Twin Peaks made TV what it is today

Photos: Getty Images

The return of Twin Peaks is more than just nostalgic, says Caroline Crampton. 25 years ago it was pioneering TV at its best – and now the world has finally caught up 

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By Caroline Crampton on

The way we think about the nineties can be summed up with four words and a question mark: where were you when? Where were you when Princess Diana died, when Geri Halliwell wore the Union Jack dress, and when Tony Blair was elected prime minister? Our memories have a physical, tangible quality. Two-and-a-half decades is just long enough to heighten the sensory triggers – the sight of a once-again-trendy choker necklace or the sound of Mel B’s cackling laugh can transport us back in time.

When you add in television’s obsession with reboots, this effect becomes especially potent. The same shows are returning – from The X-Files to Mighty Morphin’  Power Rangers – as studio executives everywhere try and transform the wistful memories of kids who grew up before the millennium into cold hard cash. The nineties are back on our screens, and the cynical exploration of nostalgia is big business. But there is one rebooted show that stands apart from this trend: Twin Peaks.

David Lynch’s neo-noir thriller about the murder of a teenage girl in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, Washington State, returns to our screens for a third series after a gap of 25 years on 21 May. Its dreamy, almost Valium-infused aesthetic and hypnotic, buzzy soundtrack fuse into an immersive watching experience that has bewitched viewers for a quarter of a century – unlike many shows described as “cult” dramas, Twin Peaks really earns that word. From the first two chords of Angelo Badalamenti’s theme music, we are under its spell.

Although this new series is a reboot of a classic nineties TV show (it originally aired in 1990), it is also so much more than that. From the outset Twin Peaks was a show obsessed with looking backwards, not forwards. The town of Twin Peaks is meant to represent an archetype of small town America fetishised by an era much earlier than the show’s late eighties setting: the fifties. (The population of Twin Peaks – which the iconic signboard in the opening credits states is 51,201 – was apparently originally meant to be 5,120 but the network asked the creators to change it as it was believed that shows about small towns had terrible ratings.)

Audrey Horne, played by Sherilyn Fenn in Twin Peaks (Photo: Getty Images)

Amid all the superficial trappings of the late eighties visible in Twin Peaks – the phones, the Norwegian businessmen, the synth soundtrack – there is a yet more persistent thread of fifties imagery. The tartan pleated skirts, waved hair and red lipstick of schoolgirl Audrey Horne (played by Sherilyn Fenn) and her contemporaries could be straight out of something from the era of Rebel Without A Cause. Laura Palmer, the murdered teenager at the centre of the show’s plot, sounds on paper like a character from a teen movie of that time: beautiful and blonde, she’s the homecoming queen who dated the football captain. James Hurley, Laura’s secret boyfriend, fits this retro look too: he broods in leather jackets and rides a vintage motorcycle. The town is centred around an old-fashioned diner with a jukebox, and a roadhouse inn. It’s hard to fix Twin Peaks too firmly in the pantheon of nineties TV when the show itself is reaching back much further than that.

It stands apart from reboots of other nineties shows: it needs no contemporary gloss or update to fit into the so-called “golden age of TV” that we’re now living through

Beyond its internal references, we have to consider the influence that Twin Peaks had on television as a form. When it debuted in 1990, there was nothing like it – nobody was attempting longform, supernaturally-inflected narrative drama on cable TV. As much as I love Cheers and Murder, She Wrote – two other long running series popular at the same time – there isn’t really any comparison. While now Twin Peaks’ multi-episode arcs and extensive character development might feel standard (trust me, Stranger Things seems even more derivative after you’ve done a Twin Peaks rewatch) in an era of heavily formulaic, scripted television, David Lynch reshaped what was possible on the small screen. As he said in a recent interview, when asked about his work in both TV and film: “Cable television affords the possibility of going into a world and staying there indefinitely.”

The cast of Twin Peaks (Photo: Getty Images)

In the way he portrayed the death of Laura Palmer, Lynch also brought a trope to television that has endured – for better or worse – ever since: the dead girl drama. In the pilot episode, Laura’s body is discovered with the words “she’s dead – wrapped in plastic”, and we see her blue-tinged, beautiful face uncovered. The secrets of her life and death are then pieced together by the detective via piecemeal clues, diary entries, dream sequences and flashbacks. Shows like CSI and Criminal Minds have since turned this focus on the visible female victim into a whole new dead girl TV industry. Even the critically acclaimed Scandi noir dramas of the last decade, like The Killing and The Bridge, owe their structure and plot arcs to Laura Palmer and David Lynch. But Laura was so much more than just the body in a bag that these shows deployed to kickstart a narrative: long after her death, she haunted Twin Peaks. There’s a reason why the show’s most iconic, intimate, and perhaps most disturbing image is a seemingly innocuous prom picture of Laura. Laura herself, not her murder, is the mystery that Agent Dale Cooper has come to Twin Peaks to solve.

Like all creators ahead of their time, Lynch and his colleagues weren’t always appreciated for their innovation. After crafting a magnificent arc of suspenseful drama, they intended to keep the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer a secret for a long time, possibly forever. But the network, ABC, fearful of a drop in ratings, forced a reveal in the seventh episode of series two. Ratings really did slip after that, and Twin Peaks came to a close at the end of its second series.

But now, with the audience and the market for bingeable, cinematic television firmly established, Twin Peaks can return triumphant. It stands apart from reboots of other nineties shows: it needs no contemporary gloss or update to fit into the so-called “golden age of TV” that we’re now living through. There are no gimmicks or tweaks to the format required. The seductive vision of this small town, consumed by its secrets, never ceased to fascinate. It just took 25 years for the world to catch up with it.


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