A wise giant. A dancing dwarf. A red curtain. Sounds like a fairy tale, and in some ways it is, but it’s certainly a warped, offbeat one. I’m referring to Twin Peaks, the short-lived primetime drama that aired on ABC from April 1990 to June 1991. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 18 years since we last saw Agent Cooper, Audrey Horne, and the rest of the gang inhabiting this small Washington town.
I’ve spent the past few weeks rewatching the entire series (30 episodes from two seasons). I had rewatched season one about seven years ago, but hadn’t seen season two since I was 13 years old. It was interesting to watch the series from beginning to end in a short span of time, and as an adult. There are certain aspects of the show that entertained me more as a teenager (such as the Andy/Lucy plot), and others that I appreciate and understand more now (such as the grief everyone experienced over Laura’s murder). One thing that remains the same is that the scenes that disturbed me as a 12/13 year old are still disturbing now. I can’t think of any other show that can go from comical to downright freaky so fast.
For those of you who are familiar with Twin Peaks, I hope that reading this post brings back some good memories. For those of you who have never experienced the show’s oddities and intrigue, I hope that this assessment of the show will pique your interest. I will make every effort to be spoiler free.
- The Pilot Episode – This introductory episode to the series made my list of All-Time Favorite Television Pilots. Everything about it was perfect, from the music, to the discovery of Laura’s body, to the townspeople’s reactions. As a teenager, I didn’t really understand all the fuss over this girl, but now that I am a parent, I found Laura’s parents’ reactions to her death heart-wrenching. And once I was in that emotional state, I was more deeply affected by other characters’ reactions, including Laura’s best friends Donna and James, the town doctor, and the kooky psychiatrist. The introduction of Agent Dale Cooper was also a refreshing change of pace from TV’s typical FBI agent. Instead of an arrogant, bullying fed, he was a kind, cheerful man who was in tune with things that most people were not.
- The Music – I loved the music on this show, including the theme song, which is on my list of Best Television Show Theme Songs. I love that each character had his/her own theme song, and how the instrumental music was constantly setting the mood (more so than other shows, in my opinion), whether the scene was quirky or ominous. Take for example a scene where we are looking up at a rotating ceiling fan from the first floor. Under normal circumstances, this would be nothing to be concerned about. But somehow, this image, combined with the sound of a skipping record player and some creepy music, sets up one of the most disturbing scenes in the entire series. The soundtracks to season one and season two are available at Amazon, so you can go there to sample the music and get a feel for the mysterious and dream-like mood that it sets.
- The Main Characters
- Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) – MacLachlan is an unusual looking guy, with his robotic demeanor and slicked back black hair (at least it was back then), so he was well cast as this quirky, zealous FBI agent who stumbles upon – in his opinion – a wonderful little town, delightful people, and some delicious cherry pie. He comes to town to investigate the murder of Laura Palmer, since there are some similarites to another murder he had investigated. Over the course of his investigation, he makes many friends, and is “visited” by some visions containing clues to the mysteries surrounding Laura’s murder.
- Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) – Sheriff Truman just may be the most normal person in Twin Peaks. He doesn’t mind going outside the law to get things done with his Bookhouse Boys, but he also stands up for what he thinks is right. He’s also in a relationship with Josie, but other than his relationship with her, he always seems to be on the job.
- Shelly Johnson and Bobby Briggs (Madchen Amick and Dana Ashbrook) – Shelly is a waitress at Norma’s cafe, and Bobby is a perpetually absent high school student. They are either very brave or very stupid, since they are seeing each other behind the back of Shelly’s violent, brutish, truck driver husband Leo. Shelly is one of the more likable characters on the show, but you have to wonder why she’s involved with a jerk like Bobby. Their plotline is one of the scarier ones on the show, next to the murder investigation.
- Donna Hayward and James Hurley (Lara Flynn Boyle and James Marshall) – Before her lips were scary and she was on The Practice, Lara Flynn Boyle was on this show. Donna was Laura’s best friend, and James is a loner who spends more time riding his motorcycle than hanging out with the other kids from school, but after Laura’s murder, he and Donna become close and begin conducting their own investigation into the murder. Their relationship is very angsty and complicated, but I like them as a couple.
- Norma Jennings and Big Ed Hurley (Peggy Lipton and Everitt McGill) – Norma comes across as very normal. She’s a former Miss Twin Peaks who owns the town diner, where she serves excellent coffee and pie, among other things. She and Big Ed, who owns a gas station in town, have been in love for years, but circumstances have prevented them from actually being together. Norma’s no-good husband, Hank, is in prison on the verge of parole, and Ed’s wife, Nadine, is, to put it nicely, mentally ill. Norma and Ed act as parental figures to the younger characters on the show, and are often approached for advice or a shoulder to cry on.
- Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer) – He is the richest man in town, and arguably the most morally reprehensible. In the world of soaps, he is the show’s villain, when it comes to business practices and relationships. He’s willing to do what it takes to get his way, and has little concern for anyone other than himself.
- Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) – Audrey is Ben Horne’s daughter. She wears bowling shoes and plaid skirts, and dances around her daddy’s hotel lobby acting all cute and innocent. But when no one’s looking, she sneaks into a secret passageway and spies on her father, listening in on his supposedly private conversations in his office. This curiosity is what gets Audrey involved with Laura’s murder investigation and some other complications. She is a hopeless romantic, and falls awkwardly in love with Agent Cooper, who, being the gentleman he is, gently rejects her advances since she is only a teenager. Audrey is quite an entertaining character, perhaps one of my favorites on the show.
- Catherine and Pete Martell (Piper Laurie and Jack Nance) – On the surface, this husband and wife pair seems more suited for a conventional primetime soap. They got married years ago after wealthy Catherine fell in love momentarily with Pete, a workman for her father. Their love has long since cooled off, and so now Catherine is involved in affairs and questionable business practices while seemingly simpleminded Pete is content to go fishing and make coffee for visitors.
- Jocelyn Packard (Joan Chen) – Josie is a mysterious Asian woman who is the widow of Catherine’s brother, and so she owns the Packard family lumber mill that Catherine believes should be hers. Josie also is involved with Sheriff Truman. It is difficult to figure out Josie. Is she a sweet, innocent, misunderstood woman, or something more devious?
- Deputy Andy Brennan and Lucy Moran (Harry Goaz and Kimmy Robertson) – I mentioned that these two were some of my favorite characters when I was younger, and that’s because they provided the comic relief that balanced out all the dark and disturbing stuff. Andy and Lucy are both complete ditzes, and both work for the police department. Their relationship hits a snag when Lucy finds out she is pregnant, and much hilarity ensues.
- Leland and Sarah Palmer (Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie) – Both of these actors are recognizable from other roles – Wise most recently as the Devil on the CW show Reaper, and Zabriskie as Susan Ross’s mother on Seinfeld and as Lois Henrickson on Big Love. Over the course of season one, viewers witness their different ways of dealing with the loss of their only daughter. Leland turns to big band music and dancing to mask his pain, while Sarah spends a lot of time crying, crawling across the floor, and seeing visions of horses and strange men. Theirs is an interesting psychological character study.
- The Strange and Unusual Supporting Characters
- The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) – The Log Lady is a woman who not only carries around a log at all times, but pets it and converses with it. No one else can hear what the log says, but she occasionally shows up at the police station or cafe to relay a message from the log to Agent Cooper.
- The Giant (Carel Struycken) – One of the early signs that this was no ordinary show was when this giant appeared to Agent Cooper in a dream and delivered some cryptic clues about Cooper’s investigation. I’ll never forget the episode in which the giant appeared to Cooper and repeatedly said “It is happening again.” So bizarre.
- The Dwarf (Michael J. Anderson) – Also known as “The Man from Another Place,” this dwarf in a suit appeared a handful of times on the show, mostly in Cooper’s dreams. He dances around and speaks in a strange voice.
- The One-Armed Man (Al Strobel) – Originally he was only supposed to appear once, wandering through the Twin Peaks hospital, just as an homage to The Fugitive, but David Lynch liked the character enough to write a more integral role for him.
- Nadine (Wendy Robie) – As I mentioned earlier, Nadine is Ed’s wife. She wears an eye patch, is feverishly working on her latest invention – silent drape runners, and possesses super strength. A lot of people complained that she was just too ridiculous, but I appreciated the comic relief her character provided.
- Dennis/Denise (David Duchovny) – Yes, before Agent Mulder came to be, David Duchovny portrayed a cross dressing DEA agent on Twin Peaks. The role didn’t last very long, but I thought it was worth mentioning here.
- Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) – Dr. Jacoby, the town psychiatrist, has an affinity for all things Hawaiian, and he wears eye glasses with different color lenses. He was Laura’s psychiatrist, and so he plays a role in the murder investigation. A couple of interesting tidbits about Russ Tamblyn – he played Riff in West Side Story (1961) and is Amber Tamblyn’s (Joan of Arcadia) father.
