Before WandaVision, before Riverdale, before Stranger Things, before Mr. Robot, before True Detective, before Lost, and before The X-Files, there was David Lynch.
A buzzy director in the ‘80s who emerged with surreal films like The Elephant Man (1980) and Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch rose to prominence back when TV was seen as inferior to film. After all, unlike movies, ad breaks had to be factored into the storytelling. And in the 1990s, TV production often meant working with inferior equipment that made work in the industry unappealing to an artist like Lynch.
Indeed, he once told Rolling Stone: “It would be so absurd to have a big symphony going, and after every little movement, four different people come in and play their own jingle and sell something.” Lynch also told his agent, Tony Krantz, directly: “Tony, I don’t want to do a TV show.”
Little did Lynch know that, when he finally made a TV show, it would transform his career and revolutionize the small screen. Along with writer Mark Frost, who had three years of the police drama Hill Street Blues under his belt, Lynch created what’s arguably the most influential show in the history of the medium: Twin Peaks.
Though it ran for just two seasons during its initial run (a third season aired 17 years later on Showtime), Twin Peaks is without question responsible for changing TV into the prestigious, groundbreaking medium we know it as today. That’s not because of its boundary-pushing content (though it offered that in spades), ingenious filmmaking (had that too), or even because it made news by running afoul of any stuffy television censors. Surprisingly, in hindsight, the show never generated any kind of hysteria or controversy.
But how could it? By the time the show’s last episode rolled around, hardly anyone was watching.
Twin Peaks survives today precisely because of a word that, though overused in certain circles online, accurately describes that ineffable quality of art as channeling a specific “vibe.” Twin Peaks, not to put too fine a point on it, is in possession of a truly masterful vibe. While that doesn’t excuse any of its technical or artistic shortcomings, not to mention off-putting tonal whiplashes that swing from overly cheesy soap opera one minute to a darkly surreal psychological thriller the next, all those quirks can be read as features, not bugs, given the unmoored quality of Twin Peaks’ palpable aura.
Simply put, Twin Peaks is a cult show you need to stream on Netflix before it leaves on June 30. (Note: Only the original two seasons are streaming, and these are the ones soon leaving Netflix. The third season released in 2017 is exclusive to Showtime, while the 1992 prequel/sequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is on HBO Max.)
Though it stars a large ensemble cast, Twin Peaks is primarily led by Kyle MacLachlan, known to genre fans in younger generations for his run on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In Twin Peaks, MacLachlan plays FBI agent Dale Cooper, dispatched to investigate the murder of popular high school student Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee, also in the role of Laura’s identical cousin Maddy).
As Dale seeks Laura’s killer in and around Twin Peaks — in between being haunted by dreams where Laura drops clues as to her assailant’s identity — news of Laura’s death rocks the town, bringing to light secrets and tensions that had only ever previously simmered at the surface.
In keeping with Lynch’s fetish for the uncanny, the director stages instances of black humor, non-sequiturs, and filmmaking technique across Twin Peaks in order to generate tension and suspense. The feeling Lynch evokes in his series has made Twin Peaks a cult favorite, but it also means it would be a mistake to watch the show with modern eyes trained by countless less ambitious series to expect immediate answers and eventual closure. This isn’t a show where the central mystery (“Who killed Laura Palmer?”) actually matters.
Indeed, the reveal of Laura’s killer in Season 2 is the least satisfying thing about it. Lynch himself says this pulled the rug out from under the show during its original run. "'Who killed Laura Palmer?' was a question that we did not ever really want to answer,” Lynch told TV Guide (via Stuff NZ) in 2017. “At a certain point we were told we needed to wrap that up and it never really got going again after that."
You shouldn’t go into Twin Peaks expecting satisfaction in any traditional sense. You go into Twin Peaks hoping to be delightfully disturbed and to dwell in darkness for however long you’re there. This, surely, will aggravate some folks; I’ve had friends ask about Twin Peaks only to back out when I describe the show’s whole deal. Maybe I’m not selling it quite right. But can there ever be a “right” way to describe Twin Peaks?
Despite the show’s prominence with TV obsessives 30 years later, the show has shortcomings and even accessibility limitations. Again: It’s not a show made in the infrastructure of modern TV. The streaming era’s faith in serialized narratives and disavowal of commercial breaks might have better-suited Twin Peaks in its earlier seasons, where enthralling atmospheres were cut short to make room for Bounty paper towel ads.
While individual directors helmed different episodes, Twin Peaks was one of the first real instances of auteur television. And Lynch’s polarizing, mystifying artistry is rampant throughout the series. Where that artistry allows Twin Peaks to swim and where it causes it to sink is hard to determine (until you’re watching Catherine Martell in yellowface, that is).
In 2017, TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz also called out Twin Peaks’ dip in Season 2 as a “severe case of writer’s block” when it came to its big central murder mystery. In that same article, for Vulture, Seitz summarized Lynch’s style as hostile to the TV viewer:
“[T]he most important relationship in a movie by a true artist is not between any two characters, but between the film and its viewer. With Lynch, the relationship is complicated, to put it mildly, and there are times when his work is frustrating for what feels like no clear reason. In his expressionist or surrealist works ... you never know why he’s doing things, where it will lead, if in fact it will lead anywhere, and if he’s just messing around. He’s so opaque when he wants to be that you can’t be sure if he’s driving aimlessly or if he knows his destination and exactly how he’ll get there.”
But there’s a reason why I’m here, telling you that you should still watch Twin Peaks. If nothing else, its influence spans so far and wide that, chances are, your favorite show owes a debt to it. Whether it’s the show’s genre-bending or its setting of an idyllic town with a rotten core (WandaVision), the fact that Twin Peaks is populated by hotties (Riverdale), the oddball ways its bleak headspace comes through (Mr. Robot), how its central mystery lingers (Lost), or even just the fact it successfully fuses horror with police procedurals (True Detective, The Killing), the massive influence of Twin Peaks is such that it’s really appointment television for anyone who wants to be informed about the medium’s creative history.
But at the same time, don’t ask Twin Peaks to be educational. Just go in and see what you find.
Twin Peaks is streaming now on Netflix until June 30.