When good TV goes bad: how Twin Peaks fell into a trough

Once upon a time, in 1990, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was watercooler-viewing epitomised. People couldn’t shut up about it. Twin Peaks was revolutionary. It dropped into mainstream primetime in the guise of a murder mystery – who killed small-town teen queen Laura Palmer? – but it was a surreal soap opera with cheeky touches from a multiplicity of genres.

The first season of eight episodes, including the feature-length pilot directed by Lynch, was a cultural phenomenon. Then it all went wrong in the second season, which haemorrhaged viewers while lurching through 22 increasingly bonkers episodes towards its cancellation on a fiendish cliffhanger. But its status as the cultiest of cult TV was ensured, as was its profound influence on much television that followed.

Set in a fictional logging town, the show began with the discovery of the corpse of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Local sheriff Harry S Truman (Michael Ontkean) welcomes to the investigation dynamo FBI special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), an instantly iconic character with an enthusiasm for “strong black joe” and cherry pie, and receptive to cryptic clues, dreams and visions in his hunt for a serial killer. The first season ended with two principals trapped in a fire, Sherilyn Fenn’s sleuthing Audrey Horne captive in a brothel, and Agent Cooper shot by an unknown assassin.

At this point, tensions arose. Lynch – who had wanted to leave the murder unresolved – and co-creator Mark Frost were pressed to solve the case and move on. The seventh episode of the second season was arguably the show’s zenith, Lynch himself returning to direct the revelatory instalment in which Laura’s lookalike cousin (also Sheryl Lee) is slain by the unfortunate soul possessed by Bob, an evil spirit from another dimension. Or something.

Although the ninth episode included a remarkably moving denouement, cracks had begun to appear with the introduction of unappealing new characters and tedious subplots. No sooner had it concluded with Harry musing “Where’s Bob now?” than the plot spiralled off into chaos; hurried new love interests, mysterious deaths, Cooper’s suspension from the FBI (which conveniently kept him in town), and the menace of his stalker, a hitherto unmentioned nemesis and former partner who taunted him with chess problems.

None of this nonsense led anywhere or had the emotional resonance of peak Peaks, and Lynch later lamented they had “killed the goose that laid the golden eggs”. But worse was to come. The 14th episode focused on the breakdown of Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer); the richest, most devious man in town and one-time prime suspect in Laura’s murder. Horne suddenly, inexplicably decides he’s a Confederate general and has his family re-enacting the Civil War in an absolute nadir of Gone With the Wind frockage and tiresome absurdity.

Horne eventually came around, but the series never did. Lynch directed the final episode, a last throw of the dice in which Cooper entered the hellish Black Lodge for a nightmare out of time and space and came out a different man. Anyone desperate for the current season to tie up the loose ends we were left with in 1991 is doomed to an eternity of bafflement.

Comments are closed.