The return of Bobby Briggs: Dana Ashbrook and the ‘Twin Peaks’ phenomenon

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"It's happening again." (Still from 'Psych' episode, 'Dual Spires.')
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Dana Ashbrook moved to New York in the summer of 2007. The first time someone here recognized him was about a month ago.

It was a brisk afternoon in early November, and Ashbrook was at the New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases on East 17th Street with his girlfriend, Kate Rogal. They volunteer at the hospital once a week with Goose, a 4-year-old Shepherd-Collie mutt they rescued off the streets of Brooklyn. On this particular Wednesday, Goose was doing a pain clinic with about half a dozen middle-aged patients for whom the affection of a friendly canine helps alleviate chronic aches and fatigue. As they took turns running their fingers through Goose’s soft grey fur, they made small talk with her owners. Someone asked the couple what they did for a living.

“We’re actors,” said Rogal. Only then did the light bulb switch on in the mind of a female stroke survivor with curly brown hair whom Ashbrook and Rogal had met on several previous occasions. Here, she realized, was the gray-haired, 43-year-old version of the lanky, angst-ridden high-school football star Bobby Briggs, boyfriend of homecoming queen Laura Palmer until she washed ashore a rocky beach one cold February morning, dead and wrapped in plastic, in the pilot episode of David Lynch's game-changing network television series, "Twin Peaks." She jumped out of her seat and screamed: “BOBBYYYYYYYY!”

“I haven’t seen anyone react like that for seriously, like, a looong time,” said Ashbrook, who called the woman "sweet, and brilliant," the following Friday over beers at The Paris Café, an old South Street Seaport watering hole in the footprint of the Brooklyn Bridge. He lives in an apartment nearby with Rogal, who is the reason Ashbrook left L.A. after more than 20 years.

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“Twin Peaks fans,” he continued, “it’s a hardcore group of people.”

BUT 20 YEARS AFTER THE SHOW BEGAN, MANY of the fans on whom it left the strongest impressions are just making their way in television, and Bobby Briggs has his hardcore fans in TV-land, too. Like the actor James Roday, star of USA network crime-dramedy "Psych," which is one of the reasons tonight's episode is an homage to the show. The episode, Dual Spires, is meant to evoke the story, imagery and icons of the original show, capping a year’s worth of tributes to a series whose 20th anniversary has inspired festivals and marathon screenings from London to Boston to Seattle.

Long story short, Roday met Ashbrook in 1999 on the set of a short-lived Fox series they were both in. Ashbrook tells it like this: Roday knocked on the door of Ashbrook’s trailer one day with an invitation to watch the Lakers game back in his own. There, Roday laid it all out. “He was like, ‘Dude, I watched "Twin Peaks" like crazy when I was in junior high. I watched it every day. I know every episode.’ He was a super fan. It was ridiculous! So of course we became best friends.” (Roday gave a similar account recently to the website Collider: “I basically stalked him into becoming my friend.”)

"Psych"’s ode is a high school reunion of sorts for the eight original "Twin Peaks" cast members who appear as guest stars, including mainstays like Ashbrook, Sheryl Lee (who played both Laura Palmer and her near-identical cousin, Maddy), Ray Wise (Laura’s sing-songy father, Leland Palmer) Sherilyn Fenn (the sneaky and saddle-shoed Audrey Horne) and Catherine Coulson (a k a the Log Lady). The episode was filmed over 10 days in Vancouver this past September. It was just like old times except everyone had an extra 20 years on them, Ashbrook said. They went out drinking every night and reminisced.

“It made me very nostalgic,” he said, adding of all the wonky trivia packed into the episode itself: “It’s kind of like a ‘Where’s Waldo’ of 'Twin Peaks.'”

Above: What it looked like to watch ABC promote the strangest show on television.

REWIND TO MAY 7, 1990: NEW YORK MAGAZINE RAN A COVER story by John Leonard exploring “The Quirky Allure of Twin Peaks.”

A brainchild of coffee-guzzling cult director David Lynch and author-producer Mark Frost, "Twin Peaks" had only been on for about a month, but here was a show so ineffably sinister and bizarre it almost seemed a fluke that ABC had actually picked it up. At times sentimental, often funny, always surreal, the series was an Americana-drenched Pacific Northwest murder mystery whose classification seemed to oscillate between soap opera, black comedy and experimental horror film. People had never seen anything like it, at least not on TV. “In Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Berkeley, California,” Leonard wrote, “there are Twin Peaks watching parties every Thursday night, after which … Deconstruction.”

But the fascination was not limited to college towns. Here in New York, as Leonard’s piece documents, the intelligentsia would dissect the show’s every peculiarity at the conclusion of each episode. After the third—which aired on April 19, 1990, and which introduced one of the series’ most memorable characters, a dwarf who talked backwards and danced worm-like to haunting lounge music—Elizabeth Pochoda, then books editor at Entertainment Weekly, and Andrew Kopkind, the radical journalist, discussed their mutual obsession during a noon lunch. “It’s a warm bath,” Pochoda said of the show. “I’m on an intellectual and moral vacation.” Meanwhile, over at CBS, a coterie of "Twin Peaks" fans hovered around a large “tree” graphic that was designed to track the incestuous and ever-tangling web of idiosyncratic characters central to the storyline. (“Why aren’t people at CBS gathering on Friday mornings to talk about Valerie Bertinelli?,” Leonard wondered.) And feminist scribe Jane O’Reilly took a stroll through Central Park, “where the dog-walkers,” she told Leonard, “were extremely upset about the way parents treat their children in the Pacific Northwest, as if Twin Peaks were their own hometown, as if something strange were always happening to them in the woods.”

