It was cookies, not cherry pie, that brought Twin Peaks back to TV.
Twenty-six years ago, David Lynch’s surreal soapy drama about the murder of a prom queen in a small Pacific-Northwestern town was pulled from the air after the once promising TV show suffered a sharp decline in ratings. Tonight, on US cable channel Showtime, it will pick up where it left off all those years ago.
Twin Peaks premiered on US TV on April 8, 1990 with a two-hour pilot that pulled nearly 35 million viewers, a third of the nation’s TV audience at the time, the New York Times reported (paywall). It was broadcast on ABC, one of four main terrestrial TV channels in an age when households with cable received less than 35 channels and the internet as we know it was a sci-fi dream. (Households today get more than a hundred channels, but many cord-cutters getting their entertainment via the net.)
The Twin Peaks pilot became one of highest-rated US TV movies of that year. But its quirky characters and hard-to-follow plot made it too much of an investment for some. It didn’t help that it aired on Thursday nights, opposite the popular NBC sitcom Cheers. After a few episodes, Twin Peaks started to lose steam.
It was moved to Saturday nights, which was effectively a death sentence. When the show was sent on hiatus in February 1991, it ranked 85th of the 89 shows (paywall) on US TV that Saturday.
That might have been the end of Twin Peaks, if not for its eccentric fan base. A group called Citizens Opposing the Offing of Peaks, or COOP, in reference to the show’s main character, held a rally in Washington, DC where more than 200 people demonstrated with owls, logs, eye patches, and cherry pies, or wrapped in saran wrap in honor of the late Laura Palmer, Entertainment Weekly reported.
Lynch also encouraged viewers to write the then president of ABC—now the most powerful man in entertainment, Disney CEO Bob Iger—to insist that ABC give the show more time. (Some fans had reportedly sent the network executive stale donuts—another show reference.) “I’m sure Bob would love to hear from you,” Lynch said.
The network eventually acquiesced and Twin Peaks returned to Thursday nights in March 1991 for its final few episodes. It finished on June 10, 1991 with a lackluster 6.7 rating, which equated to roughly 6.2 million viewers. The finale was outranked by three CBS re-runs and a movie (also a re-run) that aired on NBC that night.
Still, those diehard fans never really let go of Twin Peaks and its pie-eating, coffee-loving locals. Despite being considered too weird for primetime, the series shaped the TV that followed. It influenced series (paywall) like The X-Files, Veronica Mars, The Killing, Bates Motel, True Detective, and Riverdale.
“It came out afire, and ignited the entire industry,” Iger told the Times in May 1991, around the time the show was cancelled.
Some blamed creators Lynch and Mark Frost for the drama’s demise. They appeared to have checked out part way through season two, which was derailed by unsatisfying sub plots and a half-hearted attempt at world-building.
Lynch says the whodunit died the minute network pressure forced the creators to solve the mystery they never intended to. “‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ was a question that we did not ever really want to answer,” Lynch told TV Guide. “And at a certain point we were told we needed to wrap that up and it never really got going again after that.”
Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) killer was revealed to the audiences in the seventh episode of the second season. It was the last one directed by Lynch before the finale.
But when he and Frost ended Twin Peaks in 1991, they left an opening through which they could return. In the final episode, a spirit who resembles Palmer tells protagonist Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the FBI agent assigned to investigate her murder, “I’ll see you again in 25 years.”
Right on schedule…
It’s unclear whether Lynch and Frost actually intended to revisit Twin Peaks 25 years after they wrote that line. (In the original run, we do see a dream of Cooper in that same red room, aged 25 more years.) But the story never stopped percolating in their minds. So when that all important anniversary neared, they got together to see if they could give it another go.
The series had retained a cult following over the years. Fans would find new easter eggs each time they re-watched it. And new audiences were rediscovering the series and its follow-up prequel, Fire Walk With Me, on platforms like Netflix and Amazon.
Lynch and Frost reportedly began talking about the revival in August 2012, over meals at the classic Hollywood restaurant Musso & Frank, Variety reported. They shopped it to networks, once they had something solid. And it quickly found a home at Showtime. The president of programming, Gary Levine, reportedly remembered Frost and Lynch from their ABC days—he, too, came from the network and was in the room when they pitched the original series. Showtime CEO David Nevins also loved the show. It seemed like a natural fit.
In the fall of 2014, Showtime ordered nine episodes of the new Twin Peaks. The fire was ablaze again, until it wasn’t.
Lynch and Frost wrote a 400-page script that they delivered to Showtime the following January. They planned to shoot it all at once—Lynch would direct every episode—and edit the footage down into individual installments. The trouble was, they couldn’t get the money they needed. And Lynch had no interest in returning to Twin Peaks if he couldn’t do it right. In April 2015, he walked.
Lynch told the cast and crew that “Twin Peaks may still be very much alive at Showtime,” but he wouldn’t be a part of it. The actors immediately came to the director’s aid with a video urging Showtime to bring him back.
And so it was when the network executives, Nevins—who said he had been out of the country when negotiations stalled—and Levine, showed up at Lynch’s door with a peace offering. “Gary brought cookies,” Lynch, who brewed coffee (he loves a good cup of joe and sells his own brew), told Variety. And the three men talked it out. They found a way to do the show the right way.
In short, the network gave in to pretty much all of Lynch’s conditions.
Initially, Showtime had only planned for 9-13 episodes. But Lynch wanted the flexibility to add more if he needed to. They agreed. And now 18 episodes are slated for the new season. Lynch also wanted the freedom to allocate the budget as he saw fit. The network execs handed over the purse strings.
“It didn’t fit into the box of how people are used to negotiating these kinds of deals,” Nevins told Variety. “Once I understood what the issues were from the point of view of the filmmaker, I was like, ‘OK, we can figure that out.’ And we did—it turned out not to be very complicated to [resolve].”
Lynch said his relationship with the network has been smooth ever since. In true Lynchian fashion, he reportedly delivered donuts to the network with cuts of the new season.