Damon Lindelof tells EW why 'The Leftovers' would not be possible without David Lynch's classic series
Let us be first to remind you for the millionth time that Twin Peaks, the short-lived sensation created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, inspired much of the television that has obsessed us over the past 20 years. To name just a few that hold the cult classic’s peculiar dark spark: Chris Carter’s The X-Files, David Chase’s The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers, Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot, and Donald Glover’s Atlanta. Since Twin Peaks also shaped modern TV tastes and watching — capturing the imagination for serialized mystery, supernatural fantasy, and cool irony; setting an early standard for internet-based conversation and theorizing — we can say Twin Peaks even influenced you. Especially if you’re a person of a certain age.
Of course, Twin Peaks doesn’t completely explain the vibrant state of TV. The radical transformation of the media business — the emergence of demo-driven networks that turned cult TV into a business plan — deserves more credit. There’s probably no X-Files without a network like Fox. There’s certainly no Buffy The Vampire Slayer without The WB. In his essential book The Revolution Was Televised, critic Alan Sepinwall identifies a critical turning point when TV went next level: 1997, when HBO, seeking to ramp up original programming, empowered the likes of Tom Fontana and David Chase — veteran scribes frustrated by the limits of broadcast TV — to pursue bolder vision with decidedly adult storytelling. The buzzy nerve of Oz and even more so The Sopranos spurred broadcast competitors to take more chances and basic cable to get into the game, and now, here we are, with “television” streaming out of every media orifice possible. That, kids, is from where TV babies come, in a terribly reductive nutshell.
Twin Peaks contains a version of this creation myth in its DNA, too. In 1989, ABC, looking for new hits, took a chance on a risky marriage with an avant-garde filmmaker (Lynch) and an accomplished TV writer (Frost) who wanted to make a splash by reinventing the prime-time soap with sophisticated edge and ostentatious quirkiness. Think of Twin Peaks as a kinky bridal dress: something old, something new, something borrowed, something Blue Velvet. The relationship didn’t last long. ABC ditched Twin Peaks after a year, the fast fade partly due to a broadcast network in flux that really had no clue how to manage Team Lynch or the wild, weird, FrankenGenre creature they had made. Yet can’t you see Twin Peaks thriving in today’s mediaverse? Maybe, say, on Showtime?
Mark Frost certainly could. In 2012, the Twin Peaks co-creator beheld the exciting things happening in TV and thought, I want to do that, too. He had the perfect creative vehicle for it, too, one with something TV networks love: a recognizable and marketable brand name. But he couldn’t do it alone. Wouldn’t dream of it, either. So Frost called Lynch and put forth a proposal: How about making more Twin Peaks?
Lynch had convinced himself over the years that there was no interest in Twin Peaks. “I felt that the thing had drifted away,” says Lynch, “so part of me kind of shut down about the possibility of going back.” He was wrong. Twin Peaks actually lingered like a ghost, and it was slowly gaining power. Twin Peaks was steeped in the creative fabric of television, as evidenced by many series. There were people who identified as Twin Peaks fans — cultists who could read about Twin Peaks forever and ever in books, websites, and fanzines like the legendary Wrapped In Plastic, plus many more who considered the show a generational marker. Twin Peaks was also starting to make new fans via DVD (the complete series wasn’t available on disc until 2007) and streaming services like Netflix.
Frost presented Lynch with several arguments for reviving Twin Peaks right here, right now. They had a story to tell — Twin Peaks ended with several unresolved cliffhangers — and their infamously bonkers series finale included a curious, memorable line that offered an irresistible hook. “I’ll see you again in 25 years,” the specter of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) tells FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). “Meanwhile…” And then she struck a pose and froze, as if a statue, or suddenly frozen in time. Frost — confident, ambitious, and maybe a little competitive — also argued that they had a chance to make some bold art, without compromise, in a new TV universe that allowed for greater creative freedom than existed 22 years earlier.
