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Filled With Secrets

Twin Peaks was not really called "horror" when it first came out, but the label fits. While never referred to as such, the series was full of ghosts, angels, and demons, plus the violence was unlike anything that had been shown on TV to that point. It was haunting in more ways than one.

While it lasted only two seasons, Twin Peaks had a massive impact. Without Twin Peaks, we likely wouldn't have The X-Files, Buffy, Lost, The Killing, and the very concept of the showrunner as the reason to watch a show. It brought a new level of cinematic production values to TV, and revolutionized the idea of a series with a continuous story arc. And it was creepy as hell.


Twin Peaks came about when maverick director David Lynch met veteran TV writer Mark Frost. Lynch had bounced back from the debacle that was Dune with the darkly fascinating Blue Velvet, while Frost was coming off a stint as a writer on Hill Street Blues, then the gold standard of quality television. Lynch and Frost planned to collaborate on Goddess, a Marilyn Monroe biopic based on the controversial book by Anthony Summers. http://www.amazon.com/Goddess-Secret…

Unfortunately, the producers had not realized that Summers' book was filled with claims of the Kennedys' involvement in Monroe's death, and pulled the plug. Lynch and Frost found that they worked well together, and that they were both still fascinated by the idea of a woman's death revealing her involvement with powerful men. With the encouragement of Lynch's agent, the pair began a pitch to ABC about a weird small town. Originally called Northwest Passage and set in North Dakota, the show's title was changed and the setting moved to Washington state. Twin Peaks debuted in April of 1990, and within days it was all people were talking about.

Twin Peaks begins with sawmill foreman Pete Martell (Lynch staple Jack Nance) finding the body of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a popular high school senior. The small town is devastated, and the local Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) is overwhelmed in his attempt to solve the case. When a second girl is found wandering across state lines, showing obvious signs of abuse, the FBI is summoned in the person of Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). Cooper is a decidedly unconventional agent, relying on psychic visions and intuitive leaps.


Twin Peaks was billed as a nighttime soap opera, and the show sometimes played as a vicious parody of the tropes associated with TV serials. There were affairs, identical characters, convenient spells of amnesia, and uncertain parentage. The show was often described as "quirky," with various characters indulging their obsessions with coffee, fish, and even psychic pine logs.

But there was also drug addiction, domestic abuse, rape, and far more sinister things floating just below the surface. There was a supernatural element that became much more prominent as the show went on, but in typical Lynch style it remained murky, undefined. I've watched the series a dozen times and I'm still not sure what happened.


Twin Peaks looked and sounded like no other show on TV at the time, and few have matched it since. Lynch and the other directors favored lingering shots over inanimate objects and abrupt, disorienting cuts from one scene to another. Just as important was Angelo Badalamenti's mysterious and disturbing musical score. The show was known for its cryptic dialogue, like "The owls are not what they seem" or "that gum you like is coming back in style."


So where did things go wrong? In retrospect it's fairly obvious. In its first season the show did respectably in its timeslot pitted against the ratings champ Cheers, but ABC decided to put it at 9:00 pm on Saturdays - a time when most of its hip young audience would be going out. As well, the reliance on the "Who Killed Laura Palmer?" cliffhanger frustrated audiences who felt the show was dragging it out. The truth was that Lynch and Frost were ambivalent about ever revealing the murderer, seeing it less as a mystery and more as a way to hook the audience.

However, ABC insisted and the big reveal came in November of 1990. (It's interesting to consider that in today's broadcasting world, with entire seasons streamed or available on DVD, the show would have had a better chance at survival) The result was like a balloon deflating. Lynch had less and less involvement with the show, and the creative imbalance hurt. The show tried to introduce new villains - a French-Canadian gangster, Cooper's disturbed ex-partner - but it didn't work. One of the few highlights was David Duchovny as a cross-dressing DEA agent.


The show sputtered to the end of the last season, and a fan campaign (which included involvement from internet newsgroups, perhaps a first) was unsuccessful in keeping the show from getting cancelled. Twin Peaks ended in June 1991, with a cliffhanger that suggested that in this case, evil won. A year later Lynch released Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a prequel that answered a few questions, but it was clear that the show's cultural moment was over.


Twin Peaks was not horror in a conventional sense, but it created a near constant sense of dread and confusion with its nightmare logic. Hell was an ordinary room with red curtains, and the devil was a malicious long-haired man in a denim jacket. The real horror in these images was in how they corresponded to mundane fears about sex and death. I was in my last year of high school when it debuted, and it captured an adolescent's view of the terror the adult world brings.

At one point in the show the phrase "I'll see you again in 25 years" becomes important, and sure enough a few months ago there was talk of a return to Twin Peaks. Like me, many fans were momentarily excited and then came to reality: a sequel would be inevitably disappointing. But the show remains (it's streaming on Netflix), and the trees still beckon.


ETA: Two of the stars of the show were Russ Tamblyn and Peggy Lipton (once married to Quincy Jones) and a featured actress was Mary Jo Deschanel, whose husband Caleb directed a few episodes. Another director was Stephen Gyllenhaal. Yes, Amber, Jake and Maggie's dads all worked on the show, as did Rashida's mom and both of Zooey and Emily's parents.

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