The enduring influence of David Lynch's Twin Peaks

It's been 24 years since Twin Peaks was cancelled, but such is its influence it feels like it's never been away. With recent talk of new episodes and an upcoming conference devoted to the series, we delve back inside its surreal world

Feature by Steve Timms | 21 Apr 2015

In the not too distant past, television was considered cinema’s poor relation: actors and directors usually began their career on the small screen in the hope they could eventually parlay their profile into the movies. But that’s no longer the case. Today, big name stars move between both worlds, and are almost queuing up to appear in the sort of quality serial dramas pioneered by channels like HBO and AMC. Matthew McConaughey may have won his Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club but it was his excoriating turn as malcontent Rust Cole in True Detective which clinched the deal. Welcome to the golden age of television.

The idea of millions of people tuning in to watch a weekly television show at the same time and on the same channel seems oddly quaint in an era of Amazon Prime, Netflix and DVD box sets. But in the autumn of 1990, that’s exactly what happened when Twin Peaks arrived in Britain, six months after its American debut. Arguably this was where the golden age began.

Peaks was a collaboration between David Lynch – director of such dark, disturbing films as Eraserhead and Wild at Heart – and TV scriptwriter/director Mark Frost, veteran of the long running Hill Street Blues. In the pilot episode, the body of homecoming queen Laura Palmer is discovered washed up on a jetty, wrapped in plastic. The engine of the plot is the murder investigation led by idiosyncratic FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). As with much of Lynch's other work, notably Blue Velvet, Peaks explores the disparity between the surface of small-town respectability and the seedier aspects lurking beneath. It quickly becomes apparent that Laura was leading a double life, addicted to cocaine and prostituting herself. But the longer Agent Cooper spends in Twin Peaks (population, 51,201), the more the storyline veers off into the lives of the town’s inhabitants, uncovering their numerous illicit affairs, as well as the business machinations at the Great Northern Hotel and Packard Saw Mill. “In a town like Twin Peaks,” ran the show's tagline, “nobody is innocent.”

Kyle MacLachlan as FBI agent Dale Cooper

Look at the landscape of American TV in 1990, and it’s not a pretty sight; the most popular shows were ALF, Saved by the Bell, Murder She Wrote and the gruesomely sentimental Cosby Show. Twin Peaks landed like a psychedelic bomb. And though it only lasted two series and thirty episodes, it was that rare beast: a game changer and a pop culture phenomenon. The serial dramas that came directly afterwards – Northern Exposure; Wild Palms; Eerie, Indiana – shared a healthy dose of the Peaks DNA. And it’s not much of a leap to imagine Agent Cooper sharing an office with Fox Mulder of The X-Files (David Duchovny appeared in three Peaks episodes as transgender agent Denise Bryson). Bates Motel, currently showing on the Universal Channel, plays like an alternate reality version of Twin Peaks.

Danny Leigh, film critic and co-presenter of Film 2015, recently celebrated Twin Peaks in a Radio 4 documentary, broadcast on Easter Monday. “I think Twin Peaks got into the cultural water supply pretty much instantly,” he says, “and since then it’s been easier to name the TV shows that that weren’t somehow in its debt than those that were. These days it’s essentially a one-show genre like The Twilight Zone, whose tone other shows can borrow even without having specific reference points. I haven’t seen Wayward Pines yet (upcoming Peaks-inspired mystery series on the Fox Channel) but you’ve got to admire the chutzpah of that title.”

This month, Peaks’ cultural legacy is examined further in an international two-day media conference. I’ll See You Again in 25 Years: The Return of Twin Peaks and the Generations of Cult TV is the brainchild of Kirsty Fairclough-Isaacs, senior lecturer in media and performance at the University of Salford. The conference will include a special public event on 21 May, featuring Leigh. So why is the show so relevant to academics? “Twin Peaks is a significant series for media, television and cultural studies scholars for a whole host of reasons”, says Fairclough-Isaacs. “Perhaps most significantly, Twin Peaks has served as a blueprint for what has become known as ‘quality television’, due to its high production values, narrative complexity and auteur-driven status. Its influence on later US TV drama productions such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and House of Cards among others is evident.”

