David Lynch and Twin Peaks — How it Drew the Blueprint for the Golden Age of Television

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R E V I E W – T V  S E R I E S

Anindya Arif

Twin Peaks first aired on 8 April, 1990 — in an era when primetime television was mostly dominated by safe, unambitious, and loud sitcoms and soap operas like Cheers, Full House, and Dynasty — with mostly standalone episodes. In midst of this television culture of shared consciousness and predictable plot lines emerged Twin Peaks, with its elements of occultism, irony, horror, soap opera, canned narrative, Lynch’s dream logic, and with a prepossessing cast diddling-about.

David Lynch and Mark Frosts transfigured how televisions tell season(s) long plots. For Twin Peaks, it was who killed the electric homecoming queen Laura Palmer. The first season with only eight episodes unheard of in that era introduced the audience to a new cinematheque way of storytelling in television in the misty Northwest town of Twin Peaks.

The second season of Twin Peaks disclosed the central mystery early on due to studio pressures from ABC and the writers having a misunderstood sense of the Lynchian style. Even with overblown character arcs, continuous tonal shifts, and James taking up an unnecessary amount of screen space in that season, Twin Peaks still managed to set precedents for plot breakdowns and plot branching that shows even today follow well into their fourth or fifth seasons.

Twin Peaks, from its pilot, with so much focus on a variety of characters and subplots, developed a new structural formula that let go of the expectation that every episode was to end with a plot closure. It pioneered the idea that this experimental storytelling approach will catch on with the audience and challenge them to move around confusing plot threads involving multiple realities, psychiatric disorders, and regular detective procedural subverted by a supernatural presence that plays important parts in the story.

The best part of the show is how distinct and fleshed out each character feels and even though there are so many of them, they never blend into each other. The inhabitants of Twin Peaks are nothing like what they seem and at the start, everyone is a suspect with underlying darkness within them. The ensembles’ character growth is done through quirks and personal intrigue elements. A big reason is that Twin Peaks spends a lot of time showing us these characters doing mundane chores unrelated to the plot. This creates tangents that, instead of repelling the viewers, draws them in. Every scene, in reality, gives the viewer a chance to take a closer look into the everyday life of an odd society.

Even though David Lynch only directed six episodes among the thirty episodes of the first two seasons, his visual techniques and artistic vision are all over the show. Whereas most shows at that time tried to minimise the presence of a camera, the Lynch-Frost productions overturned television grammar by introducing film cinematography techniques, like stage blocking to make the angles, and more rigid and focused movements of the actors.

Quite a contrast from regular television that provides the actors with large frames and more than adequate light to maneuver around, which shows like Madmen and Breaking Bad went on to use later on. David Lynch also innovated conventional television camera techniques, such as odd angle camera — to emphasise the emotional turmoils of the characters and deep depth of feel to heighten tensions in the scene. He used a lot of empty shots to create anxiety and ambiguity of the accurate nature of the threat. The camera work also held onto characters for much longer than necessary to give out details on their emotional state. With all these visual techniques, Twin Peaks transformed TV into a legitimate art form and the origin point for the golden age of television.

This show, for how dark and dense it gets, still manages to remain funny which helps despite its absurdity to remain grounded.

Twin Peaks created its atmosphere by executing the sound design and a Lynchian motif through the contrasting atmosphere of a façade of a regular Americana town with a lurking ominous terror. The motif is further established by how the natural entities like waterfalls, trees, or owls hold occult menacing forces. The soundtrack, composed by Angelo Badalamenti, works as an emotional surrogate for the audience and has both dark and light qualities — with the lighter tunes composed of finger taping jazz and 50s sparky guitars, to suggestive lover’s innocence and romantic longing. The darker sounds rely on harmonic suspensions and discordance to register a feeling of the supernatural unknown. Besides, the show also specifically lets motifs for characters, feelings, and ideas to hammer in significant ideas about the plot or the inhabitants of the town. The music and the production give the town of Twin Peaks an element of timelessness as if it still existed somewhere in the northwest unfathomed by time.

Although television up to this point was mostly experienced as a disquieting activity in the background as they do other chores, Twin Peaks required the viewers to attentively watch the show. The show’s moral ambiguity and cloudiness with nonexistent boundaries between dreams, supernatural, and reality urge the viewers to construct their meaning and explanations.

Since Twin Peaks aired, television has had drastic changes on all fronts. Even though not all of it was due to Twin Peaks, it’s still hard to imagine the current landscape without its existence. Almost every show since has shared some DNA with Twin Peaks or have paid their tribute to it somehow. For instance, its focus on the supernatural directly influenced legendary shows like the X-files, Lost, and more recently, Stranger Things. Twin Peaks also formulated the concept of how a story does not need to centre around a single protagonist, but can be a larger playground for creators to tell more complex and involved stories, and for the audiences to do a well-rounded investigation of it using intuition and logic. It also instilled confidence in TV authors to trust instincts over meaning or create moods over logic. Yet the show’s biggest achievement is how it changed the perception towards television and how viewers interacted with it. Twin Peaks drew the narrow line of not revealing an obvious truth, and the beauty of the show at its centre is — it can be whatever the viewers feel about it.


At its core, Twin Peaks is an odyssey of good-natured FBI agent Dale Cooper, as Lynch Frost production arguably made the single greatest TV protagonist of all time with his distinctive mannerisms, candid love for trees, coffee, cheery pies, and the significance of Tibet and his investigation of murder, but more so, its enduring resonance in popular culture foreshadowing the rise of binge-watching and how it elevated television from the idiot box to a critically acclaimed medium of artistic storytelling.


Anindya eats music, fiction, and reality — all for breakfast. Send him fresh recipes at [email protected] He is also a part of TDA Editorial Team.


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