It can be hard to remember now that in April of 1990, premium cable stations were mostly about showing boxing matches and endless reruns of movies like Broadcast News. There were dramas that everyone watched, guiltily. But the notion of a challenging art-house style drama unfolding on network television between ads for cars and dogfood in primetime was positively shocking. The domination of the water-coolers at the cool-kid offices of advertising agencies, fashion houses, magazines and television stations by competitive television-recap sessions hadn't yet taken effect, really. And of course, this was well before the obsessive, S.E.O. maximized TV-recapping of the Blog Era.

Of course it was not to last. After 30 episodes, two seasons, two Emmys, and one fatal ratings-collapse, "Twin Peaks" went off the air in June of 1991. Today, it’s all box-set nostalgia and Netflix queues. (The full series was made available on DVD for the first time in October 2007.)

In the two intervening decades since the show’s creation, there’s been no shortage of boundary-pushing prime time dramas for viewers to fall in and out of love with. (That one about the plane-crash survivors stranded on a strange tropical island, for instance, is perhaps the closest the small screen has come to replicating its network predecessor’s viral mystique.) But for the devoted, there never has been, and probably never again will be, anything else quite like "Twin Peaks."

“'Twin Peaks' sticks in our memories because it represents a cultural or historical moment that's now lost,” said Richard Dienst, an English professor at Rutgers who’s studied and written about the show. “Was it just the vogue of the Pacific Northwest? Or was it the idea that television could be genuinely innovative? There was something about "Twin Peaks" that seemed to strike a new compromise between cinema and television. It looked different somehow. I don't think you can say the same about 'Lost' or 'Buffy,' or any of the HBO series."

Lynch himself can’t quite explain the enduring phenomenon.

“We had zero thought that this thing would travel so well around the world,” he told this reporter during a May 2008 interview in an Upper West Side hotel room. “Somehow there was something that was caught and appreciated by all different kinds of people. It was a magical thing that no one could have foreseen.”

“'Twin Peaks' holds up,” Ashbrook said confidently. “People enjoy it today as much as they did 20 years ago. I think it’s funny and interesting, and a lot different than anything else still. It’s had an impact. Even young people watch it now on DVD. I feel like William Shatner talking about "Star Trek," but it’s true. Young people are discovering it and it holds up. It was before cell phones! You watch the show, and there were no cell phones. People use landlines! It’s peculiar.”

BACK AT THE PARIS, BETWEEN SIPS OF BUD LITE, Ashbrook recalled his maiden visit to New York on May 4, 1990, right around the same time Leonard’s New York piece came out. He was 22 and soaking up his first rays of fame as the initial suspect in Laura Palmer’s impenetrable murder case. The previous day, Ashbrook’s manager at the time, Dolores Robinson, got a tip that one of David Letterman’s guests for the following night had canceled, so she tossed Ashbrook’s name into the ring. Next thing they knew, the budding actor was on a red-eye to J.F.K. He checked into his hotel early that morning and slept most of the afternoon before a limo bound for 30 Rock picked him up.

“I got out,” said Ashbrook, “and I looked up at the building, and it was so tall that I started to fall backwards.” He stood up, tilted his head toward the ceiling and arched his back to mimic gazing at a skyscraper. “The limo driver grabbed me and said, ‘Welcome to New York, dude.’ It was kind of classic.” He looked the part of a mid-90s cool kid on "Letterman," in an oversized short-sleeve button-down with crazy geometric patterns, a white T-shirt underneath, and black slacks. His hair, then bushy and brown, was styled in the popular McDonald’s arch mushroom-cut of the day.

“I’m very lucky,” he told Letterman that night.

After the taping, Robinson took Ashbrook to the Hard Rock Cafe. “Which at that time was sooo cool,” he quipped. “It was like, the Hard Rock fucking Cafe! And I remember just sitting there, and Dolores, I remember her telling me, ‘This is the start.’ And I was just like, ‘OK!’”

In a way, it was also the end. Twin Peaks, for better or for worse, was the high point of Ashbrook’s career. There have been many parts since—a recurring role on "Dawson’s Creek" (2002), a cameo on "Law & Order: SVU" (2007); his regular spot on "Crash" (2009). Not to mention the various “little things” he always has going on, like the occasional short film, and a play by Amy Hartman that he and Rogal are trying to recruit Pulitzer Prize nominee Craig Lucas to direct. But at the end of the day, it was Bobby Briggs that the woman in the hospital recognized. Ashbrook has no illusions or qualms about this. “I never had high expectations going into Hollywood,” he said. “I went there just to work.”

Hollywood is precisely where Ashbrook was supposed to be on Monday night. The Los Angeles hub of the Paley Center for Media was hosting “Psych! A Twin Peaks Gathering,” where it was rumored that David Lynch himself was going to make an appearance. (He didn't.) There was a screening of “Dual Spires” followed by a panel discussion with the cast members. But Ashbrook was in Pittsburgh, where he and Rogal had gone to visit her family for Thanksgiving. He had the flu.

“I felt bad,” he said. “We were all going to have dinner. But I just couldn’t go.”

Instead, he’ll watch the "Psych" tribute for the first time tonight, same as all the super fans. But he trusts he'll like it.

“It’s a love letter, not a spoof,” otherwise he wouldn’t have agreed to do it, said Ashbrook. In fact, it's hard not to admire his directness about his career since "Twin Peaks," and his genuine love for what the show meant to him. There's no bitterness, no reality-show bait, here. “'Twin Peaks' is the one thing in my career that I can really look back on, that I really respect and love and honor as something that’s different," he said. "The one thing that I can hang onto. I don’t wanna fuck with that.”