"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, April 5, 2010

Twin Peaks Tribute Week: April 4 - April 10th, 2010

Twin Peaks holds a special place in my heart because it was responsible for getting me seriously into film. I had always enjoyed watching them but once I saw the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, directed by none other than David Lynch, I had to track down and watch everything else he had made. This led to Blue Velvet (1986) which immediately became my favorite film of all-time and made me realize, for the first time, that a film could be so much more than just entertainment. What struck me about Twin Peaks is that Lynch took a lot of the themes from Blue Velvet (evil hiding under the facade of small-town innocence, voyeurism, a woman in trouble, etc.) and brought them into mainstream television, changing the medium forever. The show began with the murder of Laura Palmer and explored the ramifications of this incident over 16 subsequent episodes. As a result, Twin Peaks demanded much more of the viewer than the average weekly drama. One could not simply watch the occasional episode and expect to understand what was going on. Many details and clues to who killed Laura were buried throughout the 17 episode story arc so that watching every one was crucial to following the narrative.

What Lynch and his collaborators did was create mini-movies that lasted just under an hour every week, drawing us into a strange and engaging world that nobody had ever seen before. The show debuted on April 8, 1990 with an estimated 35 million audience. ABC helped fuel a media blitzkrieg promoting the pilot episode as a television event and trumpeting the show as a hit with advanced praise from the critics. Twin Peaks became one of the first pop culture events of the 1990s. Intense interest around who killed Laura reached a fevered pitch with articles appearing in major periodicals like Time and Newsweek while Lynch made appearances on The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman. Unfortunately, the quality of Twin Peaks declined rapidly after the Laura Palmer storyline achieved closure. The show was never able to regain momentum and the series was cancelled after its second season. For a brief while it became a pop culture phenomenon and marked one of Lynch’s most prolific periods of his artistic career where he managed to bring his unique worldview into the mainstream.

The show was kick-started by the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the beautiful teenage high school girl and homecoming queen found washed up on a beach, naked and wrapped in plastic. The outpouring of grief throughout the town is emotionally gut-wrenching as we see how news of her death affects her family, her friends, and even those who barely knew her. In some way, she touched everyone’s lives – good or bad. To save on money, Lynch intended to cast a local girl from Seattle "just to play a dead girl.” The local girl ended up being Sheryl Lee. "But no one – not Mark, me, anyone – had any idea that she could act, or that she was going to be so powerful just being dead," Lynch said in an interview. Indeed, the image of Lee wrapped in plastic became one of the show's most enduring and memorable images. And then, while Lynch shot the home movie that  Laura’s best friends James Hurley (James Marshall ) takes of Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Laura, he realized that Lee had something special. "She did do another scene – the video with Donna on the picnic – and it was that scene that did it." As a result, Lee became a semi-regular addition to the cast appearing in flashbacks as Laura and becoming a re-occurring character – Maddie, Laura's cousin who also becomes another victim of BOB (Frank Silva), the demonic presence from another dimension.

When another girl from her school, Ronette Polaski (Phoebe Augustine), is found wandering along a deserted stretch of railway tracks, beaten and raped, the FBI is called in to investigate. Enter Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), an eccentric fellow who records his every thought and the minutest details into a tape recorder to his unseen assistant Diane. He meets with Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), a plain-spoken man who begins to feel a little like Dr. Watson to Cooper’s Sherlock Holmes. The FBI agent relies on his intuition and most intriguingly, his dreams to provide clues into the possible identity of the killer.

This culminates in a fantastic episode (directed by Lynch) where Cooper dreams of meeting Laura in an otherworldly dimension known as the Red Room where she whispers the killer’s identity into his ear while a backwards talking dwarf (Michael Anderson) dances to groovy jazz music. While making Eraserhead in 1971, sound designer Alan Splet taught Lynch how to say words phonetically backwards. Lynch planned to record some dialogue this way and then reverse it in a scene that was never shot. "When I got the Red Room idea this must have been coming back to me. Then the idea followed that the visual would all have to be done backwards as well." When this episode aired it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen on T.V. Lynch’s avant garde sensibilities were harnessed by co-creator Mark Frost’s sense of structure and storytelling and the result was some of the most compelling television as the nation became swept up in the mysteries of the show.

A producer at Warner Brothers wanted Lynch to direct a film on Marilyn Monroe based on the book, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers. Lynch remembers that he was "sort of interested. I loved the idea of this woman in trouble, but I didn't know if I liked it being a real story.” Veteran television producer/writer Mark Frost was hired to write the screenplay. Lynch's agent at the time, Tony Krantz suggested that he work with Frost. Even though this project was dropped by the studio, Lynch and Frost became good friends and wrote a screenplay entitled, One Saliva Bubble with Steve Martin starring in it. However, this film was not made either.

