That night in 1990 is now apocryphal: Sawmill worker Pete Martell, played by Jack Nance, picked up the phone and called the Twin Peaks Police Department. Between shallow breaths, he spit it out fearfully, vowels protracted: “She’s dead…wrapped in plastic.”
When ABC aired the pilot episode of Twin Peaks in the spring of 1990, it changed TV forever. When Showtime brought Twin Peaks back in 2017, it may well have done the same thing.
Being different from the other TV shows on the networks wouldn’t have been enough to blow open what had been a staid institution. But David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks wasn’t just different—it was paradigm-changing.
The characters and tropes on Twin Peaks were familiar: the high school beauty queen in trouble, the sheriff of few words, the untrustworthy capitalist, the rough biker with a heart of gold. It was America, as TV had represented it for decades. Of course there was rot underneath the veneer of all that small town proprietary—but isn’t there always?
What makes you stop everything and stare at Twin Peaks is the uncanniness of the show. The pacing is just so slightly off. When people talk to each other, they seem to speak to a spot just to the left and above of each other’s left ear. No one could ever eat that many donuts.
Why does everything feel so familiar, and yet so unnervingly different? It’s in the title: Twin Peaks is a show about doubles and doubling, about dual natures and dual motives. The owls are not what they seem. Neither, perhaps, are you.
This is what made Twin Peaks the phenomenon it was. People couldn’t not linger by the coffee machine and ask their co-workers, what exactly happened last night? The audience didn’t stay; the show was simply too weird. But the show’s influence on TV storytelling is still felt today: Twin Peaks laid the rails for what has become known as “prestige” television.