Twin Peaks Is a Murder Mystery Done Right

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Join us as we rewatch our favorite surreal TV murder mystery: Twin Peaks.

Twin Peaks was an ABC series that was introduced in 1990 to rave reviews and high ratings. Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, it was several different types of shows rolled into one: part murder mystery, part soap opera, part nostalgia trip, and part psychedelic dream. At first the combination of ingredients worked remarkably well, but by midway through the second season a combination of factors led to decreased viewership and the show was not renewed for a third season (abruptly ending in a cliffhanger). A film was released in 1992 which was one part prequel and one part epilogue, called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The series has inspired and influenced many other creative works ranging from The X-Files to Alan Wake.

Fans of the show know all of this, because they tend to embrace all things Twin Peaks with a religious fervor. I am a recent convert to the Twin Peaks community, since I started watching the show on Netflix about a week before the series return was announced by Showtime. In my view, the show is worth every bit of the praise it has gotten, and if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a real treat. Whether you have already seen Twin Peaks, or you want to see what all the fuss is about, you are welcome to join as we explore the series together over the next several weeks, starting with the movie-length pilot.

However, it should be noted that the show has a large ensemble of actors. For the sake of convenience, a full list of who-played-who can be found on the show’s IMDB page.

The first episode begins on the morning after the murder of homecoming queen, Laura Palmer, in the smallish Washington town of Twin Peaks (population 51,102). Viewers will first be struck by the beautiful mountain scenery, and the lush, down-tempo, jazzy score. The serenity of the opening credits is jarred by the discovery of the body of Laura Palmer by Pete Martell, who was going to the lake to do some fishing. He immediately calls the local sheriff to report the body, visibly shaken.

Sheriff Harry S. Truman then meets with Doc Hayward and Deputy Andy at the scene of the crime. Andy breaks down into tears, being the first of four male characters who cry over Laura in this pilot episode.

Next, the show introduces the sizeable ensemble of characters as they go through their morning routines, oblivious to the murder that has taken place. Laura’s mother, Sarah, (who is later shown to be somewhat psychic) has a sense that something is wrong when she finds her daughter missing that morning. She uses an antiquated device known as a “house phone” to search for Laura. First she calls the house of Bobby (Laura’s boyfriend), then the school, and finally her husband at work, all while getting more and more nervous. Laura’s dad, Leland, works at a country club and is talking with his distraught wife on the phone when Sheriff Truman arrives with the news of Laura’s death.

The way that these scenes unfold is incredibly powerful. Sarah Palmer is introduced as impatiently calling for her daughter to come downstairs in what must be a very familiar morning routine. The journey from that innocence to the realization of her worst fear as a parent is masterfully portrayed.

Laura Palmer is arguably the most empathetic murder victim in television history. Her loss resonates throughout the community, and it captivates the viewing audience more than any other crime drama murder victim before her. Lynch and Frost took the time and effort to explore those elements in a deeper and more reverential way than murder-of-the-week shows had ever done, allowing uncomfortable moments to linger on screen.

In contrast, an endearing feature of the show is the random weirdness. Examples from the pilot include a student who does a strange dance to class as the bell rings, and the stuffed deer head just lying on the table in the bank office (as agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman investigate Laura’s safety deposit box) . As the show progresses, so do these weird moments.

Twin Peaks is equal parts re-imagined crime drama and soap opera parody. Over the course of the pilot about 2/3rds of the characters are revealed to be cheating on their partners. Laura was dating Bobby, but she was also seeing James Hurly (brooding biker guy) on the side. Bobby was cheating on Laura with diner server Shelly Johnson, who was married to pony-tailed trucker Leo Johnson (1990’s view of a bad ass). There are several other sordid affairs revealed in this episode and they all pan out in various (often tragic) ways during the course of the show. Another remarkable feature of the town of Twin Peaks is how many beautiful people live there. And that, of course, is the winning formula behind every soap opera in human history: beautiful people making terrible choices and setting themselves up to fail in spectacular ways. Twin Peaks delivers this schadenfreude to viewers in spades.

FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper arrives in town because a second girl from Twin Peaks was found wandering and dazed across state lines. Cooper is an odd, but endearing fellow, who’s equal parts awestruck-child-on-vacation and Sherlock Holmes. Cooper loves good coffee, good food, and the beauty of nature. He links Laura’s death to a case he took on a year earlier, and believes the killer of both girls might live in town.

The investigation of Laura Palmer’s murder stretches out until mid-way through season 2. At that point, execs at ABC saw the ratings start to slide, and demanded that the killer be revealed. After that storyline was resolved, a slew of new characters were introduced, and the tone of the show took a noticeable shift, which led to it being cancelled after the end of the second season. I’m not here to postulate how long the show could have lasted if the story arc of Laura Palmer ended at the end of the second season (or remained unsolved for even longer), but I do know that the show began with a strong premise that was maintained for a good while before the creative forces behind the project lost their way. Each episode contains moments worth exploring and pondering (which we will continue to do here). I am very hopeful that the new, limited run, series will find a team reinvigorated and inspired to dream strange dreams once again.

Bottom Line: David Lynch, earnest acting, beautiful backdrops and unexpected twists and turns are some of the ingredients that set Twin Peaks apart from both current and vintage TV shows. The show stands out not only in the story it tells, but in the way it tells that story.

Recommendation: Twin Peaks is an odd, but timeless, classic series that offers just as much to new viewers in our time as it did when it first aired almost 25 years ago. It is well worth watching!


Kevin Mooseles knows (but won’t tell yet) who killed Laura Palmer. He enjoys a damn fine cup of coffee, and has been craving doughnuts every day since he started watching Twin Peaks.


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