“What I saw was that the TV landscape had shifted dramatically and people were obviously hungry for storytelling that has broken out of the box over the last 10 years,” says Frost. “I felt it was time to take a kind of evolutionary leap forward and that we should be a part of that. David readily agreed. But we went in knowing we couldn’t just do what we did in the past — we’ve got to raise the bar. So that was our admonition to ourselves. This is a chance to keep pace with that evolving landscape, to contribute something new, to move the ball forward even more. And we had some unfinished business.”
And so it goes that the return of the show that inspired today’s TV was inspired by the products of its own legacy. Fun Fact! Lynch doesn’t watch much TV, but he cites Mad Men and Breaking Bad as two shows of recent times that he loved. Their hotly anticipated contribution to our Peak TV moment — an 18-hour limited series described by Lynch as an 18-part feature film — premieres on Showtime on May 21.
We recently asked several leading TV producers to share how Twin Peaks influenced them. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll be sharing with you EW’s conversations with them. We begin with Damon Lindelof, who co-created Lost with J.J. Abrams and The Leftovers with Tom Perrotta, now airing its final season on HBO.
Lindelof’s tale of Twin Peaks fandom takes us back to a time when TV watching was a family time activity, not a solitary, everyone-on-their-own-screen free-for-all. His very personal testimonial also shows how Twin Peaks was part of larger moment in which David Lynch was virtually atmospheric — beginning with his neo-noir masterpiece Blue Velvet in 1986 and including the hyper-pop nihilism of Wild at Heart, released at the apex of the Twin Peaks phenomenon — and saturated the public imagination. Here, Lindelof reveals how Twin Peaks influenced Lost, how Twin Peaks informed his approach to surrealism in The Leftovers, and how the legacy of Twin Peaks nearly cost Lost its legendary monster.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first watch Twin Peaks?
DAMON LINDELOF: When it first aired. I watched it at my dad’s place. It was on his radar; he was very excited about Twin Peaks because of David Lynch. We had seen Eraserhead together, and I had loved it, and I remember him saying, “The guy who made Eraserhead has a new TV show and I think it’s going to be very good.” So we watched the pilot together, and once it was over, we watched it again, because he had recorded it.
This evolved into a ritual. Because I was with my dad every other week, there were some weeks I would watch it by myself, but the weeks I was with him, we would watch two episodes: that week’s new episode and the previous week’s episode again on VHS. He would do live commentary and we began to formulate theories. This was my first experience, in the pre-internet era, of theorizing about TV.
So you liked Twin Peaks.
I loved Twin Peaks.
What did you love about it?
The mystery. The music. The pacing. It was also my first exposure to soap operas. There was just this complex web of affairs that was delicious. Within the first couple of episodes of Twin Peaks, you understood that James and Laura had been together, but James and Donna were actually sort of secretly in love with each other. Laura was also dating Bobby, but he was also seeing Shelly, but Shelly was two-timing her abusive husband, Leo, who also had something going on with Laura and was dealing drugs to Bobby. Meanwhile, Josie Packard is having a secret affair with Sheriff Truman, except she’s also involved with Benjamin Horne, who was married, but also having an affair with Pete’s wife and Josie’s rival, Catherine, and also apparently messed around with Laura. The sexual intrigue was bonkers! And for me, a kid, it was new and exciting, particularly as it related to Laura, this teenage girl who was mixed up in some really bad, traumatic, dark stuff. That was really interesting and felt very fresh at the time.
And then there Agent Cooper. What an amazing character. His entrance in that pilot is a classic TV moment. I loved his quirkiness. He had these obsessions with coffee and pastry. The fact that he seemed to really be enjoying having just a grand old time investigating Laura’s rather horrific murder was provocative and entertaining.
The show had this very distinctive sense of humor. Deadpan and odd. The Log Lady! People remember her as weird, but I just thought she was really funny. And Ben and Jerry Horne, the brothers, their names are funny because of the ice cream, of course, but that scene where those two guys are eating these huge sandwiches and relishing the sensual experience of eating those huge sandwiches — just the fundamental bizarreness of it was hilarious.
