Although the original run of "Twin Peaks" only lasted two seasons (and a box-office flop of a prequel movie), it did manage to have a massive impact on the TV shows that would come after. It's easy to see the influence of the show's surreal bent in all of Tony's dream sequences in "The Sopranos," just as it's easy to see traces of the red room in the afterlife-hotel Kevin goes to in "The Leftovers."
The show it had the clearest influence on, of course, is "Lost." Like "Twin Peaks," the 2000s show about a mysterious island was a breakout hit from day one, and then immediately started frustrating fans with the apparent lack of pay-off to any of its big mysteries. Fans of "Lost" wanted to know more about those voices in the woods, or what the mysterious monster was up to, or who exactly the Others were. (The answer? It's complicated.)
"Twin Peaks" was also filled with unanswered mysteries, although its fans were mostly just focused on the big one: who killed Laura Palmer? Not solving the central mystery in the first episode was already fairly unprecedented for the time; not solving it within their first season was borderline insulting. But if creators David Lynch and Mark Frost had their way, the show never would've answered the mystery at all. "That was the goose that laid these golden eggs," Lynch explained in a 2017 interview with the Hollywood Reporter. "And at a certain point, we were told to wrap that up, and it never really got back going after that."
Two Different Types Of Network Meddling
While the reveal and immediate aftermath of Laura's killer halfway through the second season made for some pretty good TV, "Twin Peaks" didn't seem to know what to do with itself afterward. The storylines grew increasingly silly, the ratings plummeted, and the show wouldn't get its third season until a full 25 years later. For "Lost" showrunner Damon Lindelof, it was a somewhat ironic fate for "Twin Peaks," because it was basically the opposite of what would happen to his own show. Whereas the ABC executives forced Lynch to resolve his central mystery much sooner than he intended to, they would later try to force Lindelof and the other "Lost" writers to drag the mysteries out for as long as possible.
"They were just like, 'Do you understand how hard it is to make a show that people want to watch? And people like the show, so why would we end it?' You don't do that. Like, you don't end shows that people are watching," Lindelof explained in a 2020 Collider interview. For the first few seasons, most of the behind-the-scenes conflicts around "Lost" centered around the writers wanting to work towards an ending for the show, and the network wanting to keep it going indefinitely. Over a decade earlier, meanwhile, "Twin Peaks" would be cancelled even though the show itself wanted to keep going. There were still plenty of questions left to be resolved, but without the big central hook that was Laura's murder, general audiences didn't seem to care anymore.
The Key Difference
The main reason "Lost" stayed fairly popular for six seasons straight while "Twin Peaks" floundered after the first dozen or so episodes, according to Lindelof, was that the success of "Lost" wasn't really tied to any one specific question. "What's with the smoke monster?" was just as pressing a concern as "What's with those numbers Hurley keeps seeing?" or "Why can't women survive pregnancy on the island?" It also helped that these questions didn't have simple answers. The answers led to more questions, whereas the reveal of Laura's killer seemed like a pretty clear-cut resolution. As Lindelof put it:
"By the time they revealed who killed Laura Palmer, they hadn't laid the seed on any other compelling mysteries to keep people engaged in the show. Even though I was still much more interested in the Black Lodge and all the crazy s**t that was happening around Laura Palmer's murder, for people who were just watching the show to have that question answered, there was really nothing in its wake."
Of course, Lindelof clarified that "Twin Peaks" is still his favorite show ever, and with "Lost" he managed to take what worked with the show and make it slightly more palatable to general audiences. The mysteries of "Lost" were a lot less surreal, which means that the viewers could expect some actual, literal answers to many of them. "Twin Peaks," meanwhile, was a show that forced its viewers early on to accept that some things in its universe would simply never be explained, for better or worse.
Which Approach Worked Out Best?
The easy answer would be that "Lost" had the better strategy, considering that it stayed popular for six seasons straight. But after the groundbreaking 18 episodes that made up "Twin Peaks: The Return," we're not so sure. "The Return" was basically "Twin Peaks" unfettered; after two seasons of sticking within ABC-approved boundaries back in the '90s, David Lynch was now free to do whatever he wanted. He chose to get weirder, more surreal, and even more alienating to general audiences, and for the "Twin Peaks" fans who still loved the show 25 years after it ended, this turned out to be the right choice. That final moment with alternate-universe Laura screaming outside an alternate version of her house is as confusing as the show has ever been, yet most of us loved it. Whereas people seethed when the "Lost" finale didn't give enough answers back in 2010, the "Twin Peaks" finale gave us nothing and we were grateful for it.
Perhaps "Lost" would've been better off going in a more unapologetically surreal direction than it did. Sure, the fans certainly claimed they wanted answers, but did they? Because when season 6 started straightforwardly answering many of the fans' questions like they were ticking off a checklist, fans didn't seem too happy with what they got. Did we really need to know that those numbers Hurley kept seeing were actually representations of Jacob's final candidates to replace him as leader, or that the whispers in the woods were the trapped souls of people who'd died on the island? Or would it have been more interesting to let those mysteries be?
The Benefits Of Not Trying To Please Everyone
There's something beautiful and true to life about the idea that some questions have no clear answers, that the world works in mysterious ways you'll never quite be able to understand. "Twin Peaks" alienated most of its fanbase throughout its first two seasons by sticking to this idea, but by the time "The Return" came out, the fans who'd stuck around were all firmly on board. As "The Return" aired, the show's fanbase was now full of people who didn't require explanations to every mystery.
This is why 2017 "Twin Peaks" fan forums were a lot more fun to hang out in than the 2010-era "Lost" forums, where viewers had a tendency to reduce the thematically-rich, character-driven show to a lifeless list of worldbuilding-related questions. "Twin Peaks" fans learned the hard way in 1991 that sometimes you don't want to know the answers to everything, which left them free to enjoy the "The Return" on its own elusive terms.
Meanwhile, season 6 of "Lost" was probably the weakest section of the show overall, mainly because it tried a little too hard to cater to the answers-obsessed portion of the fanbase, which led to explanatory scenes that felt unusually stilted or sloppy. The show should've taken a cue from "Twin Peaks" and defiantly insisted on letting certain mysteries be.
It's hard to blame "Lost" for trying to please everyone, of course; the full benefits of Lynch's approach wouldn't be made clear until "The Return" aired 7 years later. It's an ironic twist of fate: whereas "Lost" learned a lot from the problems "Twin Peaks" faced, in the end it was "Twin Peaks" that seemed to learn the most from the failures of "Lost."
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