How Twin Peaks Made Modern Art of the Soap Opera
by Joe Pompeo
David Lynch and Mark Frost seemed an unlikely pair when they met for lunch one day in 1988. Lynch was an auteur who’d burnished his reputation directing the bizarro films Eraserhead and Blue Velvet; Frost was best known as a writer for the network police drama Hill Street Blues. But the two had hit it off a few years earlier when they met working on Goddess, a Marilyn Monroe biopic that never made it to production. Now they were looking to get their hands dirty again.
As the duo sat in Du-par’s, the kitschy L.A. restaurant near the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura, inspiration struck. “All of a sudden,” Lynch is quoted as saying in Lynch on Lynch, “Mark and I had this image of a body washing up on the shore of a lake.” From that stray spark, Lynch and Frost sketched the idea for what would become Twin Peaks, an enigmatic murder mystery that surrounded its plot twists with art-house motifs. Though it would run only for two seasons on ABC, the show revolutionized television and laid the groundwork for the golden age of prime-time dramas. But before Twin Peaks could storm the small screen, Lynch and Frost had to convince someone to roll the dice.
Lynch was a shaky choice for prime time. His name was synonymous with eerily beautiful cult films, and his one dip into the mainstream, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-finovel Dune, was a critical and commercial disaster. To the industry observer, it seemed that Lynch was just too niche—or maybe just too weird—for network television.
The move didn’t seem to make any sense from a career perspective: TV was a giant step backward for an auteur of Lynch’s caliber. Today, in an era where shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad enjoy all the glitz and prestige of the big screen, it’s easy to forget that television used to be the stepping-stone to film. An Oscar-nominated director like Lynch working on TV was like an all-star demoting himself to the minor leagues.
But Lynch’s agent was keen to see what his client could do with the medium. And Lynch and Frost were starting to develop a killer storyline. Set in a fictional Washington logging hamlet, Twin Peaks revolves around the grisly slaying of blonde homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). The protagonist is a quixotic FBI agent named Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) with an obsessive attention to detail and an affinity for diner coffee, which he takes “black as midnight on a moonless night.” Together, Laura’s killing and the big-city detective’s arrival upend the small town, pulling back the curtain on its underbelly—gambling, prostitution, and backdoor dealings that turn local power brokers into villains—before uncovering the even more sinister forces that lurk in its woods.
The mystery is riveting, but it’s the heavy injection of trademark Lynchism, the juxtaposition of the familiar and the surreal, that makes the show so special. For Lynch, it wasn’t enough to have straightforward heroes and villains, so some of the show’s rogues haunt an alternate dimension accessible only in nightmares and, when conditions are right, through a pit of bubbling tar among the pines. The result is a crime procedural filtered through an off-kilter lens. But the elements that made the show so original also made it risky. Prime time was the province of Murphy Brown and Sam Malone, not one-armed shoe salesmen or dancing dwarves.
When the time came to pitch the show, Lynch received a good omen. Even when he wasn’t directing, he was always searching for symbols and oracles. One of his superstitions was that if you saw a license plate with your initials on it in any order, and the numbers on the license plate added up to what you’d consider to be a good number, and it was a really nice car, it would bring you good luck. Driving down Melrose on the day he and Frost were headed to present their creation to ABC brass, Lynch spotted a brand-new Mercedes with a lucky number and his initials. He told Frost, “Mark, this is going to be very good!”
Fortunately for the duo, ABC was in a gambling mood. As a new decade dawned, all the major networks were pushing for more originality in their lineups. The big three were anxiously watching Fox and cable channels eat into their ratings, and ABC was struggling. The network had a reputation as a stodgy, corporate outfit that micromanaged its productions to mediocre results. NBC, on the other hand, was enjoying some success with a laissez faire approach to working with Hollywood talent, so ABC did what all TV networks do: It replicated the formula. “We had a strategy to turn the network around by taking shots and being patient,” an ABC executive, Chad Hoffman, said at the time. Hoffman spent just 45 minutes with the Twin Peaks pilot script before deciding: “We’ve got to do this.”
As part of the Twin Peaks deal, ABC gave Frost and Lynch unprecedented creative control over the final product, and the duo took advantage of the freedom. As Lynch, who was 44 when the show debuted, and Frost, who was 36, looked for inspiration, they benefited from the same serendipity that initially spawned their masterpiece. While scouting locations at a sawmill, they encountered a woman whose job was to touch each log as it made its way down the conveyor belt. This chance meeting presumably inspired the Log Lady, one of the show’s quirkiest characters.
Later, while shooting a scene in Laura Palmer’s bedroom, a set dresser named Frank Silva was moving some furniture when someone warned him not to lock himself in the room. A lightbulb went off above Lynch’s head. Silva was lanky and wild-eyed, with a long face and stringy gray hair—someone so completely out of place in a frilly pink bedroom that seeing him there was unsettling. “Frank, are you an actor?” Lynch recalls asking. He’d found the man who would end up playing Twin Peaks’ spectral bad guy, Bob, described by The Awl as “one of the scariest, most terrifying, most nightmare-inducing-est characters ever.”