One other thing that I loved about Twin Peaks was that it was scary. Cooper’s dream at the end of the third episode, when he’s in the old age makeup and we see Laura and The Man From The Other Place talking backwards — that creeped me out. I slept with the lights on after that episode.
I go on and on like this, because one of the ways that Twin Peaks impacted me was that it showed me that a TV show can be so many things at once — funny, scary, strange, sexy, melodramatic. It was the definition of unique. I had never seen anything like it, before or since. And then — when did Wild at Heart come out?
August of 1990, between the first and second seasons of Twin Peaks.
I loved Wild at Heart. It was just so gonzo. Looking back on it, I can’t say I became a fan of David Lynch because of Twin Peaks. I was just a fan of Twin Peaks. But after Wild at Heart, I was just all the way in on Lynch. By the way, this is not to take anything away from Mark Frost, who is a big part of Twin Peaks. But again, my dad turned me on to the show particularly because of Lynch, and then with everything that followed, including Wild at Heart, it became about Lynch, and everything that came with him. The music! That Angelo Badalamenti score! I played the Twin Peaks soundtrack all the time when I was a junior in high school. I didn’t own many CDs — I had to buy them with my own money, and they were expensive — but I owned that one.
What did you make of the supernatural aspect? It became more important to the storytelling as the series progressed. We came to find out that Twin Peaks was a hotspot of uncanny and spectral activity because it was located near a portal into a mystical realm, not unlike the Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or, of course, The Island on Lost. Did you enjoy that part of the show?
That was interesting to watch unfold. From the start, you had Cooper’s dreams and you had his fascination with Tibet and a kind of mysticism that he associated with Tibet. That scene in the third episode of season 1, where he’s winnowing down a list of suspects through an intuitive process that involves throwing rocks at a bottle — that was funny and quirky, but it also suggested the supernatural, and obviously, the show became more and more supernatural as it went on.
But I didn’t see it coming. As my father and I were theorizing about Laura Palmer’s murderer, a supernatural possibility was not part of our speculations! But then we move into season 2, and you get the introduction of The Giant, and you have Major Briggs revealing that he’s been monitoring extraterrestrial communications in episode 2. Here, the show is openly declaring that everything is up for grabs. And I do remember loving that and being very excited by that stuff. But I experienced it as an escalation. The show didn’t start supernatural. It became progressively so.
When the show declared this supernatural aspect in season 2, a lot of people I knew who loved the show bailed. They wanted a naturalistic explanation. It reminds me that 25 years ago, TV was rather cool toward sci-fi/fantasy, although it was about to warm up to it.
That want for a naturalistic explanation might have had something to do with the fact that Twin Peaks intersected with another trend of the time, serial killer pop. I don’t know exactly when The Silence of the Lambs came out, but my memory of it is that it came out before or during Twin Peaks. [The film version of The Silence of the Lambs starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins was released Feb. 14, 1991, during the middle of the second season of Twin Peaks. The novel by Thomas Harris was published in 1988.] When you watch the pilot of Twin Peaks, you immediately think it’s a serial killer story because of the clues and how they’re found, like when Agent Cooper knows how to examine Laura Palmer’s fingernails and look for these pieces of paper the killer has been leaving behind with his victims. So I can understand why an audience expected a naturalist resolution, because serial killer stories resolve naturalistically.
How did you feel about the way Twin Peaks ended?
During the second season, I remember feeling at times, “This is not the show I fell in love with.” And then something would happen that would make me fall in love with it all over again. There was a storyline where Donna resumes Laura’s Meals on Wheels job and she comes into contact with this weirdo who grows orchids and is in possession of Laura’s secret diary. And I remember not liking that. But then Lynch would show up playing [FBI regional director] Gordon Cole, and I’d love that, or David Duchovny would show up playing DEA agent Denise Bryson, and I’d be like, “This is the greatest thing ever!”
Still, I was alternately in and out. The turning point came after all the big reveals with Laura’s murder, that it was Leland who was responsible for killing Laura, that he was inhabited by this evil spirit named BOB. Now, what is the show? Now, what’s the mystery we’re supposed to solve? It never quite locked into anything new that was as compelling as Laura Palmer.
