Television fandom has several outlets in the internet age: message boards, fan fiction, home-made tribute videos, and the very website you're reading. In 1990 when there were significantly fewer outlets, one show fuelled fevered speculation, weekly parties and mass head-scratching. Twenty years later it’s still regarded as a creative peak, and the very definition of 'cult viewing.' That show is Twin Peaks and it airs (again) on the Horror Channel from November 8th.
Set in a small Washington mill town--a character in its own right--the series opens with a body being discovered on the side of a lake. The body (wrapped in plastic) belongs to 17-year old high school student Laura Palmer. The scenes where the town hears the news are still powerful. If the hairs on the back of your neck don’t stand on end when Laura’s mother howls in grief in her kitchen, you’re not human.
It soon becomes apparent that everyone in Twin Peaks is leading a double life, from affairs to more dubious activities. Peyton Place in the 1960s had exposed the grubby secrets of small town America. Twin Peaks was also essentially a soap opera, but with an edgy supernatural element alongside the murder mystery.
Helping to untangle the murky goings-on (and enable viewers to navigate the plot) was FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. Superbly played by Blue Velvet's Kyle MacLachlan, his penchant for cherry pie and constant dictations to the unseen ‘Diane’ set the show’s quirky tone. He also became an unlikely early 90s sex symbol.
Silently watching proceedings is the framed prom queen photograph of Laura Palmer. Her adored, squeaky clean image is soon shattered as her dark secret life is revealed. She lives on in the show via diary entries, video footage and even a doppelganger cousin.
Populated by oddballs, even the town’s minor characters make an impression. Lucy the squeaky receptionist, Andy the cop who cries at crime scenes, and eyepatch-wearing Nadine all add to the feeling that this is Weirdsville, USA. Yet somehow it all makes a kind of sense. (Yes, even the Log Lady). Each actor is so good and gives their role such layers that you are quickly sucked in.
While Twin Peaks is very funny, it’s also incredibly creepy and downright terrifying. The disorienting mood is set by Angelo Badalamenti’s musical score, which is mournful and haunting. The opening credits (back when shows still had them) are stunning. The look and feel of the show hasn’t really dated, as it always had a time-warp 1950s aesthetic.
One of the joys of Twin Peaks is that it doesn’t patronise the audience by explaining too much. Creators David Lynch and Mark Frost were given free rein to create their own world. But with Season Two’s ratings sliding and plots becoming ever weirder, ABC stepped in and demanded that the Who Killed Laura Palmer? mystery be resolved. Once it was, the show ran out of steam.
Twin Peaks’ legacy is still felt. It paved the way for 90s fare like Northern Exposure and The X Files. JJ Abrams' Lost learned from its mistakes, by not giving fans the answers they craved too early. It was definitely ahead of its time. If you were too young to see it twenty years ago, or just want a reminder of how groundbreaking it was, take a trip to Twin Peaks.