Krantz had been trying to get Lynch to work on T.V. since Blue Velvet but the filmmaker was never really that interested in the idea. One day, they met at a Los Angeles restaurant and Krantz told Lynch that he should do a show “about real life in America – your vision of America the same way you demonstrated in Blue Velvet.” Lynch got an idea of a “small-town thing” but he and Frost were not too keen on it but decided to humor Krantz. Lynch remembers, "so one day Mark and I were talking at Du Pars, the coffee shop on the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura, and, all of a sudden, Mark and I had this image of a body washing up on the shore of a lake." Frost wanted to tell “a sort of Dickensian story about multiple lives in a contained area that could sort of go on perpetually.” Frost, Krantz and Lynch rented a screening room in Beverly Hills and screened Peyton Place (1957) as a source of inspiration for the kind of town they wanted to create.

They pitched the idea to ABC in a ten-minute meeting with the network's drama head, Chad Hoffman with nothing more than this image and a concept: "The mystery of who killed Laura Palmer was the foreground, but this would recede slightly as you got to know the other people in the town and the problems they were having ... The project was to mix a police investigation with the ordinary lives of the characters," said Lynch. At the time, ABC was in last place among the T.V. networks and were looking for something that would get them out of the basement. ABC liked the idea and asked Lynch and Frost to write a screenplay for the pilot episode. Originally, the network didn’t think Twin Peaks would be made into a series and might run as a seven-hour mini-series that would appeal to college students.

The first thing Frost and Lynch did was draw a map of the town. According to Frost, “we knew the town had a lumber mill, but the specifics we weren’t sure of.” They talked about it for three months and then wrote the script in ten days. Frost wrote the more verbal characters like Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) while Lynch was responsible for Agent Cooper, writing most of his monologues. Originally, the show was entitled Northwest Passage and set in North Dakota, but the fact that a town called Twin Peaks really existed (much like Lumberton in Blue Velvet), prompted a revision in the script. Frost and Lynch went on a location scout to Washington state and a friend of Frost’s recommended Snoqualmie Falls. They drove there and found all of the things they had written about in the pilot. ABC Entertainment president Brandon Stoddard ordered the two-hour pilot for a possible fall 1989 series. He soon left the position in March 1989 as Lynch went into production. The director shot the pilot on location near Seattle in 24 days and on a budget of $4 million (subsequent episodes averaged $1 million and took a week each to shoot). Robert A. Iger and his creative team took over, saw dailies and met with Frost and Lynch to get the “arc” of the stories and characters. Iger saw a rough cut of the pilot by late May and ordered seven episodes.

However, even though Iger liked the pilot, he had a tough time persuading the rest of the network brass. "I was baffled by it," admitted then ABC president Mark Mandala, "but we were all 50-plus white males." Iger suggested showing it to a more diverse, younger group. "Unanimously, they loved it," Mandala remembers. Some executives figured that the show would never get on the air. However, Iger planned to schedule it for the spring. The final showdown occurred during a bi-coastal conference call between Iger and a room full of New York executives – Iger won and Twin Peaks was on the air.

Frost and Lynch wanted to create a timeless quality and achieved this by mixing styles from several different eras. Lynch said, “this started happening on Twin Peaks when we were shooting in the school which was built in the fifties. Something from the era just started floating around in the present day and influenced a lot of things that took place on the set.” Surprisingly, Lynch encountered very little interference from the network. Standards-and-practices only had a problem with one scene from the first season: an extreme close-up in the pilot of Cooper’s hand as he slides tweezers under Laura’s fingernail and removes a tiny “R.” They wanted the scene to be shorter because it made them uncomfortable but Frost and Lynch refused and the scene remained.

Before the pilot episode premiered on T.V., a screening was held at the Museum of Broadcasting in Hollywood. Media analyst and advertising executive Paul Schulman said, “I don’t think it has a chance of succeeding. It is not commercial, it is radically different from  what we as viewers are accustomed to seeing, there’s no one in the show to root for.” The two-hour pilot was the highest-rated film for the 1989-1990 season. Initial episodes were well-received by T.V. critics. The Washington Post’s Tom Shale wrote, “Twin Peaks isn’t just a visit to another town. It’s a visit to another planet. Maybe it will go down in history as a brief and brave experiment.” In his review for The New York Times, John J. O’Connor wrote, “Twin Peaks is not a sendup of the form. Mr. Lynch clearly savors the standard ingredients ... but then the director adds his own peculiar touches, small passing details that suddenly, and often hilariously, thrust the commonplace out of kilter.” Entertainment Weekly gave the show an "A+" rating and Ken Tucker wrote, "Plot is irrelevant; moments are everything. Lynch and Frost have mastered a way to make a weekly series endlessly interesting." Time magazine said that it, "may be the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV.”

