Question: I was just a kid when Twin Peaks was on so I didn't watch it, but why it was such a big deal? Was it like the Lost or Desperate Housewives of its time or something? Tim C., Anacortes, Wash.
Televisionary: Or something, with the big difference being that while the cutting-edge series was just as hot in the media and received more preview coverage than Lost or Housewives, it didn't do nearly as well in the ratings as either of those shows. Apples to apples (remember that even a poorly rated show pulled in more total people back then than many of today's top series because there were fewer choices), Twin Peaks at its best averaged only fair-to-middling numbers, and quickly tailed off as people who sampled it headed off for other shows.
Why all the attention? Well, Peaks was a visually arresting, engaging and groundbreaking hour when it debuted in April 1990. With the talented David Lynch's name atop it and his trademark visual and character stylings all over it, the series made for something network TV viewers had never seen before. Some dismissed it as an overblown nighttime soap, and at its worst it could be, but when it was on its game it was truly unique, presenting imagery and storytelling that had previously only been found in movie theaters.
For all that, though, it's hard to sum up exactly what made it different. Cast member Michael Ontkean, who played Sheriff Harry S. Truman, probably put it most concisely when he called it "a Kabuki-style Peyton Place." Dana Ashbrook, who portrayed bad-boy heartthrob Bobby Briggs, took it a step further: "It's Happy Days on very heavy acid, or an introspective Happy Days in which Richie Cunningham contemplates suicide and the Fonz is a drug dealer."
Which is pretty close to the mark. The surreal drama kicked off as FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) came to town to look into the murder of high-school girl Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and quickly discovered the small Northwestern town of Twin Peaks was classic Lynch territory gorgeous on the surface but rotten underneath. Laura looked like the homecoming queen she was, but had been juggling two boyfriends and hanging out at a Canadian casino/cathouse with a high kink quotient. Other residents included a cryptic-but-prescient woman who kept a log for a companion, a patch-wearing madwoman, a teen sexpot with an eye for Cooper and too many other eccentrics and out-and-out freaks to list here.
All of which would place the show squarely in soaps territory were it not for the dream world where Cooper went to receive clues, the gibberish-spouting dwarf, the giant who helped him along and the evil spirit, Bob, who turned out to be the real killer. (He inhabited Laura's poor father, Leland, to do the deed.)
What made the show such a joy when it worked, however, was that in its best moments it eschewed irony and the safe self-mockery that ruins too many wannabes today. In fact, Lynch made a point of avoiding any kind of send-up. "Soap operas should not be camp. These are very real characters," he said. "[They] feel and do what they do with all their heart. Camp is not only not creative, it is putting yourself above something else that has already been done and poking fun at it. To me that is a lower kind of humor."
As for its sense of daring, Twin Peaks was tame by today's standards but managed to maintain an envelope-pushing atmosphere in terms of sexuality and the town's dark underbelly many of the most tawdry events involved teens, after all while staying within the bounds of early-'90s network TV. That, in fact, was a trade-off Lynch welcomed in moving from two-hour movies to series television. "You can't get into certain heavier violence and sexual things that are a part of life but not a part of TV life," he said. "But the added time allows you to pay more attention to more characters, and you can concoct an elaborate tapestry of those lives. That is completely thrilling to me."
Did Lynch succeed? When he himself was directly involved in an episode, certainly. But audiences weren't accustomed to a show that used one single story as an excuse to present a world of other plots. Nor were the producers and writers adept at balancing the Laura Palmer mystery with the tales of the other characters. And while both viewers and creators have learned a lot about balancing the longform story with episodic deviations, it remains a tough balance (think the X-Files). The upside for fans was that up until the reveal of Laura's killer, Peaks was great stuff. Afterward, it had nowhere good to go, and was off the air by June 1991.
And while ABC is currently riding those innovations to sky-high ratings both Lost and Housewives owe something to Peaks Lynch, sadly, has missed out on the genre he helped create. After putting together the inspired Mulholland Drive as a pilot for his former network, he had to settle for releasing it as a feature.