In today's exercise in nostalgia, I point out that twenty years ago today, David Lynch's trippy TV series, Twin Peaks, debuted. It was unlike anything seen on television before, and for a while it gripped a certain segment of the population, including me.
I distinctly remember watching the introductory pilot film (as I remember, it was a Sunday night) and calling my friend to talk about it. She had also seen it and we were amazed. Perhaps only David Lynch could direct something that included a scene of a traffic light going through its cycle that seemed as exciting as an entire episode of The A-Team.
For those who are too young to remember, Twin Peaks was a murder mystery. A high-school girl, Laura Palmer, is found dead on a river bank, wrapped in plastic. FBI agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle McLachlan) investigates, with distinctly bizarre methods. The town, snuggled in the Cascades, is populated by a great compliment of oddballs, such as a woman known only the Log Lady. The town's sheriff is a pillar of normalcy, but of course is named Harry Truman.
Lynch and his co-creator, Mark Frost, guided the show as if it were a hallucination, with Cooper having some strange dreams, the most memorable one involving a red room and a dancing dwarf talking backwards (in the interest of equal time, there was also one involving a giant who tells Cooper, "The owls are not what they seem.") In an homage to The Fugitive, Cooper began seeing images of a one-armed man, called Killer Bob, and watching the show gave one a thrilling but uneasy sense of dread. The show's success owed a lot to the music score by Angelo Badalamenti. Even today I can easily recall the eerie theme, and the finger-snapping jazz of the incidental music.
And the cast! In a presage of Tarantino-esque career resurrection, Twin Peaks dusted off quite a few vaguely familiar faces and repositioned them for public scrutiny. Peggy Lipton, Jack Nance (from Lynch's Eraserhead), Joan Chen, Piper Laurie, and not one but two forgotten members of the West Side Story cast--Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn. We also saw David Bowie, Chris Isaak, and young Keifer Sutherland and David Duchovny (as a cross-dressing FBI agent). Another plus was the awesome array of female pulchritude, highlighted by the trio on this Rolling Stone cover: Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, and Madchen Amick, but that's not to forget Sheryl Lee, as Laura Palmer and her look-alike cousin, and in the second season, Heather Graham. Just a few weeks ago I was pleased to see Kimmy Robertson, who played the sheriff's secretary, show up in a Burger King commercial.
In those days before the Internet, Twin Peaks was true water-cooler TV, engaging the country without message boards and instant recaps. I can only imagine how it would be handled today--the most accurate comparison would be Lost, which has endless discussions on a full variety of Web sites (and I can't get enough of them). The difference between Twin Peaks and Lost is that the former clearly did not have an end in sight, and toward the end of the second and last season it was apparent that the creative team was just noodling, and the odd and quirky existed only to be odd and quirky, not contributing to a particular end. When Laura's killer was finally revealed, a nation yawned. When Billy Zane joined the cast, I think that was a sign that the magic was over. The feature film it spawned, Twin Peaks: Fire, Walk With Me, was dreadful.
Over the years other shows have tried to match Twin Peaks' mixture of serial and weird menace--a short-lived show called Push, Nevada comes to mind--but I don't think its bracing originality will ever be matched.