Original Airdate: April 8, 1990
Writer: David Lynch, Mark Frost
Director: David Lynch
Executive Producers: David Lynch, Mark Frost
Star: Kyle MacLachlan, Piper Laurie, Michael Ontkean, Lara Flynn Boyle
The pilot of “Twin Peaks” is one of those rare episodes that refuses to define itself. Do we latch onto the mystery elements? Should we invest ourselves in the out-there characters? Is this all a parody of a police procedural? The answer to all the above is “yes, of course,” and as a result co-writers David Lynch (who also directed) and Mark Frost created a surprisingly multi-layered show that engaged viewers on several levels, not just the most shallow and viewer-friendly.
The series opens with the iconic discovery of the body of teenager Laura Palmer, her body wrapped in plastic lying on the banks of river. From there, we watch the ripple effects of the murder as they echo through the town of Twin Peaks. Like most of his work, Lynch seems eager to exploit the beauty of nature and the town while undermining it in the same beat by exposing the just-out-of-view rot. In a way, the pilot becomes a series of fascinating, entertaining vignettes connected by those investigating the case more than a real narrative. I write this not as a criticism, but with a lot of respect that Lynch and Frost were able to so easily keep the viewers’ interest through it.
The investigators are Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean), both straight men in a town of kooks but both eccentric enough to fit right in. Cooper in particular is memorable, with his very straightforward style of speech and his insistence on taping everything he finds on a recorder. The rest of the town seems legitimately insane to one level or another. And by “insane” I mean “Lynch-ian.”
The teenagers in “Twin Peaks” seem created to be caricatures of awful teen movies, and I mean that in the best way possible. In particular, the character of Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) appears to be a human incarnation of Satan, plain and simple. If you think I’m overstating, his final scene in the pilot shows him in prison reduced to gutteral screaming like an animal. The scenes in the high school seem like they are from the 1940s and the music (by Angelo Badalamenti) suddenly segues into something that you can’t help but identify as the successor to the finger-snapping opening of “West Side Story.” While Lynch really embraces his quirky side in these passages (cutting to a random student dancing who is never seen again), it also yields the most emotionally resonant moment in the series. While roll is being taken in a classroom, Laura’s best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) notes that her friend isn’t there. A deputy enters and asks for Bobby (wrong class), and Donna notes that something is wrong. The deputy takes the teacher aside, and then Donna notices a girl outside screaming and crying. Donna realizes what has happened and begins to break down. The scene is done with such beautiful subtlety, all without using any of the clichés we see so often in these types of scenes.
This beat, 25 minutes into the pilot, could not have come at a better time. Up until this point the murder really hasn’t hit home for us. The moment where Laura’s parents find out is handled oddly by Lynch (surprise, surprise), with Laura’s mother going so over-the-top with her screaming that it becomes comic.
Frost and Lynch present us with several fascinating clues as to what happened to Laura, ones that I daresay would make Agatha Christie envious. From “Fire walk with me” to the girl found walking on the train tracks to the $10,000 in the safety deposit box, the case seems to exponentially deepen with each revelation (good girl Laura was on cocaine!). Best of all is the fantastic sequence where Cooper finds a tiny letter imbedded under Laura’s middle fingernail, lit ominously with a flickering overhead lamp (something that has been imitated hundreds of times since).
The entire affair is filled with somewhat restrained variations on Lynch’s signature weirdness. When a fight breaks out at a biker bar, the completely-out-of-place singer keeps on going. There are 50 doughnuts stacked in twos. There’s a random deer head sitting on a table. The kitschy Native-American paintings all over the lodge. The show isn’t afraid to paint around the edges of every scene, encouraging the viewer to look closer and to watch again to see what he missed the first time.
The pilot finds a great balance between the crazy and relatable and the results are, in their own way, perfect. The world that Frost and Lynch created here is unlike anything else we’ve ever seen on television before or since, despite numerous others having tried to recreate its eccentricities (the most recent was “Happy Town,” which was cancelled before even airing all of its eight-episode first season). For a little while, that balance continued. And then it didn’t. Early on in the show’s run the scales were tipped toward the weird. Viewers stopped watching in droves and, as a result, Frost and Lynch decided to make the show even more weird and incomprehensible. Whether this was because the duo were being pressured to cater to what made the show stand out in the beginning or because they just didn’t care about coherent narrative is unclear. The disappearing viewers also made the network put intense pressure on the duo to solve Laura’s murder when the second season was barely underway, and the resulting revelation (“er…uh…it was evil Bob!”) wasn’t exactly fulfilling (and most of those tantalizing clues I mentioned earlier didn’t end up making sense). Many Lynch fans adore these later episodes and consider them superior to even the pilot, but there’s no question that the show lost its narrative drive after the uncovering of Laura’s murderer.
Lynch has said that Laura’s murder should never have been solved and, as if to prove his point, got a Best Director Oscar nomination for the great “Mulholland Drive,” a pilot that wasn’t picked up that he turned into a feature by adding a series of perplexing, beautiful sequences that added up to absolutely nothing and answered none of the mysteries posed by the first two acts. But I respectfully disagree with him about “Twin Peaks.” To me, the show didn’t die because he answered the question, it died because they stuck the landing and then didn’t immediately begin another great mystery arc to drive the show forward. Time and again, we’ve seen audiences get hostile about creators toying with their time and emotional investment—the most recent example being the huge hullabaloo over the lack of closure in the first season finale of “The Killing,” a PR disaster that scared viewers away en masse and resulted in an eventual cancellation at the end of the show’s second season. Shows like “Lost” and “The X-Files” have their detractors, but they held viewers’ interest for six and nine seasons, respectively, by handing out answers along with new questions.
But what happened next doesn’t really matter. The pilot of “Twin Peaks” marked a creative high for network television that it rarely achieves, engaging the viewers on an emotional and cerebral level. The sight of Laura’s lifeless face in the plastic, small stones stuck on her cheeks and in her hair, is one of the most memorable images ever broadcast. You find yourself humming the music at work and can’t imagine why. The show challenges you, gets in your head and then haunts it, seeming more dream than reality…and that’s pretty much the definition of a masterpiece, wouldn’t you say?