‘Twin Peaks’ at 25: Celebrating the Great Limited Series (That Wasn’t)

Twin Peaks anniversary
Image courtesy of ABC

Can it really be 25 years since “Twin Peaks” premiered? Seriously, how long were we all stopped at that eerie traffic signal?

Still, the fact the show still resonates – and even inspired Showtime to brave the wacky world of David Lynch in pursuit of a possible revival – stems from the fact that this quarter-century-old artifact was really well ahead of its time, more suited to the subscription- and binge-oriented world of today than a broadcast network back when AMC was still exclusively airing old movies.

To borrow a bit of modern TV parlance, “Twin Peaks” was the perfect limited series. It just didn’t know it yet.

Indeed, the first eight-episode season of “Twin Peaks” caused the sort of hysteria that caught ABC unawares. Still, with all the heat surrounding its “Who killed Laura Palmer?” mystery, the show would have been better served by being a self-contained story, as opposed to giving birth to a second season that the network relegated to Saturday nights in the pre-DVR age, where it died a slow and increasingly befuddled death.

With the benefit of hindsight, then-ABC Entertainment chief Robert Iger (now CEO of the entire Walt Disney Co.) conceded as much, saying in an early-1990s interview that “Peaks” probably was more suited to a one-shot enterprise. In its wake the network did try out a few similar projects, such as “Wild Palms,” a surreal 1993 miniseries written by Bruce Wagner and produced by Oliver Stone.

Still, it was hard to replicate the buzz that “Twin Peaks” organically generated, anticipating a subsequent wave of dramas initiated by the death/disappearance of a teenage girl (“The Killing”) or young boy (“Broadchurch,” “The Missing,” “Secrets and Lies”).

One major problem was that the broadcast networks were still rooted in the notion of churning out series that could run years on end. Tellingly, “Peaks” premiered five months before “Law & Order,” the Energizer Bunny of police procedurals.

Today, of course, networks have embraced the wisdom of limited-run shows such as “True Detective” and “Fargo,” which can be extended only by rolling the dice on new casts and concepts. The advent of Netflix and other alternative means of distribution has also enhanced the value of such programs, which lend themselves to being consumed in greedy gulps, while emboldening broadcasters to weigh in. (Fox’s “Wayward Pines,” premiering in May, will certainly draw comparisons to “Twin Peaks,” among others.)

Although “Twin Peaks” derived much of its kick from the quirkiness of the town, the series milked the Laura Palmer murder beyond its expiration date, without delivering a fully satisfying resolution (as unsettling as it was) when the time finally came part-way through season two. By the time Lynch delivered the movie prequel “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” the embers had cooled considerably.

Granted, “Twin Peaks” was hardly the first series to discover that a great opening act isn’t necessarily built for an open-ended run. But at the time programmers were more likely to write that off as a failure, instead of recognizing the triumph that the first season represented.

Seen that way, the greater viability of something like “Twin Peaks” offers a pretty good road map in charting how TV made it from some of the memorable but short-lived casualties of the ’90s to what can be called its current golden age. And if this slightly arbitrary anniversary isn’t cause for a full-scale celebration, it’s at least worth toasting with a damn fine cup of coffee.

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  1. Jacques Strappe says:

    The original Twin Peaks was weird and fun and unlike anything ever seen on television at the time. The look, the feel, the odd characters, the wonderful and dreamlike music, the dreary but lush Pacific Northwest setting, the Laura Palmer murder mystery–it all worked for one season until it started to feel silly. As much as I loved Twin Peaks and still admire the works of David Lynch, the television series wanned near the end of its run. A revival, reboot or whatever, probably was a bad idea to begin with.

  2. Joel Bocko says:

    (& Just to address the relevance to today…the Showtime execs signed up hoping for a reprise of season 1. I suspect Lynch – whose last film was Inland Empire, after all – would rather offer an expansion of early season 2, the finale, and the film. When all’s said and done that’s his Twin Peaks, much more than the first 8 episodes.)

