A DAMN FINE SHOW

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Welcome to Fan Service, a guide to engaging with gargantuan, lore-heavy franchises. In each volume, we'll recommend a watch/read order to approach the given series with and dissect our argument for it. Today: "Twin Peaks" in television, film and text.

David Lynch and Mark Frost's "Twin Peaks" casts a long, owl-shaped shadow over the history of episodic television. It's not an exaggeration to say that "Twin Peaks" changed the medium, though far too many people leapfrog over that statement and try to claim that any "weird" show made after 1990 draws inspiration from Frost and Lynch. "Twin Peaks" itself tried to be a handful of different shows at once. When it succeeded at this multiplicity, "Twin Peaks" delighted, frightened, amused and utterly perplexed audiences. When it failed — and it did fail at points — the show smacked of self-parody, an unpleasant posture for a show that deftly split itself between complete sincerity and savvy genre deconstruction.

Few if any shows have come close to the same variety of tone, let alone the ability to shift from satire to gripping procedural to transcendent art to slapstick non sequitur without breaking a sweat. For much of its second season, "Twin Peaks" itself couldn't keep it up, leading to a string of dismal episodes and audience disinterest. This fall eventually damned the show to cancellation.

Even the follow up film "Fire Walk With Me" seemed to respond to the show's later messiness by focusing in on Laura, a character for whom even the rare lighter moments had dire context. The film's initial reception and performance at the box office buried the chance for the show's immediate revival. That was almost exactly twenty-five years ago.

Yesterday, "Twin Peaks" ended yet again. Summer 2017 saw the show take to Showtime for a highly anticipated third series, this time with a seemingly last-minute subtitle appended: "The Return." Unlike the original show, this iteration was written solely by Frost and Lynch, with Lynch in the director's seat for the entire 18-part run. Like the original it shattered expectations and, according to some, it surpassed the original series. Chances are slim that "Twin Peaks" will come back for another season… but that's what people said two decades ago too.

For now, the story is finished, with an ending its creators intended; let's get into it.

Through The Darkness Of Futures Past, The Magician Longs To Binge

"Twin Peaks" is from another era of television, where the closest you could get to the modern on-demand binge-watch would involve borrowing a friend's VHS recordings or on a rare cable TV marathon. Rushing through the show is still gripping this way, though denying yourself time to reflect on its most out-there moments might take something away from the experience. Then again, "Twin Peaks" takes a dip in quality in the second season that's perhaps best rushed through at a breakneck pace with coffee and pie on the side to ease the pain.

If you want to have the fullest old-school "Twin Peaks" experience, there's a pair of books you can slip into your watch order. Skip those entries if you wish — the third book in the order, co-creator Mark Frost's "Secret History," is at once less intimately connected to the characters of "Twin Peaks" and yet more revealing of both the series' heart and Frost's perspective. It's meaty enough to be singled out as essential on this list, but still skippable if you'd rather not read at all.

What absolutely, 100% cannot be skipped is the film "Fire Walk With Me" and "The Missing Pieces," a collection of deleted scenes released on Blu Ray in 2014. These aren't merely collector's edition extras. We'll get into why.

Here's what order to watch the show in:

  • The Pilot (1990)
  • Episodes 1-7 (1990)
  • Read "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer" by Jennifer Lynch (1990)
  • Episodes 8-27 (1990-91)
  • Read "The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper" by Scott Frost (1991)
  • Episodes 28-29 (1991)
  • Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
  • Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces (2014)
  • Read "The Secret History of Twin Peaks" by Mark Frost (2016)
  • Twin Peaks: The Return (a.k.a. Part 1-18) (2017)


The Hottest Show Of 1990

"Who killed Laura Palmer?" That's the watercooler question "Twin Peaks" pushed in its early days, the mystery behind the motivations of the titular town's residents. It's as "soap opera" a mystery as they come, a genre nod reinforced by each melodramatic sobbing fit and every cutaway to the made-up daytime drama playing on all the televisions in town. The search for Laura's killer drove the police procedural playing out with the local sheriff's department and the eccentric, upstanding FBI agent Dale Cooper. The killer's identity seemed tied to the supernatural elements crawling into view — elements which were hardly a surprise for the characters who lived near the dark woods all their lives, but that were vexing to audiences unprepared for Lynch's art house film sensibilities spilling out on the small screen.

One of the best reference points viewers had for "Twin Peaks" in 1990 was Lynch's "Blue Velvet." Frost and Lynch had already started working on a project together when someone suggested they make a television show in the same vein as Lynch's earlier work. The secretly seedy small town of Lumberton in "Blue Velvet" and Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey Beaumont end up reconfigured as the town of Twin Peaks and MacLachlan's role as Dale Cooper. There's a lounge with an ethereal singer bathed in blue light, a diner where teens plot reckless crime investigations, and a criminal underworld comprised of strange men with libidinous impulses.

