Television Review: Twin Peaks (Seasons 1-2, 1990 - 1991)

(source: tmdb.org)

Golden Age of Television has begun roughly decade and half ago, but many would like to find its origins in much earlier period. One of the catalysts for the process was in the short-lived US broadcast television series which became first one to earn cult status. That show was Twin Peaks, originally aired on ABC network between 1990 and 1991.

Creators of the show were Mark Frost, famed television writer known for high quality dramas, and David Lynch, director at that time known mostly for quirky but stylish art films that have already earned him a cult following. This unusual pairing developed a project that was something fresh and until that unimaginable in the stale, formulaic world of network television where most shows were unimaginative routine sitcoms or formulaic procedural dramas. That something was series which, at least temporarily, broke with US television conventions and offered weird, unusual and intoxicating combination of different genres, new emphasis on style and unusual narrative techniques. The show was exactly what the audience wanted and yearned for, and it quickly became instant hit in USA and the rest of the world.

The plot begins in small and quiet Washington State town of Twin Peaks where logger Pete Martell (played by Jack Nance) finds naked corpse of Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee), popular teenager and homecoming queen. Another local girl, Ronette Pulaski (played by Phoebe Augustin), apparent victim of the same criminal, is found wandering in semi-catatonic state crossing the state lines. This allows FBI to claim jurisdiuction and send Special Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan) to lead investigation with the help of local police led by Sheriff Harry S. Truman (played by Michael Ontkean). Cooper finds that some detail of the case connect it to previously unsolved murder in different part of the state, but he is also convinced that the killer is local. He carefully begins to investigate seemingly innocuous and outstanding citizens, many of whom having dark secrets. Even the victim had dark secrets of her own, living a double life very different from the image of perfect teenager. In order to crack the case, Cooper uses many unusual investigative methods including those based on his dreams and visions, and as the investigation goes on, there are more clues that the killing was, at least partially, inspired by mysterious and malevolent force that might had supernatural origins.

Basic concept of Twin Peaks is in many ways inspired by Blue Velvet, Davidy Lynch’s 1986 thriller which represented the zenith of his career. In both cases, main protagonist is played by Kyle MacLachlan and setting is seemingly picture-perfect American logging town which hides many dark secrets and psychopathic evil within its underbelly. Mark Frost, on the other hand, tried to build on this concept by adding new narrative structure, until that time seldom used on US broadcast television – instead of unconnected episodes, series had straight plot from beginning to the end, with investigation of Laura Palmer’s murder also being used as background for various romantic subplots that put Twin Peaks in realm of soap opera. Frost’s script also played with different genres – murder mystery and soap opera were mixed with elements of supernatural horror and slapstick comedy. Twin Peaks also excelled with the new emphasis on style, which included great work on cinematography, until that time unimaginable for broadcast television, and atmospheric yet diverse musical score by Angelo Badalamenti, including theme song “Falling” which became a great hit.

Lynch made right choice with very big and diverse cast. The most important member was MacLachlan who plays FBI agent, who despite his eccentricity and almost boyish enthusiasm for some banal details of everyday life, represents moral anchor of the series and convenient way “normies” among the audience can relate to strange and quirky world of Twin Peaks. He easily overshadows Michael Ontkean who actually plays the most “normie” character of them all. The rest of cast is very good, especially in moments when Frost’s script makes their characters eccentric, acting strangely or in a way that makes them suspects in investigation. This includes Sherilyn Fenn as teenage seductress, Lara Flynn Boyle as Laura Palmer’s best friend, Ray Wise as Laura’s grieving and half-insane father and Richard Beymer as local tycoon. Sheryl Lee, relatively unknown actress from Seattle, initially hired only to play corpse, later became one of the more interesting actresses of her generation.

Twin Peaks began with feature-length pilot and seven more episodes, which became great hit due to engrossing mystery and clever use of cliffhangers that maintained audience’s attention over many weeks. The first season, with relatively short length and creators being more focused on their creation, is generally considered to be the better than the second, which showed all the limitations of broadcast television and its format. After a hiatus, it was difficult for audience to remain interested, with many complaining that the original mystery was too muddled and it had to be resolved. Network forced Lynch and Frost to finally reveal the killer, but instead of simply ending the series of high note, they decided to continue with more absurd and soapy plots, with both Lynch and Frost losing control. That marked the beginning of the end, with poor quality affecting viewership and leading to cancellation at the second season, with finale featuring one of the most annoying and unsatisfying cliffhangers in history of television.

Despite its unsatisfying end, Twin Peaks on general was piece of quality of television and left huge imprint on popular culture. It proved very influential in the emerging realm of video games, films and, finally, television. Many television creators in 1990s began to experiment with different forms and content, although only the arrival of cable television and streaming allowed shows inspired by Twin Peaks to reach their full potential. Many other popular culture phenomena like X-Files, Northern Exposure, Sopranos, Stranger Things or Dark owe great debt to Twin Peaks. General reputation of Twin Peaks was enhanced by critically acclaimed third season, a 2017 limited series that tried to wrap up some of the loose ends.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

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