(ABC) Twin Peaks isn't so much a TV show as it is a cultural milestone that redefined the parameters of storytelling on television. It paved the way for so many beloved shows – Lost, The X-Files, Life On Mars, Dexter, Carnivàle, American Horror Story – and showed us that intelligent spirituality and art-house surrealism could have a place in prime-time.
The problem with talking about “redefining parameters” is that everything makes claims to that effect, but so few things actually come close to doing it. Most films, novels, TV shows, etc. stick to the carefully-constructed outline of a particular genre, and that's absolutely fine; if everything was insanely innovative, then nothing would be special, and we'd have a horrifying mass of pretentious claptrap rather than our tried-and-true – if sometimes a little dull – landscape of stories following age-old formulas. The genius of Twin Peaks is that it takes these age-old formulas – soap opera, police procedural, murder mystery, ghost story, noir drama, teen-rebel b-movie, fish-out-of-water tale – and packs them into a shadowbox where their silhouettes overlap and writhe in startling new shapes.
The backbone of Twin Peaks' narrative is the question, Who killed Laura Palmer? However, the real question should be, How did this bizarre and hallucinatory drama ever find its way into American homes? The answer is surely more complicated than we have time for here, but has something to do with David Lynch's critical success as a feature filmmaker and Mark Frost's track record as a writer and director on shows like Hill Street Blues.
However the two managed to sell ABC on the project, it's a good bet that the network didn't have any idea just how strange the final product would be. The pilot begins realistically enough – with salt-of-the-earth fisherman Pete Martell (Jack Nance, veteran of Lynch's film work) discovering Laura Palmer's (Sheryl Lee) waterlogged corpse washed ashore on a lonely stretch of sand in the ghost-haunted woods of the Pacific Northwest. In a panic, he calls the sheriff's office and utters the immortal line, “She's dead. Wrapped in plastic.”
What follows is a little more emotionally real than most viewers will be prepared for. We watch as Laura's parents are informed of her murder, and the cloying sense of impending devastation is almost unbearable. In a scene recently re-created almost note-for-note by AMC's The Killing, Mrs. Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) is on the phone with Mr. Palmer (Ray Wise) when he gets the news – and her howl of perfect despair will echo in your mind ever after. We get to feel a little bit of what it's actually like for a parent to lose a child, and their grief is given the largest possible space in which to resonate.
In a way, the rest of the show grows like an intricately-branching fracture from this one moment. It's as though reality itself is cracked by the force of their loss, and everything we experience from then on – criminal plots, love triangles, prophetic dreams, mysterious spirits of the forest – is the distorted reflection of this psychic event. If Twin Peaks tells us anything, it's that grief is infinite and timeless. It inhabits rooms and rooms of ideal suffering, each tuned to a different frequency: guilt, regret, rage, self-hate, denial, displacement, numbness, violence, distance, punishment. Grief will come and go through our lives in waves, but those waves come from a sea, and a sea can never be finished with us.
This isn't to say that the show is an out-an-out bummer. On the contrary, it's a delightful, thrilling, intriguing, funny ride. It just happens to have at its heart a sense of the completeness of human insignificance amid the tides of mystery in which we drift unaware. Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) – assigned by the FBI to investigate the murder – is our proxy, observing it all with a sense of childlike wonder. He's the pure soul deliberately and methodically probing the vast evil of the universe at the risk of his own sanity.
In the town of Twin Peaks, he meets a variety of outlandish characters, each with their own warped history and viewpoint. You'll see an army of familiar faces: Lara Flynn Boyle, Joan Chen, Piper Laurie, David Duchovny, Heather Graham. Twin Peaks launched more than one acting career, so seminal was its influence on the popular consciousness.
The show is by no means flawless – it has its share of unnecessary plot lines and underdeveloped characters; but true genius is difficult to maintain over an episodic, open-ended structure like a television show. Just because a show periodically loses its way in the woods doesn't disqualify it from being a great work of art. Fans of Lost will understand this. Twin Peaks says something genuinely profound about our need for idealized versions of reality and the dark reflections we unwittingly create as a result – reflections of ourselves and those we love that can develop a disturbing life of their own. No minor weaknesses in narrative structure can diminish the power of that argument.
Perhaps the real mystery, then, is why there are so many people out there who still haven't seen Twin Peaks. There are uncountable reasons to watch it: the hilarious asides, the gripping twists and turns of plot, the inspired puzzles, the exploration of alternative modes of spirituality, Angelo Badalamenti's brilliant score, the multitude of unique character studies, the lush setting, the dreamlike atmosphere, the sound of wind through the trees. Perhaps the best reason to watch is that Twin Peaks offers a nearly unparalleled vision of how we should approach the basic mysteries of existence. Yes, they may ultimately overwhelm and corrupt us – until we're “gone, gone, like a turkey in the corn” – but that shouldn't diminish our respect, our awe, our desperate efforts to find balance and understanding. As Cooper puts it, “I guess you can say that about most anything in life: It's not so bad, as long as you can keep the fear from your mind.”
For Fans Of: Lost, The X-Files, Life On Mars, Dexter, Northern Exposure, The Killing
Why We Like It: one of the very few completely unique TV shows, fearlessly addresses ideas about human psychology and spirituality, a solid alternative to religion.