Then there were the conventional TV trappings. The Twin Peaks Sheriff's Department has its fair share of stone-faced, no-nonsense lawmen plucked straight from an ordinary whodunit, and the town's high school is overflowing with mischievous pretty girls and handsome bad boys caught up in soap opera plotlines. Breakout young stars like Sherilyn Fenn, Mädchen Amick and Dana Ashbrook were featured on the cover of Rolling Stone and in now-hilariously-dated fashion spreads. The first season played up the attractiveness of the cast without going all "Baywatch," and without forgetting to remind viewers at least once an episode that the central murder mystery was also tied to a heinous sex crime.

Last but not least, as the supernatural asserted itself more and more in "Twin Peaks," viewers could look to "The Twilight Zone" — but referring to its brand of strangeness would only take them so far. Instead of telling you a different story each week a la "Twilight Zone," Frost and Lynch slowly unspooled a single tale that pulled from UFO conspiracies, westernized spiritualism and Native American legend. It was far from the first show to tell a continuing story, but it reveled in demanding the audience's focus while crisscrossing different plot threads and layering on more of the surreal and magical. For a long time, it seemed like they'd never reveal the identity of Laura's killer.

Then, midway through the second season, they did. At the behest of network executives, Frost and Lynch changed their plans and went ahead with a storyline culminating in the killer's reveal. The reveal comes almost at the exact midpoint of the original series, and it's one of the few episodes where only Frost and Lynch took the responsibility of writing and directing. The killer's identity was a closely kept secret on set — they filmed the reveal scene twice with two different characters identified as the killer to help preserve the mystery amongst the crew — and the reveal was ultimately shocking to many viewers despite the hints that had been dropped along the way.

After that, the show nose-dived.

Forget Who Killed Her: Who Was Laura Palmer?

Laura Palmer's first appearance on-screen in "Twin Peaks" is as a corpse. In another show her character might be expanded upon in flashback — instead, characters close to Laura let on that her death wasn't a complete shock. Plenty of people in town knew she was troubled, but few of them ever tried to learn why or help her out. The closest viewers of the original show ever got to learning about Laura in her own words came in found tape recordings and in passages from her diary.

 Sheryl Lee, CBS / CIBY 2000

Before the killer's reveal in season 2, David Lynch and Mark Frost approached Lynch's 22-year-old daughter Jennifer with an offer to write Laura's diary as a mass-market paperback (tie-in novels for TV shows were probably at the height of their popularity then, with shows from "Star Trek" to "Murder She Wrote" cashing in). Jennifer was entrusted with the identity of the killer in order to scatter clues and better inform the trauma described in the diary's pages. "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer" was released in between the first and second season, and for a while it offered the best, clearest insights as to who Laura was, how she felt about the characters viewers had come to know in the show and how long she had dealt with the conditions that eventually led to her demise.

Once "Twin Peaks" revealed the killer's identity, it seemed to forget about Laura completely. With the central mystery concluded, the writers scrambled to find a new arc and to invent new storylines for characters who were given little to do beyond act out after Laura's death. It also leaned into simpler humor and more hackneyed premises (storylines like one where a person does yellowface as a disguise or where a man reenacts the Civil War as a southern general are downright insufferable). During this time Lynch was more hands-off with the show, leaving Mark Frost and fellow writers Robert Engles and Harley Peyton responsible for plotting the big moves towards the season's end. The latter half of the second season is just… hard to watch.

The show hemorrhaged viewers while struggling to find better footing, despite the fact that Kyle MacLachlan remained as effervescent and entertaining as ever. Amongst the maelstrom of flailing secondary plotlines, FBI Agent Dale Cooper was indisputably the show's main interest1 now that Laura's story had come to a close. The writers gave Cooper a nemesis, a love interest and a close companion with top-secret knowledge of the supernatural goings-on in Twin Peaks. Once the show started to focus more on this trifecta, it started to get considerably more watchable.2

It was a little too late, unfortunately. David Lynch stepped in to direct the season 2 finale at a point when the writing was already on the wall: "Twin Peaks" faced cancellation and it would take a hell of a lot to keep it on the air. Lynch did his part, first by scraping chunks of the original script and devising a stunning finale that matched or surpassed his most distinctive entries on the big screen. The fans stepped up by launching a "Save Our Peaks" campaign and flooding the office of ABC executives with letters begging the network to keep the show on air. Still, "Twin Peaks" saw the ax, ending with a painfully open-ended cliffhanger.

Lynch, still convinced that revealing Laura's killer was the wrong move, devised a new plan to keep the story alive. He secured financing for the film follow-up that became "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me." Instead of continuing the show, it functions primarily as a prequel, though there are elements that reference the season 2 finale (which is why you absolutely shouldn't watch it first).

