The Unexpected, Groundbreaking, Cult Phenomenon of 'Twin Peaks'
By Joe Bergren
Special Agent Dale Cooper
What do you tell people to expect before watching Twin
Peaks? It’s as complicated an answer as what to expect when you meet David Lynch.
Just ask the man: “They expect, like, a person that's 5-foot-8. Who's very
hairy. Who's had most of their teeth removed and who's just gotten out of the
hospital,” the filmmaker said in 1990.
ET spoke with Lynch and the cast of Twin Peaks throughout
the unexpected, groundbreaking series’ short-lived initial run from 1990 to
1991 on ABC. The TV phenomenon, which returns Sunday, May 21 for a third season
on Showtime, showcased Lynch’s penchant for challenging our initial perceptions
of everyday life and suggesting there’s always something more going on.
“Then sometimes they're surprised and a lot of times they're
not, because we all know that the surface is one thing and there's 99 percent
to us all that we don't see right away,” Lynch explained. If there’s a
perennial theme to be found throughout his body of work, it’s Lynch being
fascinated with that 99 percent.
The decision of the director, who had already earned three
Oscar nominations in the first decade of his career, to work in TV puzzled a
lot of people in the entertainment industry. Today, we don’t think twice about the
fluidity between film and TV, as many acclaimed directors and actors regularly
jump between mediums. Why wouldn’t they crave the longform storytelling
potential that only TV can offer? Lynch certainly did. “People can get to know
characters and fall into another world, and have so many great experiences in
it,” he explained.
She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.
After Blue Velvet, his fourth film following Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Dune,
people had a good idea of what to expect from a “David Lynch film” -- or
perhaps at least what not to expect. Along with his writing partner, Mark
Frost, Lynch was now starting to get ideas about a woman’s murder in the
Pacific Northwest, the region where they had both grown up. At the behest of
their agent, they began thinking of TV as a way to tell an expanded story and
give depth to stereotypical characters. The project ended up at ABC, a network
that ultimately welcomed the duo’s vision. “We were lucky to get green lights
all the way through many, many barriers at ABC. They were supporting us like
crazy,” Lynch said.
“It's a story about a young woman [Laura Palmer, who] gets
killed in the town and an FBI agent comes in, and so on and so forth, but it
becomes a character study of all these people in the town and how idiosyncratic
people are,” Sherilyn Fenn said during a visit to the set in 1989. Largely
unknown at the time, Fenn went on to earn an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination
for her portrayal of Audrey Horne, whose jukebox diner dancing and cherry stem knotting
scenes hold two of the top spots on the list of the series’ most memorable
As with most cultural phenomenons, the people involved
couldn’t imagine the success that was about to follow. But everyone could
acknowledge the series was unlike anything else on TV at the time.
“I knew that David was working in conjunction with Mark
Frost, writing something that was unusual for television,” Kyle MacLachlan said
at the time. Just like everything in the town of Twin Peaks, MacLachlan’s
character, Special Agent Dale Cooper, was full of surprises. Many TV pilots
will use an outsider presence to help the audience feel grounded in reality
amidst their journey through a strange land. In Twin Peaks, just as we
start to feel safe with Cooper, Lynch and Frost directed us toward the Black
I knew Laura better than she thought I did.
“It's a place you look at and you think you would love to
live in. The people are very charming. A little quirky,” said Lara Flynn Boyle,
who played Donna Hayward, Laura’s best friend. “And then the more time you
spend looking at the town and being in the town, being around the people, you
see that everything isn't what it looks like.”
It became clear that while the series began as a murder
mystery, learning more about the characters became a fan priority. “The
characters are so, so intriguing. So bizarre. Do such strange things.
Unexpected things in situations that are very odd. It's just the nature of the
show. The unknown factor keeps people on the edge of their seat,” said
MacLachlan. Wondering about what’s in Laura’s diary is easy to put on hold as
you pause to witness the magic of the late Miguel Ferrer deliver a monologue as
FBI forensic pathologist Albert Rosenfield that ends with “I love you, Sheriff
“It kind of cracks me up how much people want an answer to
who killed Laura Palmer thing, because that murder was kind of the ball that
got everything rolling,” Sheryl Lee said later, after the show had become a hit
among fans. The actress played Laura as well as her cousin, Maddy Ferguson, in
“I just keep hearing that question over and over again, and
there's so much other great stuff going on,” Lee continued. She believed that
while Laura’s death was the pilot’s crucial catalyst, the show’s essence lay in
the many secrets and relationships that were subsequently uncovered.
Of course, that didn’t mean the show’s producers were in any
hurry to reveal her murderer. “We have our number on every page of the script.
If that gets out anywhere, they know it's your number. You're in trouble,” Madchen
Amick (Shelly Johnson) explained. One week, the future Riverdale -- a show very much inspired by Twin Peaks -- actor received a script that contained the answer to
who killed Laura, but later discovered it was a trick from the writers.
Who’s the lady with the log?
Special Agent Dale Cooper
Soon after Twin Peaks began airing came the viewing
parties among passionate fans offering the series’ signature coffee and donuts.
Several cast members were also known to gather at Russ Tamblyn’s (Dr. Jacoby)
home to catch the newest episode together. (During one viewing party ET
attended, a young Amber Tamblyn, whose directorial debut comes out the same
weekend as her father reprises his role, was spotted watching with the cast.) The
series’ unique characters and attention to detail within episodes helped elicit
a cult-like following of Rocky HorrorPicture Show proportions.
“The cult figure thing -- it's not anything I did. I just
did this role and it captured people's imaginations so I'm kind of there giving
something that I'm not really clear what it is. Do you know? So, it's an interesting
phenomenon,” said Catherine E. Coulson, our Log Lady, while Lee added that it
gave viewers credit for being intelligent. “It is definitely an audience
She continued: “I have heard theories about every character
having killed her and with different motivations and reasons and all this, and
all of them make sense. And whether or not they're right, at least the viewers
are thinking. You know it's not the kind of show you can go, ‘OK, I want to
tune out for two hours and turn it on to watch it.’”
The series also enjoyed international popularity. Japan, in
particular, suffered from a huge case of Twin Peaks mania, with
MacLachlan later becoming a spokesperson for a coffee company there.
“A few years ago, the people who live here knew about the Northwest,
but as far as that goes, the rest of the world didn't really care about it. And
who could figure that in Spain and Italy and England and Japan and many, many
other countries something like this that seems sort of homespun could be
understood and appreciated so much and intensely,” Lynch said in 1992, after
the show had gone off the air.
“All I keep saying is it's the mystery of the woods and it's
the same kind of thing that gets a fairy tale going on. Once you start walking
in the woods, your imagination starts going and you know there's something of
this in the land of Twin Peaks,” he continued.
I’ll see you again in 25 years.
Twenty-six years after Laura spoke those words, the
prophecy is being fulfilled. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a 1992
prequel film that chronicled the final week of Laura’s life, had seemingly been
this story’s final chapter. But the show’s cult status never died, as Twin Peaks found new life among viewers
of the streaming age. And eventually, the series was set to continue on
Showtime with 18 new episodes -- impressive, considering the original series
only ran for 30 episodes -- with the original cast and creatives in place.
“If they ask us to come back, I'm sure it would be a real
pleasure to see our friends again,” Ray Wise (Leland Palmer) said in 1992.