(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Today is the 20th anniversary of the first broadcast of "Twin Peaks," a groundbreaking TV series that combined murder, drama and soap opera. "Twin Peaks was created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. It still shows up on cable, and there's a definitive gold box set available on DVD. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says even after two decades, his heart still skips a beat when he hears Angelo Badalamenti's familiar opening theme.
JOHN POWERS: Back in the summer of 1989, I was invited to a sneak preview of a TV pilot. I didn't know anything about it, but the moment I heard its opening theme music, I got shivers that didn't go away.
This was TV the way I dreamed it could be: funny, menacing, mysterious. In fact, it was so weird and wonderful that, as I walked from the theater, I remember saying: Too bad no network will ever put it on the air.
Goes to show what I know. What I'd seen, of course, was the pilot of "Twin Peaks," and several months later, ABC did put it on the air, creating an instant sensation. It wasn't simply that the program was a hit or that Time magazine put Lynch on its cover, dubbing him a genius.
Here was a show that had everyone talking the next day about the startling things they'd seen the night before you know, a spooky reflection of the long-haired Killer BOB, or the time that the sexpot Audrey Horne tied a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue.
By now, everyone knows the plot. In the small lumbering town of "Twin Peaks," a high school girl, Laura Palmer, is found wrapped in plastic: she's been murdered. Enter Special Agent Dale Cooper wittily played by Kyle McLachlan a chipper FBI man obsessed with coffee, diner food and Tibetan mysticism.
Cooper soon discovers that far from being an amusingly offbeat outpost of innocent Americana, Twin Peaks is a bubbling caldron of vice. Everybody has secrets, which are uncovered in a fashion that might be called leisurely.
Here, Agent Cooper is having breakfast at a caf� when he's joined by the local sheriff, Harry S. Truman, played by Michael Ontkean, and his dim receptionist Lucy. That's Kimmy Robertson. They think he's going to name the murderer.
(Soundbite of television program, "Twin Peaks")
Mr. KYLE MacLACHLAN (Actor): (As Special Agent Dale Cooper): Trudy, two more coffees, please. Harry, Lucy, it is an absolutely beautiful morning. A short stack of griddle cakes, melted butter, maple syrup, lightly heated, slice of ham. Nothing beats the taste sensation when maple syrup collides with ham.
Mr. JILL ENGELS (Actor): (As Trudy) Griddle cakes, slice of ham.
Mr. MICHAEL ONTKEAN (Actor): (As Harry S. Truman) Who killed Laura Palmer?
Mr. MacLACHLAN: (As Dale) Harry, let me tell you about the dream I had last night.
Mr. ONTKEAN: (As Harry) Tibet.
Mr. MacLACHLAN: (As Dale) No. You were there. Lucy, so were you. Harry, my dream is a code waiting to be broken. Break the code, solve the crime.
Ms. KIMMY ROBERTSON (Actor): (As Lucy Moran) The code solves the crime.
POWERS: If you ask Lynch what he cares about most, he'll tell you it's creating a mood you want to be in. "Twin Peaks" does that with a vengeance, from its dark, slated photography to the enveloping score by Angelo Badalamenti.
Keeping us off balance, the tone leapfrogs between the silly and the sinister, the comic and the tragic, never more so than in Ray Wise's dazzling performance as Laura's father, Leland Palmer, who's sobbing one moment, breaking into song and dance the next.
"Twin Peaks" smuggled avant-garde into prime time, brimming with a surrealism you just didn't encounter back then. Remember that weird room with the dwarf who talked backwards? It took cultural stereotypes the straight-arrow FBI agent, the teen hottie, the wannabe James Dean, the corrupt small-town businessman and pushed them until they exploded. The result was an often-hilarious show bursting with raw emotion.
For all its brilliance, "Twin Peaks" did lose its way. The first season was astounding, as were the season two episodes that solved Laura Palmer's murder. But the others were pointless, and the world quickly turned against it and Lynch.
When he brought out his "Twin Peaks" movie, "Fire Walk with Me" in 1992, it was pilloried, even though, after a lousy first 20 minutes, this story about Laura Palmer is one of the most wrenching portraits of teenage life ever filmed.
But Lynch has always outlasted those eager to write him off. His 2001 movie "Mulholland Drive" recently won most critics' polls as the best film of the past decade, and "Twin Peaks" is today recognized as a landmark.
His work always feels dreamily timeless, and watching the series now, you're struck by how much has come out of it, for instance, Stephenie Meyer's use of the Pacific Northwest in "Twilight." "Twin Peaks" blazed a trail that led not just to "The X-Files" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" but to HBO series like "Deadwood" and "Six Feet Under."
Yet the real importance of "Twin Peaks" lay not in its direct influence there's still nothing quite like it on TV. It mattered because, like Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective in Britain," it revealed the untapped possibilities of television. And like all the greatest works of pop culture, it did something more. It broadened public taste. Laura Palmer, Agent Cooper and the Log Lady didn't merely entertain us. They left the American mainstream a whole lot wider.
DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue, and his reviews and columns appear on vogue.com.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at NPRFreshAir, and you can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.