Television Time Machine: 'Twin Peaks' (1990)

Guess what time it is? Time Travel Time! ...Television Time Travel Time! Alliteration!!

TV Time Machine logo 1


The cathode rays have swept us up once again and this week, Television Time Machine finds itself on the cusp of the 1990s-- a time when 80s culture bled into a sense of futurism and new beginnings associated with any 'Fin de Siecle.'

Now... it's going to be very difficult for your ol' pal Baddie to get through this column without cursing like I'm on 'Deadwood.' Why? Well because we've found ourselves in the Northern United States... in a small forest milling town called 'Twin Peaks.'


"Waitaminute, Baddie! Why would Twin Peaks cause you to employ foul language?? Don't you like it?"

Well, voice in my head, thank you for asking: the fact is, I adore 'Twin Peaks.' I am a proud member of the short-lived ABC series' cult fan following that is somehow keeping DVD sales strong after twenty-two years. But part of the reason I love the show is because it's, well... f***ed.

That pretty much sums it up. How would I describe 'Twin Peaks?' F***ed. In a good way. A very, very good way. Onward, to explanation!


Twin Peaks title card'Twin Peaks' is a series unlike any other. Created and Exec Produced by David Lynch ('Eraserhead') and Mark Frost ('On the Air'), the show was an experiment on the part of ABC to give the maximum amount of creative freedom to two visionary filmmakers. Ostensibly about the mystery surrounding the murder of Twin Peaks resident and high school sweetheart Laura Palmer, the plot of the show quickly took viewers in several strange and unique directions involving hallucination, haiku, a giant, astral visions, a whorehouse and a talking log.

The show is so out-there and surreal that it is too much for many viewers. Today, when I casually suggest (read: tie to a chair and force) my friends to watch the first episode, many people admit that it is too strange for their tastes; 'Twin Peaks' eschews the standard mystery narrative, opting rather to meander through a cast of characters that could not exist on any other show, in any other tone. As viewers expected a show about an unsolved murder, what they got was a show true to its title: this is a Who killed Laura Palmer?series about 'Twin Peaks' and the uncanny happenstances that occur therein--the murder of Laura Palmer is but one of the many mysteries inherent.

Amazingly, despite the experimental atmosphere, 'Twin Peaks' was both a rousing critical and commercial success. With names like Frost and Lynch attached, one could expect the critics to trip over themselves praising the show--but the viewing audience loved it just as much. 'Twin Peaks' was one of the highest rated programs on television during the 1990/91 season and the series quickly asserted itself as an indelible part of popular culture. The lingering question of who killed Laura Palmer became as oft-repeated as "who shot J.R.?" or, "who shot Mr. Burns?" for the younger crowd. The fact that the series opted to leave the collection of murder suspects so vast and varied created more interest and more fan-constructed theories about just who was behind the killing and how they were managing to hide their involvement from the rest of the town.

While the pilot episode of the series gripped audiences from the opening shot, where Palmer's plastic-wrapped corpse is discovered on a cold beach, we were not thrown into the incredible world of Twin Peaks without a touchstone: the main protagonist of the series was as new to these uncommon surroundings as the audience. Kyle MacLachlan, who had previously worked with Lynch on the career-making film 'Blue Velvet,' walked us into Twin Peaks as FBI investigator Special Agent Dale Cooper. Special Agent CooperCooper comes to Twin Peaks to solve Palmer's murder, but once again, Frost and Lynch opt to side-step the genre trappings of a traditional thriller. Far from the stoic and professional agent who is a sane man in an insane setting, Special Agent Cooper is as peculiar as his newfound surroundings. His open-mindedness and Buddhist philosophy allows him to accept the oddity of the characters and scene before him and he brings an equally odd form of investigation to bear as he works with members of small town law enforcement. Cooper swiftly falls in love with Twin Peaks and its cozy, rural life--oh, and he likes coffee. He really... REALLY likes coffee.

Joining Special Agent Cooper is Harry S. Truman (portrayed by Michael Ontkean), the classic Western-style sheriff of Twin Peaks. Characters and suspects range from Laura's parents Leland, a compulsive dancer (Ray Wise), and Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) a psychic, Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re) who is a drug-runner and wife-abuser, and Laura's psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), an Dr Jacobyeccentric hypnotist with a fixation on Hawaii. And these are not even the strangest of the characters. I could go on about the one-eyed housewife with superhuman strength, the lady who carries, loves, and speaks to a log of wood, or the manic depressive and chaotically violent James Dean wannabe from Laura's high school... But really, I'm just going to leave it at this. I'm sure some of you are already weirded out.

