this weekGrab Bag

August 1, 2004

Twin Peaks

Television’s most successful coffee ad

The Great Northern Hotel

Author’s Note: This article was updated in February 2007 with new information about DVD availability. However, it has now become outdated once again, as the entire series (including the original pilot) was finally released as a boxed DVD set, with Region 1 encoding, in the fall of 2007. I’ll rewrite the relevant parts of the article at some point in the future.

If I were to tell you that I was a Monty Python fan, or that I enjoyed watching Star Trek or Iron Chef, you would probably not, by that fact alone, develop much of an opinion about me. You may decide that I have good taste or poor taste; you may feel that my opinions about British comedy, science fiction, or Japanese cooking are similar or dissimilar to your own. You may wonder, fleetingly, whether I associate myself with the legions of rabid fans who have given such shows their cult status. But if I told you that I am a Twin Peaks fan, you may jump to the conclusion that I am hopelessly off my rocker—unless of course you, too, are a Twin Peaks fan. The fans, like the show, tend to be what most people euphemistically call “different.”

Break the Code, Solve the Crime
In case you remain blissfully ignorant of the entire Twin Peaks phenomenon, here’s a brief synopsis. Twin Peaks was a TV series created by David Lynch, the director of such unconventional films as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive. In April 1990, a two-hour pilot aired on ABC. This was Lynch’s first attempt at a TV series, and it drew overwhelming critical acclaim. There followed seven weekly episodes, of which the last was a season-finale cliffhanger. That fall, the series picked up again, airing a total of 22 more episodes before it was canceled in June 1991. The show takes place in a fictional small town in eastern Washington—the eponymous Twin Peaks—in which, as the series begins, a high school student named Laura Palmer has been found murdered. FBI agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan) arrives to investigate, in cooperation with Sheriff Harry S Truman (Michael Ontkean). Ostensibly, the show is a mystery: who killed Laura Palmer? Each of the town’s residents, bizarre characters who range from wacky to pathetic to psychopathic, seems to have a secret, and any one of them could be a suspect.

As the plot unwinds, we find that the murder of Laura Palmer is simply the tip of the iceberg. Everyone has a secret, all right: at least a dozen of the main characters were participants in extramarital affairs, others were involved in drugs, and many crimes and indiscretions from the past are uncovered. Meanwhile, a more sinister threat is growing. An ancient evil in the surrounding woods has emerged, resulting in abductions, ominous messages, and more murders. And yet, for all the underlying eeriness of the plot, it’s as funny as it is spooky. Agent Cooper employs rather unconventional investigative techniques, such as throwing rocks at a bottle as a means of divination or following clues that came to him in a dream—all the while indulging his passion for black coffee and cherry pie. A character called The Log Lady always carries—and sometimes receives messages from—a small log. At every turn, some paradoxical juxtaposition or clever one-liner makes you smile or giggle, even as you worry about what will happen next.

My Log Does Not Judge
As quirky as Twin Peaks was, it was nevertheless an innovative, quality show that had it all: suspense, laughter, endearing characters played by outstanding actors, and excellent production values. Needless to say, it could not possibly last. Citing declining ratings, ABC soon cancelled the show. At the abrupt end of its second season, there were countless loose ends. At least four major characters might have been killed (though we never know for sure), Cooper is possessed by the evil spirit BOB, and great mysteries are left unsolved. A year later, in 1992, Lynch released a prequel movie called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Critics and fans alike panned it. Fire Walk With Me did nothing to resolve the tension that ended the series; it lacked many favorite characters; and most egregiously, it was all serious. Notwithstanding the signature Lynch quirkiness, there was simply nothing to laugh at, nothing to make you love the town and the characters as you had in the TV series.

Be that as it may, Twin Peaks failed as a TV show mainly because it didn’t fit the commercial mold. It followed no discernable formula. The huge cast was constantly changing, with main characters being killed off and new ones appearing. The soap opera-like plot demanded absolute devotion from viewers, mercilessly frustrating those who started watching mid-season or missed a few episodes. And the action, which takes place over the course of about a month, seemed plodding to some viewers who wanted faster relief from the agonizing mysteries.

