“She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.”
With those five words, America was introduced to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s seminal Twin Peaks, premiering 20 years ago, on April 8, 1990. With their uttering by the late Jack Nance’s character, Pete Martell, the country was plunged into an obsessive murder mystery that spawned tie-in novels, soundtracks, and a prequel film.
The show, arriving in the days before DVR technology, required strict attention from its viewers, delivering a deeply layered narrative with recurring motifs, red herrings, and bizarre twists. Transferring cinematic quality to the small screen, Twin Peaks brought an entire eerie world to life with auteur director Lynch’s visuals, Frost’s tense scripts, and the haunting music of Angelo Badalamenti. It was appointment television of the highest order, fusing together the melodrama of a nighttime soap with the nail-biting tension of a police investigation.
While Twin Peaks lasted only 30 episodes, its legacy can be felt in the onslaught of quality serialized dramas that followed in its wake. Just as The Prisoner and The Singing Detective revolutionized British television, across the Atlantic, it’s easy to point towards Twin Peaks as inspiring such ambitious shows as Lost, 24, The X-Files, Fringe, Desperate Housewives, and The Sopranos, to name but a few.
Just this year, ABC attempted to launch Happy Town, which fizzled upon arrival but was sold as being the next Twin Peaks. (On-air promotion even advertised it as being “from the network that brought you Twin Peaks.”) Next year, AMC launch its own taut murder investigation drama, The Killing, which is based on a Danish television series and captures the magic of Twin Peaks’ elliptical storylines, everyone’s-a-suspect paranoia, and tragic teenage victim at its core. (It doesn’t, however, have any supernatural elements, unlike Peaks.)
Its influence also turns up in some unexpected places. USA’s crime comedy Psych tonight reunites a handful of Twin Peaks cast members with its loving homage to Lynch and Frost’s creation, entitled “Dual Spires.” Series lead James Roday, a self-confessed “ Twin Peaks geek,” penned the episode with Bill Callahan.
“The night Twin Peaks premiered, television as we knew it changed,” said Roday. “What’s crazy is that it only ran for two seasons. It’s a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, but the impact it had was immeasurable.”
Nominally a mystery about the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer ( Sheryl Lee), Twin Peaks delivered a blend of quirky characters, soapy drama, and supernatural subplots, while delving into the dark heart of man, revealing a seedy underbelly to this seemingly bucolic town.
According to co-creator Mark Frost, the series never intended to solve Laura’s murder, which was just meant to serve as the series’ initial plot engine, bringing FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper ( Kyle MacLachlan) to the small Washington town of Twin Peaks and introducing a diverse cast of characters, each with his or her own secrets, where the true protagonist was the town itself.
“The murder was the worm on the hook,” Frost told The Daily Beast. “If you could get people interested in what was going on there as a result of biting into that storyline, we thought you would want to come along for the whole ride.”
What followed was an addictive, if often head-scratching series, a deeply layered narrative that spawned repeating motifs like dancing dwarves, gentle giants, and talking logs. The pleasure from doughnuts, cherry pie, and “damn fine” coffee sat hauntingly beside the continual threat of violence.
“True violence, not the kind you usually see in television or movies, touches something very deep and primal in people,” said Frost. “I think [ Twin Peaks] did that in a way that people maybe weren’t used to seeing in installment television.”
Psych’s Roday was 14 when Twin Peaks aired but, like many, the experience has stuck with him. Tonight’s episode contains a Double R Diner’s worth of shout-outs, in-jokes, and callbacks to the original as possible. “My job was to jam as many winks and nods and allusions into this episode as I could fit,” he said.
Roday also wanted to bring together as many cast members as possible for the episode. It is, said Roday, “the closest thing I will ever experience to what it was like to be on that show.”
“It was a gift,” said Sheryl Lee of her experience on Psych, where she was reunited with fellow ex-Peaks cast members Sherilyn Fenn, Ray Wise, Dana Ashbrook, Catherine E. Coulson, Lenny von Dohlen, and Robyn Lively. ( Madchen Amick and Michael Ontkean were unable to participate, according to Roday.)
