Recently, IO9.com posited a question – did the ahead-of-its-time tv show Twin Peaks reveal its central mystery too soon? It’s a sort of academic question, given that doing so clearly killed the show’s ratings, but there’s some important subtext that needs to be examined in answering the question.
First, to be clear, Twin Peaks existed in a very different time than tv shows today. Shows like Lost or True Detective or American Horror Story wouldn’t even have been given a chance, let alone go on to become majorly popular shows. The idea of continuity in prime time dramas was exclusively owned by the night time soap operas, and the tv schedule was dominated not by idiotic reality shows, but instead by idiotic situation comedies. The point is, the audience was not primed to wait for season after season for answers to riddles. They were used to everything being wrapped up in a single episode, or perhaps over a two-parter at most. They had no frame of reference for a show that wanted to keep its most central plot point, who killed Laura Palmer, a secret.
With that in mind, did the show pop its cork too soon? I don’t believe so. It’s not the reveal, which was handled in such a magnificent way, that caused the problems for the show, it’s what came after.
The first problem came from the resolution of the murder. We now knew Leland Palmer was behind it. Further, we knew he was possessed by Killer BOB. Ok, great, that’s still a plot point to resolve, and the show does delve into this. The problem is, Killer BOB became a very specialized plot point. Only Agent Cooper really had much to do with it while everyone else was simply kicked to the side into subplots that weren’t very engaging. With the Laura Palmer mystery, EVERYONE was involved. Shelley Johnson, who had very little to do with Laura, was involved because she found Leo’s bloody shirt. Big Ed was involved because he was James’ uncle and also a Bookhouse Boy helping with the investigation. Even Catherine Martel was involved, because her husband found the body and she was uncovering just how twisted Ben Horne was (not that she wasn’t equally twisted). Everyone in Twin Peaks seemed to have a Laura secret they held close.
After the reveal, all of that stopped. It’s like a grenade went off and scattered the plot lines to the four winds. It wasn’t just the draining of tension in finally knowing who the killer was, it was that many of the plot lines just sort of derailed. Some of them weren’t very interesting to begin with, such as Teen Nadine the super amnesiac. They were background that made the show seemed quirky, but they were never good enough to be front and center plot lines. Even the mill fire plot really wasn’t that engaging.
What should have happened was a focus on BOB and how BOB and MIKE and the rest of the characters from the White and Black Lodge had touched everyone’s life in Twin Peaks. Imagine people realizing suddenly that some of the things they had done in life wasn’t their choice, or their memories were altered. Or perhaps the whole town is in a sort of temporal stasis – imagine if Cooper found out that there had been a Laura Palmer killed in Twin Peaks every thirty years or so, maybe with a different name, but always her, and always with the same people, in essence, tied to the case. Even simply tying together some of the weirdness to the lodges would have helped. Make Nadine’s amnesia caused by the Black Lodge, or have Catherine survive the mill fire because of an owl that led her to safety.
The point is, the reveal itself didn’t kill the show, but instead breaking the center away from all of the plot lines did.
A second major problem was the killing off of the Cooper/Audrey relationship. Granted it was a little skeevy for a thirty-something FBI agent to be hanging around with an eighteen year old high school girl, but the dynamic between these characters was part of the driving force of the show. I understand the need to stop the romantic subplot, but there was no reason to so completely wall off the two characters. Seeing Audrey as Cooper’s “sidekick” would have been a very good way to keep the show moving. Having the two of them investigating the other weirdness in Twin Peaks, trying to find out why BOB and MIKE exist and how to stop the upheaval from the two lodges would have been a good story. In time, if this worked, you could gradually reintroduce the romantic subplot, as Audrey’s affections go from school girl crush to true, mature love. But unfortunately, the writers sort of lost their way and cut the two characters off from one another.
The Audrey/Cooper connection could have also allowed things to progress in a direction only hinted at in the series. There seemed to be a way that spirits, or parts of a person, could come to inhabit physical objects. The most blatant was the Log Lady’s log, which held the spirit of her dead husband, but there was also the wooden knob with Josie Packard’s soul trapped in it, and I think a case could be made for Laura’s glasses. In fact, I think Laura’s glasses could have been the perfect Audrey/Cooper tie-in. When Maddy gives the glasses to Donna, there’s a weird look on her face, and she is acting quite differently than we’ve seen shy, mousy Maddy act. Once Donna comes into possession of them, she too changes, becoming, in a word, sluttier. She starts taking on characteristics that are clearly more Laura than Donna. This whole plot point was, however, dropped. It would have been perfect had Audrey found the glasses for her to put them on and then have to have Cooper figure out why her attitude changed so much.
In any event, there were plenty of places for the story to go, it simply seemed like the writers ran out of gas.