By the time the show ended, my father and I were no longer watching it together, and it didn’t feel like it was appointment TV. I was still watching, but I wasn’t loving it… and then we got the series 2 finale. Wow. The sequence in The Red Room. Cooper getting possessed by BOB. Ending on him looking in the mirror and ramming his face into it. I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be cool! I’m back in!’ And then the show was canceled.
Did you see the prequel movie? Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me?
Yeah. That was a year later, right?
Right, summer of 1992.
I remember kinda liking the movie and still considering myself a Twin Peaks fan, but also sort of resigning myself to the fact that there wasn’t going to be any more Twin Peaks that resolved those cliffhangers and being kind of bummed about that. Still, I only had positive feelings about Twin Peaks. Even in college, in the mid-’90s, when my friends and I would talk about our favorite TV shows, Twin Peaks was always on our lists, even though it was only on for a brief time and even though it disappointed.
Why is that?
Because it was a cultural moment for people, and especially for kids of that era. We were the age of Bobby and James, Laura and Donna and Maddy. Even though they were all clearly played by actors in their 20s, there was an identification with them. The perception was, even if the show strayed from the path and went off the rails a little bit, Twin Peaks was cool, and it was a shared, zeitgeisty thing. But more importantly, in our pretentious NYU film school heads, Twin Peaks was important because it was “cinema.” It was an auteur-driven story in a way a lot of TV wasn’t, but was about to be. And, of course, it felt like cinema because it was Lynch, and we were all obsessed with Lynch in film school.
Did Twin Peaks influence your storytelling? I’m thinking specifically of the phenomenal “International Assassin” episode of The Leftovers, in which Kevin enters a surreal realm that might be pure imagination, might be some kind afterlife, or might be something else altogether.
There is no Leftovers without Twin Peaks, full stop. That said, when we tried to “do” Lynch — for example, Kevin’s dreams in season 1, where dogs are growling in mailboxes — we fell way short of the mark. It wasn’t until we embraced the absurd — like Patti pooping in a paper bag and labeling it “Neil,” or Nora simulating sex with a life-sized replica of a salesman while he watched, both aroused and disturbed — that we realized we were finally scraping the essence of Twin Peaks: weird and disturbing and spiritual all rolled into one. And yes, of course, the episode “International Assassin.” No way does that happen in a world where Twin Peaks never aired.
And Lost would never have happened if Twin Peaks hadn’t occurred, either. First off, the idea of mystery as the central premise of a television show came from Twin Peaks. Up until Twin Peaks, at least through my lens, a mystery show was, like, Murder, She Wrote. A procedural. Every episode, there’s a mystery, it gets solved. But the idea of a serialized mystery show, taking place over many, many episodes, was completely and totally revolutionary.
Now, there are downsides with mystery. You’re playing with fire. The minute you resolve the mystery, the show is over. Twin Peaks became a cautionary tale for that. Whether it’s true or not, fair or not, the perception is that once they revealed who killed Laura Palmer, there was no reason to watch the show anymore. I don’t agree with that premise, but I do think if you’re going to do a long-form mystery show, you have to have a plan for what to do once you resolve the central mystery. And the answer has to be, there just has to be multiple, multiple, multiple mysteries, so every time you knock one off, there’s still two unresolved ones in its wake, and you see how long you can play that game. This can become even more complex when the mysteries of your show are supernatural in nature or just plain weird. Which brings me to a story about Lost.
My memory might be faulty. I’m sure about some things in this story and less sure about others. But what I’m sure about is that, after J.J. and I wrote the treatment, ABC really only had two areas of concern. No. 1, which we have talked about ad nauseam before, was the idea that Jack, who would present as the main character, would die at the end of the pilot.
But the main area of concern was the idea that there was this monster on the island. In that meeting, present were Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne, who were the co-presidents of ABC. Before I go on, let me just say, if Lloyd hadn’t been the president of ABC, there’d be no Lost, because he believed in this thing from the word go. It was his idea to do a plane crash on an island show, et cetera.
