[New Guest Blogger Jill Duffy (girl reporter) started Netflix-ing Twin Peaks, and had a few things to say about the pilot. Someone needs to write a book about the development of television, especially the development of the narrative arc growing from the episode to the season to the series. Twin Peaks would be an important part of that story, I think.]
Twin Peaks, the cult hit television show from David Lynch and Mark Frost, opens as a murder mystery. High school teen homecoming queen Laura Palmer washes up dead, wrapped tightly and neatly in plastic, on a small strip of shore outside a log mill.
In the course of the pilot episode (which ran for two hours when it aired in 1990, with commercials, or about an hour and a half on DVD, which is how I watched it), we're given a surprising amount of information. It's the pilot for a murder mystery, and yet we know:
• Laura Palmer is dead and was murdered
• Where the murder took place
• Laura led a secret life
• Laura was being treated by a psychiatrist
• The FBI agent sent to investigate has information that the sheriff doesn't
• A girl from another town (Teresa Banks) was murdered under very similar conditions
• Another woman was presumably abducted alongside Laura, but was not successfully killed
• At least two of Laura's close friends know something related to Laura's death that they are hiding from the investigators.
For a mystery, that's a lot of information to give away in the pilot episode for a show.
What's more, Twin Peaks debuted in 1990, before serial television programming as we know it was established. At the time, it was in a network's best interest to sign new shows that would be on the air for as long as possible, or at least several years. How did anyone plan to accomplish that with a murder mystery, especially one that shows the scene of the crime in the very first episode? It's a little bit baffling that the show was ever given the green light. (The Wikipedia entry for Twin Peaks gives an overview of how it happened, but not in great detail.)
Twin Peaks ran just two seasons in 1990 and 1991. The murder is actually solved (or as much as one can expect it to be "solved" under the direction of Lynch) mid-way through season two; around the same time, viewers lost interest and the show's rating declined. It was Lynch's intent to continue the program by exploring the characters and their mysterious town, which by many accounts is the main character.
Had Twin Peaks debuted 10 or 15 years later than it had, it might have had a better run. It wasn't until the late 1990s that television network executives, and show creators and writers, started toying with the way they air television. By now, viewers are used to shows that have a pre-determined number of episodes or seasons. In 2000, Survivor had to have an ending. We know when Lost will have its last cliffhanger. And neither The Wire nor Sopranos would go on forever. 1999's Freaks and Geeks was canceled after 12 episodes, but has a wonderfully crafted ending, leaving the series feeling complete.
Had Lynch had this finite serial format in place, he might have been able to better map out the murder mystery that was Twin Peaks and kept the show alive for four or five seasons, rather than watch it come apart at the seams (from the network executives' point of view at least) after one and half. In that sense, the show was too ahead of its time.
[Chuck Barris, creator of the Gong Show and self-confessed CIA hitman, once said that he considered being ahead of his time to be a mistake equal to being behind the times.]
[Update: I originally attributed that claim to Chuck Barry and Scott pointed out that I meant Chuck Barris. For the record I do not know for a fact that Chuck Barry did not say that. ]