Mark Frost didn't agree with Lynch's idea for the film's direction, and so Lynch co-wrote "Fire Walk With Me" alongside Robert Engles. The final cut of the film focuses almost entirely on Laura Palmer in the week leading up to her death. Given the chance to inhabit the living, breathing Laura Palmer, Sheryl Lee gives an amazing performance that brings to life the Laura that had only existed in Jennifer Lynch's "Secret Diary."3 Dale Cooper's presence is minimized, the show's supernatural mythology is expanded upon, and despite not resolving season 2's cliffhanger, the film provides a sort of end point for the story.

Lynch intended to make more "Twin Peaks" films, but "Fire Walk With Me" was panned by critics and initially despised by fans who expected a film more in line with the show's balance of light and dark tone. By making "Fire Walk With Me" an unflinching look at Laura Palmer's life, David Lynch sought to remedy where the show had gone astray. The film's tepid reception damned any immediate hope of continuing "Twin Peaks."

Picking Up The Pieces

One of the deeper-cut criticisms of "Fire Walk With Me" was that it not only excluded many beloved characters from the original show, but that it had lost them all in the editing room. Fans had been present during filming, the unedited script found its way out to the public, returning actors commented on roles that had been stripped out of the film — it became common knowledge that there could've been more of the old "Twin Peaks" in "Fire Walk With Me" than there ended up being.

It stayed that way for a long time. David Lynch was certainly never going to go back and re-cut the film in response to criticism; that's just not his M.O. "Dune," the worst-received film of Lynch's career, was the only one he didn't have final edit on as director. That experience certainly hardened him, and though many people similarly disliked what "Fire Walk With Me" had to offer that didn't matter one lick to Lynch. He had made the film he'd wanted to make.

Lynch went on to make more films, including his 1998 masterpiece "Mulholland Drive," which had its initial roots as a television pilot — he stuck to the big screen without losing some taste for television.4 Similarly, Lynch embraced online video early and produced shorts for his own website. This lead him to gravitate away from filmstock and towards handheld digital video cameras. From this fascination with camcorders and a chance encounter with "Blue Velvet" star Laura Dern, Lynch's 2006 feature "Inland Empire" was born. That movie is, technically, the last feature film David Lynch has made.

The "technically" there comes because of the work that closely preceded the first rumblings of a "Twin Peaks" revival for television. In 2014, the entirety of "Twin Peaks" got a box set release on Blu Ray.5 With it came "The Missing Pieces," a collection of deleted and extended scenes from "Fire Walk With Me." It's not just a lump of unfinished scenes unceremoniously tacked onto a disc: Lynch himself went back and edited them together into a 91-minute sequence. "The Missing Pieces" does more than show off characters who were cut from "Fire Walk With Me" — it advances the entire story. A few key scenes take place after the season 2 finale, making "The Missing Pieces" an essential part of the "Twin Peaks" story in two senses. First, it suggests a direction "Twin Peaks" might have gone in had a follow-up been made shortly after "Fire Walk With Me." Second, the very creation of "The Missing Pieces" signaled that Lynch himself had unfinished business with the story. Though "Fire Walk With Me" stands on it's own, Lynch's willingness to revisit material that was more in-step with the show suggested that he was ready to create something new in the town of Twin Peaks.

Returning To A Place Both Wonderful And Strange

Nearly 25 years after "Twin Peaks" wrapped, Showtime announced that they had signed a deal with David Lynch and Mark Frost to create a new series of "Twin Peaks" for 2016. The production ran into a couple snags as the network and Lynch hashed out specifics. For a time, Lynch backed away from the project, throwing the whole prospect of a revival into a tailspin. Later, Showtime announced they had made amends with Lynch and greenlit a bold proposal: 18 hours of new "Twin Peaks," written solely by Frost and Lynch with Lynch in the director's seat for the entire run.

 Kyle MacLachlan, CBS / Showtime

Let's just take a moment to put that in perspective: the first season of "True Detective" was written solely by Nic Pizzolatto and all 8 episodes were directed by Cary Fukunaga. That alone was a risky departure from "Prestige TV" models that generally involve 10 episode seasons, a stable of directors and stacked writers' rooms. Lynch hadn't made a feature in nearly a decade, Frost hadn't worked with him since the nineties and the show they wanted to revive was canceled in its second season because of a steep dip in quality. Sure, "Twin Peaks" continued to grow a healthy fanbase over the years and old TV shows get nostalgic Jimmy Fallon reunions and full-fledged revival seasons all the time now, but the comeback move is never a sure bet. Over twenty years later, a network was just going to let Frost and Lynch make nearly two seasons of big-budget television together?

