The Unexpected, Groundbreaking, Cult Phenomenon of ‘Twin Peaks’

by Joe Bergren 12:01 PM PDT, May 19, 2017
Playing The Unexpected, Groundbreaking, Cult Phenomenon of ‘Twin Peaks’
Diane… Special Agent Dale Cooper

What do you tell people to expect before watching Twin Peaks? It’s as complicated an answer as what to expect when you meet David Lynch. Just ask the man: “They expect, like, a person that's 5-foot-8. Who's very hairy. Who's had most of their teeth removed and who's just gotten out of the hospital,” the filmmaker said in 1990.

ET spoke with Lynch and the cast of Twin Peaks throughout the unexpected, groundbreaking series’ short-lived initial run from 1990 to 1991 on ABC. The TV phenomenon, which returns Sunday, May 21 for a third season on Showtime, showcased Lynch’s penchant for challenging our initial perceptions of everyday life and suggesting there’s always something more going on. 

MORE: Kyle MacLachlan Returns as Agent Cooper in First Look at 'Twin Peaks' Revival -- Watch!

“Then sometimes they're surprised and a lot of times they're not, because we all know that the surface is one thing and there's 99 percent to us all that we don't see right away,” Lynch explained. If there’s a perennial theme to be found throughout his body of work, it’s Lynch being fascinated with that 99 percent.

The decision of the director, who had already earned three Oscar nominations in the first decade of his career, to work in TV puzzled a lot of people in the entertainment industry. Today, we don’t think twice about the fluidity between film and TV, as many acclaimed directors and actors regularly jump between mediums. Why wouldn’t they crave the longform storytelling potential that only TV can offer? Lynch certainly did. “People can get to know characters and fall into another world, and have so many great experiences in it,” he explained. 

She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic. Pete Martell

After Blue Velvet, his fourth film following Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Dune, people had a good idea of what to expect from a “David Lynch film” -- or perhaps at least what not to expect. Along with his writing partner, Mark Frost, Lynch was now starting to get ideas about a woman’s murder in the Pacific Northwest, the region where they had both grown up. At the behest of their agent, they began thinking of TV as a way to tell an expanded story and give depth to stereotypical characters. The project ended up at ABC, a network that ultimately welcomed the duo’s vision. “We were lucky to get green lights all the way through many, many barriers at ABC. They were supporting us like crazy,” Lynch said.

“It's a story about a young woman [Laura Palmer, who] gets killed in the town and an FBI agent comes in, and so on and so forth, but it becomes a character study of all these people in the town and how idiosyncratic people are,” Sherilyn Fenn said during a visit to the set in 1989. Largely unknown at the time, Fenn went on to earn an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Audrey Horne, whose jukebox diner dancing and cherry stem knotting scenes hold two of the top spots on the list of the series’ most memorable moments.

Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn and Madchen Amick on a 1990 cover of Rolling Stone. Photo: Rolling Stone

As with most cultural phenomenons, the people involved couldn’t imagine the success that was about to follow. But everyone could acknowledge the series was unlike anything else on TV at the time.

“I knew that David was working in conjunction with Mark Frost, writing something that was unusual for television,” Kyle MacLachlan said at the time. Just like everything in the town of Twin Peaks, MacLachlan’s character, Special Agent Dale Cooper, was full of surprises. Many TV pilots will use an outsider presence to help the audience feel grounded in reality amidst their journey through a strange land. In Twin Peaks, just as we start to feel safe with Cooper, Lynch and Frost directed us toward the Black Lodge.

I knew Laura better than she thought I did. Donna Hayward

“It's a place you look at and you think you would love to live in. The people are very charming. A little quirky,” said Lara Flynn Boyle, who played Donna Hayward, Laura’s best friend. “And then the more time you spend looking at the town and being in the town, being around the people, you see that everything isn't what it looks like.”

