The most important shot in the Twin Peaks pilot isn’t the iconic image of Laura Palmer’s plastic-shrouded face, or the sight of Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper speaking into a handheld tape recorder as he drives into town, marveling at the majestic Douglas firs and the quality of the local pie. It’s a long, slow pan down a telephone cord. On one end of that phone call is Laura Palmer’s father, Leland, who has just learned that his daughter has been murdered; on the other, her mother, Sarah, who fears the worst and is desperate to be proved wrong. But for several agonizing seconds, David Lynch doesn’t show us either of their faces, just a curled piece of rubber-coated wire leading to a handset dangling dumbly in midair.
It’s now impossible to see Twin Peaks the way people did when it first aired. I don’t just mean that, like the music of Sex Pistols or Chuck Berry, it’s been so thoroughly assimilated into the cultural landscape that it now feels derivative of the things it influenced. I mean it’s literally impossible to recreate the images that beamed from American TV screens in the spring of 1990. It’s been said many times that Twin Peaks didn’t look like anything on TV, but TV—Twin Peaks included—didn’t look then like it looks now: It was squarish instead of widescreen, analog instead of digital, watched on tiny tube sets that had to be masked around the edges to hide where the curvature of the screen warped the picture. The remastered Blu-ray sets of the series released in 2014 are a pleasure to behold, and even the version of Twin Peaks streaming on Hulu now is close to pristine, but either version is fundamentally different from what tens of millions of TV viewers watched at the time. (If you’re really determined to recreate the experience, find an old tube set in a junk shop and score a used copy of the standard-def DVD set.) And yet even today, amid the cinematic splendor of shows like Hannibal, Game of Thrones, and The Handmaid’s Tale, Twin Peaks looks, and, more importantly, feels, like nothing else on television. It remains a genre of one.
Whether or not you lived and watched through that era, it’s difficult to wrap your head around how much more leeway today’s TV shows have, not just with subject matter or running time, but in purely visual terms. They can make their images so dark they’re nearly black, knowing that their audiences’ flat screens and laptops will be able to capture every nuance, where Lynch and company had to work within a narrow zone that could be reproduced by a wide range of sets. And even then, explained series cinematographer Frank Byers on his commentary for the 2001 DVDs, they had to worry about the network narrowing that range even further when the shows were transferred from film for broadcast. At the time, Twin Peaks was the first TV show to look like a movie—or perhaps the second, after Miami Vice. But more than a quarter-century later, it looks more like a canny hybrid, bridging the gap between Lynch’s movies and the brightly lit, visually functional world of that era’s network television.
Where much of today’s “cinematic” TV is defined by ostentatious visual flourishes—True Detective–style tracking shots; Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s eccentric camera placement—Twin Peaks is notable for the simplicity of its style. Lynch and his co-creator, TV veteran Mark Frost, recruited directors primarily from the feature-film world: Caleb Deschanel was the storied cinematographer of The Black Stallion and The Right Stuff; Tim Hunter had directed several features, including the Lynchian River’s Edge. But they largely hewed to the template established by Lynch’s pilot, in which the camera rarely moves at all. In the pilot, Josie Packard, who owns the town lumber mill, decides to shut it down for the day after news of Laura’s death reaches her. “All work here will stop,” she proclaims over the mill’s loudspeakers. It’s as if all of Twin Peaks grinds to a halt, and everyone knows that something is wrong. Lynch uses shots of empty space—the stairwell in the Palmers’ house leading to Laura’s room or the haunted hallway of the town morgue—to signify Laura’s absence, even after her corpse has been put in the ground. When the police visit the classroom at Twin Peaks High occupied by Laura’s best friend, Donna, all it takes is a look at Laura’s empty desk and the sight of a classmate running, screaming, past the classroom windows, for her to burst into uncontrollable sobs.
Rather than fight the technical limitations of early–’90s TV, Twin Peaks steered right into them. If TV was often visually static, a succession of talking heads, Lynch would be even more so—but instead of shooting his actors in close-up, he kept his distance, using wide-angle lenses to keep an entire tableau in focus rather than singling out any particular actor. One stunning example: the scene where Madeleine Ferguson, Laura’s identical cousin, sees Bob, the show’s terrifying manifestation of ultimate evil, stride into the Palmers’ living room and head right for her. The camera never budges as he makes his way toward the lens, climbing over a couch and baring his teeth, and it’s as if we’re paralyzed right alongside Maddy, unable to move or call for help.
Even as the potboiler plot churned forward, dangling tantalizing solutions to the ever-deepening mystery of Who Killed Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks was intent on reminding us that the world kept turning. (Lynch—who was more interested in the show’s mood than its mechanics—never wanted to solve the mystery at all; Frost, and ABC, insisted they had to.) When Special Agent Cooper tracks one clue to a veterinarian’s office, he finds a llama standing in the waiting room. What a llama might be doing in the Pacific Northwest was never explained; Hunter, who directed the episode, said he saw a llama while driving around Los Angeles during preproduction and decided one should be in the scene. “Twin Peaks,” Hunter said, “was the show where you could ask somebody to go out and get you a llama, and they would actually do it.”
Twin Peaks is remembered for such eccentricities, and these were what the numerous copycat shows that followed in its wake—Northern Exposure; Eerie, Indiana; even The X-Files—latched onto. But even now, in a prestige TV universe that still largely follows the rules Lynch and company established, few shows can match its patience, its willingness to linger on an empty room or a woman stirring a cup of coffee. Looking back on the series—through nearly two decades of Sopranos-inflected dramas—it’s striking, too, how good its characters are. As much as Twin Peaks was about exposing the rot at the heart of an apparently innocent small town, most of its principal characters—Cooper, Sheriff Truman, Donna, even “bad girl” Audrey Horne—remained pure of heart, as uncomplicated as Lynch’s static frames. In many ways, TV exists in the world that Twin Peaks made, but 27 years later, the medium is still catching up to it.