Twenty-five years ago, the body of a murdered 17-year-old homecoming queen, wrapped in plastic, washed up on a river bank in a strange little logging town just south of the Canadian border in Washington State. People around the world became obsessed with the case and, for the next year, all they wanted to know was: who killed Laura Palmer?
Fifteen million Americans tuned in to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s show Twin Peaks when it first aired, in a prime-time slot opposite Cheers, in April 1990. And 8.15 million people watched it in this country when it was shown on BBC2 later the same year. This was not just event TV, it was a cultural phenomenon. Part noirish murder-mystery serial, part subversive soap opera, it was conversant with television’s established conventions. But while Frost was a writer on Hill Street Blues, Lynch was an arthouse film director for whom, shall we say, realism was not an imperative. Nothing so determinedly weird as Twin Peaks had been shown before on prime-time TV. Nor has anything as weird been such a big hit since.
Unlike the conflicted anti-heroes of more recent boxset TV successes – your Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites – FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who leads the investigation into Palmer’s murder, is an upstanding character, almost congenitally incapable of unkindness or dishonesty. Arriving in Twin Peaks from the big city, he is infatuated by its old-fashioned charms and small-town values, and communicates the simple but enormous pleasure to be found in the tastes of the pine-scented fresh air, the delicious cherry pie served in the Double-R diner, and “a damn fine cup of coffee”. As the investigation grows more labyrinthine, we even wonder if he might not be dragging it out as an excuse to stay in the town.
Cooper is a fine and intuitive detective, but his methods are unconventional and sometimes his smile hints at secret knowledge. The biggest breakthroughs in the case come from his visions and dreams, when he is visited by a giant who explains that “the owls are not what they seem”, or taken to a lodge with red curtains by the backwards-talking dwarf-sized Man from Another Place.
It’s no accident that Twin Peaks is a border town; it exists between two worlds. Cooper’s investigation reveals that the beautiful all-American homecoming queen was also a promiscuous, substance-abusing and deeply troubled young woman. And behind the Norman Rockwell facade, Twin Peaks is a hotbed of iniquity and crime.
The same was true of Lumberton in Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet. Sometimes his work is misinterpreted as a critique of societal hypocrisy, but the point it makes isn’t sociological; it’s Freudian. What Twin Peaks says is that the world is weird and our fates are mysterious because aspects of human nature are so uncomfortable that we have to repress them.
This is why Twin Peaks is so full of dualisms; why one half of the town, the part characterised by respectable values and teenage innocence, can exist side-by-side with the half involved in drug-running, prostitution and murder, and apparently never notice it. It is why so many characters are so eccentric, lead secret lives, develop amnesia, or have split personalities. And it is why the script is so full of delightfully peculiar non sequiturs. What gives Twin Peaks its distinctive sensibility is precisely that it is both bleak and very funny; pessimistic, yet open to love and joy. Lynch hasn’t struck quite the same tone in any of his other work; it requires the soap opera’s expansive canvas. Like Walt Whitman, Twin Peaks is large, and contains multitudes.
Lynch only directed six of the show’s 30 episodes, and as good as the regular cast are, elsewhere you glimpse the awkwardness of soap-opera actors having to deliver dialogue that doesn’t, in the traditional way, make sense. At the insistence of the ABC Network bosses, Lynch and Frost revealed the identity of Laura’s killer a third of the way into the second series, after which the show was unanchored and grew ever more idiosyncratic. Ratings plummeted. Some plotlines were over-extended, and others hastily curtailed when it became clear that there wouldn’t be a third season.
Lynch took his frustration at the way Twin Peaks ended and poured it into the creation of a prequel movie, Fire Walk with Me, describing the final few days in the life of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). It got booed at Cannes, and many Twin Peaks fans were disappointed at how tonally different it was to the show. Agent Cooper isn’t in it much. It isn’t ever whimsical or funny. And yet it stands among Lynch’s finest achievements: a bleak and achingly sad film about sexual abuse and lost innocence, with the narrative logic of your very worst nightmares. At this distance, and packaged together with the complete series for the first time in a new 25th-anniversary Blu-ray boxset, the film seems both to compliment the show and to stand alone more perfectly.
And because Twin Peaks exists in a place somewhat out of time, it never dates or fades. Life there, as one character observes, is like “a strange and twisted dream”. And the dream lives on.
‘Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery’ (15) is out now on Blu-rayReuse content