While some of the series’ highlights came from off-the-cuff moments like these, the ultimate charm of Twin Peaks lies in just how meticulously Frost and Lynch developed their sordid little town. Even the minor supporting characters were fully fleshed out. And Lynch coaxed his actors into bringing their idiosyncrasies to life in his own offbeat way. “Think of how gently a deer has to move in the snow,” he whispered to Lara Flynn Boyle, who played Laura Palmer’s best friend. After nearly 40 takes, that was the odd direction she needed to get the scene just right.
Lynch was also literally hands-on. At the very beginning of the pilot, Jack Nance’s character, Pete Martell, discovers Laura Palmer’s plastic-wrapped body on the shore of a lake. “David hand-placed those granules of sand on my face and played with the plastic as if it were a bouquet of flowers,” Sheryl Lee told The Guardian in 2010. When inspiration struck Lynch, he would call Frost to share his latest breakthrough. “Mark, I think there’s a giant in Agent Cooper’s room,” Lynch once theorized into the phone. (It worked. There is!)
It was as if Lynch was an all-knowing mystic who’d endeared himself to a congregation of believers. “There’s a scene where Kyle had to throw a rock and hit a glass bottle. He sat us down and told Kyle he was going to hit [it]—and that bottle was freaking far away,” recalls Kimmy Robertson, who played the loyal secretary of the sheriff’s department, in that same Guardian feature. “Kyle hit it, and everybody freaked out. It was like David used the power of the universe to make Twin Peaks.”
Image via Facebook.com/TwinPeaksLovers
Within a month of the show’s premier on April 8, 1990, America had caught Twin Peaks fever. “Everyone at parties is talking about it,” a 29-year-old George Stephanopoulos told Newsweek, while a New York magazine writer put it this way: “In Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Berkeley, California, there are Twin Peaks watching parties every Thursday night, after which … Deconstruction.”
Menacing promos that promised something new and “'90s” lured viewers, who couldn’t get enough of this avant-garde cinema masquerading as prime-time soap opera. Twin Peaks was scary enough to rival any horror flick, but also at turns funny, beautiful, and heart-wrenching. The ratings were gangbusters. By May, Twin Peaks had been renewed for a second season. The show was a critical coup as well, collecting nearly 20 Emmy nominations between 1990 and 1991. Not even Lynch expected Twin Peaks to resonate with viewers the way it did. “We had zero thought that this thing would travel so well around the world,” he said in 2008. “It was a magical thing.”
But it wasn’t long before the bottom fell out. Busy making his next film, Wild at Heart, Lynch became less involved with the second season, leaving his writers’ bench to hash out the plot. Then, ABC shot itself in the foot by bumping Twin Peaks from Thursday’s prime real estate to Saturday’s wasteland, which killed the Friday-morning break-room buzz that had made it a smash.
The fatal blow, though, was the network’s demand for the show to answer the central question the plot and the marketing buzz orbited around—Who Killed Laura Palmer? Midway through season 2, the killer was revealed and the writers found themselves in a bind. The series devolved into an unsustainable hodgepodge of silly side plots as the writers struggled to keep the story’s larger mythology alive for 14 more episodes. Lynch himself took control of the series finale, which bridges the gap between Palmer’s murder and the supernatural mysteries of Twin Peaks. The stunning two-hour episode brought the curtain down on June 10, 1991. Just a little over a year after it first rocked TV, Twin Peaks had disappeared.
Despite its brief run, Twin Peaks’ immense influence was visible almost immediately. Lynch and Frost had proved that viewers would tune in for big-screen quality production in a weekly format, and in the process they ushered in a new age of televised drama. Two years later Fox would debut The X-Files, which relied on a similarly elaborate mythology to sustain its nine-season run. When ABC’s Lost premiered in 2004—constructed around an ever-unfolding course of otherworldly (and largely forest-based) mysteries—it drew immediate Peaks comparisons. “Twin Peaks was a huge impact on me,” Lost's co-creator Damon Lindelof told an audience in Manhattan a few days before the series finale in May 2010. One of the lessons he learned? That a show doesn’t have to solve every mystery it sets up.
More importantly, Twin Peaks proved to fans, critics, industry gatekeepers, and film creators alike that television would no longer live in the shadow of film—it could actually be good. Little by little, TV shows were becoming every bit as worthy of close attention and deconstruction as films—a shift that wouldn’t just make for better water-cooler chatter, but would also open up a new venue to which writers and bloggers could devote entire careers. And none of that might have happened, if one daring network hadn’t gambled on Frost and Lynch.
Joe Pompeo covers media for Capital New York. He was previously a reporter at Yahoo! News, Business Insider and The New York Observer. This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.