TV Timewarp: TWIN PEAKS Pilot

We're kicking off a new series of TV Timewarp with David Lynch and Mark Frost's TWIN PEAKS!

Welcome back to TV Timewarp, in which we spend Wednesdays revisiting each episode of a late, beloved series. Join us as we journey back in TV time to examine Twin Peaks, the wonderfully weird, cerebral murder mystery and quirky townie exercise from David Lynch and Mark Frost. Twin Peaks aired on ABC from 1990-91. You can follow our recently completed Firefly TV Timewarp here.

Brian Collins, Sam Strange and I will be covering two episodes a week, and we're kicking it off this week with the two-hour pilot. The American pilot. Not the shoddy European pilot that gives everything away. You can follow along with us by streaming Twin Peaks on Netflix or Amazon Instant Watch. We're going to keep this baby spoiler-free, so if you're watching Twin Peaks for the first time, fear not.

And I'd like to start every installment with some crucial information...

What Special Agent Dale Cooper Ate This Week:

"Tuna fish sandwich on whole wheat, slice of cherry pie and a cup of coffee. Damn good food. Diane, if you ever get up this way, that pie is worth a stop." He also ate two bites of a large powdered sugar donut and had a few cups of coffee.

Now let's get to it!

MEREDITH:

In the pilot we’re introduced to the formerly sleepy burg of Twin Peaks, Washington, a picturesque logging town that hides an entire network of insidious connections that would shock even John Cheever. We meet dozens of characters, all of whom appear to be sleeping with someone other than their significant others. Often two other someones. Everyone has a secret in Twin Peaks - but no one more so than homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), discovered “dead, wrapped in plastic” in one of the most gorgeous, iconic scenes in television history.

This first episode does an astonishing job of establishing a labyrinthine nexus of characters, and pacing each of their storylines beautifully. The beats at which episode director Lynch decides to switch to a new scene, a new character, a new storyline are never where I would place them, but they work like poetry. We learn that Laura was dating Bobby, who is sleeping with waitress Shelly (Madchen Amick), who is married to the abusive Leo. Laura was also sleeping with James Hurley, who is falling in love with Laura’s best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), whose dad is the town doctor, and who is dating Mike, who is best friends with Bobby. Shelly’s boss is Norma (the graceful Peggy Lipton, one of my favorite performances on the show), who is married to the imprisoned Hank, but she’s in love with James’ uncle Ed Hurley, who is married to one-eyed, drape-obsessed Nadine, who is sort of my favorite.

Laura looked after a mentally disabled boy named Johnny, whose older sister is Audrey (the decidedly sexy Sherilyn Fenn) and whose dad is Benjamin Horne, a local bigwig, owner of the Great Northern hotel and employer of Laura’s father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), who is married to the increasingly unhinged mother to Laura, Sarah Palmer. Benjamin Horne is in sneaky business cahoots with Catherine Martell, who is married to Pete Martell, the fisherman who discovered Laura’s body. Catherine is the brother of the recently deceased Andrew Packard, the owner of the Packard Sawmill. Andrew passed away and left everything to his widow Josie Packard, whom Catherine despises and with whom Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) is romantically entangled. Truman employs the stoic Deputy Hawk and the adorably batty dispatch officer Lucy, who is dating Deputy Andy, who can’t stop crying whenever he encounters a crime scene. They all eat lots of donuts and make me hungry.

And that’s just what’s skating the surface of the complex relationships revealed in this ninety minute episode. We meet Laura’s psychiatrist, the utterly bizarre Dr. Jacoby. We briefly encounter the esoteric Log Lady. We see a one-armed man exit an elevator.

And, of course, we meet the tremendous, the ineffable, the incomparable Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan. Cooper is one of my favorite characters of all time. He’s special because, like most fictional FBI agents, he’s brilliant, he’s perceptive, he’s relentless. But unlike any other fictional FBI agent, Agent Cooper has a wonderful joie de vivre. He is enamored of Twin Peaks. He loves their “big, majestic” Douglas firs, their spectacular cherry pie and their clean, reasonably priced lodging options. He can certainly be stern if he needs to be, and he has no problem schooling that punk Bobby (even though Cooper instantly knows that “he did not do it”), but mostly Special Agent Dale Cooper takes a singular delight in the small things in life. And we are privy to his charmingly obsessive-compulsive observations on everyday minutiae thanks to his running recorded commentary to the ever unseen Diane.

