,” Rosen said. “He was just so good.… I remember thinking, ‘There’s not acting like this on television!’”
“Twin Peaks” saw its most complete treatment this summer with the release of “Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery,” a 10-disc Blu-ray set documenting the TV episodes and movie, along with 90 minutes of footage trimmed from “Fire Walk With Me” that fans have been clamoring for online for the better part of two decades. That film has been the subject of several high-profile re-evaluations in recent years, with writers such as The New York Times’ Mike Hale and legendary music critic Greil Marcus proclaiming it and its performances underrated.
The excitement and rave reviews for the new discs are no doubt fanning the flames of enthusiasm for the continuation of the series, which Frost has said will take place in the present day.
“The qualities that create what we refer to today as ‘prestige television’ — high-quality writing, cinematic visuals and complex, well-developed characters — certainly existed before ‘Twin Peaks,’ but ‘Twin Peaks’ combined those elements with permission to explore difficult ideas,” Lenos wrote.
“Now, we’re more accustomed to contemplating metaphysics, postmodernism, spirituality and identity while watching television, and we’re also more accepting of refusals to give the viewer easy, digestible endings.
“That lack of closure — the sense that we never truly got the whole story is, I think, one of the reasons why many ‘Twin Peaks’ fans are looking forward to the reboot.”
To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4722 or email email@example.com.
The 10 big mysteries we hope the new “Twin Peaks” will answer
1. The biggie: What havoc did Evil Agent Cooper wreak in the real world after escaping the Black Lodge?
2. What happened to the characters caught in the explosion at the Twin Peaks Savings & Loan? Audrey Horne, Pete Martell and Andrew Packard were all there, and we saw debris fly. There were definitely casualties.
3. This one is partly spoiled by “The Entire Mystery” set: Did Agent Cooper’s girlfriend Annie escape from the Black Lodge? And if so, what happened to her? Surely she was aware the Agent Cooper in the real world was his doppelganger.
4. Did Ben Horne die from the beating he received at the hands of Doc Hayward?
5. Are Lucy and Andy still happily together? And did the baby end up looking like Andy or smarmy Dick Tremayne? Either could have been the father.
6. Is Sarah Palmer, Laura’s mother, still possessed by Windom Earle, who spoke through her to lure Major Briggs to the Black Lodge?
7. Will Killer Bob make an appearance in the new show? Frank Silva, the actor who portrayed him, died in 1995.
8. Will weepy, pouty James Hurley ever return to Twin Peaks? He’s too old to be a boy toy by now.
9. Did Agent Cooper meet up in the Black Lodge with Chris Isaak’s Agent Chester Desmond, who up and disappeared in “Fire Walk With Me”? And what about Kiefer Sutherland’s Special Agent Sam Stanley?
10. Will Lara Flynn Boyle return to the role of Donna Hayward, which she declined to reprise for “Fire Walk With Me”?