Diane, Remind Me to Tell You How Twin Peaks Changed TV Forever

Before Special Agent Dale Cooper, you could just watch a show. Now you have to solve it.

When the Twin Peaks reboot premieres on May 21, after a 26-year hiatus, it will be returning to a world it helped make but didn’t, itself, exist in. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s mystical murder mystery melodrama changed television: It looked like nothing else, it sounded like nothing else, it was like nothing else—except everything else that came after it. Among Twin Peaks’ particular descendants are shows like Lost, True Detective, Mr. Robot, and Westworld, a cadre of series known as “puzzle TV” because viewers treat them as something to “solve,” an assortment of clues and red herrings that, with proper sleuthing, will allow them to beat the creator to a big reveal.

Unlike contemporary puzzle TV shows, which are in conversation with, among other things, one another, social media, and Reddit, Twin Peaks was in conversation with David Lynch’s own idiosyncratic brain and with network television—be it the interests of ABC, on which Twin Peaks aired, or the instincts of Frost, who had worked as a story editor on NBC’s Hill Street Blues. In the way that Twin Peaks’ protagonist, FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), is both wholesome and bizarre, “a Boy Scout from Sirius the Dog Star,” as the critic John Leonard put it, so it is with Twin Peaks, a show that is simultaneously stranger than contemporary puzzle TV shows and somehow friendlier. Today Twin Peaks’ footprints are everywhere. It set the template for countless future series that would ape its atmosphere, its genre-mixing, and its auteurism. But it also set the template for one way for audiences to engage with TV—as a kind of communal code-cracking project. More than a decade before Lost, before even DVDs, Twin Peaks turned audiences into wild detectives, unconstrained by the guidelines that now dominate the genre it spawned.

It Is Happening Again: How Twin Peaks Paved the Way for Peak TV

How Twin Peaks paved the way for Peak TV.

Twin Peaks hooked audiences with two questions: the infamous “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and the more existential “What is going on here?” The homecoming queen harboring horrific secrets who washes up on the banks of a river, ghostly blue, wrapped in plastic—this was a fascinating and creepy start to a whodunit that audiences responded to in the way that audiences generally respond to well-crafted whodunits, from “Who shot J.R?” to “Who is the Yellow King?”: by obsessively theorizing. It drew audiences in with Laura Palmer and then entranced them with both the decency and deep-tissue malignancy of Twin Peaks, a lumber town where the scent of Douglas firs masks the stench of evil. The show, with its huge cast, was like a smorgasbord of familiar-seeming delicacies—the football player, the James Dean type, the goodie two-shoes, the businessman, the widow—that had all turned, ever so slightly. Who killed Laura Palmer, however strange and unsettling the answer turned out to be, was the most straightforward thing about a show that played fast and loose with the then-rules of television, in which even the most ambitious shows wrapped up storylines within the hour. (Twin Peaks had extraordinarily high instances of being videotaped. In 1990, if you wanted to watch a show again, that’s what you had to do: Set your VCR.)

Lynch himself did not want to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer until the end of the series—an impulse that was about as appealing to ABC then as it would be now. Lynch liked the idea of television as a never-ending story and disparaged easy resolutions, saying to the Los Angeles Times in 1990, “Closure. I keep hearing that word. It’s the theater of the absurd. Everybody knows that on television they’ll see the end of the story in the last 15 minutes of the thing. It’s like a drug. To me, that’s the beauty of Twin Peaks. We throw in some curve balls. As soon as a show has a sense of closure, it gives you an excuse to forget you’ve seen the damn thing.” Much of the first season hews to Lynch’s will: While the One Armed Man and Bob, key players in Laura’s murder (we’re past the statute of limitations on Twin Peaks spoilers, right?), appear in the early episodes, the show then turns to other storylines, other suspects, with the first season ending on a cliffhanger that has nothing to do with Laura—Cooper getting shot at point-blank range.

But ABC, to say nothing of Twin Peaks’ audience, wanted some closure. The network pushed Lynch to reveal the killer, which he did in the heavily promoted seventh episode of the second season. (In the modern fashion, Lynch even filmed two versions of the scene, so that nothing would leak.) In a particularly disturbing sequence, we learn that the killer is Laura Palmer’s father, Leland (Ray Wise), possessed by the evil spirit Bob, as Leland-Bob murders Laura’s doppelganger cousin Maddy to the eerie sounds of synthesizers.* The conclusion precipitated a cataclysmic drop-off in the show’s already-falling ratings. And 15 episodes later, it was canceled.

Within the confines of the “Who killed Laura Palmer?” story arc, Twin Peaks was both way out there and, relatively speaking, surprisingly straightforward. It is a show that is as weird as apple pie or, if you prefer, as wholesome as a reliable vision from the collective subconscious. For a show as dark as it is, it is remarkably jaunty. Darkness, both literal and subjective, had not yet been fetishized as a hallmark of quality television. Instead, Lynch was just trying to smuggle this stuff onto a network TV show. One way to do so—as when the Horne brothers compare the taste of a brie baguette to a woman’s nether regions—is to go as fast as possible. Laura’s disturbing past, her molestation, her sexual preferences, her assaults are delivered in quick, simple scenes, sometimes even set to the zippy detective music that was one of the show’s recurring aural motifs.

Lynch may have bridled against TV conventions that demanded neat resolutions, but that is the context in which Twin Peaks existed. Seriality—stories that carried over from week to week—was the domain of soap operas, and soap operas that had not yet undergone the brushing-up and brow-jumping that started with Twin Peaks. Laura’s killer may not have been revealed for 15 episodes, but other questions are asked and answered very promptly and with lots of audience hand-holding: Twin Peaks is the sort of show that has Cooper look at a photograph of a hunting cabin with red drapes on the window and say, out loud, “Huh, red drapes,” to highlight for the audience that he has found a clue. Sure, Cooper knows the drapes are a clue because red drapes also appeared in a meaningful dream of his, but they are proffered to the audience like the most pedestrian piece of evidence from a 1980s crime show, something untethered from reality turned into a rock-solid fact.