What makes the first season so strong is the strength of Frost and Lynch’s vision for the show. They hand-picked every director and writer for the episodes they didn’t do themselves and this resulted in a solid consistency. Many of them were directors that Lynch had known from his days at the American Film Institute (i.e. Caleb Deschanel and Tim Hunter) or referrals from someone he knew. Lynch and Frost maintained tight control over the first season, handpicking all the directors. "They have a script and they chat with one or both of us and away they go. And then I'd see their shows at the sound mix. If something was completely wrong there would be time to fix it. But I can't even say that that ever happened," Frost said in an interview. After directing the second episode, Lynch went off to complete Wild at Heart (1990) while Frost wrote the remaining segments. The Lynch-directed pilot episode was the series blueprint in terms of style and tone that everyone else adhered to. It’s not surprising that the weakest episodes are the ones that diverge too far from this template.

One can’t talk about Twin Peaks without mentioning the unforgettable music by Angelo Badalamenti. He had worked previously with Lynch on Blue Velvet and really stepped it up on the show to provide rich, atmospheric music that enhanced every scene it was used. The music is so distinctive that is almost another character on the show. Who can forget the haunting theme for Laura Palmer or the jazzy score for the Red Room? And, of course, there is the show’s theme song that is instantly recognizable. Every time I hear the opening strains, it gets me every time. In the fall of 1989, Badalamenti and Lynch created the score. Lynch would often describe the mood or emotion he wanted the music to evoke and then Badalamenti would begin to play the piano. In 20 minutes, they produced the signature theme for the series. Badalamenti called it the “Love Theme from Twin Peaks.” Lynch told him, “you just wrote 75% of the score. It’s the mood of the whole piece. It is Twin Peaks.” Truer words were never spoken.

The show featured a fantastic cast of actors that ranged from Lynch regulars like Kyle MacLachlan (Dune, Blue Velvet) and Jack Nance (Eraserhead, Dune, Blue Velvet), to Hollywood veterans like Piper Laurie (The Hustler) and Richard Beymer (West Side Story), to newcomers like Sherilyn Fenn (Two-Moon Junction) and Madchen Amick. They inhabit their eccentric characters so well and really make you care about them, like the pure of heart Agent Cooper, or hate them, like the wife-beating truck driver Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re). While these characters are either on the side of good or evil, they have plenty of layers (and secrets) that are fleshed out over the course of two seasons.

The problem with the second season is that after the murder of Laura was solved, the show lost its way for a spell as the writers struggled to create a storyline just as compelling. This is evident in brooding teenager James Hurley’s clunky film noir storyline or Nadine’s (Wendy Robie) bizarro regression to her teenage years albeit with a steady supply of adrenaline. Cooper even started wearing flannel shirts – a flagrant betrayal of the spirit of his character and symptomatic of how the show faltered with the absence of Frost and Lynch’s guiding influence. Twin Peaks improved significantly once Cooper’s ex-partner Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh) arrived in town to play a deadly game of cat and mouse (and an actual game of chess) with Cooper that builds to an unforgettable final episode that infuriated many viewers but remains one of the most exciting and unpredictable swan songs for a series in television history.

Several problems plagued Twin Peaks that became readily apparent during the second season. There were the restrictions of the medium of T.V. According to Lynch, "the power of most movies is in the bigness of the image and the sound and the romance. On TV the sound suffers and the impact suffers." The network was also an issue for Lynch who said, “there were a lot of good people at ABC, but I really still got the feeling that what motivated their decisions had nothing to do with the show. And that's where I think they go wrong. The show is the least important part of their plan." The change from Thursday to Saturday night really hurt the show by diminishing its viewer audience. Lynch said, “I don't think the TV executives are as loyal to any one show as they are to an overall thing against the other networks. There's no way I can talk about what they did because it made zero sense to me. All I know is that they killed it by changing nights and then forcing the solving of 'who killed Laura Palmer.'"