Cooper is brought to the case because of a connection between Laura, a recently abducted and catatonic girl from Laura’s high school named Ronette Pulaski, and a case Cooper was working on a year ago about the murder of a young woman named Theresa Banks. We don’t know much yet, but we know that Cooper knew to look under the fingernails of Ronette and Laura, finding a tiny piece of paper under Laura’s fingernail with the letter “R” on it. We also know that Laura was nervous to meet “J” the night of her death - is it her secret boyfriend James? Cooper doesn’t seem to think so, and you guys should go ahead and assume that Cooper is always right. Cooper and Sheriff Truman discover a half-heart best friend charm necklace where Laura and Ronette were held captive; James holds the other half of the necklace, and he and Donna bury it so he won’t be suspected. But in the last moments of the episode, as Laura’s mother abruptly sits up and begins screaming, we see a gloved hand remove the necklace from the ground. Those are most of your clues for the week - those and, of course, the slip of paper near the necklace that reads in blood “FIRE WALK WITH ME.”

What I love about Twin Peaks - and I do love it, wholeheartedly so - is that it’s a brilliant mystery taking place in a fully-realized environment peopled with complex, fascinating characters. But Lynch never rests on his and co-writer Frost's storytelling laurels by resorting to workhorse direction. Twin Peaks is filmed in a breathtaking way - the close-ups of the saw mill, the staggering waterfalls and trees, the lyrical transitions between shots. And as always with Lynch, everything is just a tiny bit off - a typical high school hall scene is made just a little weirder when a peripheral student grooves his way down the hall.

The score by Angelo Badalamenti is peaceful, yearning, soaring - when it’s not giving off this sexy, coy, snappy vibe. Moments of the script are pure poetry, such as “Fire walk with me” and Pete’s soft musing of “The lonesome foghorn blows” as he wanders the shore with a fishing pole in hand. The scene as Sarah Palmer, at home, and Leland Palmer, at the Great Northern, learn simultaneously that their daughter is dead is devastating and beautiful and so incredibly sad.

Twin Peaks illustrates in the most unconventional way an entire host of themes that we will discuss as we reach them, but the central statement of this show is that humanity is duality. Twin Peaks is a charming, idyllic town that hides tragedy and violence behind every corner. At first it seems all football and fishing and saddle shoes, but the star quarterback skips football practice to sleep with a married waitress, and the fisherman stumbles on a naked corpse, and the saddle shoes are quickly removed in favor of some hot red heels. Laura Palmer is the ultimate symbol of that duality: she’s a good girl, a beautiful girl, she’s the homecoming queen dating the football star and her picture is framed in a case filled with trophies. But Cooper finds cocaine residue, a pornographic magazine and ten thousand dollars in Laura’s secret lockbox, and shit’s only going to get darker from here.

BRIAN:

Meredith, you’ve gotten me all excited to finally see the rest of this show! Not that I wasn’t intrigued by the few episodes I saw, but with Horror Movie A Day, day job, other shows (I only just recently caught up on Breaking Bad), etc, I just never found the time to finish it. So before I say anything useful I want to thank you and Badass Digest for giving me the kick in the ass I need to finally find out exactly who killed Laura Palmer. And if I can find out what the Log Lady is all about, then that's just a bonus.

I'm also really excited to get more of the references in Deadly Premonition, a wholly insane game for the Xbox360 that I knew was influenced by Twin Peaks, but never realized how much until I began watching the show. The exterior of the police station, some of the town layout, the hero talking to an unseen "partner," the music... the game pretty much swiped it all from the show. And like Peaks itself, I never finished the game due to other distractions, and I vow to finally do so once this project is wrapped up, so I can go in with all of the knowledge I'll need to get the jokes and references.

Okay, now that the personal info is out of the way I’ll talk the actual show. What really struck me about the pilot, 20+ years after it aired, is how well it sets up a fairly identifiable mystery (the murder of a teenaged girl) and hooks you in not with other plotlines, but with characters. Sure, the lumber mill and Horne's business plans obviously will play a part that may not have anything to do with Laura's death, but even that stuff feels more in line with character development than the need to give a new audience a whole bunch of plot threads to remember. Post-Lost, we were given show after show that tried to follow suit, but nearly every one that I watched made the mistake of front-loading the pilot with too much information and not enough reason to care about the characters.

Since I haven't seen Twin Peaks in its entirety I can't comment on how well all of this plays out or what information won't be essential, but I can do so for Lost and hopefully it'll fit. In that show's pilot, the plane crashes on an island that seems weird, and that's about it for story - everything else is centered on its characters. No Others, no time travel, no Dharma, no Jacob... all that stuff came later, once we were in love with Jack, Sawyer, Kate etc. and WANTED to follow them on these new adventures. I sense the same thing here; I'm not confused, my only real question is "Who killed Laura?", but I can't wait to spend more time with Cooper, Truman and especially Lucy, about whom I could probably watch an entire episode as she went about her charmingly goofy day. And when things get more complicated later (assuming it does), I'll have no problem taking that journey. That’s what nearly all of the other serial genre shows couldn’t get right, and thus it’s also probably why none of them lasted more than a season.

