Starring Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Ontkean
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Moody, atmospheric cult favorite opens with one of the best episodes of television of all time.
Television pilots are tricky. They have to set up the characters, the plot, and the world in which the story takes place. But, ultimately, the pilot’s job is to convince people to invest their time in future episodes of the show. These two goals often are at odds with one another. Tedious exposition doesn’t make for exciting viewing, and viewers have little tolerance for something tedious if they’re not already engaged with the plot or the characters. Too often, pilots make the mistake of juicing up the first episode with a lot of action to offset the exposition. Twin Peaks avoids this mistake, instead choosing to win viewers for future episodes by presenting questions and hoping the viewers will continue to watch to learn the answers and to see how the mystery unfolds.
For Twin Peaks, the primary mystery—who killed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee)?—proved so engaging to audiences in 1990 that it became both a blessing and a curse. The mystery caused the series to become a pop culture phenomenon, generating buzz before the internet was something most people had heard of. Unfortunately, that mystery was so powerful that it overshadowed all the other storylines that the creators, David Lynch and Mark Frost, attempted to tell and left the show with limited long-term prospects. Perhaps, if it had debuted today, where many series have fewer episodes per season or have limited runs, it might have been successful with one of those alternative formats.
However, the pilot episode does a masterful job of setting up the mystery, introducing the main characters, giving us a sense of the town of Twin Peaks and the world of the story without revealing too much information, and engaging viewers in an emotional story. The episode begins with the opening credits immersing us in the atmosphere of the story with slow images of the town of Twin Peaks, deliberate dissolves, and, most importantly, Angelo Badalamenti’s moody theme music. And then the mystery begins. Pete Martell (Jack Nance) discovers the body of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) when he goes out fishing.
The show’s signature quirkiness appears before town sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) receives the report from Pete about the body, as Lucy (Kimmy Robertson), the receptionist at the sheriff’s office, goes through elaborate pains to indicate a phone that is right in front of Harry when she asks him to pick up Pete’s call. The eccentricity of the series is probably evident least in this pilot episode where it provides an amusing enhancement to the story. Later episodes let that eccentricity come to dominate and suffocate the narrative.
In watching the opening scenes as people learn of Laura’s murder, the primary tone is not quirky or weird but sad and elegiac. Particularly heartbreaking is the scene where her parents learn of her murder. Her father, Leland (Ray Wise), hears the news in person from the sheriff, while her mother, Sarah (Grace Zabriske), intuits something is terribly wrong when Leland doesn’t respond to her inquiries over the phone. The episode gives viewers a feeling of the profound sense of loss engendered by the murder, first by the death of a vibrant, beautiful girl and also by the concomitant death of something less tangible, a sense of innocence, however illusory it might have been.
That this innocence is an illusion is one of the primary themes of the series. Like, Peyton Place, Twin Peaks is not the quiet, happy hamlet it appears to be. A morass of crime, sin, and unimaginable evil seethes under the surface, and Laura’s murder quickly reveals the darkness beneath the façade.
At first, Laura’s secrets have a charming 1950s melodrama quality to them. She was the perfect golden-girl Homecoming queen, publicly dating Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), the captain of the football team. But she was also sneaking around with brooding rebel biker James (James Marshall) with the help of her best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle). Bobby, for his part, was cozying about with married waitress Shelly (Mädchen Amick). But these secrets, revealed early in the episode, seem sweet and quaint compared with later revelations about drugs, prostitution, kidnapping, and ritual sexual abuse.
The world of Twin Peaks reflects the dichotomy between innocent melodrama and a grittier truth in its sense of time. The narrative unfolds in a setting that is at once reminiscent of the 1950s, with obvious throwbacks like girls in saddle shoes and a high school rebel named James, and, yet, clearly modern, as witnessed by up-to-date elements of technology, criminology, and forensics. This dual sense of era is reflected when the investigators sift through evidence garnered from Laura’s room: on the one hand, they find an old-fashioned diary—on the other, a videotape. One of the episode’s most haunting and potent images comes when they pause the videotape on an extreme close-up of Laura, looking happy and an enigmatic, with the headlight of James’s motorcycle reflected in the pupil of her eye, a visual metaphor for the secrets the girl was hiding.
