How Twin Peaks Invented Modern Television

As a long-belated Season 3 arrives, a look back at the immeasurably influential series

The sensational entrance into mass consciousness of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks, 27 years ago, was an event that defies replication. To begin with, back then there actually was a mass consciousness—or, at least, there were a lot of people watching the same shows at the same time. Norm said something funny on Cheers and a single, vast chuckle rumbled westward across the continent and sank hissing into the Pacific. No Netflix in 1990. No personalized viewing recommendations. Just the perennially white-hot maw of the popular imagination, into which—luscious and secretive as a fog bank—rolled Twin Peaks, with its unprecedented stew of occultism, irony, horror, deadpan, soap opera, canned narrative, dream logic, burningly beautiful young people, and postmodern diddling-about. The show’s pilot had the feel of an initiation, as if some species of hermetic lore was now being diffused outward, gamma-saturating the frontal lobes of the public. “She’s de-ad,” said Jack Nance, as sawmill worker Pete Martell, into the telephone. He was pop-eyed and panic-warped, getting as much spooked-rustic torque onto the vowel sounds as he could manage. “Wra-apped in pla-astic.”

Who was dead? Who had been wrapped in plastic? Why, Laura Palmer, of course. Alpha girl, virtue’s orb, homecoming queen, apple of the community’s eye—the community in question being the logging town of Twin Peaks, population 51,201, high in the misty Northwest. Laura Palmer, washed up at the river’s edge in her shroud of industrial sheeting, looked strangely transmuted: Her face was metallic silver-blue, composed in an expression of vestal serenity, and her beyond-this-world brow was flecked with glittering river minerals. In the background thrummed the queasy, slo-mo gush of those Angelo Badalamenti chords. And as the somber doctor and the handsome sheriff and the sheriff’s improbably tall deputy gathered around her body, the deputy buckled and began to weep. “My God, Andy,” muttered the sheriff. “Is this gonna happen every damn time?”

And now—the intervening quarter century having been, apparently, a mere blip, a quick writhe of Lynchian static across the screen—Twin Peaks is back for a belated Season 3 on Showtime, featuring many of the original cast members and helmed once again by writer-director Lynch and writer Frost. It’s vulgar to query the creative impulse behind this resurrection, but somewhere in there, surely, is the sense that they kind of blew it the first time around. Twin Peaks dominated 1990, must-see TV for a global viewership that included, apocryphally, Queen Elizabeth II. And then it fell to pieces in 1991, superseded as spectacle by the Gulf War and done in artistically by its own internal entropy, by the loopy plotlines, tonal wobbles, bad ideas, and out-of-control conceits that we now recognize as the symptoms of a long-form TV series entering its decadent phase. That the organic breakdown occurred in Season 2—rather than in Season 4 or 5, as it might nowadays—only highlights the volatility and then-novelty of the constituent elements.

Because let’s be clear: Without Twin Peaks, and its big-bang expansion of the possibilities of television, half your favorite shows wouldn’t exist. The absorptive, all-in serial, sonically and visually entire, novelistically cantilevered with deep structure and extending backwards into the viewer’s brain, was simply not a thing before Lynch and Frost. With Twin Peaks they effectively renegotiated TV’s contract with its audience. You didn’t tune in to this show the same way that you tuned in to L.A. Law or Murder, She Wrote. You tuned in psychedelically, as it were, ready to be transported. You were in, or you were out: a binary decision. The story arcs, the curves of character development, were long, longer than the show itself, receding into mystery. If you missed an episode, you were disoriented. If you watched every episode carefully, you might still be disoriented. Remarkably, this has become something like the norm.

Thus the drama of Twin Peaks unfolded on two planes: what was happening in the show—who killed Laura Palmer?, etc.—and then, more subliminally, what the show was doing to the medium, to television. And on both planes it was the same story, a reckless privileging of the irrational and the nocturnal, and a push to see how much of it we could take. Watch the pilot again and marvel as Lynch, the master, the nutcase, so loads each frame with preconscious material—tinnital background river-roar, ghostly whooping of a ceiling fan, crawl of the camera around a room—that a genuine transdimensional pressure is felt, as of something sinister and unaccommodated trying to get in. A new kind of tension: diffracted, half-real.

FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, arrives in Twin Peaks with his gusto, his heart-healthiness, his extraterrestrial relish for the 10,000 things of the sensory world: “Man, smell those trees. Smell those Douglas firs!” He works procedurally and trench-coatedly, his jawline nobly shining, but he also believes that the solution to the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death has been delivered to him in a dream—a dream featuring a little rolling-jointed man in a red suit, talking in slithery half-words, with subtitles—if he can only interpret the dream correctly.

Stylistically, the most immediate posthumous effect of all this might have been the gnostic, everything-signifies vibe of The X-Files, but there are glimmering splinters of Twin Peaks in Breaking Bad’s trippy desert-sizzle; in the irruptive, disabling dreamtime of Bran Stark on Game of Thrones; and in the absurdist plot spirals, the gizmos and MacGuffins, of Lost. The Sopranos paid homage with Agent Cooper–esque fugue states and shots of trees blowing in the wind, rippling in their fullness and strangeness. And how is it finally communicated to Tony Soprano, after years of repressed suspicion, that Big Pussy—one of his most trusted sidekicks—is ratting him out to the FBI? By a talking fish, in a delirium, after some bad chicken vindaloo. It doesn’t get more Twin Peaks than that.

Then there was the garmonbozia. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the much-scorned theatrical-release prequel that Lynch made after the end of the series, the little red-suited man pops up again and slurs out something that gets subtitled as I want all my … garmonbozia (pain and sorrow). Moments later, we see him in horrible close-up, nibbling on a spoonful of something that looks like creamed corn. Deep as we are in Lynchian wackiness here, the meaning is not obscure: The little red-suited man and his fellow denizens of the dream realm have a taste for human suffering, which they call garmonbozia and consume in the form of a viscous, pearlescent psychic distillate.

Twin Peaks, as a narrative, had a core of almost blackout darkness. Who killed Laura Palmer? Her father, Leland, played by Ray Wise, with his huge and buggily handsome/disturbing Klaus Kinski face. Leland had been molesting his daughter for years, and she, in her brokenness, had crossed over to the druggy, sex-work side of Twin Peaks, sucked into the town’s undertow of exploitation. This was the spine of the plot. For all its whimsy, Twin Peaks was piled high with garmonbozia. Viewers, in fact, had never before experienced such (pain and sorrow) on the small screen, and this too was part of the show’s breakthrough—to blow open, in a subterranean way, the emotional range of TV drama. Dollops of garmonbozia have since become standard.

What can, or should, we expect from Season 3? To calmly anticipate another ream of seamless prestige television, of the sort that is now ubiquitous, feels like an insult to the raw wizardry of David Lynch. We will watch it, at any rate, not anchored to time and the boxy television set, but weightlessly adrift in our personal viewing cells. It might be great. It might be a disaster. But it won’t blow our minds. It can’t, because that already happened.