And I find that even more impressive considering that this is a David Lynch show, as I am not a very big fan of his work. I like Elephant Man a lot, and will always give anything he does a shot, but most of his works were one time views for me (in Inland Empire's case, I almost couldn't even manage that much). So that I'm pretty intrigued here and itching for more is a surprise. That said, it's still closer to his feature films than anything I've ever seen on network television; I can't think of another show on one of the Big Four (then or since) that would feature a main character as utterly strange as Dale Cooper. But it's not all weirdness and quirk; one of the pilot's best moments is when Laura's mother learns that her daughter is dead. It's a shockingly sad moment considering we just met the woman and never met Laura at all. And pretty much anything with Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), who is the most normal person on the show as far as I can tell, is straight out of a typical drama or soap opera. I guess it's a bit weird that just about every single character on the show has two lovers (and thank you for laying it all out above, as I was starting to lose track by the end of the episode), but given Lynch's obsession with duality, it doesn't really surprise.

I also love how good Cooper is at his job. You meet him and he's going on and on about pie and Douglas firs, and it seems like he might be the Michael Scott of FBI agents. But then he is able to uncover a major clue by looking closely at a fuzzy VHS image (without "Enhance!"), and we know he's the real deal. But some of the minor mysteries are only solved by the viewer (for now?), such as the owner of the other half of the locket. Considering I usually need a translator for most Lynch films (thanks Hulk!), I must say it feels nice to be ahead of a character or two thanks to traditional storytelling and editing. I'm guessing it won't last for the whole run, but I can't wait to find out.

SAM:

This show and I have history. My first viewing was probably about ten years ago, and since then I’ve tried several times to rewatch it, but but can never push all the way through. I always thought I loved the show, however. I read Laura Palmer’s diary and consider the first twenty minutes of Fire Walk With Me my personal favorite David Lynch thing ever (I like Lynch best when he’s being funny). But each time I try to get back into Twin Peaks’ world, I find myself increasingly bored and uninterested as the episodes go by. In other words, I’m probably going to abandon this project halfway through. Sorry.

I do know why I struggle with this show. You guys talked about Lynch’s interesting duality and I think you’re onto something because while half the characters in Twin Peaks are groundbreaking and awesome, half are worthless and annoying. Especially as the series progresses: time spent on these bad characters feels wasted when there’s so much badass shit we could be seeing, and it’s frustrating. When you have a show with genius creations like Dale Cooper, it’s harder to suffer fools like James Hurley (Fucking James Hurley, man. My daughter has become obsessed with this show in the last week. Upon seeing James the first time she asked if he was “the Twilight guy.” Specifically, she was incorrect, but in a general sense she was right on the money.)

But that’s a problem for the future, not applicable to the show’s two-hour pilot, a truly interesting piece of television history. I’m always surprised the mystery surrounding Laura Palmer’s death drew in so many viewers. It was a strange time for television, though. If the Log Lady didn’t float your boat, you could always flip channels and watch the cat-eating alien instead.

Laura’s not really much of a character, and it’s especially difficult to establish a character defined by secrets and contradictions when she’s already just a memory. The pilot never really sells me on Laura’s tragedy, nor does it convince me she was much of a good girl or even a good girl gone bad. Lynch and frequently unsung Twin Peaks partner Mark Frost try to build Laura’s character simply by showing us the town’s reaction to her death, which briefly dips into genuine sorrow before settling into nearly farcical comedy. As you guys pointed out, the scene where Laura’s parents learn of her death is really well done. Seeing Sheriff Truman’s vehicle pull up behind Leland Palmer as he calms down his worried wife on the telephone produces real chills and becomes a totem memory to hang onto whenever Sarah Palmer’s shrieks threaten to cross over into parody.

And there is a lot of parody. Take the girl at Twin Peaks High School we see screaming across the courtyard just before the other students learn of Laura’s demise. Or Josie Packard’s decision to shut down her lumber mill for the afternoon in Laura’s memory. (We see that one of her workers is missing girl Ronette Pulaski’s father. Josie identifies Ronette as “one of Laura’s schoolmates” rather than by name.) Or the way unfortunately-faced James Hurley snaps his pencil in two while his principal gives a tearful school announcement of Laura’s death. This stuff has to be comedy because I can’t take any of it seriously.

And that is the defining feature I love about Twin Peaks: It’s hilarious. I don’t find it as sincere as others seem to (Andy crying at murder scenes is a genius bit that dips in both modes at the same time), and the storytelling doesn’t suck me in as much. But the comedy almost always works, and it’s a weird, rare form of comedy too, one based almost completely on character. The show may feel insincere to me, but I do think it had great affection for its characters. Some of them, anyway.

