‘Twin Peaks,’ Birth of Binge TV
Iconic series celebrates good, evil archetypes
More than 25 years ago, a strange and exceptional television show aired on ABC.
Conceived by Mark Frost and David Lynch, this spooky tale of a prom queen whose corpse washes ashore in a little town called Twin Peaks created a sensation. Not since “Dallas” caused tens of millions of viewers to speculate on who shot J.R., did a TV series create as much chatter over the mystery of Laura Palmer’s killer.
What made this eight-episode limited series, which was subsequently renewed for a full second season, so successful? And, how is it that 25 years later, the series is being revived for Showtime?
The answer, according to Robert Engels, a writer-producer on the series, is deceptively simple.
“Cool people doing cool stuff,” Engels said.
Of course, this was all wrapped around a vision for the series delivered through Frost’s extraordinary storytelling and Lynch’s visual direction.
“What Mark did, which was totally innovative at the time, was to take the very simple structure of a soap opera and wrap it around things that people had just never seen before,” Engels said.
The series also created characters who were often sharply defined as far as good or evil.
In short, "Twin Peaks" was binge-worthy TV before the concept was even considered. And it's use of a protracted story, while common today, proved the exception at the time. Ultimately, the soap-opera structure worked perfectly.
By infusing the series with weird and nightmarish imagery, Frost and Lynch were able to create a world where dreams were real and the most basic human emotions — love, fear, power, lust, and greed — could run freely.
For anyone who has seen the pilot, the moment when Laura Palmer’s parents simultaneously learn of their child’s death, is crushing and as human a moment as you’ll find in any TV series.
The series also created characters who were often sharply defined as far as good or evil. Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was most definitively a good and righteous man, whereas evil was not only personified in certain characters, but even in the forest surrounding the town itself.
Lynch and Frost gave a lot of leeway to visiting directors, who were encouraged to enhance the show’s already-original vision with their own talents.
“We’d get footage back from a shoot and there’d be a wheat field in someone’s living room, and we’d remark, ‘Gee, I don’t remember that being in the script’. But it always worked!” Engels said.
Lynch effectively pioneered the second Golden Age of Television with the original show.
Now, Frost and Lynch has reunited to bring the series back a quarter century after it aired with an astonishing twist. They will pick up events 25 years later, with most — if not all — surviving cast members back on board. Everyone involved with the show was frustrated the original series was canceled without all the storylines being resolved. The result was a finale with multiple cliffhangers that viewers thought never would get resolved.
Lynch will direct the new episodes, which suggests that viewers can look forward to a visionary television event. As it was, Lynch effectively pioneered the second Golden Age of Television with the original show — a program revolving around a showrunner’s vision rather than that of a network committee.
Now, with widescreen aspect ratio the norm for TV and the freedoms associated with pay cable, Lynch literally can do anything he wants.
As for anyone who missed the original series, it is now out on Blu-ray, with the complete series available along with commentary. There’s also the full cut of the motion picture prequel, 1992's under-rated "Fire Walk With Me," in which Lynch and Engels fill in some of the back story of the series.
"Twin Peaks" returns either in late 2016 or early 2017. Until then, look for signs under the sycamore tree.