But I don’t think he wanted the monster. So in this meeting, he says, “I think this outline is dynamite, but I don’t think that there should be a monster in the pilot. If you guys want to work your way up to some of that weird stuff, it’s a conversation for another day. But definitely not in the pilot. It’s too weird. We don’t want to do a Twin Peaks.” I remember Lloyd very specifically saying, “I don’t want to do a Twin Peaks.”
This wasn’t good. All the things that J.J. and I were starting to get super-excited about were the weird things on the island. The monster is representative of the idea that if they’re just on a normal island, the show isn’t going to be very interesting. But if the island’s weird and supernatural and, more importantly, has a long history and mythology behind it — well, that was the stuff that was turning us on. If we had to take the monster out of the pilot, that would have meant that we’d have to take all the weird things that we had already been sort of talking about. So I was having this bad feeling in the meeting: “Oh, no, what’s going to happen now?”
And then J.J. jumped in and said some version of this: “It’s 2004. Twin Peaks has been off the air for 13 years and you’re still using it as a cautionary tale. But even if it is a cautionary tale, we should be so lucky if this show gets to be like Twin Peaks, because how many television shows get remembered the way Twin Peaks is remembered? Twin Peaks was amazing and maybe it didn’t end well, but we can learn from its mistakes. We should be so lucky to be compared to Twin Peaks! We should aspire to Twin Peaks!”
And Lloyd said, “Okay, do your monster.”
At this point in your working relationship with J.J., you had only known him —
Did you guys discuss Twin Peaks in your brainstorming?
I don’t think so. We talked a lot about The Twilight Zone. We talked a lot about Dickens, in terms of how we would do coincidence and how that would be a big part of the show. But Twin Peaks influenced a lot of Lost. Easter eggs. Characters having secret motivations. A massive ensemble. These were not revolutionary ideas. Certainly not for soap opera. But when Lost came along, there weren’t really any shows on the air that were doing 14 series regulars. I think that the last time ABC had an hour-long drama with 14 series regulars was probably Twin Peaks.
I remember very specifically — although I don’t remember which season it was in — that we contemplated putting some Twin Peaks Easter eggs into Lost and then decided against it.
I don’t know if you know this, Jeff, but back in the days of Lost, there were these people on the internet who were fervently theorizing about Lost to such an extent that, if you made, say, a, reference to The Black Lodge from Twin Peaks, just as a joke, the people who were analyzing the show beat by beat, would be like, “Is the Black Lodge on the island? Is it possible that Agent Cooper exists in the world of Lost?”
That would have been my greatest favorite thing ever.
It would have.
What was thinking behind the idea? Why even make that joke?
It could have been something like Sawyer making a pop culture wisecrack. Shannon would be walking out of the woods with some firewood and he’d say, “Hey there, Log Lady!” … My knee-jerk impulse memory is that it related to our awareness that the audience was trying to solve mysteries and that there would be some kind of wink-wink at that. Along the lines of, say, a character saying that trying to figure out where the polar bears come from is like trying to figure out who killed Laura Palmer. It was for the best we abandoned the idea. Lost making a reference to Twin Peaks as it related to the frustration of supernatural mystery? That’s radioactive. We couldn’t be that self-aware without eating a tremendous amount of s—. … But in all seriousness, you are literally playing with fire if you invoke Twin Peaks on a show like Lost. The shows shared similar issues, and in some ways now, similar legacies. Echoing what J.J. said in that first meeting with Lloyd, to be compared to Twin Peaks makes me very, very happy, whether the comparison is positive or negative.
I’ll tell you this much, though. We had three years to build up to our ending, and we got to do the ending that we wanted. Frost and Lynch did not get to do that. Now, they are. And that’s the other reason I’m super psyched for Twin Peaks coming back. I don’t know whether this is a season of Twin Peaks that will lead to more seasons of Twin Peaks, or whether it is the final chapter of Twin Peaks. Either way, I feel like it was a story that ended in media res, and now, the very same people who told the first chapters of that story are coming back to tell a new chapter. That’s exciting.