TWIN PEAKS Revisited: Episode One
By Eric Diaz on January 15, 2015
Welcome to the first ever Twin Peaks: Revisited, a weekly series dedicated to recapping every episode of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s now-legendary television series, as well as the prequel film Fire Walk With Me. With Twin Peaks returning to TV next year on Showtime (with original series star Kyle MacLachlan now confirmed to return), now is the perfect time to revisit the show along with me, or watch it for the very first time. This column will contain NO SPOILERS, so newbies, you can read with ease — I’ll only be talking about events in the episode we’re reviewing. Before we get into the nitty gritty of reviewing the first episode though, a little backstory is in order, about my own relationship to the show, and why so many years later it remains so very near and dear to my heart.
Into The Woods: How I Fell In Love With Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks has been my all-time favorite show since it premiered way back when I was 15 years old. Twin Peaks would eventually change television into the auteur-driven art form it is today, especially on cable. But on a personal level, Twin Peaks changed me. It got under my skin and became part of my psyche in a way no television show (or movie for that matter) ever has. The same way movies like Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz made me a fan of sci-fi and fantasy films at a very young age, Twin Peaks opened me up to a whole other world of surrealism and off-kilter filmmaking.
On April 8th 1990, Twin Peaks premiered to record numbers of viewers. I was among them, but I very nearly wasn’t. My brother, who is nine years my senior, was already a graduate of UC Berkeley, and like anyone who went to Berkeley, he disdained the “idiot box” that was television. He never watched TV. So when I talked to him on the phone that day, he said he had to rush off, because he and his friends were having a party to watch the premiere of a show called Twin Peaks on ABC. All I could say was, “Huh? But you HATE TV! It’s the Boob Tube.” “To which my brother responded “Well, yeah…but this is different. This is from David Lynch. He directed Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. This is gonna be weird and cool.” Well, if my television-hating brother was watching this, then I simply had to check it out.
And from frame one, I was hooked. The haunting music, the bizarre characters, and most of all, the utterly compelling mystery of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” had me in its claws. When you are a teenager is when you really first become aware of your own mortality, and here was a show based around a murder victim who was only a year older than myself. By the end of the third episode, which famously features a dream sequence with Dale Cooper in the Red Room with the dancing dwarf, I was simultaneously creeped out and fascinated, and more to the point, I was obsessed. How do you go back to Who’s the Boss? and Growing Pains after this?
Over the summer, between seasons, I watched everything David Lynch that I could; I fell in love with his film Blue Velvet, which in many ways is kind of a prototype for Twin Peaks, and rented it over and over again. I snuck into Lynch’s new film, Wild at Heart, in theaters that August. And when the salacious The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer came out in bookstores, I devoured that too. Twin Peaks got into my headspace in a visceral way, and it’s remained there to this day. No other show makes me crave certain foods, for instance, makes me wary of ordinary household appliances (I hate noisy ceiling fans to this day), or just evokes a feeling in the way Twin Peaks did. Shows have come along since Peaks that are better, and more consistently written and acted — Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and several others — but all those shows live or die on a literal level; at its best, Twin Peaks is always working on another, more ethereal level.
I say all this is with full acknowledgment that Twin Peaks, which only ran for two seasons and 30 episodes, is only half brilliant. The first 18 or so episodes, which directly deal with the Laura Palmer case (and which have the direct involvement of creators David Lynch and Mark Frost, before they unceremoniously bailed on the show), remain as amazing as ever, but there’s no argument from me that the show goes off the proverbial cliff for its remaining 12 episodes. And, of course, David Lynch’s return at the very end delivered one of the most incredible and frustrating series finales ever.
As an OG fan, it’s been fascinating to watch the show go from national obsession to “failed experiment” in the span of a year, then to all but forgotten for nearly a decade after (something that was especially hard to process since I never forgot it). But in recent years, thanks to home video, the show found an entirely new audience, and more people have watched the series now than they ever did when it aired. Twin Peaks has had the weirdest life and afterlife of almost any TV series ever made. Before it rises again from the ashes, now is the perfect time to go back to where it all started, and see if this TV classic is still a classic, or see if time has passed this show by.
THE PILOT – Original Air Date: April 8, 1990
The pilot episode for Twin Peaks remains one of the best television pilots ever made, rivaled only by Lost and perhaps the modern Battlestar Galactica. Taken on its own merits, it’s also one of David Lynch’s best films, period. At just over 90 minutes, it expertly introduces us to a huge amount of characters, all of whom have their own plotlines and their own connections to the real main character of the series, murdered teenager Laura Palmer. When her body washes up on shore on morning in a small Pacific Northwest town, it sends the community reeling.
From the first frame of Twin Peaks, Laura is dead, only to be discovered by local mill worker Pete Martell (the late Jack Nance, star of Lynch’s Eraserhead.) And make no mistake, Laura Palmer is the main character of this series — her death haunts the town, and part of the appeal of the show is not just finding out who killed Laura Palmer, but finding out who Laura Palmer was, as she’s filtered through they eyes of those who knew her — those who loved her, those who hated her, those who used her, and finally, those that contributed to her death. All of these contradicting ideas about who she was ultimately form the most complex character on the series, and one of the most tragic figures in pop culture. Her dual images in the series — her beautifully preserved corpse, wrapped in plastic like a bouquet of flowers, and her homecoming queen picture, smiling at the camera, taunting the viewer with the secrets she’s taken to her grave — remain the most iconic images of the entire series.
