Twin Peaks was a mystery drama series created by Mark Frost and David Lynch that premiered on ABC in 1990 and lasted two seasons. Mark Frost is a writer who originally helped pioneer gritty and realistic TV crime drama when he worked on Hill Street Blues and David Lynch is a film director who was known for surreal and dreamlike imagery mixed with brutal reality.
Frost and Lynch first came together when Warner Bros. hired them to work on a film based on the book about the life of Marilyn Monroe, Goddess. Even though Warners dropped the project, Lynch and Frost remained friends.
Lynch’s agent convinced him to work in television and make something about real American life, like he did with Blue Velvet. Frost and Lynch wrote a story about multiple lives in a small town. They created the town and the atmosphere before they created any of the characters. They drew the map, then the lumber mill, then the image of a body washing up on the lakeshore, and after deciding to make the body belong to a girl, they came up with her backstory and the reason why she was murdered, and right there was the underlying mystery of the show.
Lynch and Frost were creating a police investigation mixed with a soap opera. They pitched the concept to ABC and were asked to write a screenplay for the pilot. Disney CEO Bob Iger, who at the time was head of ABC Entertainment, helped develop the arc of the show. Iger liked the pilot but the other executives were skeptical about this oddball show working. However, after screening the pilot for a younger and more diverse audience, its positive reception convinced ABC to buy more episodes.
The show was originally called Northwest Passage and it was different from every other show on television. It was not linear. There was no “goodguys vs. badguys” dynamic. It was seemingly a procedural drama but it had these small touches that made it more interesting than ordinary dramas. It was slightly a fantasy. It was sometimes hard to understand. It was completely new.
When the two-hour pilot aired, it was the highest-rated movie of the 1989-90 season and was responsible for ABC’s highest ratings in four years. It even reduced the audience of Cheers, which it was fighting in the ratings, and increased viewership over the season due to the “water cooler” effect it had on the public. Seemingly everyone wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer.
Twin Peaks felt more like a movie than a TV show, and its cinematic influence and serial structure can be felt in the DNA of future programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost and almost everything on The CW right now. These days it is commonplace to center an entire TV show on one story but in 1990 this was uncharted territory.
The show did notoriously dip in quality after they revealed the killer (something Lynch did not want to do but Frost thought was owed to the viewers) and when Frost and Lynch loosened their hold on the writing, but its legacy as one of the most original TV series ever created has been sealed.