30 years later, ‘Twin Peaks’ is still damn fine

Tuesday, February 25, 2020 - 10:41pm

NOSELL

CBS

“Diane, 11:30 am, February 24th. Entering the town of Twin Peaks,” FBI Agent Dale Cooper says into his tape recorder as fir trees flick past his car window.

Twin Peaks is a peaceful town. Quiet houses line the streets, lawns trimmed and protected by white picket fences. For those not working at the town’s massive lumber mill, there’s not much to do except have a beer at The Roadhouse or eat cherry pie at the Double R Diner alongside what Cooper celebrates as “damn fine” cups of coffee. The town has a picturesque sense of natural tranquility, conjured by tall trees, winding rivers and jagged mountain peaks. It’s, as Agent Cooper calls it, “where a yellow light still means slow down, not go faster.”  

Cooper is in Twin Peaks because a teenage girl was murdered. 

Laura Palmer was the homecoming queen, an English tutor, a Meals on Wheels and Special Education volunteer and beloved by everyone in town. Who could have possibly wanted her dead? This is the driving question of the show, a terrifying secret that unearths a thousand more. 

The first episode is 90 minutes, practically a feature film. For what initially seems like a murder mystery, most of the genre’s conventions are absent — the pilot focuses on introducing the small town and its citizens as the news of Laura’s murder rocks Twin Peaks. In the first scene, Pete Martell, an old man out fishing, stumbles upon Laura’s dead body washed up on a pebbled beach. As he calls the police, he breaks down in tears.

“She’s dead… Wrapped in plastic…”

From this first chilling scene, it’s clear that this sleepy hamlet is not prepared for the horror about to be unearthed. Laura’s two best friends, James and Donna, learn about her death in school; their small town’s sense of safety crumbles right in their homeroom. As they weep, a girl runs past the classroom window with her head in her hands, screaming. Soon, the halls are empty. In 2020, when American schools haven’t been safe for decades, this is even more disconcerting.

The worst grief comes from Laura’s mother who, throughout the first few episodes, is either weeping hysterically, staring off into space or, most horrifically, shrieking in the throes of surreal visions, like a visiting Donna’s face morphing into Laura’s and a ghostly man crouching under Laura’s bed, snarling. 

In the midst of this horror, however, there are surprising, off-kilter moments of levity. In one scene, Agent Cooper and Harry Truman, the town’s sheriff, go to a bank to look at Laura’s safety deposit box. A gigantic, taxidermied deer head sits on the table, one eye looking right at the camera. Cooper and Truman stare down at it, intrigued. “Oh,” the bank clerk says, smiling as she enters the room. “It fell down.” Neither Cooper nor Truman respond and get back to work.

As Agent Cooper investigates, it becomes clear that Laura’s murder is just the tip of something vast, looming above the small town like the dark mountains that surround it. As if the murder mystery and quirky humor weren’t enough, there are also signs that something otherworldly haunts Twin Peaks. There are lights in the sky at night and dreams resurrect the dead, who have some dark secrets to share. We’re never given any sort of explanation about these paranormal events, with each hint only leading to more questions. What secrets lurk in the dark woods, under the towering fir trees?  Nevertheless, the most horrific moments in the show are completely human, and they’re found in the domestic violence, teenage drug use and even sex trafficking that may be occuring in the small town. 

In the show’s most piercing moments, the comedy and horror mix. In episode three, Leland, Laura’s father, spins around to a 1920s swing song, clutching a picture of Laura, swirling faster and faster as he wails in grief. “We have to dance here,” he says in between deep, wheezing breaths as his wife tries to wrench the picture from his hands. “We have to dance for Laura!” They grapple with the picture and end up smashing it as the upbeat swing continues to blare. It’s completely heart wrenching, but also hilarious in an bleakly absurd, “laugh or cry” way that’s only found in “Twin Peaks.”

The show took the cop drama, the sitcom, the soap opera, a dollop of horrific surrealism and a hunk of “damn fine” Americana and blended it all together. It’s what a TV executive before its release called “Norman Rockwell meets Salvador Dali.” 

Something this complex was unheard of in the early ’90s, an era that also saw the premiere of “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld,” “Law and Order” and “Beverly Hills 90210.” While these other shows left their mark, none of them had anything as audacious as the first few episodes of “Twin Peaks.” They told either self-contained or serialized stories with clearly defined plots, without any of the ambiguity that makes “Twin Peaks” so enthralling. Most of those shows also dealt with fairly archetypal characters, while “Peaks” gave everyone, no matter how apparently minor, a complicated individuality.

This is especially apparent in the show’s women, who shine with strength, independence and wit even by today’s standards. Characters like Audrey Horne, a teenage femme fatale, and the Log Lady, an elderly woman who carries (and converses with) a log, constantly play off of the viewers’ expectations and remain some of television’s most complex, fascinating and unique female characters. 

The show’s creators, Mark Frost and David Lynch, brought a cinematic touch to every aspect of the production that still rings with quality. It wasn’t just that the writing was complex. Everything about “Twin Peaks,” from the cinematography to the set design, was constructed with care and bravery, creating an utterly believable and unique world. The soundtrack, by composer Angelo Badalamenti, is also superb, able to conjure both airy ease and deep, gnawing horror with an equal amount of power.

Notwithstanding its wild surrealism, “Twin Peaks” feels more true to life than conventional ’90s fare like “Roseanne,” “Cheers” or “Full House,” depicting American life in all its hilarious, horrific extremes with characters that leap from the screen. 

Cooper agonizes over a potential serial killer while simultaneously gorging on a donut buffet that covers an entire table. Bobby, a teenage football star, goes from flirting with waitresses at the Double R to participating in a cocaine deal in the dark woods, where someone pulls a shotgun. Audrey rebels against her father by playing loud jazz but also infiltrates a nearby sex ring in the hopes of finding Laura’s killer. 

While admittedly exaggerated, this contrast mirrors the highs and lows of the ’80s, still fresh in the minds of the show’s 1990 audience. It was a decade of both horrific and joyful excess, an era of both Pac-Man and the War on Drugs, “The Breakfast Club” and the AIDS crisis. As the ’90s played out, this depiction only became more topical in the era of both Desert Storm and Powerpuff Girls, the end of apartheid and the O.J. trial.  

30 years later, “Twin Peaks” is still more wild and captivating than most shows currently on television. Plus, after “Peaks” ended in 1991, Lynch and Frost were far from finished. There was 1992’s film, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” which told the story of Laura’s death, going all in on surrealistic horror. Then, miraculously, Frost and Lynch brought “Peaks” back for a third season in 2017 with almost every single cast member returning.

“Twin Peaks” is about America’s crushing dark side and the flickering light that rises to meet it, told through the lens of a small town in northern Washington. It’s about unanswered questions, both hilarious and horrific. It’s about the love found between people trying to do the right thing, and the terror that arises when some inevitably don’t. It’s about the wonder in the everyday, and the chilling thrill of things beyond reality. 

It really is, as Agent Cooper says, “damn fine.”