There have been plenty of television shows, but only a select few that have actually changed the medium. On April 8, 1990, 30 years ago today, Twin Peaks debuted as a two-hour pilot on ABC and immediately shocked critics and its own network by attracting 33 percent of the entire viewing audience. But more importantly, it opened the door for the next evolution of television storytelling, successfully embracing the experimental, the cinematic, and the surreal in a way that forged a path to the kind of storytelling we embrace, expect, and demand in our current age of Peak TV.
In a pre-COVID-19 world, the "Twin Peaks 30: Official Fan Celebration" was supposed to happen from April 3-5 at Graceland in Tennessee, but has since been postponed to this fall (Oct. 30-Nov. 1). Actors and creatives from the series like Dana Ashbrook (Bobby), Michael Horse (Deputy Hawk), Sherilyn Fenn (Audrey), Ray Wise (Leland), and many others plan to attend, but for the actual Twin Peaks anniversary date, SYFY WIRE talked with Ashbrook, Horse, and Season 1 writer and Season 2 producer Harley Peyton about their perspectives on the show’s impact.
The soapy and surreal brainchild of avant-garde director David Lynch (Eraserhead) and TV writer Mark Frost (Hill Street Blue), Twin Peaks’ central mystery of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” rocketed into the zeitgeist as the watercooler topic of that time. But beyond the hype, the series’ cinematic style, Pacific Northwest setting, and overall moody melancholy (perfectly captured in composer Angelo Badalamenti’s score) clearly distinguished Twin Peaks as something outside of the typical TV fare. The series was the distillation of Lynch’s canted, and often violent, appraisal of the world, anchored by Frost’s exceptional ability to weave that into structure and narrative.
Their co-mingled strengths were then perfectly supported by a cast led by Kyle MacLachlan’s charmingly odd FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper and a town full of weirdos played by an eclectic ensemble filled with the well-known actors, including Peggy Lipton and Wise, and then plenty of unknowns, who would very much become known, such as Ashbrook, Sheryl Lee, Fenn, and Horse.
While Twin Peaks’ initial lifespan only lasted two seasons and 30 episodes, its impact has been inordinately vast in its three decades of existence. It’s not hyperbole to say that some of this era's greatest TV creators and scribes point directly to Twin Peaks as the show that cracked open their comprehension of what could be done in the medium.
“David Chase (The Sopranos) refers to Twin Peaks a lot in how it influenced him,” Dana Ashbrook offers. “And [that goes for] so many shows that I loved, like Lost. [Damon] Lindelof is a huge Twin Peaks guy. Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) was a huge Twin Peaks guy.”
A long-time friend and artist peer of Lynch’s before acting in Twin Peaks, Horse says despite knowing the show was special as they were making it, he never would have guessed its continuing influence. “I mean, everything on television that's any good has Twin Peaks’ DNA all over it. And they don't even pretend that they're not,” the actor says with pride. “Legion gives nods to David. And when we were filming [Season 3] down in LA, people would come by, directors and writers, and go, ‘Look, we don't want to disturb [Lynch]. We just want to shake his hand.’”
For writer/producer Harley Peyton, Twin Peaks was his first full-time TV writing gig. Since then, he’s been a part of the writers’ rooms for shows like Reign, Dracula, Channel Zero, Project Blue Book, and the upcoming Chucky series. He’s seen plenty of shows come and go over his career, but knows that Twin Peaks remains lightning in a bottle.
“Twin Peaks just exploded,” Peyton explains. “It was so crazy, and you knew right away that you were involved in something really, really special. And I do think it's one of the most important shows in the history of the medium, and it continues.”
“It’s like a lot of people say that nobody bought the Velvet Underground records, but they started a thousand bands,” Peyton says, noting the band’s influence in the music realm. “I think there was that thing about Twin Peaks [too]. Over time, you’d hear things about people like Joss Whedon saying if they could've worked on two shows it would be The Simpsons or Twin Peaks, so you understand the importance [of it] to those people. All those young people who were watching, and later you end up with Damon Lindelof doing Watchmen. I think that they were inspired by seeing something that seemed to have been televised from a different planet. There was just nothing on the air like it.”
