Twin Peaks: How Laura Palmer’s death marked the rebirth of TV drama
Twin Peaks was a sensation from the moment it first aired… and still, 20 years later, the influence of David Lynch’s groundbreaking series can be felt in TV drama, from The Sopranos through to Lost. Here we relive its surreal appeal and ask six veterans of the show for their memories
It’s hard to recall now the excitement generated by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks when it first aired on British television back in 1990. But it managed to make staying in seem urgent and exhilarating. There were Twin Peaks evenings, at which fans gathered in each other’s houses to watch this revolutionary entertainment, a sort of surreal soap-cum-murder-mystery. Offices practically had to install water-coolers just so their staff could stand around them and speculate on who killed Laura Palmer. It was one of those moments when American popular culture reminded us just how cool it could be.
It also marked a decisive turning point in US television drama. Before Twin Peaks there was plenty of well-made American TV, though it was mostly generic and limited in ambition. But Lynch, a cinema auteur, tore up conventions and almost single-handedly reinvented TV drama. The standard narrative arc went out of the window, and in its place came idiosyncratic character studies, an elliptical plot, dialogue that brought the bizarre and the banal together in a captivating verbal marriage, and imagery quite unlike anything seen on the small screen. There was also, of course, the haunting theme music by Angelo Badalamenti that seemed to plug directly into the eerier quarters of the subconscious.
The audience was not just hooked but enthralled, beguiled and bewildered.
Suddenly television was full of possibilities. Five years earlier, the high-water mark of innovation had been reached in British television with The Singing Detective, but thereafter the British model struggled to develop and thrive. By contrast, American TV hasn’t looked back.
It would be wrong to attribute all that’s since taken place to the creative impact of Twin Peaks but Lynch’s legacy can nonetheless be seen in dramas in a whole range of recent TV shows. For a start, Lynch helped make television attractive to film stars. Kyle MacLachlan, who played the other-worldly Special Agent Dale Cooper, had been the lead in Blue Velvet. The message was that television was no longer a Hollywood ghetto. Without Agent Cooper perhaps there would have been no Jack Bauer. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that JJ Abrams’s high-concept genre-mashing with Lost would have happened if Lynch hadn’t pioneered the way. And in David Chase’s casting in The Sopranos it’s possible to see the influence of Lynch, who used almost forgotten character actors like Richard Beymer.
In the end, Twin Peaks didn’t quite deliver on its fabulous promise, trailing off in its second series into paranormal confusion. But by then it had already worked its magic. “That’s a damn fine cup of coffee,” Agent Cooper liked to say. One way or another, American TV woke up and smelt it.
Lara Flynn Boyle
The break-out star of the show, who played Donna Hayward, enjoyed a patchy career in film (Wayne’s World, Men in Black II), later returning to TV to appear in long-running legal drama The Practice, as well as Las Vegas and Huff.
Lara Flynn Boyle as Donna Hayward in the pilot episode of Twin Peaks. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
Twin Peaks gave me everything I have as an actor. It put me where I am now because it was so beautifully soulful, and I think it just brought out the best of the actors. There was no acting going on – we were living on Twin Peaks. It gave me my career.
Me and the cast just went along for the ride. David created such an atmosphere of fantastic strangeness. I remember, in the pilot, I did a very long scene that we had to shoot 30 or 40 times. David came up to me and said quietly, in my ear: “Think of how gently a deer has to move in the snow…” It was strange direction. But that’s what I thought of, and it worked. We were at the helm of a piece of heaven on Twin Peaks and we just went where David Lynch told us. That might sound very obscure but it really is true. How he sees the world is how we should all see the world.
The show’s explosion in popularity was, from the inside, very strange. I don’t think many of us had a clue what to do. I didn’t know it was odd that people were playing the music from Twin Peaks in their cars. I didn’t know that it was odd to be on the cover of Rolling Stone at 20 years old.
The show could have gone on as long as David wanted it to – but it was an appropriate time to let it stop when it did. To this day, I have people come up to me in airports and the grocery store and quote lines I said in the show. I don’t even know what they’re talking about.