The cast goes on and on and on--a direct contributing factor to 'Twin Peaks' cult status. Every viewer could have a different favourite, as each character had their own idiosynchatic responses to each other and each relationship was so lovingly and carefully drawn. Many viewers tuned in each week not to find out what happened to Laura Palmer, but to learn what may happen next to her classmate Audrey. Played by the beautiful Sherilyn Fenn, Audrey was a lolita-style seductress who knew how to use her looks to get what she wanted. Caught in a dangerous game of intrigue, Audrey was swept up in a vast conspiracy of illegal drug dealing and prostitution whose source lead her close Sherilyn Fennto home. In a town where murder and lies are practically currency, the plight of well-meaning Audrey was a plotline which would have proven sufficient for a series all its own--and a teased romantic relationship between Audrey and the older Special Agent Cooper cultivated one of the first groups of 'Shippers' on a young, fledgling communication platform called the Internet (yep, you had to capitalize it back then).


It wasn't just the fictional world of 'Twin Peaks' that was unorthodox; Lynch and Frost took an open-minded fatalistic approach to the filming of the series itself. One of the show's most haunting images is known only as BOB, a representation of murderous insanity. The creation of BOB came by accident, as during a scene with psychic Sarah Palmer, set-dresser Frank Silva could be seen in a mirror in the shot. Rather than scrap the mistake and re-shoot, Lynch took the scene and the show in a bold new direction: "things like this happen and make you start dreaming," Lynch said when asked about Silva's appearance. "One thing leads to another, and if you let it, a whole other thing opens up."

BOB victim

That 'whole other thing' was BOB, the inclusion of a physical representation of the mysterious killer that could be shown without spoiling their identity. Similar happy accidents that remain in 'Twin Peaks' include flickering lights, which Lynch believed heightened the atmosphere of the scene despite the electrical behavior being unplanned. Another accident, a personal favourite of mine, came when a minor actor misheard his cue and thought he had been asked his name, leading to the following dialogue:

COOPER: Here it is. There it is. Oh my God, here it is!

COOPER (to attendant): Would you leave us, please?


COOPER: Uh... would you leave us alone, please?

ATTENDANT: Oh. Certainly.


Red Room


All good things must come to an end--eventually ABC began to pressure Lynch and Frost to reveal the truth behind Palmer's murder. The lackadaisical approach to the series was tossed aside once ABC execs realized what a ratings hit Lynch and Frost had produced. Many fingers began thrusting themselves in to the delicate recipe that Lynch and Frost had created and, eventually, the mystery was solved despite Lynch's protestations to leave it as an unanswered question.

Lynch was right and the ABC execs were wrong (of course), as once Palmer's murderer was revealed, ratings for the show dropped. The show did not survive for much longer after the fated revelation, as the quality of writing could not sustain itself without the mystery acting as the engine amidst the wild jalopey that 'Twin Peaks' had become. Despite ABC cancelling the series shortly after, the cult status of 'Twin Peaks' had already given it new life, as Bravo began re-airing the series in its entirety a mere two years later.

As it stands, 'Twin Peaks' remains a prime example of capturing lightning in a bottle, the sort of once-in-a-lifetime production that can never be repeated. It launched careers and left an indelible impression on American culture as a whole, being referenced and lampooned on 'The Simpsons' in the following clip:

You can find 'Twin Peaks' and test your own mettle on Netflix or on DVD.


That does it for one of the stranger trips through time here on TV Time Machine. We've skated from the 50s up to the 1990s... where will the trip take us from here? Will we focus on television... FROM THE FUTURE? Will you tune in to TVRage next week and see a lengthy explanation of a popular television series that HASN'T YET BEEN PRODUCED!?

Will you!?!?

(spoiler: no.)

See you next week! And remember, Ragers: we're all blue from projection tubes.


- Twin Peaks (1990)
- David Lynch
- Mark Frost (1)

Written by: bad_subject
Oct 9th, 2012, 11:17 am


Level 4 (22%)
Points: 263.4
Since: 22/Aug/12
Message Posted On Oct 13th, 2012, 9:56 am

It is indeed on Netflix Canada! And I LOVE the X-Files. I am jealous of your upcoming experience of each show.


Level 1 (36%)
Since: 17/Apr/12
Message Posted On Oct 9th, 2012, 4:37 pm

Ah, Twin Peaks.  Another of those shows that you simply couldn't exist during the time it was on without knowing *something* about, even if you didn't watch I didn't.  But you're right; it was every bit as popular during its time as "Who shot J.R." made Dallas nearly a decade earlier.


It's on Netflix, huh.  Wonder if it's on up here in Canada.  Have to take a look one of these days and, if so, put it on the "to watch" list right after X-Files.


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