×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Twin Peaks’ Original Series in 1990: Oddball, but ‘Brilliant Television’

On Sunday, Showtime debuts “Twin Peaks,” a continuation of the 1990 series that is unique in TV history — the show has maintained a fan base after a quarter century, even though there were only 30 episodes, most of them low-rated.

Like the new incarnation, the original “Twin Peaks” was kept in secrecy, but media (and audience) anticipation was high. ABC premiered the two-hour pilot on April 8, 1990, and it was an immediate hit. However, the show quickly faded from view.

Even before it started, Variety predicted it would be a challenge. In a story on Feb. 28, 1990, a few weeks before the debut, Elizabeth Guider wrote that it was much hyped, but “the series represents a ratings risk: It has no big names, no car chases, no glitz, no overt sex or violence. What it does have is an offbeat intelligence at work on a very American kind of story — murder in a small town.”

“Twin Peaks,” developed under the title “Northwest Passage,” was created by filmmaker David Lynch (“Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet”) and Mark Frost, who had served for three years as story editor on “Hill Street Blues.” ABC kept the show under wraps until the last minute, which only fueled the media’s fervor. One TV exec, who had seen all nine hours of the first season (the pilot, plus seven one-hour episodes), told Variety that the upcoming show was basically “Norman Rockwell meets Salvador Dali.”

In an interview with Guider, Frost told Variety that the show had undergone a year-long gestation at ABC development and that the network “put no restrictions on Lynch or the directions the project was taking.”

When it finally debuted, Variety reviewer Amy Dawes hailed it as “brilliant television.” She said the network had spent $3.8 million on the pilot and pointed out that it had fewer commercial breaks than the usual telefilm (11 minutes of ads instead of the usual 14).

The premiere earned a 21.7 rating, 33 share, making it the highest-rated telefilm of the season. But viewer interest lagged, and a Saturday-night time slot didn’t help. By the end of summer, ratings had fallen to 5.8/11. The show featured a traditional storyline, asking who killed Laura Palmer. But the investigation by FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and sheriff Truman (Michael Ontkean), mixed mystery with deadpan humor, surrealism and dream logic, with unsettling touches like the Log Lady, rampant sexual repression, and psychic visions.

The show received 14 Emmy nominations, but won only two: for Patricia Norris’ costume design and Duwayne Dunham’s editing on the pilot. Despite fading ratings, it was renewed for a second season, which kicked off with a two-hour premiere on Sunday Sept. 30, then the hourly episodes returned to Saturday night.

On Oct. 2, 1990, Variety’s Brian Lowry review of the second-season opener admired the “awe-inspiring oddness of TV’s most talked about show … beyond all the hoopla, this is great television.”

Despite its fast fade, the series proved surprisingly influential. The network’s order for eight episodes, was unusual, but it was an early acknowledgment of the showrunner-as-auteur theory. Lynch was considered indispensable to the show, then as now.

A few months after “Twin Peaks” launched, CBS offered its own version of an outsider-in-a-small-town, “Northern Exposure.” It was less dark and unsettling — and more successful. But “Twin Peaks” foreshadowed TV’s experiments in rule-breaking storytelling, paving the way for such shows as “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Riverdale,” and many others that challenged viewers to ignore TV conventions.

“Twin Peaks” was also ahead of its time in other ways, including color-blind casting. Joan Chen played the mysterious widow who owns the lumber mill; on March 6, 1990, Chen told Variety that Lynch and Frost had written the part for an Italian actress. But after doing a reading for Lynch, she got the part. In 2017, when people are lamenting Hollywood whitewashing, with Caucasians playing roles that were originally Asian, the Lynch-Frost openness is especially notable.

More TV

  • Tim Roth Series ‘Tin Star’ Gets

    Tim Roth Series ‘Tin Star’ Gets Third and Final Season on Sky

    Tim Roth will star in a third and final season of “Tin Star,” the Sky original drama. Like earlier seasons, it will play on Amazon outside the U.K. Genevieve O’Reilly and Abigail Lawrie also return in the final chapter of the story, which is produced by Endemol Shine’s Kudos alongside Gaumont U.K. Rowan Joffe created [...]

  • Little Mix Star Jesy Nelson Making

    Little Mix's Jesy Nelson Making BBC Documentary About Mental Health and Body Image

    Little Mix star Jesy Nelson is making a one-off documentary for the BBC in which she will explore issues surrounding body shaming and mental health in the age of social media. “Jesy Nelson: My Story” will launch on the BBC’s youth-skewed online channel BBC Three and then play on BBC One. Girl band Little Mix [...]

  • MMA Alters Faces of Asia Sports

    MMA Alters Faces of Asian Sports Broadcasting

    Bruce Lee was ahead of the curve by about four decades when he predicted back in the early 1970s that combat sports would one day take the world by storm. Hong Kong’s favorite son had encouraged his own students to mix up the styles of martial arts they were being trained in — to combine kung fu [...]

  • Variety Kit Harington Game of Thrones

    Kit Harington on How 'Game of Thrones' Mirrors Real-World Politics

    In Variety‘s March 19 cover story, Kit Harington opens up about the final season of “Game of Thrones” and growing into adulthood as part of the biggest show on television. In a conversation in London in December, Harington opened up about the similarities between the series’ politics and our own. “I think it’s always been about [...]

  • Chris O'Dowd

    TV News Roundup: Chris O'Dowd to Star in 'Twilight Zone' Episode

    In today’s roundup, The CW has released two clips from the upcoming “Riverdale” special “Heathers: The Musical,” and Chris O’Dowd will star in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”  CASTING Chris O’Dowd will star in CBS All Access’ rebooted “The Twilight Zone” episode titled “The Blue Scorpion.” The series will premiere with two episodes on [...]

  • Kevin Tsujihara

    Kevin Tsujihara's Ouster Kicks Off a Week of Major Disruption in the Media Business

    The sudden ouster of Warner Bros. Entertainment chief Kevin Tsujihara kicked off what is likely to go down as one of the most extraordinary weeks in Hollywood history, spelling enormous turmoil and transition across the media landscape. In addition to the news about Tsujihara, which comes amid a wider shake-up of leadership at AT&T’s WarnerMedia, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content