Dancing dwarf.
Viewers were obsessed with poring over Twin Peaks’ baffling dream sequences.
Screen grab/Twin Peaks

The series’ infamous dream sequences are at once uninterpretable and sufficiently, if incompletely, interpreted by the characters on the show so that the mystery can unfold coherently. The first dream involves a dancing little person, a red room, distorted voices that sound like talking computers with Russian accents, an aged Special Agent Cooper, and a woman who may or may not be Laura Palmer’s doppelgänger; the second features a riddle-dispensing giant. Dissecting the dream with the sheriff’s department, Cooper says: “Break the code, solve the crime,” which seems like a command to viewers to get to zany theorizing. They did. John Leonard’s aforementioned story on Twin Peaks opens with his phone ringing off the hook: “Everybody in the continental United States …” he writes, “wanted to know about the dwarf. What did the dwarf mean? Why was he talking backwards?” (He wasn’t talking backward, but Leonard didn’t have the benefit of Reddit.)

One could go crazy trying to solve the dreams of Twin Peaks—to say nothing of the extraterrestrials calling to Cooper, or what the owls were really doing, or the prophecies of the log lady’s log—enigmas to which Lynch never gave any answers. (As if there were answers to give: Lynch came up with the dream sequence while leaning on the hood of a hot car.) But Lynch did provide viewers with the only information they needed: that Bob, who appeared in a part of Cooper’s dream that he narrates to the audience, exists and definitely has something to do with Laura’s death.

Puzzle TV, after all, doesn’t really describe what creators do to audiences. It describes what audiences do to themselves. The commercial cognitive leap of a series like Westworld was to see in puzzle TV a formula: One can present audiences with a certain kind of information, in a certain way, and rely on a certain kind of reaction. Like the human robots in Westworld, our free will is predictable; we want answers. But very few puzzle TV shows have delivered on all, or most, of the questions they raise. Lost was laid low by unsatisfactorily explained provocations. True Detective seemed to be fingering one of its leading men, only to render those clues red herrings. Making a Murderer couldn’t upend reality so as to provide total clarity. Mr. Robot keeps getting into a foot race with its audience, scrambling to explain things first.

And despite the absence of a widely adopted internet, audiences reacted to Twin Peaks in exceedingly familiar ways. Much of the conversation around Twin Peaks happened privately (did you catch in that Leonard piece, people called him on the telephone?), and yet there was nonetheless an extremely active Twin Peaks usenet board, a kind of proto-subreddit. By May of 1990, toward the end of the first season, at least one commenter had fingered Leland. After the first episode of the second season had aired (and after The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a supporting book written by Lynch’s daughter Jennifer that delved into Laura’s sexual history and made frequent mention of Bob, had been discussed on the board), another commenter had essentially cracked it: “I believe that BOB is itself the dark force which infests Twin Peaks; the BOB image is that force’s own representation of itself. Perhaps this force made and/or is making use of someone known to Laura (Leland?) to physically get around. Laura, being psychic/sensitive, ‘saw’ BOB’s own image of itself, and chose to believe that image rather than the physical image of the person molesting her… Or not. I dunno, draw your own conclusions.” Meanwhile, Howard Rosenberg, the TV critic at the L.A. Times, devoted a column to freeze-framing a fight between Bob and Laura in which he concluded that, instead of hurting her, Bob was trying to conduct CPR on Laura (and also that Laura’s nipples were exposed), an incorrect deduction based on the sort of close-watching Lynch probably did not foresee.

So many of the questions that rage around puzzle TV shows today raged around Twin Peaks. Did Lynch and Frost know what they were doing, or were they “making it all up”? Was a supernatural resolution a cheat, or acceptable? Did Twin Peaks have a woman problem? Did it stick the landing?

Yet setting aside the similarities between the reactions to Twin Peaks and to contemporary series, there is also a difference: an audience doing something for the first time, surprised by its own passion. Audiences seemed taken aback by how fully the show got under their skin; they didn’t know TV could do that. Now puzzle TV inspires a Pavlovian response. Shows like Westworld and Mr. Robot count on audiences drooling over the details, to the extent that their baroque plots barely make sense for viewers who want to remain more passive. There’s a roteness to their machinations. Twin Peaks was a sui generis mystery, a maybe-riddle you could try to unlock, or let wash over you. Its descendants are riddles that insist on being solved.

In his essay on David Lynch, on the occasion of Lost Highway, David Foster Wallace argued that Lynch’s work does not fall strictly into art or entertainment categories, and so audiences don’t quite know how to steel themselves for it. This was true for Twin Peaks then; viewers couldn’t fall back on known habits of viewing, of interpretation. And it is still true: Twin Peaks is not quite of now, but it also wasn’t exactly of then either. Rewatching it today, it remains hard to be prepared for it, for its chipperness or its depredations, for MacLachlan’s cheerful line readings or Bob horrifically salivating over Madeleine’s chin. Theoretically, we now “know” how to watch Twin Peaks, a puzzle TV show that is more than a puzzle, but it remains slippery, a dream that, like real dreams, doesn’t require decoding but that you pore over anyway. Whatever the new season brings, it will only be true to Twin Peaks if it can make us feel like we’re watching again for the first time.

*Correction, May 8, 2017: This article originally misidentified actor Ray Wise as Ray Price.

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