Too Weird for Prime Time

Twin Peaks was always more about luxuriating in Lynchian darkness than solving a murder.

Agent Cooper in the Red Room in Twin Peaks.

Photo via ABC

Excerpted from David Lynch: The Man From Another Place by Dennis Lim. Out now from New Harvest.

The bureaucratic thicket of network television was surely anathema for an artist like David Lynch who prized control. Lynch has always been open about the medium’s formal drawbacks: the inferior picture and sound quality and the rude intrusions of commercial breaks, hardly conducive for losing oneself in a story. “It would be so absurd to have a big symphony going, and after every little movement, four different people come in and play their own jingle and sell something,” he complained to Rolling Stone before the pilot of Twin Peaks aired.

Still, television was also, as any child of the 1950s knows, the medium that shaped America’s sense of self, even more than movies. Lynch told a French interviewer that he appreciated the susceptibility of the television audience: “People are in their own homes and nobody’s bothering them. They’re well-placed for entering into a dream.” Still prevalent at the time, the negative stereotype of the boob tube, with its narcotizing effect on a passive audience, only attested to its sinister powers, its ability to hit people literally where they live (at home, the “place where things can go wrong”). The television serial also allowed Lynch to experiment with immersive storytelling—in his almost childlike terms, to live in a story and to keep it alive as long as possible. He had done the same with Eraserhead—when he holed up in Henry’s head and wallowed in his world for years—and he would do it again with Inland Empire, giving form, in fits and starts, to a story that had not yet fully revealed itself to him. With Twin Peaks Lynch and his co-creator, Mark Frost, could unravel a story almost in real time, as they figured it out themselves, bringing viewers along into the unknown.

To grasp the seismic effect of Twin Peaks, it helps to understand the landscape into which the show emerged. The TV terrain of the 1980s was a smaller, safer place. This was at least a decade before the term showrunner became common pop-culture parlance, before we came to associate hit shows with their creators: David Chase’s The Sopranos, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, David Simon’s The Wire. There were partial exceptions—the hugely popular 1950s–60s anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in which the rotund Hitchcock, by then very much a brand, served as host and occasional director, and Michael Mann’s 1980s series Miami Vice, which introduced an MTV-derived expressionist flair to the police procedural—but film auteurs almost never dabbled in this comparatively lowly form.

This was also a time of uncertainty in the TV business, after a decade that had seen the dominance of the network oligarchy (ABC, CBS, and NBC) challenged by the rise of cable networks and home video. ABC, in third place of the three broadcast networks, was most willing—or most desperate—to take a chance. Whether or not the public responded, there would be guaranteed press interest in a show created by Lynch, a two-time Oscar nominee and a critics’ favorite anew after Blue Velvet, and Frost, a well-regarded Emmy nominee.

When they pitched the series, Lynch and Frost hadn’t identified the killer—they didn’t yet know who it was. Instead, they emphasized the mood and sense of place and explained that the murder mystery would recede over time, giving way to other characters and plotlines. The pilot was shot in February and March 1989 (also the time frame for the show’s events), in 23 days, outside Seattle and in central Washington, and came in just under the $4 million budget. The network commissioned seven more episodes: less than half a season’s worth. Whether or not the executives liked it, the pilot was too strange for them even to attempt creative oversight: It was “so foreign to their experience that they couldn’t presume to tell us how to do it any better or any different,” Frost told Rolling Stone.

The drumbeat of hype began in late 1989. The first article on Twin Peaks appeared in the September issue of Connoisseur magazine, headlined “The Series That Will Change TV Forever.” Twin Peaks turned out to be a short-lived phenomenon, going from pilot to finale in a mere 14 months. But it is hard to overstate the impact of the two-hour premiere, which reached 35 million Americans, a third of the viewing audience, on April 8, 1990. Never before and never since has a television show compelled so many at once to ponder a defining question of the Lynchian: How are we supposed to feel about this?

Twin Peaks didn’t break the rules of dramatic television so much as subtly derange them. It slowed down the narrative tempo and destabilized the emotional temperature. It expanded the vocabulary of the small screen, departing from the norm of inconspicuous medium shots with arresting compositions and a rich, subtly stylized color scheme (Lynch is said to have banned blue props).