It became clear that while the series began as a murder mystery, learning more about the characters became a fan priority. “The characters are so, so intriguing. So bizarre. Do such strange things. Unexpected things in situations that are very odd. It's just the nature of the show. The unknown factor keeps people on the edge of their seat,” said MacLachlan. Wondering about what’s in Laura’s diary is easy to put on hold as you pause to witness the magic of the late Miguel Ferrer deliver a monologue as FBI forensic pathologist Albert Rosenfield that ends with “I love you, Sheriff Truman.”

MORE: Showtime Releases New 'Twin Peaks' Teaser With Some Familiar Music

“It kind of cracks me up how much people want an answer to who killed Laura Palmer thing, because that murder was kind of the ball that got everything rolling,” Sheryl Lee said later, after the show had become a hit among fans. The actress played Laura as well as her cousin, Maddy Ferguson, in season two.

“I just keep hearing that question over and over again, and there's so much other great stuff going on,” Lee continued. She believed that while Laura’s death was the pilot’s crucial catalyst, the show’s essence lay in the many secrets and relationships that were subsequently uncovered.

Of course, that didn’t mean the show’s producers were in any hurry to reveal her murderer. “We have our number on every page of the script. If that gets out anywhere, they know it's your number. You're in trouble,” Madchen Amick (Shelly Johnson) explained. One week, the future Riverdale -- a show very much inspired by Twin Peaks -- actor received a script that contained the answer to who killed Laura, but later discovered it was a trick from the writers.

Who’s the lady with the log? Special Agent Dale Cooper

Soon after Twin Peaks began airing came the viewing parties among passionate fans offering the series’ signature coffee and donuts. Several cast members were also known to gather at Russ Tamblyn’s (Dr. Jacoby) home to catch the newest episode together. (During one viewing party ET attended, a young Amber Tamblyn, whose directorial debut comes out the same weekend as her father reprises his role, was spotted watching with the cast.) The series’ unique characters and attention to detail within episodes helped elicit a cult-like following of Rocky Horror Picture Show proportions.

“The cult figure thing -- it's not anything I did. I just did this role and it captured people's imaginations so I'm kind of there giving something that I'm not really clear what it is. Do you know? So, it's an interesting phenomenon,” said Catherine E. Coulson, our Log Lady, while Lee added that it gave viewers credit for being intelligent. “It is definitely an audience participation show.”

She continued: “I have heard theories about every character having killed her and with different motivations and reasons and all this, and all of them make sense. And whether or not they're right, at least the viewers are thinking. You know it's not the kind of show you can go, ‘OK, I want to tune out for two hours and turn it on to watch it.’”

The series also enjoyed international popularity. Japan, in particular, suffered from a huge case of Twin Peaks mania, with MacLachlan later becoming a spokesperson for a coffee company there. 

“A few years ago, the people who live here knew about the Northwest, but as far as that goes, the rest of the world didn't really care about it. And who could figure that in Spain and Italy and England and Japan and many, many other countries something like this that seems sort of homespun could be understood and appreciated so much and intensely,” Lynch said in 1992, after the show had gone off the air.

“All I keep saying is it's the mystery of the woods and it's the same kind of thing that gets a fairy tale going on. Once you start walking in the woods, your imagination starts going and you know there's something of this in the land of Twin Peaks,” he continued. 

I’ll see you again in 25 years. Laura Palmer

Close enough.

Twenty-six years after Laura spoke those words, the prophecy is being fulfilled. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a 1992 prequel film that chronicled the final week of Laura’s life, had seemingly been this story’s final chapter. But the show’s cult status never died, as Twin Peaks found new life among viewers of the streaming age. And eventually, the series was set to continue on Showtime with 18 new episodes -- impressive, considering the original series only ran for 30 episodes -- with the original cast and creatives in place.

“If they ask us to come back, I'm sure it would be a real pleasure to see our friends again,” Ray Wise (Leland Palmer) said in 1992.

A damn fine pleasure, indeed.