Twin Peaks debuted in 1990 and switched television. But how?
Nobody really believes that a drama could draw viewers on a Thursday night. Sitcoms ruled the late 80s and early 90s. Shows like Married … with Children and Cheers have eaten up all the time slots, drawing tens of millions of people every week.
The successful dramas were procedures and daily soaps – and both genres had failed terribly on Thursdays.
But then came twin peaks. This was an overarching story drama for the season. It was a thriller that played with form and reality. It was a huge risk. And it would compete against Cheers, the most popular sitcom of all time.
People had little to no hope on the show.
It was an ABC drama that seemed kind of dark to modern audiences. In a private pre-broadcast screening, media analyst and advertising man Paul Schulman said, "I don't think there's any chance of success. It's not commercial, it's radically different from what we're used to as viewers. See, it there's no one on the show to put down roots for. "
Well, people found out quickly.
The pilot episode, also known as Northwest Passage, premiered on Sunday, April 8, 1990 on the ABC Network. It was written by series creators Mark Frost and David Lynch and directed by Lynch. The pilot follows the characters of Dale Cooper and Harry S. Truman as they investigate the death of popular student Laura Palmer.
Twin Peaks debuted at 33% of the available audience and only grew from there. Anyone who said the show was going to flop has been proven incalculably wrong. Since then, it has had solid reviews and changed the landscape of television.
You can read and download the Twin Peaks Pilot here.
And then check out this video by Karsten Runquist that really dwarfs the show and its impact.
How the Twin Peaks Pilot changed television
It's hard to imagine how many people watched television in the early 90s.
The Twin Peaks Pilot was the top rated film for the 1989/90 season with 22 ratings. In its first broadcast as a regular hour-long drama series, Twin Peaks scored ABC's highest rating in four years at 9 p.m. Thursday time slot.
And this wasn't finding a new audience, but welcoming audiences from all over the world.
The show also trimmed NBC's Cheers ratings over time because people viewed it as "must-see TV". In fact, each episode added new viewers because Alan Wurtzel, senior vice president of research at ABC, called the "water cooler syndrome" which was the talk of the series the next business day.
Right, Twin Peaks was your original water cooler TV show (ready to hear other entries).
The season was marked by a murder. Everyone tuned in weekly to see who killed Laura Palmer and to find out what special things were going on in town.
For its first season Twin peaks received 14 nominations at the 42nd Primetime Emmy Awards. Nominations included "Outstanding Drama Series," "Outstanding Lead Actor" in a drama series (Kyle MacLachlan), "Outstanding Lead Actress" in a drama series (Piper Laurie), and "Outstanding Supporting Actress" in a drama series (Sherilyn Fenn), Excellent Directing in a Drama Series (David Lynch), Excellent Writing in a Drama Series (David Lynch and Mark Frost), Excellent Writing in a Drama Series (David Lynch)Harley Peyton), Excellent Art Direction for a Series, Excellent Performance in Main Theme Music, Excellent Performance in Musical Composition for a Series (Dramatic Underline), Excellent Performance in Music and Text, and Excellent Sound Editing for a Series.
The show only won for outstanding costume design and outstanding editing for a series –Single camera Production.
The impact was far more than just ratings, however.
Networks were looking for louder shows that would get people talking the next day. The procedural rule, which you saw as a problem of the week, was beginning to end. The audience showed that they were open to more cinematic storylines.
As Entertainment Weekly said "The show itself was just restlessly brilliant and ultimately unfulfilled, but the cult life, fueled by nostalgia for the extraordinary pop phenomenon that inspired it, for its importance for the medium (see the big bang of author television!) And for a sensual strangeness that owns you and never lets go of you. "
Nowadays we assume that every show is linked to an A-list director couple, but Twin Peaks was most responsible for that.
Even if we shift from the actual water cooler show to a streaming effect from week to week (Game of Thrones might be our last), people are still trying to capture the magic of talking.
The shows we know and love today have not only that but also complex and interesting characters that walk on both sides of the law.
Twin Peaks was an integral part of planting the seeds that became Peak TV, and if we look back, that's one of the reasons people believed prestige shows might find an audience.
Are you a Twin Peaks fan?
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