Next week sees the return of cult TV series Twin Peaks to our screens. Pour yourself a damn fine cup of coffee and fetch your log as I explain why it is the greatest TV show of all time.

"It is not commercial. It may be creatively brilliant, 
but it is nine leagues above the head of the normal TV viewers. 
I don't think it has a chance of succeeding.” 

These were the words of advertising executive Paul Schulman after watching an early screening of a new TV show from the ABC Entertainment network. An astute judge of such things, Schulman was absolutely right in what he said, except for one thing. The show wasn’t just a success; it changed the landscape of TV forever. The show was Twin Peaks.

These days, we are spoiled for TV entertainment. At the flick of a button or swipe of a screen we have access to a dazzling variety of quality TV shows with big stars and big budgets. But it wasn’t always so. There was a time when TV producers were happy to shoot fast and cheap, churning out popular, but repetitive and formulaic shows like The Fall Guy, The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard. Now I bow to no man in my love for Colt Seavers and the General Lee, but even I concede these were hardly challenging viewing. Elsewhere, sitcoms delivered short, easy laughs while long-running story-lines were the preserve of soap operas like Dallas, again very popular but lacking credibility as serious drama. In truth, throughout the 80s there was little for the discerning viewer to get excited about. Until Twin Peaks came along and shocked everyone out of their square-eyed stupor.  

Back in 1988, when the Oscar-nominated director David Lynch first declared his intention to make a TV show, there were some raised eyebrows. TV was something wannabe directors and actors used as a stepping stone before moving on the bigger and better things in Hollywood. No-one came back the other way. What was he thinking? As it happened, Lynch was thinking some very dark thoughts indeed. Like he had done in his controversial film Blue Velvet, he wanted a project where he could peel back the apparently respectable skin of American society and explore the rotten underbelly beneath. Teaming up with Hill Street Blues screenwriter Mark Frost, they envisaged a story of sex, drugs, adultery, prostitution and corruption, all set in a small, picturesque logging town in the Pacific Northwest. It would be a whodunnit in which FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper would investigate the mysterious murder of Laura Palmer, a popular high-school student. But there would also be a supernatural element, which would allow them to venture into horror territory. Clearly, Twin Peaks would be like nothing else on TV. 

Baywatch, this wasn't.
When the remarkable, feature-length pilot episode of Twin Peaks was first screened in April 1990, those who tuned in weren’t exactly sure what they were watching. It was a strange, scary murder-mystery, but also a sexy, darkly funny soap opera. It had intriguingly odd characters played by a mix of hot new stars and some familiar faces, most notably Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Cooper. It featured extraordinary, haunting music from Angelo Badalamenti which would become as iconic as the show itself. It had film production values so its cinematic aesthetic meant it even looked different from other shows. Everything wasn’t explained and wrapped up in a neat package by the time the credits rolled. It even had a sinister, backwards-speaking dwarf. Basically, it was radically different from anything viewers were accustomed to seeing and they wanted more.  It soon attracted a devoted audience and with no access to spoilers in those early-Internet days, anticipation for each new episode became feverish. Meetings and conferences were even ended early to ensure people could get home in time to see the next episode. Twin Peaks viewing parties became commonplace and ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer?’ was the hot topic for water-cooler discussion. In short, Season 1 was one of the most startlingly original things ever shown on TV and by the time it finished after 8 episodes, ABC, to their great astonishment, had a fully-fledged cult phenomenon on their hands. So what did they do with their golden goose? They killed it, of course.

Twin Peaks only ran for one more season. In a move that would nowadays seem inexplicable, ABC brought increasing pressure on Lynch and Frost to reveal Laura’s killer in response to public demand. They reluctantly capitulated and the dark secret at the heart of Laura Palmer’s story was disclosed half-way through Season 2. It made for must-see TV, but thereafter the show floundered badly. Without that central mystery to hang the series on, Lynch lost interest and left the production. Audience ratings plummeted, the show was unceremoniously shunted around the TV schedules and its fate was doomed. But in just over a year, it had done enough to cement its place in pop culture and dramatically transform how TV was made.

"Diane, I think we did some good work here."
As a result, you may not have seen Twin Peaks, but if you watch TV you have certainly benefited from its legacy. It proved that there was an appetite amongst audiences for challenging, diverse TV drama and also persuaded those in the entertainment industry that TV could be a respectable alternative to cinema. Its success encouraged TV networks to take risks and invest in more adventurous projects. In the immediate wake of Twin Peaks, the main beneficiaries were series like The X-Files, ER, NYPD Blue and Northern Exposure, shows that were all given creative license to develop long-running, character-driven story-lines spread over several seasons. But even years later the influence of Twin Peaks could be found in the dream sequences of The Sopranos and Mad Men, the cliff-hangers of Lost, the satirical soapiness of Desperate Housewives, the dark humour of Six Feet Under and the non-linear construction of Breaking Bad, all auteur-driven series whose creators have acknowledged how Twin Peaks inspired their own shows. Not to mention the countless supernatural-inflected shows that have flourished ever since. For the Golden Age of Television we now enjoy, we have Twin Peaks to thank for providing the blueprint.

Yes, this is a real and quite disturbing episode of Scooby Doo 
But apart from its long-reaching influence, there’s a second reason why Twin Peaks is unique. Successful TV shows normally experience one of two fates. Either they decline in quality until they are axed, or they go out on a high. Twin Peaks remains the only show to do both. It is true that even the most ardent Twin Peaks fan would be hard pressed to defend the lamentable quality of the second half of Season 2. But before it fizzled out completely, a remarkable thing happened. Taking pity on his brainchild, Lynch agreed to return to direct the final episode. The result was one of the most extraordinary TV episodes ever screened; a nightmarish, hallucinatory return to the twisted brilliance of Season 1. It might not have made a lot of sense but in less than an hour Lynch had recaptured that special quality that made Twin Peaks so intriguing, before finishing with a memorably disturbing cliff-hanger. And that was that. Lynch revisited Twin Peaks in the patchy 1992 film prequel Fire Walk With Me, but that failed to revive the series. The story of Twin Peaks was over.

"How's Annie? How's Annie?"
Eeeek! Run away!

Until now. It is happening again. Twin Peaks is returning to our TV screens with Lynch, Frost and most of the original cast back on board, plus a host of new names. A typically enigmatic marketing campaign has revealed few details, other than it is set 25 years after the events of the original series. This has both excited and worried fans, because although it will be great to have those characters back again, few shows make a successful return from the dead. Much time has passed and many questions need answered. In a crowded marketplace, patrolled by Internet trolls, can Twin Peaks ever hope to deliver the same impact? Will the terrifying BOB be back? And how, indeed, is Annie? All we know is that we’re 100% sure we’re not completely sure what we’ll see. And remember the owls are not what they seem.

Twin Peaks is scheduled to premiere on Sky Atlantic on Monday, May 22 at 2am. !kcoR s’teL

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