How Twin Peaks influenced The X-Files, The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad

Ahead of his Radio 4 special on the 25th anniversary of the David Lynch series, Danny Leigh looks at the cult hit's lasting impact

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Whatever you plan to watch tonight, there’s a strong chance you’ll be watching Twin Peaks. Not because the cult series is returning to TV – co-creator David Lynch recently announced its comeback, but that won’t happen until next year (if it happens at all).

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But if your viewing habits take in any of the shows that are now talked about as part of the current “golden age of television”, then you’re watching Twin Peaks, too. Because none of them would have existed without it.

For those of us who long ago fell under the spell of this glorious tale of mystery and cherry pie, the news of a return was wildly welcome. Quite why the programme has such a hold on us is no mystery.

To understand its huge and lasting influence we need to go back to the distant world of 1990, when Twin Peaks first aired on BBC2. It was a time when American TV was overrun by soaps and Britain had four main channels. Series bingeing would have involved hunching over truculent video recorders, hoping no one had used the tape to record ’Allo ’Allo!

So it was odd indeed to find Lynch on TV. In 1990, the idea of an Oscar-nominated director choosing to work in television was bizarre (even more so the maker of films like the darkly disturbing Blue Velvet). Still, he brought with him a more conventional collaborator in Mark Frost, a writer from US cop show Hill Street Blues.

Twin Peaks was a cop show, too. At least, it was sometimes, opening with the discovery of home-coming queen Laura Palmer’s body just outside the eponymous logging town. It was everything else that threw you off balance. The place turned out to be the home of all manner of eccentrics; the FBI man sent to investigate (Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan) was stranger than any of them; the whole thing came wrapped up in both comedy and horror. By episode three there had already been a cameo from a backwards-talking dwarf in a red velvet dreamworld.

But it wasn’t just the weirdness that made Twin Peaks such a distinct small-screen presence. It looked different, too. Rather than adopting TV’s usual hurried visuals, Lynch gave every episode the lustre of a movie and a less-than- frantic pace. Not that he had any snobbery about television – Lynch clearly loved it, patiently developing characters, structuring episodes around commercial breaks. The reward was a huge audience gathering each week at work to discuss it. Twin Peaks was why the media first coined the phrase “watercooler TV”.

The show was short-lived. It was cancelled in 1991 after just two seasons. But like other crucial TV moments – The Office is another – the briefness of its life only amplified its influence.

Even when it was still on air, other shows borrowed from it. The gently comic Northern Exposure became a hit in its wake, its Alaskan setting a reminder of Twin Peaks’s Pacific Northwest location. After the cancellation, there was a rush to replace it. The most blatant attempt was Wild Palms – produced by Oliver Stone, another Hollywood exile – a garish sci-fi drama that mimicked Twin Peaks’s quirks without any of its charm.

An extract from Leigh’s radio documentary on Twin Peaks with Richard Ayoade

More successful in every sense was The X-Files. Beginning in 1993, the show extended Lynch’s strangeness into the downright paranormal and introduced a new FBI oddball in Fox Mulder. That role went to David Duchovny – whom Twin Peaks fans knew as Dale Cooper’s transgender colleague Denise Bryson.

A hit throughout the 90s, The X-Files overlapped with another show that was even more of a spiritual heir. With its murderous New Jersey mob bosses, The Sopranos took place in a very different world, yet it would regularly pause for mind-bending dream sequences that doubled as tributes to Cooper and company. The show’s laconic creator David Chase rarely spoke publicly about anything, but he was known to be an admirer of Twin Peaks.

The Sopranos took Lynch’s blueprint of wilful idiosyncrasy and built a bridge to TV’s modern era. Soon, another Twin Peaks big idea – the central mystery that would last a show’s lifetime – became the basis of Lost.

Mad Men was another show that indulged a love of the dreamlike (there were rumours one out-there episode had been directed by Lynch). There was the sheer audacity of Breaking Bad, where, like Twin Peaks, episodes would begin with brazen non sequiturs. And the whole atmosphere of True Detective felt incessantly Peaks-y. 

You could throw in everything from the soapy satire of Desperate Housewives to the eerie Top of the Lake. The influence even extended to Europe. Viewers seduced by The Returned watched a show in which Twin Peaks’s small-town ambience had been relocated to the French mountains. And the phenomenon that was The Killing was a Danish investigation of the murder of a teenager whose life, like Laura’s, was filled with secrets.

Put all those shows together and the legacy of Twin Peaks looks bigger than any other individually. In 2015, Hollywood directors spend more time working in TV than they do making films. It’s the place where great talents can execute grand personal visions, just as Lynch once did, with budgets to match. Then, afterwards, their shows are gobbled up on box sets, and prized like any other art form. Because that, Twin Peaks made clear, is what TV is. So whatever you’re watching tonight – enjoy your cherry pie.

Read more: Twin Peaks – Where is the cast now?

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Danny Leigh’s documentary on Twin Peaks is on Radio 4 today (Monday 6th April) at 4.00pm