For those too young to have seen it when it was first broadcast, how to describe Twin Peaks? It is a murder mystery, albeit one located in the unfamiliar, tree-fringed landscape of the Pacific Northwest (“What kind of wonderful trees have you got growing round here?” asks Agent Cooper with boyish enthusiasm in the pilot episode; they’re Douglas Firs, actually). But it is also a great deal more. One minute it feels as though you are watching a cop show, the next minute a soap opera. There are horror and supernatural elements; the hands of Laura’s killer (this is a spoiler-free article) were forced because he was possessed by an evil spirit known as Bob.

Twin Peaks is also noteworthy for its deep vein of surrealism: Agent Cooper is given clues to Laura's murder in a supernatural realm that may or may not be his imagination. Some clues are presented by a giant, others by a dancing dwarf who speaks backwards. There are stylistic motifs like trees, coffee, cherry pie, donuts, owls, water, fire and logs. Angelo Badalementi’s haunting music score is distinctive enough to be a character in its own right.

“There’s a terrible parallel reality where Twin Peaks limps on until 1998 with no real input from Lynch, and half the original cast having been written out” – Danny Leigh

The ABC network insisted that the identity of Laura's murderer be revealed midway through the second season, killing – in Lynch’s words – “the goose that laid the golden eggs.” There were new stories to tell, including a secret forest doorway, which lead to the sinister Black Lodge. But all this came too late. The show was cancelled, and the final episode – where the kind-hearted Cooper is himself possessed by the spirit of evil Bob – remains an unresolved cliffhanger, forever frozen in the Black Lodge’s no-time zone. “The network cancelled the show for the usual prosaic reason of ratings but part of me thinks they did the world a favour by killing it when it still seemed so vital,” suggests Leigh. “There’s a terrible parallel reality where it limps on until 1998 with no real input from Lynch, and half the original cast having been written out.”

“From a business perspective, I can see the reasons behind its cancellation,” adds Fairclough-Isaacs. “From an aesthetic and formal point of view, and as a fan of the show, I was outraged!”

Lynch revisited the Peaks universe in the 1992 cinema prequel Fire Walk With Me, which focused on the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life. The film was greeted with bafflement and hostility on its release but seen today, Fire Walk with Me is bold, shocking, and quite harrowing in its depiction of addiction and sexual abuse. It also features a raw, heartbreaking performance from Sheryl Lee as Laura. “I think there were various reasons Fire Walk With Me was pounded on when it first came out”, says Leigh. “It was clearly a different beast from the series tonally, which must have alienated a chunk of the audience. I also think there was a weird cultural hangover from the hype that had exploded a few years earlier, and by ’92 there was a general mood in the mainstream and the media that Lynch was now a bad thing.”

Fans have remained loyal, and love for the show has never disappeared. The affair was rekindled last year when American channel Showtime announced they were bringing back Twin Peaks for a new nine-episode series, with Lynch and Frost happily back on board. With the scripts already written, excitement was at fever pitch. Then in April, Lynch dropped a tweet that quickly went viral, stating that he was walking away following a dispute over money.

His timing could have been better. After all, the University of Salford’s conference is subtitled ‘The Return of Twin Peaks.’ But Fairclough-Isaacs is of the mindset that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. “I think that Lynch’s decision will make the conference even more necessary and engaging.”

Leigh adds: “I’ve got nothing but a hunch to bear it out, but I wonder if his heart isn’t in the thing for reasons that for once aren’t to do with idiot executives… I’m sure a third season will be diverting and entertaining and fun, but if we want something to mean what the original meant to us, maybe we’d be better off hoping for an entirely new show.”

In the meantime, there’s always Bates Motel and M. Night Shyamalan’s reportedly Peaks-inspired Wayward Pines to fill the void. Whether a third series of Twin Peaks happens or not, the influence of Lynch and Frost’s masterpiece lives on.

More from The Skinny:

School Daze: Carol Morley on The Falling

The Skinny Short Film Competition 2015

I’ll See You Again in 25 Years: The Return of Twin Peaks and the Generations of Cult TV, takes place 21–22 May at MediaCityUK

See website for full details: