Mark Frost and Sherilyn Fenn on truth, mystery and ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’
The groundbreaking series’ co-creator and co-star discuss its enduring appeal and new season
As the co-creator of one of the most influential television series of all time, Mark Frost is decidedly circumspect when it comes to discussing Twin Peaks. The current golden age of television can be traced back to Frost and David Lynch’s cinematic bombshell, which debuted 27 years ago with the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and the artful withholding of information, sometimes to the point of frustration and confusion, but always, even if obliquely, deepening the mystery.
“I think one of the central tensions in modern American life is this idea of mystery and a sense of wonder about the meaning of life,” says Frost. “With Twin Peaks, it had to have its own reason for being.”
Frost is on the phone from his home in Ojai, California, talking around the mystery of the show’s unexpected new incarnation, Twin Peaks: The Return (streaming in Australia on Stan from Monday, 22 May). That such a massive cultural phenomenon with a cast of hundreds has not leaked any information is a modern-day miracle.
“There was so little precedent for the notion of TV shows being anything other than disposable artefacts of their time and place,” says Frost of the era in which Twin Peaks’ two seasons aired. “I might have been subject to psychiatric review if I suggested that 25 years from now we’re going to live in a world where the show is more popular than ever and we’re going to be able to come back at that point and go forward.”
Sherilyn Fenn, who reprises her role of Audrey Horne, agrees.
“David and Mark never – that I know of – planned to do it again or go back into it,” she says. “They must have some very deep-felt reasons to explore it again, and have some things to say that they wanted to say. I’m always open to being around great artists that way, and I think that David is one of the best that we have.”
When the first season began airing, in April 1990, 35 million Americans tuned in, expecting to solve the death of Laura Palmer in the small Washington town of Twin Peaks. Rather than giving viewers the entertaining police procedural about a beautiful dead teenager they’d been led to expect, Frost and Lynch entwined a spiritual detective story, a romance-ridden soap opera and a harrowing drama of grief and sexual abuse with a mystery they had no intention of solving.
After 29 episodes, the series was cancelled. Its final image was one of anger and defiance: FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), our noble guide through Twin Peaks, laughing maniacally at his own reflection in a broken mirror. In the intervening years, millions more viewers have fallen under its spell. Will they have a resolution to a 26-year cliffhanger? Frost can’t say.
“Television is a fairly brutal exercise,” says Frost of winding up the series in 1991. “When you’re working 16 hours a day to get the shows that are immediately in front of you finished, there’s no time to plan ahead with specificity. We were thinking in very general terms about where the show might go. Some of those things have found their way into the modern incarnation, but back then there was just no time. Once the studio said it’s over, that seemed to be the way it was going to go.”
Twin Peaks: The Return is literally bookended by two epistolary novels, both penned by Frost.
The first, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, combines historical fact, conspiracy theories and characters from the fictional town to build a rich backstory that Lynch pledged to completely ignore when directing the forthcoming series.
The second, The Final Dossier, is due out within weeks of the series finishing. It promises to fill in the years between 1991 and 2017 and is likely to continue The Secret History of Twin Peaks’ fixation on tying real-life mysteries into the world of the town.
“It wasn’t until 2012, when we started talking about bringing it back, that any of this seemed possible,” Frost says. “Between the DVD releases and streaming on Netflix the momentum picked up in a way that was really palpable. That was part of what prompted our feeling that we could revive this and take it to someplace new that would please the fans and also give us a chance to tie up some unfinished business.”
This unfinished business will have been on the mind of anyone who watched the show and then vainly hoped for answers or clarity in the ensuing film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. With each iteration of its release, on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and streaming platforms, this dissatisfaction has spread. Fire Walk With Me was booed at its premiere at Cannes in 1992 and, despite critical reappraisal (and four stars from both Margaret and David), still holds a damning 28% approval rating on Metacritic. It was, unlike the series, full of clues without a mystery.
Lynch and Frost created the new series as a single 18-hour film, broken into one-hour parts to be deployed weekly on Showtime in the US and Stan in Australia. The new incarnation is populated with Lynch’s favourite actors, including Mulholland Drive’s Naomi Watts and Robert Forster, Blue Velvet and Inland Empire’s Laura Dern, and musical muses Rebekah del Rio, Sky Ferreira and Julee Cruise, as well as icons of the previous series, such as MacLachlan, Fenn, Michael Horse as Deputy Hawk and David Duchovny as the transgender FBI agent Denise Bryson. New faces range from Michael Cera and Trent Reznor to Australians Gia Carides and Eamon Farren.
“We had to approach everybody on a case-by-case basis, but we felt people from the first season would want to come back and go on the ride,” says Frost.
“Most of us didn’t get to see entire scripts,” says Fenn. “What we got to see was our scenes. So most of us don’t have any idea what’s going to happen. One of the many amazing things I’ve experienced with David is his ability to be open to change in the moment. The scene where Audrey dances in the Double R Diner, he wrote that the morning that we shot it. I think that as he’s gotten even older he trusts his intuition and instincts even more. This story is coming out of something that is almost spiritual.”
One of the reasons the series continues to hold such appeal is its ability to maintain a focus on the life and death of Laura Palmer but also answer a question with more questions. There is no straightforward response to the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Historical pop-culture phenomena are seen through ever-evolving lenses, and Twin Peaks is now appreciated as not only a milestone of form but also a rare example of a story that honours the journey of an abuse victim who is also the homecoming queen and a bisexual sex worker – first an object of projection, in the TV series, but later empowered to tell her own story, in Fire Walk With Me.
“It’s astonishing to me,” says Fenn of the series’ continued success. “But David Lynch is that way, true work is like that, it just keeps growing. It doesn’t die and wither away, does it? It still has a meaning. Even while you work, he incorporates accidents and all of a sudden the whole thing changes. He never had the ego, he’d be like, ‘Just go with it, go with it. Oh, look, now isn’t that beautiful?’”
“There’s definitely a connective thread there for people,” says Frost, reflecting on its many interpretations. “This show talked about the horrific reality of intra-family abuse and I can’t think of another show that did it in that kind of way, certainly not up until then. Obviously this has been fodder for some of the great drama we’ve had down through the ages. What is Hamlet but a story of an abusive family?”
Many series since Twin Peaks have used the opening-episode introduction of a young woman’s death and layered it with mysteries. Echoes of the show’s open-ended approach can be seen in series as diverse as The Sopranos, Top of the Lake, Lost, Breaking Bad and 2017 hits Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why. When asked why he believes Twin Peaks continues to gather fans, Frost, as Twin Peaks hero Agent Dale Cooper was known to do, looks to Eastern philosophy.
“The philosopher J Krishnamurti said that ‘the truth is a pathless land’. I’ve always adhered to that. If you can figure out a way to express a portion of the truth, or something that feels true, then it’s going to resonate with people and they’re going to bring their own truth to it. The dialogue that results is probably more important than the work itself. What higher purpose could creative work have? Obviously there’s a desire to entertain and engage and that’s a noble pursuit too, if it gives you the catharsis that the Greeks felt was the central experience of dramatic expression. Family violence was at the heart of some of those Greek plays, so we’re kind of walking on ground that has been the path that so many other forms of storytelling have chosen. I’m honoured to think that we might be walking in their footsteps.”
All the historical revisionism won’t change the fact that Twin Peaks will be returning to a world of television utterly unlike the one it left in 1991, and one it had a part in shaping. Will it have a chance of standing out in this world of binge-watching and recap-and-analysis podcasts?
“I think more will be expected of it in a way, but my feeling about it is that having done it once I didn’t think it would be like climbing Mount Everest to do it again,” says Frost. “The pressure is on when you’re writing the show or creating it. How people respond is completely out of one’s control. I don’t really worry about that, because I can’t really affect it. It is what it is and it’s going to be what it’s going to be, so we’ll have to wait and see.”