So, to summarize my thoughts on the Twin Peaks pilot: Bobby was that guy from Waxwork, and I think Leo Johnson looks like a wimp.

MEREDITH:

You guys each made a couple of great points that I’d like to discuss. First, Brian, you’re right - what’s great about this pilot is that relatively very little time is spent on the mystery. We know there’s a bigger mystery at play here (Ronette, Theresa, Laura), and we know that Laura has some secrets, and we know a couple of clues - but mainly what we know is that there are some characters we care about, and we want to know more.

But I can’t help but notice that you listed the exact same characters that you care about as I would - Dale (forever), Truman, Lucy. The Twin Peaks Sheriff Department is the hub of most of my interest in this show. Everyone who works for the Sheriff Department, Audrey Horne, Dr. Hayward, Norma Jennings, Ed Hurley and Catherine Martell (that magnificent bitch) are the characters in whom I’m actively invested at this point. And that’s a good chunk of change - that’s ten characters in total that I would follow anywhere. Of course, that leaves approximately one thousand characters that could live or die for all I give a shit, but what’s great about the show is precisely what Sam added - these peripheral weirdos deliver the comedy. Strange, insincere, creepy parody that somehow manages to draw the audience in as much as it distances us. It distances us from the characters and the story, but it draws us into the dream. And this is even before we’ve seen any of Cooper’s dreams!

SAM:

You really can’t go wrong when it comes to Dale, Harry, Andy, Hawk and Lucy. This pilot kind of sets up a lot more than the average person can keep straight, but smartly focuses mostly on this lovable crew of blue collar badasses, lovable dopes and one boyishly enthusiastic FBI agent to ground the story. It doesn’t really matter what case they’re working on, and it’s telling that the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer only really gets super hot when Coop finds that letter under her fingernail, indicating an already ongoing connection between the FBI and this murderer.

At this point, the show is still quirky weird rather than full on weird weird, but I still think it’s remarkable that Twin Peaks hit as big as it did. It’s not like Lost where everything gets kicked off with some summer movie worthy plane crash action and impossible curiosities. It’s merely some slightly askew soap opera mixed with odd bits of police procedural, all centered around a 40-year-old high schooler viewers had no reason to care about. And speaking of Lost, the shows aren’t comfortably comparable. Lost is far more ambitious and self-important than Twin Peaks would ever shoot for, while Twin Peaks had arguably better characters and undeniably superior comedy.

It will be interesting to see how Brian reacts to all the twists and turns ahead, the really great moments no one forgets and the really awful soap opera stuff we all wish we could. For right now though, it’s all about Who Killed Laura Palmer. Well I’ll tell you. It was Cooper.

BRIAN:

Actually the identity of the murderer was spoiled for me long ago when I attempted to watch the movie without ever seeing the show. But I still laughed!

In terms of its popularity, it is shocking both when you consider the presumably niche appeal of the show, but also in terms of how much television ratings have dropped on the average. Per Wikipedia, Twin Peaks’ second episode “plummeted” in the ratings and still got 23 million, a number higher than this last season of American Idol’s finale. It also makes the fate of wannabe shows that have come along since all the more depressing - a couple years ago ABC had a very similar show called Happy Town that was canned after like four episodes. And as Sam pointed out, it wasn’t like it was the only weird show on the air. People just want stuff to be too normal nowadays, and TV is the poorer for it. Viva la cable!

And I agree, the show also works as a comedy, though it’s more evident in the three or four later episodes I’ve seen than it is here. Pretty much any time Cooper talks to Diane is a guaranteed laugh, and Michael Ontkean’s deadpan stares make me chuckle heartily. I assume the pilot would have had MORE of that stuff if ABC weren't so worried that it wouldn't find an audience, which is probably why, as you suggest, it got even crazier. However I'll try to ignore that there are too many useless characters - one thing I really like here is that I'm kind of interested in pretty much everyone, and I don't look forward to getting to the point where I no longer feel that way. It's already depressing enough seeing a few of the actresses in their prime, pre-plastic surgery (I won't name names); I'd hate to think I'd be sighing at the sight of their characters as well.

(illustration by Neoalxtopi)

MEREDITH:

Some questions to leave you with, dear readers.

1) At this early point in the game, in which characters are you already invested?

2) What do you value most in Twin Peaks, the mystery, the weirdness or the comedy?

3) If you're watching for the first time, I'd love to know if you already have a theory.

4) On April 8, 1990, why do you think a show as singularly bizarre as Twin Peaks debuted as such a hit on ABC?

Tune back in next Wednesday as we cover episodes 1.02 and 1.03. Find out what Special Agent Dale Cooper eats next!

Some comment etiquette: many people are visiting Twin Peaks for the first time with us, so please mark all series-spoilery comments appropriately.

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