But its novelty was only one reason it became a phenomenon so quickly, and perhaps not the main one. From the title’s jokey insinuation of a nurturing bosom, Twin Peaks privileges comfort, perhaps of the regressive variety, beginning with Angelo Badalamenti’s liquid theme song, a uterine cocoon of lush synthesizer Muzak. (In a video interview for a DVD release, Badalamenti recalls that he improvised the music at his Fender Rhodes keyboard with Lynch next to him setting the scene: “OK, Angelo, we’re in the dark woods now, and there’s a soft wind through the sycamore trees  … ”) For all the terrible things that keep happening and the terrors lurking in the dark, life is good in Twin Peaks, as Cooper notes repeatedly, pausing to extol the crisp Cascadia air and the sweet, homey pleasures of cherry pie and jelly doughnuts. (Lynch has often referred to sugar as “granulated happiness.”) Like Blue Velvet, the show activated a nostalgia in the boomer audience for seeming to take place simultaneously in the present day and in the 1950s.

There were obsessive TV fans before Twin Peaks—the Trekkie devotees of Star Trek, most obviously—but the show introduced a new kind of fandom. Twin Peaks was a mass culture text that called for communal decoding, a semiotic wonderland of clues, symbols, and red herrings. Suited equally to the scrutiny of fanzines and dissertations, it was the most recorded show on television (in the cumbersome days of VHS) and encouraged uncharacteristically close readings from TV critics in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Post, who even conducted frame-by-frame analyses of key episodes. The murder of Laura Palmer was only the first mystery and main marketing hook; the dream sequences and otherworldly forces suggested a larger underlying mythology to parse and untangle. In interviews at the time, Frost referred to the show, in the parlance of postmodernism, as “a cultural compost heap.” Twin Peaks rewarded film-savvy viewers with references to classic Hollywood: Laura’s name recalled another famous absent subject, the title character of Otto Preminger’s classic noir from 1944; calling her doppelgänger Madeleine was a blatant nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

Viewership fell off after the first few weeks, but many of the fans who remained—about 17 million, half the initial number, a month into the run—were hugely invested. Long before TV recaps and live tweeting, Twin Peaks was an early Internet phenomenon. Back when electronic bulletin boards were still primarily the domain of academics and researchers, the discussion group averaged 25,000 subscribers and 100 to 200 posts a week at its peak.

What Twin Peaks fans had in common—whether theorizing on the Internet; exploring Pacific Northwest shooting locations; or in Japan, where interest was especially intense, staging mock Laura Palmer funerals—was a desire to exist longer in its world. The producers, working with Lynch and Frost, fed the hunger by creating extratextual merchandising tie-ins that expanded its universe, including two diary-novels (from the points of view of Laura Palmer and Agent Cooper) and a travel guide to the town. But while its most loyal fans were content to linger indefinitely in Twin Peaks, many viewers were counting on the show to deliver on its promise of a solution.

The question of what killed Twin Peaks is inextricably linked to that of who killed Laura Palmer. When the series identified the culprit, it also committed a kind of symbolic suicide. At least that’s how the lore goes. But a closer look at the rise and fall of Twin Peaks suggests that it may have been doomed from the start, given the suspicion and skepticism that accompanied the hype. In a Washington Post piece from September 1989, half a year before the pilot aired, NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff said: “I probably would want to live in a country where something like that could work, but I suspect it will be a tough road for them.” The major news stories leading up to the premiere were notable for their hyperbole but also for the constant insinuation that Lynch was not remotely ready for prime time. “Is Hollywood’s reigning eccentric too weird for TV?” asked the New York Times Magazine. Pressed by the Los Angeles Times on whether he could deliver a conventional resolution to a mystery, Lynch lost his patience: “Closure. I keep hearing that word. … As soon as a show has a sense of closure, it gives you an excuse to forget you’ve seen the damn thing.” For Lynch, the attraction of the serial form was precisely the freedom that it offered, even if momentary, from obligations like closure.