In retrospect, it seems the right way to think about the show is as a miniseries, or better yet, an extended film. To get the best sense of the story’s flow, it’s ideal to watch all 34 hours of Twin Peaks in one go. When I say “in one go,” I don’t necessarily mean a single marathon sitting, unless of course you have extraordinary stamina and really strong coffee. But watching the whole series over the course of, say, a long weekend will give you a much richer and more coherent sense of the world of Twin Peaks.

Bite the Bullet, Baby
Before you run to your local video store, you’ll need to know some baffling and frustrating facts about the video versions of Twin Peaks. First, the two-hour pilot episode, which is absolutely crucial to understanding the story, is distributed by a different company than the rest of the series is. So the boxed sets of Twin Peaks videos available in North America don’t include the pilot; their “episode #1” is actually the second one. You’ll have to find the pilot separately. Second, if you obtain the VHS version of the pilot, you should not watch the last few minutes—at least, not until you’ve seen the rest of the series. The company that owns the rights to the pilot asked David Lynch to provide an alternate ending, so that it could stand alone as a rental (in case the series flopped). That ending shows a completely different killer than the series eventually did, and watching episode #1 after the “extended” pilot won’t make any sense. To complicate matters further, only the first season’s seven episodes were ever made available on individual tapes recorded at high quality; the full-series boxed set squeezes several episodes onto each tape with a significant loss of clarity.

But surely, the DVD release solved these problems, right? Well…yes and no. You can purchase (or rent) the first season of Twin Peaks on DVD, and the quality is significantly better than that of the videotapes. However, it still doesn’t include the pilot, for the same reasons. The pilot, in fact, is not officially available on DVD in North America at all, though it’s easy enough to find an imported copy of the (English-language) Hong Kong release on the internet. Alas, although the picture quality on this pilot DVD is excellent (and the ending is the correct, “unextended” one), the soundtrack quality is poor. Meanwhile, although the second season has long been available on DVD in Europe, for some reason its North American release was delayed until April 2007. Rumor has it that later in 2007, North American audiences will finally be able to purchase a DVD set with the complete series, including the correct pilot, but time will tell. If you live in Europe, you may already be able to find a boxed DVD set of the entire series, pilot intact—but only with a Region 2 or Region 4 encoding. This means you won’t be able to play the DVDs on your home machine in the U.S. or Canada without special hacking to make the player “region-free” or “code-free.” Your best bet may be to watch for reruns on TV. The U.S. cable channel Bravo usually airs the entire series at least once a year.

That Gum You Like Is Going to Come Back in Style
Despite the show’s short run and the difficulties in finding recordings, Twin Peaks continues to enjoy a surprising cult following. Each summer, a Twin Peaks fan festival is held in the Washington towns of North Bend and Snoqualmie where some of the filming took place. Fans participate in trivia contests, scavenger hunts, and costume competitions, mingle with actors from Twin Peaks, visit filming sites, and eat lots of cherry pie. I’ve been to two of these festivals (in 2000 and 2001), and they were lots of fun, although some of the fans were, shall we say, excessively enthusiastic.

Twin Peaks stands to this day as utterly unique in the history of television. In the years since its demise, there have been a number of excellent shows, some of which were scarier, funnier, wittier, or more suspenseful than Twin Peaks. And certainly, there has been no shortage of “quirky” television. But there has never since been a show so daring, breaking all the rules of what television is supposed to be. I’m not ashamed to call myself a Twin Peaks fan. As for being off my rocker…let’s rock. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Twin Peaks…

To learn more about Twin Peaks, check out Twin Peaks Online, which includes an exhaustive (if somewhat outdated) FAQ. This FAQ will tell you, among other things, where to stop watching the “extended” version of the pilot if you don’t want to maintain coherence of the plot.

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You can finally order both the first and second seasons on DVD, but they don’t include the pilot. If Amazon.com’s too expensive, you might try eBay.

After watching the show, if you need to talk to someone about your addiction, make your way to the annual Twin Peaks Fan Festival, generally held in late summer.

Believe it or not, there’s also a Twin Peaks fan magazine called Wrapped in Plastic, which has been published bimonthly since 1992!