The first 30 minutes of the pilot episode are just about one thing: the residents of the town finding out that their beloved local girl was found dead. We are slowly introduced to our enormous cast, over thirty characters in all — Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), who is called to the crime scene with his deputies Andy and Hawk (Harry Goaz and Michael Horse) and who is secretly dating mill owner Josie Packard (Joan Chen). Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), Laura’s boyfriend, who is cheating on her with local waitress Shelley Johnson (Madchen Amick), who works at the Double R Diner with Norma (Peggy Lipton) and is who is married to sleazy trucker Leo (Eric Da Re).
Norma is having a relationship with Big Ed (Everett McGill), the owneer of the local gas station and is the uncle of sullen biker James (James Marshall), who was Laura’s secret boyfriend. But James was also secretly carrying a torch for Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), Laura’s BFF, who is schoolmates with the sultry Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), the daughter of local hotel owner Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), the boss of Laura’s father Leland (Ray Wise) who is carrying on an affair with Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie) who is the husband of Pete, who discovered Laura’s body way back at the beginning. Whew. You got all that? It’s a lot to take in and remember, and that’s actually leaving some minor character cameos out that become important later on in the series. It’s a massive info dump, but done in the most elegant and organic way possible by Mark Frost and David Lynch.
What’s so amazing about how Lynch and Frost choose to do this is that the words “Laura Palmer is dead” are never uttered to anyone until the school principal announces it well into the half hour mark — and at this point, everyone already knows. It’s all communicated with looks and innuendo; a distraught look on Sherrif Truman’s face as he approaches Laura’s father Leland, a phone dropped on the floor by Leland when speaking to his wife Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), or an empty school seat that indicates that Laura is never coming back to class again. Everyone just intuits that the worst has happened, and this unfolding of terrible knowledge is brilliantly executed. When a second victim of Laura’s killer appears, still alive but too traumatized to speak thanks to the evil she’s witnessed, the show takes on the tone of a horror film. Or, more accurately, the aftermath of a horror film that we didn’t get to see. It’s almost like the series was set in the town adjacent to Camp Crystal Lake after the end of a Friday the 13th movie, with the looming dread of a possible new tragedy waiting to happen, although no one quite knows when the other shoe will drop.
At the half hour mark, the show introduces us to our protagonist, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan. Cooper is still the best role in MacLachlan’s career. While Twin Peaks gets widely and correctly viewed as the precursor to a lot of modern TV, one thing that remains a throwback is Agent Cooper. In our world of complicated anti-heroes like Walter White, Dexter Morgan, and Don Draper, Cooper is honest and true; the ideal lawman as portrayed in the movies and television of David Lynch’s youth…with the modern twist being that he’s way weirder. Coop comes from an age when a badge meant you could be trusted implicitly. MacLachlan is clearly channeling Lynch himself when playing Cooper — e.g. the obsession with comfort foods, the tendency for using dream logic and Eastern mysticism to gain knowledge — that’s all Lynch made manifest.
It’s not just MacLachlan’s performance that’s a throwback; despite all the ways the show was ahead of its time, it was also timeless. Sure, there’s stuff in the show that marks it as “so 1990,” but the town of Twin Peaks itself is sort of stuck in a time warp, a reflection of 1950s Americana. The music, fashion and tone of Twin Peaks reflected an an era already long gone by 1990. (Although Bobby Briggs is the big exception to this whole timelessness thing; he looks like he just came from a Mudhoney concert in Seattle.) Speaking of the music, I’d be remiss not to mention the incredible score for the series by composer Angelo Badalamenti. Truth be told, Badalamenti is as important to the success of the show as Lynch, Frost and MacLachlan. His musical cues, from the mournful “Laura Palmer’s Theme’ to the jazzy “Dance of the Dream Man”, are as essential in creating an otherworldly feel to the show as any visual cues.
The remaining hour of the pilot switches from police procedural to black comedy to pure nighttime soap opera in the blink of an eye. Cooper gathers the town together to explain to them that Laura’s murder matches a similar case from a year prior, and this is might be the work of a serial killer. (It’s in this sequence that we are introduced to the Log Lady, the town loony who carries a log with her at all times, in a nearly silent cameo role.) The constant switch in tones can be jarring to people, and more than once, when viewing the show with someone new to it, I’ve been asked, “So, is this supposed to be serious or funny?” To which I always answer, “Yes.” There is no resolution to a single plot thread introduced in the pilot, it’s all about questions. That can be frustrating to many, and because of that, I fully admit that Twin Peaks isn’t for everyone.
Although the show is famous for its weirdness and supernatural elements, the pilot episode is just quirky at best, with Lynch and Frost holding back the truly weird stuff for later. The only hint of something otherworldly being involved comes at the very end of the episode, when Laura’s mother Sarah has a jolting psychic vision. Lynch and Frost did what the creators of Lost would do fifteen years later, basically tricking mainstream America into watching a fantasy genre show, all while thinking they were about to watch something more conventional. And it worked (for a while).
If I noticed anything the most from rewatching Peaks again all these years later, it’s not my own reactions, but those of younger people I viewed it with. What I see as deliberate and careful pacing they just see as slow, and they want all the character’s connections to one another revealed as soon as they make their first appearance, something the show refuses to do. For example, when Doctor Will Hayward is there when Laura’s body is discovered, he simply says, “Good Lord…Laura!” instead of “Good Lord, Laura, my daughter’s best friend!” When Doc Hayward is casually revealed to be Donna’s father about an hour into the pilot, the younger viewer I watched it with was angry that the episode hadn’t revealed that information right off the bat.
If I have a complaint about the pilot episode, it’s that it set the bar so high that the show was rarely ever able to totally match it again. When it did, it was only really with other episodes written by Frost and directed by Lynch. The final verdict is that David Lynch and Mark Frost’s pilot episode for Twin Peaks is still one of the best pieces of television ever made for a network, and no matter what anyone thinks of anything that came later in the series, that first episode has proven to itself to stand the test of time.