To this day, Peyton admits he’s particularly pleased when contemporary shows and creators embrace what feels like the Twin Peaks spirit in their DNA. “Down the years, seeing the ripple effect, even in something like Devs, which I'm watching and loving on Hulu, it’s understanding that that's part of that Twin Peaks lineage," he says. "And I see it all over the place. In the compositions in Wes Anderson movies and the way he deals with character, particularly the Bill Murray stuff. It just feels like there's this very nice continuum from Twin Peaks forward, and that's one of the nicest things about being involved in it.”
Ashbrook concurs that the look of the series was a pivot point for everything that came after. “I always go back to the comparison of what was on television at the time that Twin Peaks came out,” he explains. “If you compared the way that [TV] looked, just cinematically, the other shows were just flat. Every corner of every room was lit, and everybody was lit with movie star lighting. David and Mark showed that you [could] make a movie every week and have high-quality lighting and music and all this incredible stuff that David brought to it from the film world.”
Peyton also adds the context of timing being a huge factor in Twin Peaks igniting so much interest 30 years ago. “It was such a fluke, and the odds of that happening the next year were zero,” he says of the climate at the time. “In other words, I'm still amazed. And ABC deserves a ton of credit. First of all, they were in third place [in broadcast ratings], so I guess they had nothing to lose. No one gave us notes. The network basically just said, ‘Okay, good luck.’ Everyone had the freedom they wanted to do the things they could do.
“And to think, in the three-network universe, this insane show was suddenly on the air and everybody’s talking about, ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’...I mean, it's just amazing to me,” he continues. “But the fact of the matter is that it was so different that you had a feeling that it was gonna change everything, or change nothing. And in a funny way, it did both.”
To explain, Peyton cites the show’s 14 Emmy nominations for its first season. He remembers attending the ceremony with Frost and feeling that Twin Peaks was ahead of its time — and not understood by a lot of their peers.
“I don't think there's ever been anything like it. I mean, it was just this explosion that sort of blew up the TV business, but then again not at all because thirtysomething was still gonna win the Emmy,” he says with a good-natured laugh. “So, in that sense, those things didn't change.” (Twin Peaks only won in two of its categories that year: Outstanding Costume Design for a Series and Outstanding Editing for a Series – Single Camera Production.)
Three decades later, critical assessment has certainly caught up to what many knew all along, as the show’s fandom has never waned. So much so that it bred a film prequel in Fire Walk with Me (1992) and the ultimate miracle of a third season 26 years after the Season 2 finale, which reunited Lynch and Frost for 18 new episodes (aired on Showtime) that continued their mythology with the original cast as well as brand new actors.
“People asked me for years, ‘Is it gonna come back?’ And I actually never thought it would come back,” Horse says candidly.
“And part of me said it shouldn’t. Part of me [thought] the mystique [would] had died. I thought it had this James Dean/Elvis quality; they all died in their prime," he adds, chuckling.
But it did, and Horse, along with almost the entire original cast, returned to much acclaim. “It was just such an honor,” the actor says now of the opportunity. “People talk about, ‘Is David a genius?’ I don't know about genius, but is David an artist? Oh, yeah. Everybody likes to make money, but that's not why David does it.”
As to whether most stories are yet to be told in the Twin Peaks universe, they’re all unanimous in not knowing. “I used to always just say never, never, never,” Ashbrook says. “And then, it came back. So I have no idea. I think if it did come back it would have to be in some sort of smaller capacity. I don't know if anyone has 18 episodes in them anymore. But I hope. I would love to come back. Who wouldn’t? But who knows, man? Who knows?”
Whether it happens or not, Twin Peaks will remain one of those rare, singular examples of creative confluence that continues to influence generations — and its home medium — undiluted. Its origins, and its various returns, are immortal.