  3. Joel Bocko says:

    Many solid points, but here’s the thing (and this is relevant to what happened this weekend)… Season 1 of Twin Peaks is far more consistent than season 2. It is wonderfully constructed (Mark Frost’s contribution as much/more than Lynch), packed tightly with plot, mood, character, and texture in its 7-episode run, and yes, feels more like a magical miniseries than a long-winded neverending soap.

    Season 2 is more uneven, to put it mildly, and can be divided into three parts. Part 1 contains a solid buildup to end of the mystery, with many alluring moments although many of the characters and subplots begin their slow drift into weekly-TV land, losing the tight focus and excitement that characterized the first seven episodes (not including the pilot, which is almost its own beast). Part 2, with the Laura story over, is a disaster in which the show rapidly becomes a parody of itself, a nightmare bizarro world in which the offbeat allure is milked for crass quirk and the soap elements laboriously metastasize and nearly kill the show. Part 3, the final stretch of the series, is solid serialized adventure/supernatural/soap storytelling, returning a bit of that old feeling, that the different parts of Twin Peaks are related to a cohesive overall story, even if this still feels like a pale imitation of the first season’s magic.

    Looked at that way, season 1 clearly has the edge, right? Only if we are more concerned with perfection than power.

    The fact is, season 2 contains the best moments in the series, the moments that ensure Twin Peaks masterpiece status despite its myriad flaws. If the strengths of season 1 lie in suggestion, the strengths of season 2 lie in revelation. And here’s a surprise that seldom gets reported: Lynch made his film Wild at Heart during the first, not the second season. He was not heavily involved with most of the episodes that are fondly remembered but he directed half of season 2’s first eight hours, including the episodes that pushed audiences and critics away from the show long before Laura’s killer was revealed.

    The peculiar and at times frustrating season premiere takes what was initially “edgy” – the humor, the suggestions of mysticism, the violence, the strangeness – and just goes right over the edge. Everyone tuned in for the cherry pie and Jacoby’s wacky ties but the episode ends with a grisly re-enactment of Laura’s murder. The next episode, also Lynch-directed, doubles down on the idea that Twin Peaks is not constrained by the laws of physical reality – infuriating to many, but liberating for those ready to embrace the filmmaker’s dream logic. And then the killer’s reveal. Lynch himself may have hated this idea but he knocked it out of the park in his execution. It isn’t merely “unsettling”, it changes our whole conception of what Twin Peaks is or could be – trading the winking postmodernism but for profound tragedy and uncanny horror. If Twin Peaks had ended with this episode, its mystery solved but its investigation perpetually unfinished, I don’t think people would think “the first season > the second” today (though they would have been furious at the time).

    But the show continued, and even here there’s more to the story. Lynch’s final episode is possibly the best of the series, as avant-garde as Jean Cocteau or Maya Deren yet nestled into the confines of prime-time ABC (a Monday night movie-of-the-week, no less). And the much-despised feature film, which has been slowly re-evaluated over the years, is one of Lynch’s most radical and subversive works: a savage yet heartfelt rejection of the show’s ethos and style in favor of exploring the darkness at its core. Limited to one season, Twin Peaks would have been a clever, moody, brilliantly-achieved tweaking of TV conventions. When expanded to include the messy second season, the experimental finale, and the unhinged feature film…well, let’s just say Fire Walk With me opens with an axe smashing a TV set for very good reason.

    The author is correct that, as a pop culture phenomenon, Twin Peaks would have been wise to limit itself to one season. By not doing so it became something less, and something much, much more than a pop culture phenomenon.

  4. Marlene says:

    Showtime is just not up to the task of making a commitment to as challenging of a creative talent like David Lynch, who is a true one-of-a-kind visionary. TWIN PEAKS will never make it back due to Showtime’s stingy ways. Very sad.

  5. patrik says:

    back in time(25 years -older)

  6. JJ says:

    This whole situation with the announcement of a third season without locking in the talent has pissed off many people. And people aren’t sure who to be angry at: Showtime? David Lynch?

    What a mess. Everyone involved should be ashamed – greedy studio; petulant filmmaker, alike

    • Maja says:

      Angry at Showtime but NOT DAVID LYNCH. He wants to shoot on film and that’s great and should be supported by Showtime

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