Visually, this episode displays a great deal of planning in terms of direction. Each shot illustrates care in its composition. Most television shows lack a distinctive directorial style. As the directors change from episode to episode, they try to maintain a look that is consistent and not distinctive. Twin Peaks would follow the practice of changing directors, but it doesn’t eschew directorial style, as the pilot, directed by creator Lynch, establishes. The shots are visually daring in a way that is unusual for television today and unseen on television when the show debuted in 1990. This style gave viewers a sense that they were watching something totally different and innovative from anything they had seen before on television.
Not only did Twin Peaks look different, it sounded different. In addition to the main title theme, Badalamenti’s music fills the episode, from jazzy themes that seem lifted from ‘50s crime films to the wonderful “Laura Palmer’s Theme” that moves from ominous, murky, dissonant notes to a melodic passage that is majestically sentimental. (Musician Moby would later incorporate this theme into his famous electronic composition “Go.”)
The style of Twin Peaks and the narrative of Laura Palmer’s murder are so indelibly associated with the series that people often overlook the other plot threads that the pilot introduces: a fight over the local sawmill between Josie Packard (Joan Chen), the widow of the owner, and her bitter former sister-in-law Katherine Martell (Piper Laurie); an illicit affair between gas station owner Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and his former high school sweetheart, diner owner Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton), whose husband is about to be released from prison after serving time for manslaughter; the abusive relationship between waitress Shelly and her trucker husband, Leo Johnson (Eric De Re); and the business dealings of local bigwig Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer), which, in the pilot, are temporarily thwarted by his precocious daughter, Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn). In this episode, at least, all of these plot threads have the potential to develop into compelling storylines, and their introductions are efficient and engaging. That they, or any other storylines, never develop enough interest to carry the show in the absence of the Laura Palmer mystery is not the fault of the pilot.
The most important character, the one most associated with the series, FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), doesn’t appear until 37 minutes into the episode. Typically, the outsider enters the narrative early in order to serve as an audience surrogate as information is disseminated to him (or her). While some expositive explanations are made to Cooper by Sheriff Truman, they are minimal. The presentation of most of the setting and the narrative has occurred before Cooper appears on the scene.
Cooper’s role, then, is not as an audience surrogate. He is as unusual and quirky as the denizens of Twin Peaks, subverting our expectations of this type of character. We expect to identify with an investigator and an outsider coming to a strange place. In this instance, Twin Peaks, as with so much else, thwarts our expectations.
The Twin Peaks pilot covers a period of roughly twenty-four hours, a fact that the sheriff muses on in the penultimate scene with his girlfriend, mill owner Josie Packard, saying, “It must have happened about this time 24 hours ago.” This careful attention to time is typical of the episode where everything seems thoroughly planned and structured.
Much of the decline of the series after the pilot can be traced to the creators’ willingness to abandon this careful planning. Instead, they incorporated whims of the cast and of their own, increasing weirdness that became alienating to viewers, and even on-the-set accidents, as with the pilot episode’s final scene, where a crew member’s face got caught reflected in the mirror during Sarah Palmer’s nightmare. Lynch decided to keep that shot and made the crew member, Frank Silva, the physical embodiment of evil in future episodes. The resulting haphazardness undermined the development of storylines beyond the murder. It gave a sense to viewers that they weren’t watching the unfolding of the story that led to the murder, that was already known, that they could put together piece-by-piece, but that the writers were making it up as they went along, which caused the loss of interest in the mystery.
This pilot episode, however, sets a standard that, perhaps, no series could live up to. The careful planning, the level of style, the innovation, the depth of feeling—all would be hard to maintain week-in-week out, particularly when there was no precedent for this type of show before, no pattern or map for the show-runners to follow to make sure the series stayed on course. Today, a shorter episode run and changes in production might have allowed Twin Peaks to maintain the quality of the pilot. Recently, Showtime announced a continuation series of Twin Peaks, but recent reports put the future of that project in doubt. If it does come to fruition, it will be interesting to see if the new Twin Peaks can recapture the magic of its pilot episode.