The show got pushed to 2017, but fans received a salve for the extended wait in the form of Mark Frost's book "The Secret History of Twin Peaks." Conceived of and completed after the new series was written, the book is entirely Frost's baby. It's the first "Twin Peaks" media that only bears his stamp and it's a pretty significant departure from the show. Frost gives a backstory of the town that revels in alternate history fiction and conspiracy theory trappings, all presented as epistolary that purports to be a dossier found by the FBI. It's worth reading to help understand what parts of the show (new and old) come from Frost's brain, and like the "Secret Diary" before it, the book drops hints as to what happens in the series to follow it.6

"Twin Peaks: The Return" turned out to be a hell of a series. On its debut it received a tide of acclaim, some of which soured over time as the show settled into post-premiere rhythms that turned out to be worlds apart the original show. Where the old "Twin Peaks" played to procedurals and soaps, "The Return" subverts tropes that have grown out of the serialized dramas that followed the original "Twin Peaks." On top of that, "The Return" dwells on the flow of time. Several key actors from "Twin Peaks" or "Fire Walk With Me," passed away before the revival or during shooting, as did the iconic "Log Lady" Catherine Coulson. The new show is fixated on time and it draws itself out accordingly, stretching about one week across 18-hours of television.

 Dana Ashbrook, CBS / Showtime

In many ways "The Return" actively resists affirming fans' wants and expectations of a new "Twin Peaks" while offering them something different (and perhaps more intriguing) in its place. Some fans registered their disappointment in the shift. Others giddly tuned into "The Return" each week in hopes of being drawn deeper into its slow paced, meditative plot. It's the mirror image of how "Game of Thrones" fans responded to that show's recent compressed-time shenanigans. "Twin Peaks" took a long time to get back, and "The Return" wasn't about to rush through things now.

Laura Palmer's face appears in the opening credits to each part of "The Return," but she's not nearly as central to the plot as she once was. As in season 2, "The Return" retains its focus to Dale Cooper, though not as simply as anyone could have expected. Taken as a whole, it's clear "The Return" didn't set out solely to subvert everybody's expectations. Some characters follow arcs in a way that seems in-step with the old show, and others don't. Some aren't mentioned at all, implicitly fading into the distant memories of the townsfolk. 

It's the viewers who experience the absences and returns in the new series most strongly. A picture of Laura makes an old flame cry, and viewers get weepy right along with him. Dale Cooper reemerges as a warm, electrifying hero after a 25-year absence, and viewers are the ones who understand the true significance of the event. The people of Twin Peaks, 25 years later, have largely carried themselves as just that — people. What happened over two decades ago has taken on a different shape in their lives. They've largely moved on or made some kind of peace with it all.

We viewers never did see Laura Palmer as the characters in the town did, and in a sense those characters never saw Laura as viewers do with "Fire Walk With Me." In "The Return," Laura's someone who died a long time ago; a memory that has faded over time. For the people watching, our memory of Laura, Dale and everybody else is as clear as our latest rewatch. What's "weirdest" about the show isn't what the characters are doing 25 years later; it's that we're checking in on them now and drawing a straight line to 25 years ago.

Time changes people. It changes TV shows. And maybe, with time, "Twin Peaks" will change television again.

1

Hence the second tie-in novel, "The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper," written by Mark Frost's brother Scott. It sheds some light on Cooper's adolescent and from time to time the hardest-of-hardcore fan theories will reference it, but it's the least relevant of the tie-in novels. Whereas "Secret Diary" got a reprint before the new series on Showtime premiered, this one didn't.

2

This chart of the episodes by quality is pretty spot-on, though you unfortunately can't skip the rough patch and expect to understand any of what's going on.

3

One argument for skipping "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer" is that it's really, really dark. It's amazing that a tie-in book for a then-popular TV show followed through with that tone, but after "Fire Walk With Me" the importance of the book is diminished somewhat; the film itself does an outstanding job letting you into Laura's world. That said, if you want to check it out, Sheryl Lee recorded an audiobook version of "Secret Diary" in 2017 that lives up to the performance she gives as Laura on-screen.

4

It'd be an oversight on my part to not mention Frost and Lynch's even shorter-lived second TV show "On The Air," an odd-ball comedy about a 1950s television network that also featured several "Twin Peaks" actors. It's, uh, interesting.

5

For those who don't want to buy a whole box set, "The Missing Pieces" will be included alongside "Fire Walk With Me" for its upcoming Criterion Collection release.

6

A follow up, "The Final Dossier," is scheduled to come out in late October. Some suspect that this book will consist largely of bits that were cut from "Secret History" for giving away too much of the story presented in "The Return" — whatever it is, it probably won't tie up every loose end. Probably.

Mathew Olson is an Associate Editor at Digg.

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