As a result in the change from one day of the week to another, they lost a large chunk of their audience. "It's nice when people like something that you've done but it's sort of like love that seems inevitable that the people reach the point when they've had enough of you, and they fall for the next thing. You're helpless to control that process and awareness of it is like a dull ache,” Lynch said in an interview. There was also the public's desire to know who killed Laura Palmer. "And one thing led to another, and the pressure was just so great that the murder mystery couldn't be just a background thing any more." Once the murder was solved, the show lost its focus and struggled through several sub-plots and declining ratings. Lynch also didn’t like what happened to Agent Cooper over the second season: "Cooper ceased to be 100 per cent Cooperesque for me. He got these flannel shirts and stuff! Some people maybe liked it. So you say, ‘Yes, I'm glad in a way, and in another way I'm really sorry because a guy that's too much like me cannot sustain that intense interest or dream.’ He's got to be specific. Cooper is a certain way. It's necessary."

During the course of the second season Lynch and Frost had a falling out. While they worked closely together during the first season of the show, when Lynch went off to do Wild at Heart, Frost says that, "David left me alone." Frost elaborates further in an interview: "When he [Lynch] got on the set, very often he threw out the script – which didn't please me all that much. But he would go off and do his own thing. He wasn't showing up all that often. He'd come in and direct an episode every once in a while. He wasn't really involved with the scripts. Then he'd go off on his own thing and leave us hanging." Clearly, Frost did not like or approve of Lynch's methods on the set but it is abundantly clear that Frost has his own agenda. In a 1991 interview, he said that he and Lynch worked closely on the first seven episodes but in a Wrapped in Plastic interview he says, "David's not really a writer by nature. He's a wonderful director and a great visual stylist, and he can write in collaboration with somebody. But it's good if the person he's working with has a strong sense of narrative and story, because those honestly aren't David's strengths." It seems that Frost was quite resentful of the amount of attention Lynch received about the show, while he did not get nearly the amount of press or recognition for his contribution.

Looking back, Frost wished they had “worked out a smooth transition” and that the Laura Palmer storyline was a “tough act to follow.” In regards to the second season, Frost felt that “perhaps the storytelling wasn’t quite as taut or as fraught with emotion.” At its best, Twin Peaks surpassed the safe confines of generic T.V. The first appearance of the Black Lodge, an otherworldly dimension populated by cryptic supernatural figures, in the third episode is a prime example of when the series defied genre categorization. Agent Cooper has a dream where he finds himself in the Red Room, a place within the Lodge populated with backwards-talking dwarves, op-art floor design, and distorted spatial relationships. Lynch described the Black Lodge as a place where "there is no problem with time. And anything can happen. It's a free zone, completely unpredictable and therefore pretty exciting but also scary.” Cooper's dream is a brilliantly constructed sequence that echoes Lynch's experimental debut feature film, Eraserhead (1977).

Lynch went one step further when he revisited the Black Lodge in the final episode of the show. At this point, Twin Peaks was on the verge of cancellation. Lynch had returned from working on other projects and was surprised at what had happened to the show. Instead of only offering a tantalizing glimpse of the Black Lodge, as he did in episode three, he adopted a go-for-broke attitude by re-writing the script as he shot the episode and proceeded to set almost half of the show in this environment. As Agent Cooper wandered through various rooms searching for his true love, Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham), the conventions of generic T.V. disappeared. Cooper's actions followed a dream logic that seems confusing at first, but makes sense if you remember what was said about this place in previous episodes. The final result is a wonderfully surreal exercise as Lynch regained creative control to end the series with a shocking conclusion – good does not triumph over evil as Cooper is trapped in the Black Lodge while BOB takes possession of his body in the real world. Lynch brings Twin Peaks full circle by thumbing his nose at convention and once again subverting our expectations.

Twin Peaks paved the way for quirky, unusual fare like Northern Exposure, American Gothic, The X Files in the ‘90s and continues to do so with shows like Wonderfalls and Lost. It has been 20 years since the pilot episode aired on T.V. and the show has lost none of its power or ability to enthrall with its intriguing mysteries and engaging characters. Lynch and Frost’s show broke through and proved that challenging, cinematic, serialized T.V. could find a mainstream audience if even for only a brief time.

For more Twin Peaks, check out the Twin Peaks Archive blog which is also celebrating the show's 20th anniversary. Jeremy Richey also paid tribute to the show at his wonderful Moon in the Gutter blog. There's also the episode guide blog, props blog, and exhaustive In Twin Peaks site. Joining the fun is Edward Copeland's in-depth look back at the show over at his blog and Christine Hadden's excellent celebration of the show over at her Fascination with Fear blog.


  1. This is my favorite show ever.

    Never been able to watch it alone, though.
    I still can't look at BOB!

    Met some of the cast a few years ago.
    It was one of my happiest days.

  2. Great piece! Thanks for the links! I just tweeted a link and put one on my site. 20 years? You have got to be kidding me!

  3. Bravo sir!

    You inspired me. I think I'm going to have to rewatch and write up FWWM before the week is out.