Red room
Michael J. Anderson stars as “The Man From Another Place,” an enigmatic dwarf who dresses in red and speaks backward.

Photo by ABC via Getty Images

Frost and Lynch have always maintained that they had identified Leland as the killer from very early on. “We knew, but we didn’t even hardly whisper it when we were working,” Lynch told Chris Rodley. “We tried to keep it out of our conscious mind.” Lynch’s account of the process implies he was working with some degree of spontaneity. The BOB character, the show’s version of evil incarnate, and the Red Room, its signature alternate reality, didn’t occur to him until the pilot was well underway.

The dominant media narrative—even in the above SNL skit, in which Kyle MacLachlan, in character as Cooper, bullheadedly ignores plain-as-day evidence about the killer—was that Twin Peaks was toying with viewers. For the network and a sizable portion of the TV audience, at a time when most shows tied up loose ends and reverted to the status quo in time for the late news, the idea that the creators of Twin Peaks might be making it up as they went along was cause for alarm. “It had better be able to satisfy the whodunit desires of viewers weaned on Columbo and Perry Mason,” the Chicago Tribune cautioned before the Twin Peaks pilot had even aired. At the start of the second season, with no clear answers forthcoming, the TV critic for the Orlando Sentinel complained: “I don’t like being taken for a sucker.”

Nervous executives at ABC summoned Lynch and Frost in for a series of meetings and strong-armed from them an assurance that the murder would be solved sooner rather than later. With great fanfare, the network took out newspaper ads in advance of the second season’s seventh episode: “Finally. Saturday, November 10th. Find out who killed Laura Palmer. Really.” Lynch and Frost told almost no one that Leland was the killer until they absolutely had to. The actor Ray Wise found out just before he received the script for the episode.

The episodes that followed the revelation were dominated by haphazard plots involving aliens, Civil War re-enactments, and a pre-X-Files David Duchovny as a transgender FBI agent. Frost and in particular Lynch were only peripherally involved for long stretches of the second season. Frost was preparing his feature directing debut, Storyville, and Lynch was tied up with the release of Wild at Heart as well as with a solo art exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo.

In what was widely seen as a bid to euthanize the show, ABC moved Twin Peaks to the television wasteland of Saturday night at the start of the second season. Ratings continued to decline, and in February 1991, the network put the show on hiatus, to the ire of die-hard fans, who formed a group called COOP, the Coalition Opposed to Offing Peaks, and mounted a letter-writing campaign. Lynch appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman to protest the Saturday slot—explaining that Peaks fans were “party people”—and encouraged viewers to write to Bob Iger, the president of ABC’s entertainment division, to keep the show on the air. ABC, which received more than 10,000 letters, agreed a few weeks later to let Lynch and Frost finish out the season in the show’s original Thursday time slot, but its fate seemed obvious by then.

Lynch returned to the Twin Peaks set in March 1991 to direct the season finale knowing that it would likely be the very last episode. The prospect of finality didn’t compel Lynch to wrap things up but to leave them even more open. A scene at the diner from the pilot, in an unsettling moment of déjà vu, plays out again, word for word. The Black Lodge, much discussed in prior episodes as a purgatorial spirit world, turns out to contain Lynch’s Red Room. Nearly half the episode—still perhaps the most unhinged and disturbing hour of television of all time —consists of Cooper pacing the curtained recesses of the Red Room/Black Lodge, where lights flicker, everyone talks backward, coffee turns thick as tar, and time seems to stand still. He encounters the show’s supernatural forces, BOB and the Man From Another Place, as well as his own evil doppelgänger. The two Coopers chase each other through the lodge, but only one emerges outside. Twin Peaks ends with Cooper, back in his hotel room, bashing his head into the bathroom mirror, maniacally laughing as he sees BOB reflected in the cracked glass. Lynch ended the series by bringing it back in line with his obsessions, wiping away hours of belabored quirkiness with an abrupt, chilling turn to the darkness within.

Excerpted from David Lynch: The Man From Another Place by Dennis Lim. ©2015 by Dennis Lim. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest November 2015. All Rights Reserved.