ABC debuted the primetime series Twin Peaks as a two-hour TV movie on April 8, 1990. The world has not been the same since.
Fans of Twin Peaks, which was created by avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch, have never abated in their outspoken passion and endless pondering over the surreal, supernatural, Pacific-Northwest-set murder mystery.
Even more than such direct devotion, though, pop culture itself absorbed Twin Peaks and became richer, stranger, more daring and diverse in the quarter-century since it left the air.
Just recently, Twin Peaks returned to production for Showtime. Online buzz, among social media users of a certain vintage, has been volcanic. So for Millennials who were too young to watch or perhaps even not born back when local teen queen Laura Palmer’s murdered body washed ashore and set off the bizarre goings-on that have resonated ever since, here are some damn good (we hope) explanations.
Creator David Lynch Is a Bona Fide Freak
To call Twin Peaks mastermind David Lynch an unlikely candidate from primetime TV success goes beyond understatement.
Lynch ruled the world of art cinema as a cutting-edge iconoclast. He made the most acclaimed midnight movie of all time (Eraserhead), got nominated for an Oscar for a black-and-white film about a sideshow attraction (The Elephant Man), launched the looniest big-budget sci-fi blockbuster ever (Dune), violated all manner of onscreen taboos (Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart), and turned down the chance to direct Return of the Jedi.
Suddenly, in 1990, that crackpot visionary had a mainstream network TV series. Not only was that huge news, Lynch pulled off the transition brilliantly.
TV at the Dawn of the 1990s Was Not All That Different From TV in the ’50s
Coming off a decade dominated by The Cosby Show and Dynasty, family sitcoms and sudsy nighttime soaps ruled America’s airwaves circa 1990. MTV represented the edgiest entertainment on the air, but even that required a cable subscription, which not everybody had.
ABC’s signature programming included America’s Funniest Home Videos and the Full House-anchored Friday night TGIF kid comedy lineup. Somehow that broadcast powerhouse invited David Lynch to weave psychotically twisted saga of small town lunatics and other-worldly agents of homicidal chaos on to their schedule.
Twin Peaks Took Off at the Same Time as The Simpsons
After premiering with a Christmas episode at the end of 1989, The Simpsons joined Fox’s weekly schedule right around Twin Peaks came on over at ABC.
Each show created fully populated worlds of oddballs and oddities in brilliantly executed adventures that viewers had never before seen, or perhaps even imagined.
As a result, in Spring 1990 The Simpsons and Twin Peaks reinvented no less a defining cultural touchstone than television itself, turning what had long been disparaged as the “boob tube” into the superior medium that would evolve in leaps and bounds going forward.
Everything from Seinfeld to The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to Making a Murderer can be pinned back to the Simpsons/Twin Peaks watershed moment (it also inspired Homer Simpson’s hilarious nod to their primetime peers in the video above).
Mainstream America Got a Load of Twin Peaks’ Weirdness and Said: “Cool! I Get It”
For all the Lynch cultists, highbrow types, anti TV-snobs, and various and sundry nuts who tuned in, Twin Peaks remarkably caught on as a hit with regular television audiences.
On top of the controversy and hip-circle fuss surrounding the show, the first season also proved to be a ratings. Viewers of all kinds, from coast to coast, tuned in and enjoyed Twin Peaks as a decidedly different, but enormously entertaining, primetime soap opera.
That phenomenon didn’t last long enough to even warrant a third season of Twin Peaks, but for a while, you could talk to your grandmother about the show’s signature eccentricities such as the backward-talking dwarf, The Log Lady, and every character’s unabashed passion for pies, doughnuts, and damn good coffee.
The Women of Twin Peaks Proved Revolutionary
Twin Peaks proved to be populated by remarkable female characters played electrifyingly by up-and-coming actresses who instantly took show business by storm.
Sheryl Lee made quite the immediate impression slaughtered high school homecoming queen Laura Palmer, both wrapped in plastic when she’s discovered and in terrifyingly telling flashbacks of her double life. Lara Flynn Boyle took viewers deep into the mystery as Donna Hayward, as Laura’s best friend turned amateur sleuth. Sherilyn Fenn, as local bad girl Audrey Horne, exuded femme fatale allure that virtually melted viewers’ TV screens. Joan Chen played a Pacific Northwest lumber mill baron who defies every expectation of the part.
TV’s dynamic female protagonists with recognizably human flaws and fierceness eventually bloomed from the seeds tossed by the women of Twin Peaks into, among others, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Homeland, Scandal, and Jessica Jones.
Here’s raising a damn good cup of coffee to them all.