Home / Television / NORTHWEST PASSAGE: A Retrospective on Twin Peaks-Season One (1990)

NORTHWEST PASSAGE: A Retrospective on Twin Peaks-Season One (1990)

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Revolutions start with a small, single spark, never an explosion. It’s never some grand, loud bang, but something quiet, almost innocent that turns into something else, developing ever outward, and eventually everything changes, hopefully for the better. So it was when Pete Martell (Jack Nance) left his house one morning to go fishing and stumbled upon a body. Wrapped in plastic.

The murder of Laura Palmer didn’t just send ramifications through the small town of Twin Peaks (Population 51,201), it sent ripples throughout television, indicating that the “idiot box” didn’t have to be dumb, or stupid or formulaic. It could be artistic, it could mix genres, it could be weird, strange, unsettling, scarier than hell, funny, idiosyncratic, and above all else, cinematic.

Of course, television hadn’t always been an “idiot box”, that does a great disservice to shows  that were legitimately great before David Lynch and Mark Frost unleashed their surreal, mystery driven night-time soap opera on to an unsuspecting, but surprisingly eager to watch American public, attracting an audience of over 34 million viewers, but neither had the medium, especially American television, ever tried to stretch the envelope quite like this.

There were great shows before Twin Peaks. Make no mistakes, but television had been a medium about paradigms that shifted for the length of an episode before shifting back before the executive producer credit appeared. It was a medium with police procedurals where the murder was solved before those end credits, or sitcoms with characters who went through emotional upheaval before finding their way back to normality at the end, coupled with a joke and some audience laughter.

Television was going to get a shock to the system thanks to a maverick filmmaker and a respected television writer who had been involved in a show that was a game changer in itself, but together they would concoct a series that would break all the rules. Just watch the final scene of the pilot. Sarah Palmer’s heightened screams as she has her vision of her dead daughter’s necklace was proof enough that Twin Peaks was not going to be Murder, She Wrote or Columbo.

 

The discovery of Laura Palmer would begin one of television’s most famous mysteries.

David Lynch was already an acclaimed filmmaker and cult figure thanks to the beautifully crafted and acclaimed The Elephant Man, as well as art-house horror movies such as Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, the latter sharing many similarities with what would be his biggest commercial success, while Mark Frost was a key figure from television, having contributed to Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues, a show that was a trailblazer in how it developed long form story arcs over several episodes and a gritty filming style that was unlike anything that had been shown on television prior to its premiere in 1981.

Twin Peaks would go one step further. From the outset it appeared that the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death was set to be the catalyst that would develop over the course of the entire series, but both creators of the show and the studio would have different outlooks on that when the show would come back for its second season. If Hill Street Blues had developed a gritty style and stories that took several weeks to resolve, then Twin Peaks was developing stories that were designed to be told even longer. The plan had initially been for the investigation of Laura Palmer to be a MacGuffin on sorts, a means to kickstart the series, but not the dominant centre of the show.

Even if that wasn’t the intention, that was exactly what happened, with audiences hooked by Special Agent Dale Cooper and the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department’s investigation into the death of the Homecoming Queen who it turned out had many secrets and whom nobody really knew at all.

The show, and the murder investigation, was never afraid to go to some dark places, with sex, violent death and drugs are collating into a whole that was quite daring for a show that was airing on ABC in the early 90’s. In many ways it was paving the way for an acceptability of darker material that in the end would predominantly come from cable television in later years, through outlets such as HBO and Showtime, whilst its use of dreams gave the show a surreal edge that pushed it well into the realms of daring originality.

To top it all off, it was also the tastiest looking show on television. Donuts, cherry pie and coffee had never looked or supposedly tasted so good. Watching it as a man in my thirties now, I have to admit to a profound jealousy that Dale Cooper manages to eat the food that he does and always manages to look so damn slim. Another mystery from the town if you ask me, although I also have to confess that my first viewing of the series in my early teen years was the catalyst for my addiction to coffee.

Instead of reinforcing negative stereotypes about police and donuts,Twin Peaks turned cops and pastries into a charming running joke.

