When Laura Palmer's plastic-wrapped body was discovered on the shore of a lake near the town of Twin Peaks, the ensuing story instigated a creative television revolution. It was the first time that any TV show opened up the possibility that auteurs could make as big a splash on the small screen as they did on the silver screen.
The pairing of soap-like approach and bonkers narrative, with offbeat inhabitants and otherworldly subplots, launched TV into a new realm. That realm has become so commonplace that comparisons to it are expected. Now, saying a show is like Twin Peaks is another way to say boundaries are being pushed, that something is weird but not too weird to appeal to the masses. Over the 27 years that have passed since it first aired in 1990, so many of TV's greatest accomplishments — The Sopranos and its dream sequences, Lost and its riddles — can attribute some of their success to the path tread by David Lynch and Mark Frost years before.
Twin Peaks paved the way for TV fandom, redefined serialized TV, and has been parodied by shows from The Simpsons to Saturday Night Live to Sesame Street. Its influence is so that you can draw comparisons to many of the biggest small-screen hits in the recent years. So in the run-up to its new Showtime limited event series, set to premiere on May 21, let's take a look at how, even decades later, Lynch and Frost's weird little town filled with weirder folk continues to exist in various forms in the most binge-worthy and unexpected shows.
Hot on the heels of the original Twin Peaks broadcast came this series about FBI agents who investigate supernatural phenomena. The X-Files star David Duchovny appeared in the second season of Twin Peaks as Denise Bryson, a DEA agent originally known to Agent Cooper as Dennis Bryson. His role positioned Peaks as a forward-thinking depiction of a trans character, but the Duchovny link is only one of many elements that mark Twin Peaks as a direct precursor to The X-Files.
The fact that both shows feature FBI agents investigating the unknown is the most obvious similarity, especially since such things really aren't the FBI's game. Then there are the threads of extended narrative in The X-Files which weave science fiction, horror and even folklore into a unique web of story, in much the same way Twin Peaks had two years earlier. Regular characters on The X-Files also took advantage of the adventurous precedent set by Lynch and Frost; an enigmatic force like the Cigarette Smoking Man seemed a lot less out of place on TV thanks to the boundary reset performed by Twin Peaks.
The six-season ABC series following the survivors of an airplane crash who are marooned on an isolated island is so clearly a descendant of Twin Peaks that David Lynch and Mark Frost deserve honorary credit on the show.
From the ensemble cast to the remote setting to a fearless use of strange plot turns and mysterious events, Lost is firmly coded with the DNA of Agent Cooper's journey through the Pacific Northwest. Ironically, the sense of open-ended mystery that made ABC nervous when Twin Peaks was on the air turned out to be the very ingredient that kept audiences coming back for six years of Lost, turning the show into a massive hit for the network.
Fargo, Noah Hawley's show inspired by the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, is part of the anthology boom that began with American Horror Story. But the roots of the show's two long-form stories full of oddball Americana are planted firmly in the ground of Twin Peaks. Both shows feature the collision of several groups of people: idiosyncratic law enforcement characters, hapless locals, dopey killers, and powerful family dynasties. They also get a little strange.
The events of Fargo's first season draw more on the police procedural and traditional thriller structures that Peaks co-creator Mark Frost had mastered long before pairing up with David Lynch, and Fargo's marriage of the bizarre and the familiar draws on inspiration provided by the same balance of elements we see in the working relationship of Lynch and Frost.
But then there's also the rain of fish in the first season. (Explained by a tornado, but still: a rain of fish!) For the second season, an emboldened Fargo went a bit more weird, going to far as to suggest the presence of aliens, but more as an aspect of local color than as a huge plot device. This show takes unexplained phenomena as part of daily life, just as Twin Peaks did. Maybe the Project Bluebook concerns of some Twin Peaks characters would have them eagerly interested in events from Fargo, too.
Netflix's Stranger Things took the internet by storm when it launched — somewhat out of the blue — on the streaming giant last summer. Brimming with references to the cultural catalysts that inspired the show's creators the Duffer Brothers, its similarity to Twin Peaks was blatant, to say the least. The small town of Hawkins, Indiana, in which the series is set, lies on the edge of a dense forrest that hides a portal to an alternate dimension and, for the best part, the town's inhabitants are unaware of its existence. This portal leads to a murky world known as the Upside Down, a reality that is to Stranger Things what the Black Lodge was to Twin Peaks.
And that isn't the only similarity between the two cult shows. Though Stranger Things' opening titles carry a Stephen King aesthetic, they were created by typographer Ed Benguiat who, as coincidence would have it, created the Twin Peaks titles, too.
