Twin Peaks: How David Lynch Brought Cinema to Television   

Film and television have a symbiotic relationship. Pick a channel, any channel — chances are, you’ll find at least one show almost indistinguishable from a Hollywood film. For example, most content produced for HBO consists of sprawling dramas set in epic worlds, like His Dark Materials and Watchmen, both of which have been praised for their complex writing, high production values, and skilled performances. The lines between cinema and TV blur even more on streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney+ with major Hollywood studios Marvel Studios and The Jim Henson Company producing content like Wandavision and Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance respectively. The uniquely cinematic quality of these shows is reflected in the name we’ve coined for their genre: Prestige Television. 


Prestige television is not new — cable shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad brought its popularity to a peak throughout the mid 2000s and 2010s, inspiring a slew of imitators eager for a taste of their success. At least part of that success came from their engrossing stories. Unlike sitcoms with revolving casts and little to no continuity, prestige dramas have ongoing, multilayered plotlines meant to keep the viewer engaged — for the entire season and beyond. They are rewatchable by design; binge-watching is encouraged and has become the new normal. There’s a reason why people held viewing parties for Game of Thrones: it built a sense of community in a way very few shows were able to do. 


But Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad weren’t the first shows to turn the viewing experience into an event. We can trace prestige TV further back to the 90s with shows like The X-Files and ER. None, howeverwere as immeasurably popular and influential as Twin Peaks was. 


Released on ABC in 1990, Twin Peaks defied classification. Much like its co-creator David Lynch, it dabbled in a variety of genres — psychological horror, romance, comedy, police procedural, high school drama, soap opera. It parodied simultaneously parodied and celebrated television. Co-creator Mark Frost once called it a cultural compost heap composed of all the themes and characters he and David Lynch loved in the shows they grew up with, and that affection bleeds into the show’s melodramatic trappings that gently poke fun at soap operas. You had love triangles between smolderingly beautiful high school students. Unscrupulous businessmen and women who ruthlessly plotted to overthrow one another to take control of their vast enterprises. A woman who used a log as a conduit to communicate with her dead husband, murmuring cryptic riddles for our heroes that seemed to foreshadow future mysteries — or perhaps serve as the key to solving old ones. Twin Peaks took familiar archetypes and amped up the drama to ridiculous degrees — but that was precisely what made it so fun. 


Twin Peaks follows the residents of the titular small Washington State town. When the corpse of local high school student Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is found wrapped in plastic near a riverbank, the entire town is plunged into mourning. Eccentric FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is called in to investigate, partnering with Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean) to solve the murder. Their investigation sends a ripple effect over the town. Old scandals and secrets start bubbling to the surface, and as Cooper begins to have strange nightmares about Laura and a mysterious red room, it becomes clear that her death is no simple murder — and that Twin Peaks is not as innocent as it appears to be. 


Nowadays television is packed with A-list talent: we assume that most high-profile dramas will have an equally high-profile crew behind it. Twin Peaks planted the seeds for that. Other than David Lynch, many of the cast and crew came from Hollywood: composer Angelo Badalamenti scored National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (dir. Jeremiah Chechik, 1989) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987) and worked with Lynch on Blue Velvet (1986); Kyle MacLachlan starred in Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984); cast members Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer, and Piper Laurie all had long and rich film careers. Even during pre-production, it seemed like Lynch’s intention was to approach the project like a film instead of a TV show. His vision was realized with Twin Peaks’ pilot episode. 


Originally titled Northwest Passage, the pilot was 94 minutes long — almost twice the runtime of a typical television pilot — and aired on ABC as a Movie of the Week. In Europe, it was released on home video as a standalone film. When Warner Bros. purchased the distribution rights, one of the conditions they set was for the film to have an ending. In response, Lynch shot nearly eighteen minutes of new footage that turned the pilot into its own self-contained story. In true Lynchian fashion, one question was answered while ten more were raised, left unsolved until the show was picked up by the network. 