    Now watch out for the percolating fish.

  4. Twin Peaks is the very best that television has ever offered. It takes you to a place both wonderful and strange, a place to belong and never wish to leave.

  5. Great, great examination of the groundbreaking series, J.D. I agree on so many of your points. If TWIN PEAKS doesn't happen, all of those later shows you cite simply never come to be, IMO. And you're so right that after the Laura Palmer arc finished, it was never really the same, afterward. I admit I (and the woman who later became my wife after the series cancellation) lost interest post-L.P. But when it was on, it was simply THE most riveting TV series, ever. Thanks for this, J.D.

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  7. Great stuff J.D.
    I just added a link to this over at Moon in the Gutter's tribute to the pilot and asked folks to vote in your poll (guess who I voted for).

  8. Ashley Jewel T.:

    Yeah, BOB is one freaky character and they really made him look scary. I'll never forget that shot in one ep. where he's running toward the camera screaming!

    That's so cool you met some of the cast members!

    Jerry Horne:

    Thanks for the kind words and for posting a link on your site. Much appreciated. 20 years, eh? Isn't that nuts. I feel old.

    Bryce Wilson:

    Ah yes, FWWM. Enjoy! I would love to hear your thoughts about it.

    As always, thanks for stopping by.

    Ron Gregson:

    I totally agree with your comments. It was a dark day when the show finally got canceled but it almost was destined for a short but memorable run and it did inspire and influence countless shows afterwards.


    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. Y'know, it's funny but after all this time has passed I've softened and actually enjoy some of the wackier subplots that were explored in season 2 but I still feel that the show really didn't pick up steam again until Windom Earle became a real presence in the show and began to menace Cooper.

  9. Jeremy Richey:

    Thanks for you compliments. I just commented on your post and will provide a link to your blog as well. I think I can guess who you voted for. heh! I did too.

  10. It galls me that I can't think what episode it was, but Chris Carter put in an obvious homage to TWIN PEAKS in one of the classic X-FILES. A touch of the music, too, IIRC. Thanks.

  11. le0pard13:

    Yeah, I seem to vaguely recall that as well. Hmm... I'll have to do some digging on that one.

  12. Yes, this Radiator Heaven's finest hour, and I now see why you left such a tremendous response at Mr. Clark's BLUE VELVET/WILD AT HEART consideration. You love for BLUE VELVET is inspiring, but I can readily say I agree, and have held the film's dialogue part of daily existence. But this marathon post here compellingly analyzes another engagingly cryptic work, that rewards with multiple viewings over and over.

    I salute you Sir.

  13. Sam Juliano:

    Thank you for you kind words of encouragement and support, my friend!

    It's safe to say that TWIN PEAKS had a profound effect on me and was my gateway drug to Lynch's films and the rest, as they say, is history. So, I wanted to give this show the proper tribute it deserves.

    I'm glad you are also a big fan of BLUE VELVET and it was nice to see you defending WILD AT HEART over at Wonders in the Dark. The film needs its passionate defenders.

  14. Awesome look at the greatest tv show ever. I'm prepping my own TWIN PEAKS post, so we'll keep this sucka rollin'!

  15. christian:

    Awesome news! I can't wait to see what yer cookin' up.

  16. Just to show how much this show was an event and crossed the spectrum, The Rap Sheet (a blog about crime fiction in books and other media) highlighted TWIN PEAKS today, too. Thanks.

  17. Absolutely terrific work here, JD. In the UK, TP had a decent sized cult following, but ratings dropped here as well when Laura's murder was solved. I loved this series, and couldn't wait until that magnificent theme music dfirted from my tv to signal a new episode that would take me to another world. Just about every character seemed perfect, and the show's influence on future tv and cinema fare cannot be overstated.After reading your feature, I feel like watching the whole thing over again, with coffee and cherry pie of course.

  18. le0pard13:

    Wow, that's very cool. I will definitely check out that blog. Thanks for the heads up.

    Steve Langton:

    Thank you so much for the kind words, Steve. I always looked forward to new episodes airing of this show and managed to tape almost all of 'em and re-watched those Beta tapes over and over again until I wore 'em out. I even got bit by the TP bug and ended up watching 3 episodes last night, including the series finale. Man, what a way to end the show!

  19. An excellent writeup, J.D.! It's a testament to Lynch's (and Frost's) exquisite sense of mystery and mood that so many of us hold the series near and dear to our hearts, and that it has helped launch so many forays (myself included) into cinephilia!

  20. Sean Gill:

    Thanks for the compliments, my friend. I totally agree with you about how TP continues to have a hold on many of us after all these years. There's something about that we all can't let go of...