Series creator and star Donald Glover got our attention early on by describing his show as "Twin Peaks with rappers," but Atlanta turned out to be so much more than that. Still, as Glover and his co-creators constructed the journey of a scrappy local MC and his would-be manager, they always kept room for idiosyncratic pacing, and peculiar asides and flat-out weird jokes that call back to the style of Lynch and Frost's show.
Atlanta's joke (and payoff) about an invisible car wouldn't be found in Twin Peaks, exactly, but there's a kindred spirit in the way such bizarre concepts were woven into Glover's show. They're simply accepted as part of the landscape, and they work because the show doesn't give audiences any reason to question them. Of course there's an invisible car; of course Atlanta's Justin Bieber is black.
Then there are the character journeys in Atlanta, which are allowed to ebb and flow seemingly on their own terms, without any rigid enforced structure to make any episode feel like a "normal" show. Glover's series wasn't all that weird in the long run, but it plays by its own rules, with characters driving plot – or not, as the situation allows – in a way that can't help but remind us of stories of David Lynch's town in the woods.
If Twin Peaks threw you for a loop while on the hunt for Laura Palmer's murderer, then Westworld pulled you inside a vortex, spun you on an axis to the center, and spat you back out again. In an intricate labyrinth of subplots, HBO's sci-fi Western starring Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood birthed so many micro-mysteries that venturing into the maze felt like an untouchable dream — a dream that caused pockets of the internet to spend hours theorizing and debating its true meaning. And debatably, such a cultural happening would not have been possible if it wasn't for Twin Peaks.
When Twin Peaks first aired, it marked somewhat of a revolutionary turning point for US TV; weekly viewings became an event and fans would gather together to unravel the mystery. As The Guardian noted back in 2010:
Offices practically had to install water-coolers just so their staff could stand around them and speculate on who killed Laura Palmer.
With Lynch's auteur directorial style, off-kilter characters, and bewildering plot, he created a new kind of TV experience; one that specialized in confusing the living hell out of its viewers, spawning a new kind of fanbase for who unstitching an enigma was as enthralling as viewing the series itself.
When considering the initial narratives of the most popular crime dramas in recent times — Top of the Lake, Broadchurch, True Detective — you'll notice that there's a certain paradigm at play: The hunt for a young person's murderer or abuser, stretched out over a number of episodes, set within a tight-knit community. You may have also wondered whether this model's nascent form can be pinpointed to one question: Who killed Laura Palmer? I would argue yes, though in no series has it been as obvious as in 2011's The Killing.
Based on the Danish TV series Forbrydelsen, The Killing's plot circulated around the murder of a young girl and the subsequent investigation into the events leading up to her death. While this might sound like standard fodder for your everyday murder investigation TV show, the manner in which The Killing picked apart the life of victim Rosie Larsen and the secret life she led in the months before her murder created something far more complex.
Firstly, her character was made the object of the show's study, rather than the murderer, as Twin Peaks did for Laura Palmer. As we delve deeper into the investigation, we realize that we're dealing with a person who lived a duel existence, meaning we must decode and unravel interwoven events — events that take us down some truly nope-giving paths, leading to places like the Wapi Eagle Casino, which may be minus a One-Eyed Jack's but certainly delivers the same disarming feels.
Then you have the manner in which both shows portray the victim's grief-stricken mothers — both rendered hysterical, as you'd expect, but more in the nuances of their behavior — and in particular similarity, the manner in which they hear of their respective daughters' deaths. Then there's the use of the videotape's "reflection clue" by the police, and lastly, though by no means least, the most obvious reference: The Killing's marketing campaign was a direct wink to Lynch's Twin Peaks — Who Killed Rosie Larsen?
If we can call Twin Peaks the grandparent of weird-ass TV crime fiction, then True Detective is its biological, albeit somewhat more disheveled grandchild. Rotating around dreamscapes, a murder investigation and concepts of duality, both productions adopted conventional cop-show tropes and drowned them in abnormality.
From a Black Lodge and White Lodge to a Yellow King, we joined both stories to search for a monster and dance inside their respective creators' existential vision. Though the hunt is probably the most instantly identifiable comparative, it's this directorial vision that connects these two properties the most.
While Lynch and True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto may not have been consistently at the helm of their projects, their style remained the overarching direction of each series. Their single-minded approach and stunning execution has meant that it's near impossible to view either series without recognizing the characteristics of each director, transforming the shows into TV events that feel more like a long movie than an episodic adventure.
So, the next time you're binging an off-kilter TV thriller and you wonder who to credit for such a mind-bending achievement, the answer will, more often than not, be David Lynch and Mark Frost.
The new limited event series Twin Peaks premieres Sunday, May 21st at 9/8c – Only on SHOWTIME. Download the SHOWTIME app and start your free trial now.