One of the most memorable scenes in tonight’s episode comes when Lee’s Donna Gooden—here the town’s placid doctor—opens up the plastic sheeting containing the body of a local girl, an inversion of the Twin Peaks’ pilot scene where Laura’s body is discovered in the same circumstances.
“It reminded me of playing Maddy Ferguson at Laura Palmer’s funeral,” said Lee. “Twenty years have gone by in the blink of an eye. I can remember when I was looking down at the young girl’s face, it was almost like being out of my body, looking down at my past, looking down at myself. It was a very strange feeling and an emotional day.”
Lee is still recognized for being “the dead girl” from Twin Peaks, though she played both Laura Palmer and her look-alike cousin Madeleine “Maddy” Ferguson on Peaks, a shout-out to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and one of many explorations of duality in the series. (Lee would later reprise her role as Laura in the 1992 prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.)
“He has the ability to see things in you in that you don’t even know are there,” said Lee of Lynch, who declined to comment for this story. “He is quite the magician. David gives us permission as the viewer to not to have to understand everything, to not have to know the answers to everything, to be able to live in that place of curiosity and know that there are mysterious, hidden places.”
Despite its lasting influence and its importance within the television landscape, Twin Peaks’ narrative hit a rough patch after Laura’s killer was unmasked as it staggered to its supernatural-heavy cliffhanger ending. It nearly didn’t even make it that far as ABC threatened to axe the show six episodes before the end of the season.
While Frost and Lynch intended to keep the investigation into Laura Palmer’s murder spinning along for some time to come, ABC demanded solutions, feeling that viewers’ interest in the murder plot had to be paid off sooner rather than later, even as the network grew increasingly uncomfortable with Peaks’ odd spirit.
“We got enormous pressure from the network, demanding that we wrap it up,” said Frost. “David even more than I, at the time, was adamant in saying, ‘You don’t kill the golden goose.’ We ended up compromising. They wanted it wrapped up at the end of the first season. We both thought that was ridiculous and we told them that. We ended up compromising by wrapping it up halfway through the second season.”
That resolution, eerily airing exactly 20 years ago exactly, revealed that Laura Palmer—the beauty queen who got caught up in drugs, prostitution, and rough sex with older men—was slain by her father, Leland (Ray Wise), himself possessed by a supernatural entity called BOB who would eventually jump to a new host before the show’s end.
“People started talking about the fact that it was groundbreaking and changing television,” said Lee, “but it also had a very short life, which felt very confusing at the time.”
Interest in the series dropped precipitously after Laura’s killer was revealed, dragging down ratings; news coverage of the Gulf War in the winter of 1991 pre-empted several episodes; and subsequent storylines—everything from a chess-obsessed serial killer (Kenneth Welsh’s Windom Earle) to a transsexual FBI agent (played by a pre-X-Files David Duchovny) failed to click with viewers.
“In hindsight, I think I might have said, we’re not going to figure this out, we’re going to let this morph into something else, there’s going to be another mystery, there’s no need to nail this to the wall,” Frost said. “But those were different times then and we were dealing with a very recalcitrant network on this particular issue.”
The Psych episode marks the first time the cast has been on screen together in two decades, yet many fans still wonder whether there is any possibility that the story of Agent Cooper and Laura Palmer might be wrapped up.
Lee admitted that she would be curious about going back to Twin Peaks and exploring what that would entail. But there’s something to be said about leaving Twin Peaks itself trapped in amber, according to Frost.
“We set out to make the best, most interesting show we could think of,” said Frost. “Maybe we changed TV… If that is so, then I’m glad we were able to open that door.”
There might be a financial incentive to continue Twin Peaks in some form, but Frost said he and Lynch didn’t make the show “purely to make a killing” and noted that many projects have been damaged rather than improved by revisiting them.
“I don’t think you can catch lightning in a bottle twice,” Frost said.
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.