To anyone under the age of twenty watching Twin Peaks for the first time in this day and age, either through streaming services or the superbly packaged DVD and Blu Ray releases, many of the things about it that were groundbreaking back in 1990 will now appear almost normal or run of the mill. The pilot opens with a three-minute credit sequence, which would be cut down to one minute and thirty seconds for future episodes, and would be a gorgeous montage of the town, its logging mill, it’s famous welcome to Twin Peaks signage and a lake. It was the type of slow, cinematic opening that television had never opted for before, but look at any HBO or Netflix Original and this type of thing is all too common, just one of the many things that the series has had an influence on.

The pilot episode, and subsequently the show, would be backed up by an atmospheric and sometimes creepy synth driven score by Angelo Badalamenti, another Lynch collaborator, as well as editing from Duwayne Dunham, who had been the editor on Blue Velvet, and would also direct several episodes of the show. Dunham’s editing was methodical, allowing shots to hold, not cutting away quickly as was the norm for television, while the score could go from being gorgeous and melodic one moment, to putting your teeth on edge with what were frightening blasts of creepy electronica.

Nothing about Twin Peaks screamed television show. The art house was invading the airwaves and it was going to become, for a short time at least, a major phenomenon in a way that might have seemed unheard of in a pre-internet saturated age. It must surely rank as the most truly strangest show to ever ensnare a mass audience in the way that it did. Even other major pop cultural phenomenons on television that followed, such as The X-Files, Lost, The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all shows that owe Twin Peaks a debt, and to their credit their creators have talked about the influence Lynch and Frost’s show had, feel as if they never quite went as far as Twin Peaks did. Don’t get me wrong, many of the show’s successors have their wit and imagination too, daringly so at times, but watching Twin Peaks nowadays and one still has the sense of disbelief that such a weirdly unique and original vision got away with being on as mainstream a television network as ABC. There are times, particularly when the show gets into its second season and resolves the murder investigation (at the behest of ABC it has to be said), when the show pushes the limits of horror that is more darker and more disturbing than anything any movie could dream up. It’s rather telling that the forthcoming revival is finding a home of Showtime, a cable channel.

The idea of a director such as Lynch finding an outlet on television, who had received much acclaim for films such as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet (the latter inviting heavy criticism for its content, however), may seem like a normal idea in this day and age when the likes of David Fincher are directing episodes of shows they produce and JJ Abrams goes back and forward between the mediums, but in 1990, not only was it unheard of for someone such as David Lynch to be directing episodes of television, but doing so on mainstream American network television seemed strangely idiosyncratic. Network television was all about formula and stifling risk and danger, but here he was, the man who had helped unleash Frank Booth on to the world about to allow one of his visions to be invited into the homes of a television viewing public. Amazingly they would let him in, if only for a while, and in doing so would unleash a figure even more terrifying than Booth.

Eraserhead and Blue Velvet were some of the most unsettling films of all time, and yet, in the case of the latter, many of the elements would make their way into the living rooms of mainstream and middle-America and with it some of the most frightening imagery ever produced for the medium as well as themes that were deeply disturbing and horrific. When the show got to its second season, ABC demanded that Lynch and Frost reveal who the killer was, against the wishes of its authors and yet they did so anyway, but in doing so never let anyone off the hook. It would be as disturbing and horrifying a revelation that one could imagine, but that’s a story for another time.

As season one aired through April to May of 1990, running for a tightly constructed, deliriously brilliant eight episodes, the show broke the mould by never allowing itself to fall into any one genre. It seemed mysterious and of course mystery is at its heart, but it also felt soap operatic; it felt like a teen drama; it felt like a crime procedural; it felt like a comedy-drama; it felt surreal; it would have Julee Cruise show up and sing ethereal, dreamy pop with gorgeous Angelo Badalamenti orchestrations; it would have Michael Anderson show up and talk backwards and dance weirdly; it would have a key witness of the crime be a talking bird of all things. It would straddle the lines between comedy, horror and tragedy, sometimes all within the one moment.

Moments like the dream sequence at the end of episode two instantly marked Twin Peaks as unlike any other show on television. Before or even after.

