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A place both wonderful and strange

A ‘Twin Peaks’ primer ahead of its May 21 revival

“Who killed Laura Palmer?” was the great preoccupation of 1990. 

Fans would meet at classic diners for “damn good” pie and coffee and to communally imbibe the latest adventure of the brilliant FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper and his Watson-esque sidekick, Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), with an enthusiasm befitting diehard geeks immemorial.

My interest in director David Lynch then resided in his bizarre films. During the initial run of “Twin Peaks,” I inundated myself with “Eraserhead,” “Wild at Heart,” “Blue Velvet,” and his maligned “Dune” adaptation, the former two starring Lynch’s Boy Scout avatar and future special agent, Kyle MacLachlan.

I didn’t enter the town of Twin Peaks (pop. 51,201) until the prequel film, 1992’s “Fire Walk with Me,” which arrived after the series was cancelled after 30 episodes. Seeing the movie first was a confounding introduction to the supernatural mythology surrounding the town, and the identity of who killed Laura Palmer—who everyone (but me) by then knew was her father, Leland (Ray Wise), possessed by the spirit of a demon named Bob (Frank Silva).

“Fire Walk with Me” is a dark mirror to the original series, a stylistic orgy of Lynch’s weirdest, sometimes basest, instincts—and apparently it’s integral to the new series. Showtime, where “Twin Peaks” will air, doesn’t impose content restrictions, a likely indication that the new episodes, which Lynch shot as a 19-hour long movie, will feel more like the unsettling, often graphic “Fire,” than the amiably weird show that captured the collective zeitgeist, spinning it into cult classic immortality.

At the time, “Twin Peaks” was being referenced on “The Simpsons,” Agent Cooper was appearing on “SNL,” as well as shilling Georgia coffee in Japanese commercials. Angelo Badalamenti’s sumptuous jazz-infused score inspired many bands, among them Xiu Xiu’s experimental Plays the Music of Twin Peaks and Fantomas’s cover of the title song from their amazing thrash deconstruction Director’s Cut, which notably captured and re-invented their groundbreaking influence. Uber-writer David Foster Wallace became enamored enough to academically, and pop-culturally, define the term “Lynchian.”

It also inspired dozens of television imitators. “Lost” gets namechecked a lot. But from early atmospheric homages like “Northern Exposure” (originally “Twin Peaks” was called “Northwest Passage”) and “Veronica Mars,” to more recent and direct recreations like “The Killing” or “Wayward Pines,” the culture-shifting shadow of Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost remains long.

That’s ironic for a show that was, at heart, an homage to past icons of film and television. The One-Armed Man (Al Strobel) is an obvious nod to “The Fugitive.” Laura Palmer and her identical cousin Maddy (Sheryl Lee x 2) are Kim Novak’s doppelganger blonde and brunette from “Vertigo.” When I finally watched the syndicated “Twin Peaks” on Bravo in the mid-‘90s (with friends coming over each week, stacking donuts by type, drinking coffee—all that shit), the added Log Lady (Catherine Coulson) introductions became a riddle-me-this parody of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.”

A murder mystery, a soap opera (mirrored by another, literal soap opera within it), a “Newhart”-inspired rural comedy, and a supernatural buddy cop show—“Twin Peaks” became a narrative effortlessly complex and unexpected. 

The identity of the murderer was meant to be a MacGuffin, investing you in its often banal background players and revealing the rot beneath the veneer of their (often not) normal, small-town lives. A tantalizing warren of rabbit holes leading to a darker threat that looms over them all. Lynch knew that as soon as the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer was resolved, the show would be over.

In effect, it was. The final ten episodes suffer from Lynch walking away. The plotting devolved into a slapstick shadow of the characters’ former selves while the new nemesis, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), kept the story spinning its wheels until Lynch returned to put the show out of its misery with a stunning, if frustrating, cliff hanger finale that left our stalwart Cooper possessed by Bob and trapped for 25 years in the Black Lodge netherworld of Lynch’s imagination.

And now it’s 25 years later. The new “Twin Peaks,” which starts May 21, is Lynch’s swan song. It’s hard to know what to expect. Old fan favorites rarely make for good encores (hello: “The X-Files”). And like most great artists, Lynch’s and Frost’s defining works reside in their past. 

But that doesn't mean they can't come back with style. 

For more from Joe, read his interview with filmmaker Mark Borchardt.