Peak performance

When it aired in 1990 Twin Peaks was the weirdest TV show ever to win huge ratings – and remains one of the most influential. By Richard Smirke

This feature was first published on 28 July.

It is now almost 24 years since an entire generation of television viewers was first enticed into the strange and bizarre world of Twin Peaks by Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting, instrumental theme music accompanied by some deceptively tranquil images of wildlife, waterfalls and industrial machinery.

A quarter of a century on from the show’s much-heralded TV debut, it’s a world that continues to hold a powerful allure for millions of people with this week’s Blu-ray re-issue of the complete saga – spanning all 30 episodes and spin-off movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me – one of the most eagerly anticipated home entertainment releases of 2014.

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Our Twin Peaks cover from 28 July
“Throughout the years, so many people have come up to me and said: ‘I’m really sorry, but I have to ask you about Twin Peaks,’” Mädchen Amick, who played waitress Shelly Johnson, tells The Big Issue in the North over the phone from Los Angeles. “I’m always like: ‘Don’t apologise. I’m so proud to have been a part of it. It really changed television back in the day.”

For anyone born after 1980 it is hard to now appreciate just how groundbreaking and revolutionary Twin Peaks was on its original transmission. Set in the fictional North Western US town of Twin Peaks, where nothing and no one is quite what they initially seem, the show instantly blew open the conventions of television drama with its elliptical narrative, obtuse, cheesy dialogue, surreal imagery and compelling central hook – who killed homecoming queen Laura Palmer? – making it a key cultural touchstone of the period.

More importantly, Twin Peaks’ influence continues to be felt today with everything from Lost and The Sopranos to Breaking Bad and Broadchurch in some way indebted to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s innovative blend of serial drama, surreal soap opera, psychological horror and murder mystery set in small town America.

“I was quite ignorant of the world in those days and it blew my mind in all sorts of strange ways,” recalls Dennis Kelly, the writer and creator of acclaimed Channel 4 conspiracy drama Utopia. “It felt like such an important piece of TV. I don’t think that it had ever previously occurred to anyone that television drama could be like that.”

“At the time television really had gone stale,” elaborates Amick. “There was such a formula to every show and networks were not willing to take any chances. Twin Peaks broke the mould and gave people something that they were really excited about and talked about around the water cooler on a Monday morning. It finally lived up to the intelligence of the television audience.”

Originally conceived as a one-off TV movie, the story of how Twin Peaks came to briefly light up the cultural landscape and, almost just as quickly, burn out, dates back to the late 1980s when Lynch, fresh from cinema success with Blue Velvet, and Mark Frost, a veteran of acclaimed cop serial Hill Street Blues, were asked to devise an original TV drama for the then struggling US network ABC.

On its opening night, 8.15 million people tuned in to BBC2

The two men duly let their imaginations run free with Twin Peaks’ 90-minute pilot premiering in America on 8 April 1990. Its British premiere followed in the autumn of that year and, much like in America, proved a massive hit. On its opening night, 8.15 million people tuned in to BBC2 – then one of the channel’s biggest ever audiences – to see what all the fuss was about. They were met with a show that was weirder than even the staunchest Lynch fans could have hoped for in a primetime TV drama.

For anyone yet to experience its delights, notable highlights from the first series number FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (a career best performance from Kyle MacLachlan) using Tibetan meditation and rock throwing as an investigative tool, a surreal dream sequence set in an eerie red room and no end of quirky characters, including a backwards-talking dwarf, a possessed one-armed shoe salesman, the log lady and a terrifying straggly-haired man known only as Bob. Not to mention more coffee, piping hot cherry pie and sugar-glazed doughnuts than a bumper episode of Man Vs Food.

Kyle MacLachlan plays Agent Cooper and Sherilyn Fenn is Audrey Horne

“I was about 14 years old at the time and I remember just being totally gobsmacked,” recalls Lindsey Bowden, whose continued love of the show led her to establish the Twin Peaks UK Festival to mark the show’s 20th anniversary in 2010. Now an annual occurrence, this year’s event has been upgraded to London’s Genesis Cinema to meet demand. Remarkably, hers is not the only large-scale celebration of the drama, with Twin Peaks Fest taking place in the Washington State town of North Bend every summer since 1993.

“It just shows the strength of the show that 25 years later it is still massively celebrated,” explains Bowden. “Part of the romanticism of Twin Peaks is that it takes you to a place that you didn’t really think was possible. It certainly had an effect on me growing up and I’ve never really stopped loving it.”

“Bob and this idea of darkness personified was so dangerous it genuinely gave you nightmares.”

The show also had a profound impact on Kelly, who credits Twin Peaks with helping to shape some of the themes that have dominated his writing. “I remember seeing Bob and this idea of darkness personified that was so dangerous that it genuinely gave you nightmares. At the same time there was a feeling that the programme makers really loved those characters.

“I feel like my job as a dramatist is to create characters that I really care about and then do shit things to them and you can see that in Twin Peaks. They don’t pull back from being awful to really good people and I think that kind of dichotomy must have influenced me.”