At the Emmys every year they show clips of shows that are well remembered. They never show clips of Twin Peaks! I’m always going on at the producers about that. It was great TV that we created. Incredibly brave stuff. It’s been copied but I don’t think anybody’s grabbed the legacy of it just yet.
Cast to play a dead girl (Laura Palmer), Sheryl Lee impressed creators David Lynch and Mark Frost to such an extent that she was given a broader (speaking) part to play. Lee went on to star in Backbeat and have a recurring part in recent TV series Dirty Sexy Money.
Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in the film spinoff Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext /New Line
It was a great learning experience playing a corpse. I got to be a sponge and soak up everything. In the famous shot of me, dead, David hand-placed those granules of sand on my face, and played with the plastic as if it were a bouquet of flowers.
Once they shot the pilot in Washington, they all went back to LA. But I stayed behind because that’s where I was living at the time – I was a theatre actress. Months later, David called me and asked how I would feel about coming back on the show. I pointed out I was dead. He said: “I’ll figure that out,” like it was the least of the problems. I returned as Laura’s cousin, Maddy.
There was no way to be prepared for the overnight success of the show, to go all of a sudden from being completely anonymous to recognisable. It was strange, surreal and scary. There’s no handbook for how to manoeuvre your way gracefully through it.
Laura Palmer opened doors for me. But that character was so specific, and had such a strong identity, that to this day, after a 20-year career, it’s still the thing that people remember me for. It’s hard to shake that.
The distinctively squeakily voiced actor Kimmy Robertson played sheriff’s department receptionist Lucy Moran. She went on to work primarily as a voice artist, appearing in Beauty and the Beast and The Simpsons.
Kimmy Robertson as Lucy Moran in the pilot episode of Twin Peaks. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
It didn’t make much sense to me when I read the script but I knew it was by David Lynch, so I loved it. When I first met him for my audition we spoke for a long time about how people who live in the wilderness (like the characters in Twin Peaks) are usually meaner than those who live in cities. It was an esoteric conversation, and the strangest way I’d ever got a part. When he directed us it was different to anybody I’d ever worked with before or since. He’d get us into a circle and ask us questions – it was like he was hypnotising us. There’s a scene where Kyle had to throw a rock and hit a glass bottle. He sat us down and told Kyle he was going to hit the bottle – and that bottle was freaking far away. Kyle hit it, and everybody freaked out. It was like David used the power of the universe to make Twin Peaks.
When the show was broadcast, the publicist had the cast watch it in a sports bar. None of us wanted to, but it gave us a chance to see people’s reactions. They all seemed to love it. I was proud to be in it. It was the only thing I’d ever seen me in when I didn’t leave before the lights came up. I was stuck in my seat with my mouth hanging open.
It was ridiculous to reveal Laura’s killer in the second season, though. It was obvious that it was pressure from the TV execs who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. Laura’s killer was the perfect carrot to dangle, reeling people in like they do in Lost now. I know [Lost creator] JJ Abrams and he loved Twin Peaks. I’m sure we inspired JJ – he’s a smart man.
After playing the esoteric FBI agent Dale Cooper, around whom Twin Peaks was based, Kyle MacLachlan featured in two poorly received films, Showgirls and The Flintstones. He went on to win plaudits for roles in Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives.
Kyle MacLaughlin as Agent Dale Cooper. Photograph: ABC
Making the pilot episode, we knew we were doing something different, must-see TV, but I don’t think anyone involved thought it was going to continue past a one-off. David Lynch comes to television? The inmates are going to take over the asylum! The plan was to make a movie of the week and then go home. But then it was screened – and everybody was stunned at how good it was. Suddenly I went from cold property to hot property. It’s a very interesting little dynamic, how that shifts so quickly in Hollywood.
We all realised pretty quickly that it was going to be this long, meandering story. The writers always pretended they knew what they were doing but in fact I think that the hand had come off the tiller, so to speak, and we were just on a wild adventure. Creatively, I was spoiled, working with David on my first major project. David is one of a kind. His pure pleasure in film-making is infectious.