 

It was television as art house, and it wasn’t hidden away to be discovered by a cult fanbase. Sure, it gained that sort of fanbase who would pore over every detail in the show, quote it directly, and Lynch and Frost gave us characters that were so easy to fall in love with. Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper must surely rank as one of television’s all time greatest characters. For a generation he is the reason that we are coffee addicts. It is a fine damn drink after all. And HOT.

The fact that he was super smart, intelligent, but also sensitive and child-like and in his enthusiasms just made us love him more. Here was someone who had the intellect of Sherlock Holmes, but wasn’t afraid to be guided by his intuitions and dreams and who got super excited at the prospect of cherry pie. In the best sense of the word he was a manchild, but a charming one whose child like attributes were saved for being amazed by Douglas Firs and cherry pie. That he used dream interpretations and Tibetan Thought Methods to his investigation has allowed the character, and MacLachlan’s charming performance, to remain one of the most original characters to ever appear on television.

Then there was Audrey Horne, played to silky, deeply attractive perfection by Sherilyn Fenn, who initially seemed as if she was going to be the bitchy high school type but turned out to be much more than that, and then Pete Martell, a lovable performance by the late, great Jack Nance who will no doubt be deeply missed in the forthcoming revival. The season only hints at BOB, but already we can see the seeds from Frank Silva of a character who will become the most truly frightening character to ever appear on television, and then there was Sheriff Harry S Truman. Has there ever been as lovely a bromance on television than the one between Cooper and the Sheriff? It feels like the type of male friendship that could inspire a thousand slash-fics, and most of them could all begin with THAT nose pinch.

Whilst Lynch is frequently cited in most retrospectives and call backs to the show, one cannot underestimate the work of Mark Frost. The show was the perfect collaboration of both writers. If Lynch brought the weird, the unsettling and the cinematic art to the town with the best cherry pie, not to mention THAT atmosphere, then it was Frost who made the televisual structural aspect of it work so beautifully. Having worked on shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man and The Equalizer, which were fun if somewhat formulaic series, the show feels genuinely more like a writer who came from the world of Hill Street Blues, which, like Twin Peaks, was another mould breaker in every way, that wasn’t afraid to mix grit with soap opera style on-going plot lines but with three-dimensional characters. This time, however, it all felt gloriously more weird and offbeat.

In many ways Twin Peaks itself was a soap opera, a fact not lost on the show itself which, during its first year, had a show within the show called Invitation to Love, religiously watched by characters within the series and which seemingly hinted at future developments with in the town itself.

Better yet, the show had an ensemble cast that felt large. Around fifteen or sixteen actors would be credited during its amazing credit sequence, although if there was a star or stars to hang the show around it was probably Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Ontkean, but everyone got their moment to shine. Twin Peaks felt real, and lived in. It never felt like a back lot on a Hollywood set; for all the weird, creepy, sometimes borderline silly stuff that went on it, Twin Peaks felt earthy, and genuine and geographically plausible. The fact that super weird stuff happened in it only made it feel more frightening when the horror was amped up, although it would be the second season that would amp up that horror to almost disturbing effect.

Those first eight episodes are absolute gold and still, to this day, remain some of the best scripted television of all time. The show feels tightly constructed, even when it’s going off in tangents or feeling experimental, and one can feel the ground breaking when one sits down to watch it from the beginning for the first time. Badalamenti’s theme music must surely be the greatest ever composed for a television series, feeling both behind the times, and ahead of it, but just right too. It’s just perfect for the show and the town.

Watching the show feels like falling into a dream, and yet it feels like it has reality to it as well. Life can be weird, and never one genre, and Twin Peaks straddles the lines between comedy, mystery and tragedy in a way that no television show had done before and no show has mixed since. It is the epitome of a damn fine television show and not only ranks as one of the all time great television shows, but also one of the greatest works of popular culture.

Possibly the geekiest man in all of Ireland, I have consumed too many television shows, movies, books and comics to know the difference any more between being geeky and not geeky. Very proud of my geekdom, it brought me together with my one true love, and if that’s not a great reason to be geeky, I don’t know what is. Could also beat anybody in an X Files trivia contest. True scientific fact.