Inevitably, after blazing a trail in its debut year, the second season of Twin Peaks failed to live up to its early promise. Hampered by studio interference, the show became bogged down with thinly sketched new characters and increasingly obscure story lines (aliens, a crossdressing David Duchovny and a female lead transforming into a wooden door knob, to name just a few). Inconsistent scheduling – the Gulf War was happening at the same time – contributed to a large drop in ratings and Twin Peaks was unceremoniously axed in 1991 after just two series.

“On our first season nobody [from the network] cared or believed in it, so it got to exist in its true form. But when it came to a second season there was a lot of outside forces giving their opinions on where it should go and suddenly they were throwing in every guest star that they possibly could,” recalls Amick, who reprised the role of Shelly Johnson for the 1992 feature film prequel Fire Walk With Me, directed by Lynch.

That too was panned by critics on release, although, in parallel with its TV sibling, has since built up a large cult following. Much to the delight of Twin Peaks fans the new Blu-ray edition boasts 90 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes from the film, which have been meticulously edited and reassembled by Lynch.

“What’s amazing to me is to see how well it stands the test of time,” says Amick, who joined fellow cast and crew members at the project’s Los Angeles premiere the day before our interview. “Literally, I was in awe. When it was over, the whole theatre was in silence,” she gushes.

Other highlights from the Blu-ray release include Lynch interviewing two deceased members of the Palmer family, in character from the afterlife, and an extensive supply of extras covering every conceivable aspect of the show’s production. For devotees, the chance to watch episode intros by Log Lady and the original US TV trailers, ironically narrated by sheriff’s receptionist Lucy Moran, are almost worth the price of purchase alone.

“I think if you were a 16 year old watching it now, 24 years later, then you would still really dig it,” states DJ, music producer and Twin Peaks fan Rob Da Bank, who was a teenager himself when he first saw the show and recalls being “totally mesmerised”.

“I can’t profess to have totally understood it and I’m not sure that you’re supposed to.”

“I can’t profess to have totally understood it and I’m not sure that you’re supposed to, but it’s a really great, compelling watch. It makes most other TV look pedestrian,” adds da Bank, who struck up a personal friendship with Lynch when he released the director’s two music albums, 2011’s Crazy Clown Time and last year’s The Big Dream, on his Sunday Best record label.

“I basically blame and credit David Lynch for my career,” reflects Amick with a hearty laugh. “Having Twin Peaks be one of my first projects and what I cut my teeth on, I compared everything from that point forward to that calibre. It took me a few years to realise that it was a really rare project and they are not all up to that same quality.”

The still strikingly beautiful 43-year-old actor, who has since carved out a highly successful career in television and is currently starring in the supernatural drama series Witches of East End, adds: “It drove me to seek out the better projects and it also made me recognise and appreciate when it is a good one.”

Dana Ashbrook, who played Shelly Johnson’s lover Bobby Briggs, also has only fond recollections from his time on the show. “Personally, it has given me many things. The friends and memories are the most prevalent to me right now,” he tells The Big Issue in the North via email. “I had no idea if people were going to dig it or not. I didn’t worry about those things then. I knew the pilot was unlike any other show around and I was just really stoked to be in something that people liked. It was a first in my career.”

Twenty-five years on the public’s affection for Twin Peaks shows no sign of abating. If anything, internet fan sites, coupled with reruns on digital and satellite channels, have helped expand the show’s fanbase beyond its early 1990s peak when Amick, Lara Flynn Boyle (Donna Hayward) and Sherilyn Fenn (Audrey Horne) appeared together on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and the question of who killed Laura Palmer was fiercely debated in offices, common rooms, pubs and at fan-held Twin Peaks parties across the land.

As a result, there is regular speculation that the show will one day return to The Black Lodge. The prospect is not one that pleases everyone, however. “I wouldn’t like it to come back is my honest answer,” says Bowden.

“The reason being that even if you set it 25 years later it wouldn’t have the same mystery. People were so affected by it back then because there was nothing like it on TV. This programme truly came out of the blue and hit people in the face, but I don’t think you could recreate that magic now.”

Amick, who maintains regular contact with many of the original cast and crew, is more enthusiastic about participating in any revival, however unlikely that may be. “If David Lynch and Mark Frost were involved, absolutely,” she says.

“If it was somebody else doing it then I don’t think that they would honour it in the way that it needs to be honoured and it would just be gratuitous. But, yeah, if David Lynch is involved, sign me up!”

Twin Peaks – The Entire Mystery is released on 29 July. Twin Peaks UK Festival takes place on 15 November (

Madchen Amick played Shelly Johnson

“I was brand new in the business but I did know of David Lynch’s work beforehand and so I knew that Twin Peaks was either going to be so bizarre that it’s going to die a horrific death immediately – or it might be something special.

f9984624bdc05581972f6b0fc5f007d2_rgb“When we were filming it we were just having a fun time. The young ones of the cast were all running around like little mischievous brats and playing pranks on each other and taking over this small town in Washington. I had an inkling that it might be something special but I wasn’t sure.

“The chemistry was immediate between everybody and now, in hindsight, that magic only comes together once in a while – but we felt it immediately. And then all of a sudden it aired and it then became a different kind of bond as we were all thrown in to the celebrity scene so quickly it made us stick together even more, because it was just utter chaos.”

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