After the series finished I was reluctant to return for the Twin Peaks film. I was pretty naive about it. At the time I felt like I was trapped in this stale role, but looking back, Dale Cooper was one of the best things that happened to me. I went on to make some film choices that were rather strange – made with the best intentions, but not necessarily coming out the way I wanted them to. I certainly can’t pretend that I didn’t do Showgirls… But I’ve been around for a while now, I’m of a certain age and I’m still doing what I love to do. There’s some good work in there and there’s some work that’s questionable.
I think Twin Peaks gave a real jolt to television. Creative people felt the freedom to explore different themes. Atypical shows came out of it: initially things like Wild Palms – eccentric for eccentricity’s sake and not really making sense – but then quirky shows that were good too, like Northern Exposure and even The X Files. It showed people who make the decisions about what goes on air and what doesn’t that the audience were open to trying something less traditional.
The co-creator and screenwriter of Twin Peaks went on to enjoy a varied writing career, producing three novels, two sports books, a sitcom and a superhero film (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer).
David Lynch, left, with Mark Frost, the co-creator and screenwriter of Twin Peaks. Photograph: Bob Grant/Getty Images
David and I didn’t worry whether the viewers would “get” Twin Peaks. We decided that we had a break to daylight here; a chance from the network to go mad, to do whatever we felt like doing. ABC were so desperate at that point, they had been languishing in third place for God knows how long – so we were able to secure from them unprecedented artistic controls on the show, largely because we told them from the beginning: “You’re not going to be able to understand this, so there’s no way you can hope to guide it.” And they looked at the pilot and said: “You’re right.” They gave us notes but I don’t think we paid attention to a single one.
I can’t really think of any ideas that David and I considered too “out there” to be included. Most of them ended up in the show. David would call up in the middle of shooting – he’d be off doing a movie or something – and say, “Mark, I think there’s a giant in Agent Cooper’s room.” And I’d go, “OK…” We’d explore it – and it would work. Perhaps there was one idea that threw me for a loop. During the second season we knew that Joan Chen’s character was going to die. David, as he was wont to do, called me up and said: “I think she gets stuck in a door handle…” So we tried to make that work. It didn’t make any sense to me, it still doesn’t.
ABC were profoundly uncomfortable with this show from the very beginning. They’d moved us to a dreadful time slot for the second season – Saturday night at 10pm when you mostly had the living dead home watching television. And then there was a hit show called The Gulf War that came on, so everybody kept cutting away from us to live shots of bombs falling in Baghdad.
Twin Peaks finished soon after that. I think there were shows that came along afterwards that owed a debt to what we’d done. The one that meant the most to me was David Chase saying that The Sopranos had been influenced by the show. He felt it had given him the freedom to go places narratively that he hadn’t really considered before (a dream sequence, say) and the notion that he could have a sprawling cast and still be able to service them all. His was the last show I watched with enduring interest. I don’t watch network television any more.
A character actor also well known for a popular stint on Seinfeld, Grace Zabriskie played Laura Palmer’s mother Sarah Palmer in Twin Peaks. She currently appears in HBO’s popular polygamy drama, Big Love.
Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer, the mother of the murdered girl, Laura Palmer.
I think most of us were surprised by the show’s sudden popularity. I certainly was. I had seriously underestimated the taste and intelligence level out there, and the readiness for something completely different. But if we had played our roles with this mistrust of the results, instead of taking the ride David offered us, things might not have turned out so well. I’ve never forgotten this lesson.
There was constant speculation among the cast about who killed Laura. I remember half-hearted attempts to get Mark to talk, but he wouldn’t. No one would talk. Probably it was in our interests for the secret to remain a secret as long as possible.
In my opinion, the show couldn’t survive the unravelling of that central mystery about Laura’s killer. I said at the time that it would survive, that the show was about so much more than who killed Laura Palmer, that it still had miles to go… But it started going all over the map, not trusting what had been created, what there was already to build on. I still suspect it could have survived had the network not insisted the question be answered.
The most interesting thing about what followed the show was that the copycats crashed and burned. It took some years before a few shows could profit from Twin Peaks’ daring to be original in tone, sensibility and subject matter.
I am still asked about it today. People still want to talk about it, enjoy contact with someone who reminds them of that time in their lives – even those who are very young and have only recently seen the series.
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