“Who killed Laura Palmer?” was the question on everyone’s mind on the night of April 8, 1990, when David Lynch’s surreal television drama Twin Peaks premiered on ABC. The naked body of the beautiful blonde homecoming queen was found washed up on a riverbank wrapped in plastic in the show’s opening episode, throwing the residents of the small Pacific Northwestern town of Twin Peaks into a tailspin and kicking off the central plotline of the series.
Shot in and around the logging town of Snoqualmie, Washington, Twin Peaks starred Kyle MacLachlan as the relentlessly quirky Agent Dale Cooper, an FBI agent who arrives in Twin Peaks to help the local police (led by Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Harry S. Truman) unravel the mystery of Palmer’s murder. He soon discovers that she was not the golden girl she seemed, but in fact had hidden vices such as drug abuse and promiscuity. As the story unfolds, Laura’s boyfriend Bobby (Dana Ashcroft), secret lover James (James Marshall), good-girl best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), grieving father Leland (Ray Wise) and look-alike cousin Maddy (Sheryl Lee, who also played Palmer in flashbacks) become some of the pivotal supporting characters in a large ensemble cast.
Before developing Twin Peaks with his partner, Mark Frost, Lynch gained notice for films such as The Elephant Man (1980) and Blue Velvet (1986), which also starred MacLachlan. ABC brass commissioned Lynch and Frost to create Twin Peaks as part of a larger strategy to turn the network’s reputation and profit margin around by putting new and original shows on TV. A soap opera mixed with a police investigation, plus a healthy dash of Lynchian weirdness, Twin Peaks was hyped even before its debut for its movie-quality directing, including cinematic pacing, complex themes and character development and eccentric humor.
Preceded by an avalanche of publicity, the two-hour Twin Peaks pilot aired on April 8, 1990, and was seen by 33 percent of the television audience, a season high for a TV movie. When the show began airing as a regular one-hour drama on Thursday nights, it earned the network’s highest ratings in several years and was able to cut into the huge audience of NBC’s long-running hit Cheers. Though ratings soon began dropping, the buzz surrounding the series remained strong, as critics called it the best new show in years. The show received eight Emmy nominations for its first season, more than any other series, but won only two awards.
Lynch retained tight control over the show for the eight-episode run of its first season, handpicking directors that he had worked with before or knew through other colleagues. During the second season, the myriad cryptic plot twists had audiences tuning out in droves, however, and the quality of the show was generally believed to have deteriorated. When ABC pulled the plug on the show in mid-1991, Lynch was forced to reveal the identity of Palmer’s killer, a mystery he had wanted to spin out over a number of years, according to an interview he later gave Entertainment Weekly. After the show ended its run in June 1991, Lynch directed a big-screen prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), which was poorly received at the time but went on to become a cult classic.
In 2017, the third season of Twin Peaks, written and directed by Lynch, premiered on Showtime. Set 25 years after the events of the original broadcast, the new season featured much of the same cast, and was critically acclaimed.