- Bob (Frank Silva) – Long silver hair, a jean jacket, and a maniacal laugh are three things that make him a memorable character.
- The Plots
- The central plot of much of the series was the now well known question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Several episodes into season two, this question was answered, and so the initial premise of the show was resolved. David Lynch actually never intended to reveal Laura’s killer, but had to change his plan due to network pressure. The show went downhill after giving viewers the answers, but I am glad that we found out the answer to the question.
The Log Lady occasionally provided cryptic clues related to Laura's murder.
- Another major plot centered on a business rivalry involving a planned housing development and a lumber mill. This was less interesting to me, but at least it made more sense now that I’m old enough to understand what was going on.
- And in the tradition of more conventional primetime soaps, there were plenty of love triangles and betrayals. When I was 12, I didn’t notice that just about everyone except Agent Cooper was caught in the middle of some sort of romantic entanglement. For example, cafe owner Norma juggled her recently paroled, homicidal husband, and her high school sweetheart Ed – a situation that was further complicated by the fact that Ed’s wife Nadine was bonkers.
- But it wasn’t just the main plots that drew me to Twin Peaks – the show’s tone and atmosphere are what really made it special. The jazzy music, the bizarre characters, the wind blowing through the trees ominously, an owl hooting outside while a lounge singer serenades the crowd at the Roadhouse. All of these things are what made the show absolutely mesmerizing and fascinating.
- Overall assessment – I highly recommend all of season one, through about episode nine of season two. After that, the show became more uneven and absurdist, but is still entertaining. So if I haven’t convinced you to watch it yet, here are a few more reasons:
- Unique characters – None of the show’s characters are stereotypical, and there’s more to almost all of them than meets the eye. If you like interesting characters, look no further than Twin Peaks.
- Early 90s culture – The clothes, the hair, the technology, all represent the early 90s time period during which the show was made. I love watching stuff from my formative years and being reminded of how things were then.
- Laughs, chills, and thrills – There’s a nice mix of humor and horror. By horror, I mean disturbing storylines and images, but nothing gory. David Lynch certainly knew how to make an audience chuckle and then shiver, and it’s this strange balancing act that makes the show unsettling.
- Good conversation piece – Once you’ve experienced the strangeness of Twin Peaks, you will want to talk about it with other people who have watched, and they will be happy to do so. There are a lot of interesting questions and points to discuss.
If you’re new to the show, I’ll leave you with this clip that gives you an idea of its weirdness. If you’ve seen the series in its entirety, keep reading afterwards for my thoughts on how the series ended.
You are now entering a spoiler zone. I will discuss some details of the series finale, so if you don’t want to know, don’t read on!
- The one disappointing aspect of the show is the way it left viewers hanging after the finale. David Lynch opted for an open-ended finale, in case the show got a last minute renewal. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and so some of our favorite characters were left in the most unfortunate of circumstances. Some of these situation would have been resolved in season three, but now we’ll never know. And some of the plots felt hastily thrown together and not in keeping with the show’s previous tone. Here’s how things ended (spoilers abound ahead – read on at your own risk!)
- It was revealed that Ben Horne is actually Donna’s father, not Dr. Hayward, who raised her with her mother. In a fit of rage, Dr. Hayward, who up until that point had always been very level headed and calm, hit Ben over the head with a fire poker, leaving Ben unconscious and bleeding on the family hearth.
- In attempt to draw some negative publicity toward her father’s business rivals, Audrey chained herself to a bank vault. Unfortunately, shortly afterward Pete Martell and his brother-in-law arrived to open a safety deposit box, the contents of which they had been dying to discover. Too bad for everyone who was in the bank that the box contained a bomb, which exploded just after they opened it. Presumably, this killed Audrey, Pete, and others in the bank. I like to think that they miraculously survived, in the tradition of soaps everywhere.
- Josie supposedly died of fear at the same time that Agent Cooper was having a vision of Bob asking him, “What happened to Josie?” Our last image of Josie is her being trapped in the knob of a drawer in her hotel room. Say what? I hope they were going to resolve that in season three.
- Agent Cooper entered the Black Lodge, had all kinds of strange encounters, but somehow managed to get back to reality with his new love, Norma’s sister Annie (played by a young, pudgier Heather Graham). Unfortunately, he came back possessed by Bob, and the series ended with Cooper bashing his head against a bathroom mirror and otherwise acting like a lunatic, while Sheriff Truman stood cluelessly on the other side of the door. After all that Cooper went through, it was just awful to see the show end with him being overcome by the evil that he was fighting against. Oh well. Overall, the show was still one of my all-time favorites.