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'Twin Peaks' turns 25: The five ways it changed TV

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ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

While the future of Twin Peaks remains uncertain, there’s little doubt about the overwhelming influence David Lynch and Mark Frost’s drama—which originally premiered April 8, 1990—has had on television over the last 25 years.

In fact, identifying every program that shares some DNA with Twin Peaks would mean naming most of the biggest dramas, and even some of the biggest comedies, of the last two-and-a-half decades. Twin Peaks’ idiosyncratic design, plot, characters, camerawork, and nearly every other notable aspect of the show have been referenced, honored, and outright copied ad nauseum since Laura Palmer’s body was discovered on a riverbank.

With that extensive reach in mind, let’s take a look back at some of the most notable ways Twin Peaks lives on after its short but influential 30-episode run.

The Season(s)-Long Murder Mystery

“Who killed Laura Palmer”? is a tagline that’s as iconic as Twin Peaks itself. That murder compelled viewers to tune in, and to expect it to be addressed—even if Lynch wasn’t particularly interested in resolving the plot. The show waited until its second season to reveal Palmer’s killer, and with the answer came a steep drop in viewership. But before then? Despite Twin Peaks‘ unique style, it was surprisingly successful commercially—probably thanks to interest in the murder mystery.

Scores of dramas that appeard in its wake have attempted to replicate that success, launching with a central murder or similar crime to hook viewers. The most prominent recent example? The American version of the Danish Forbrydelsen, here known as The Killing. AMC led its advertising campaign with a familiar-looking question: “Who killed Rosie Larsen?”

The Killing hoped to make Rosie the next Laura. But like Twin Peaks, the later show also saw critical flack and declining ratings for not identifying Rosie’s killer until the season two finale. No wonder subsequent shows like Broadchurch and True Detective elected to solve their central mysteries in their first season finales.

The Great Unknown

Murders are a dime a dozen on TV. But one thing that’s kept Twin Peaks fans faithful through the years is just how damn strange it is. At every turn, Twin Peaks is bizarrely and uniquely odd, filled with many more questions than answers—and anything, as nonsensical as it may seem, can end up being hugely important to the series overall.

Many shows tried to ape this mystique, hoping that throwing questions and oddities at the audience would keep them watching. (What was The Event? Why were they able to FlashForward? What really happened to The Nine?) And nobody has done it more than than the J.J. Abrams school of television. Yes, some Abrams-branded projects have failed (Alcatraz)—but both Fringe and Lost operated and thrived largely by making viewers ask, “What the hell is going on?” on a weekly basis. The continual process of answering questions with more questions, and introducing unexpected and seemingly arbitrary new characters and ideas, was a hallmark of the Abrams “Mystery Box” formula—and you can draw a direct line to it from Twin Peaks.

Before Abrams burst onto the TV scene, The X-Files dealt in a similar model. But while Twin Peaks was a phenomenon in its early going, The X-Files was a cult favorite for nine full years that also enjoyed high ratings—especially in its middle seasons, when it was one of the top 15 shows on TV. In many ways, David Duchonvy and Gillian Anderson’s government agents made mysteries that may not have answers—or make much sense—palatable for a wider audience

Location, Location, Location

Twin Peaks’ eponymous town has been replicated in two specific ways: small TV towns where strange things happen, and the woodland scenery of the Pacific Northwest.

The first has been essential to many of Twin Peaks’ spiritual successors. Some have found more life in the pecularities of a small town life than others—for every Bates Motel, there’s a Happy Town—but the trend shows no signs of stopping: Fox is introducing another mysterious titular town this spring with Wayward Pines.

Dreams, visions, and their hazy prophecies were integral to Twin Peaks—and have been just as important to the shows that have followed it. Tony Soprano’s dreams became major points of discussion on The Sopranos, even as far back as the show’s pilot. Buffy the Vampire‘s fouth season ended with an episode filled with extended, surreal dream sequences in which the show’s main characters encountered any number of important and random scenarios, from hints about Buffy’s sister Dawn to a man who always appears holding cheese. Mad Men shocked viewers with a sequence in which antihero Don Draper appeared to murder a woman… only to reveal that it had just been a fever dream. And then there’s True Detective, a murder narrative that seemed aesthetically similar to Twin Peaks, thanks largely to its dreamlike qualities. Because of that, many viewers expected the murderous Yellow King to be some sort of supernatural force. Instead, he turned out simply to be a man.

Auteur TV

Showrunners have become as well-known as the actors portraying our favorite characters in recent years. Breaking Bad is Vince Gilligan’s show. Mad Men comes from Matthew Weiner. Everything on ABC Thursday nights comes from the house of Shonda Rhimes.

But when Twin Peaks debuted, the general public was a lot less inclined to see TV series as the work of one or two people’s specific visions. And while every show requires a cast and crew, the idea of auteur-driven TV dramas began to find its way into the mainstream with Twin Peaks.

If you loved the mysteries of Twin Peaks, you’ll want to thank David Lynch. (And Mark Frost—but, as James Hibberd points out, the show’s co-creator has developed much less of a public persona that seems intrinsic to his body of work.) If you hate that season 1 ends with Laura Palmer’s murder still unsolved? Blame Lynch for that, too. Twin Peaks has grown to be viewed as Lynch’s (and Frost’s) work specifically, especially as the internet’s message board and forum culture developed not long after the show’s run.

The thought that a TV show could be the work of a singular visionary was relatively unheard of when Twin Peaks first aired. But as shows have become increasingly about central mysteries or singular character progressions, audiences have looked for a chief creative mind to latch onto and mine for information. Lynch may not have been one of the first—but it’s difficult to discuss Twin Peaks without evoking Lynch’s name. And that has become particularly clear as discussion of the show’s revival continues.

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