What makes Laura’s death interesting is that she isn’t doomed to be shuffled off and forgotten. Her homecoming picture with its perfect smile, white dress, and sweet yet strangely vacant gaze is the single most recurring piece of iconography in the series, even becoming the image each episode’s ending credits play over. The picture encapsulates everything the town of Twin Peaks sees Laura as: beautiful, vivacious, kind. She retains her otherworldly beauty even in death. There’s an eerie contrast between the Laura captured in that photograph, forever frozen in time, and the one local sawmill owner Pete Martell (Jack Nance) discovers wrapped in a cocoon of plastic, her lips blue and her skin chalky-white. It’s made all the more jarring by Jack Nance’s performance when Pete calls the sheriff’s department to report his findings: “She’s dead,” he says into the telephone in a quavering voice, drawling his vowels out. “Wrapped in plastic. 


Watching the news of Laura’s death spread throughout town is like watching a slow implosion. We watch Laura’s mother, Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), gradually unravel as she spends all morning searching for Laura. Desperate, she turns to her husband Leland (Ray Wise) for answers, calling him at his workplace to ask if he’s seen their daughter. In contrast to his wife’s panic, he remains calm and only mildly confused; Laura, he rationalizes, is a teenager, and teenagers tend to run off without telling their parents. He maintains this composed veneer until Sheriff Truman enters the hotel where Leland works and pulls him aside. As Truman gently tries to commit to the impossible task of telling him that Laura is dead, Leland drops the phone. This is how Sarah discovers that her daughter will never come home again — an earsplitting clatter that rattles the phone receiver, prompting her to cry out in raw agony. 


Across town, Laura’s best friend Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) sits daydreaming in homeroom as the teacher does rollcall. On the other side of the room sits James Hurley (James Marshall), Twin Peaks High’s resident bad boy and, unbeknownst to everyone, Laura’s secret boyfriend. The lack of music accentuates the tense atmosphere in the classroom, giving the scene a sense of realism. 


Suddenly, a police officer enters the classroom and pulls the teacher aside. Catching snippets of their whispered conversation, Donna looks up: she’s heard enough to know that something is wrong but not enough to know what it is. Seconds later, an earsplitting scream rings out: a student runs screaming across the schoolyard. This unknown girl disappears, never to be seen or heard from again, but the reason behind her pain is clear: she knows that Laura is dead. Laura was so universally loved that her passing even brings a nameless student to tears. 


Another officer joins his partner at the door and pulls him away, leaving the teacher to tell the class the news. Only she can’t. Stunned to silence, she turns around to address the class as a low, dark drone begins to build in the background. Donna looks from Laura’s empty desk to James, and the two share a silent moment of understanding so profound that it makes Donna’s breath hitch. Donna breaks into tears as the teacher feebly tells the class that there will be an announcement from the principal, prompting James to snap his pencil in half.  


Attributed to his artist background, Lynch doesn’t overly rely on dialogue to carry his scenes. Instead of telling the audience how a character feels, he shows us with visuals that illustrate their inner conflict. Donna’s breakdown is highly reminiscent of the one Jeffrey Beaumont suffers in Blue Velvet in the wake of a traumatic event that leaves him in tears (content warning: abuse, nudity). Like Twin Peaks’ classroom scene, there is no sound save for snippets of spoken dialogue and growing dark ambient noise. Lynch draws as much tension out as he can, occasionally cutting to Jeffrey’s memories shot at strange and uncomfortably close camera angles. 


These trademarks are all over Twin Peaks. Packed with as much substance and flare as the rest of Lynch’s filmography. The series proved that television had the potential for serious storytelling; it could be more than just family-friendly sitcoms and lascivious soap operas. For a weekly series that occupied the same timeslot as Cheers and SeinfeldTwin Peaks was a taste of the movie theater in your living room, bursting with Lynchian creativity — as strange and wonderful as the little mountain town itself.