Twin Peaks: Pilot

“Mr. Cooper, you didn’t know Laura Palmer.”

Twin Peaks is both cultish enough and popular enough that there’s a thrill every time one fan meets another—and those thrills aren’t too far between. When it premiered in early 1990, people went wild. Remember when we were all so excited about Lost? Move those conversations to the water coolers instead of the internet, add some hairspray, and that’s about it.

And just like that, it was gone. After the initial adoration, viewers quickly drifted away or were turned off by the more surreal aspects. When the show’s second season finished (completing a total of just 30 episodes), viewership was way, way down. The follow-up movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me did okay…and yet the die-hard fans remained as intense as only fans can be.

I only experienced those early days by proxy. I was deemed too young to watch the show (looking back, I agree with that decision, but it made me so angry at the time—if I could watch Murder, She Wrote, why not this?), but my father loved it. My father lets himself get involved in exactly one TV show at a time. Sometimes he picks a clunker—The Event was his choice in this past season, poor guy—and sometimes he strikes gold: 24, Twin Peaks, The Sopranos. Back in the day, he loved Twin Peaks enough to buy the soundtrack, which he frequently played on our family’s only CD player, in the living room. My pre-teen years were scored by Angelo Badalamenti. No wonder I turned out so odd.

My first real Twin Peaks experience was in high school, when the boyfriend recommended we watch the prequel (made after the episodes aired) Fire Walk With Me to prepare for seeing Lost Highway in the theater. FWWM was okay, given that I had no back-story (fore-story?), but Lost Highway was great. It appealed to my desire to dissect things. (Well, not living things. I’m squeamish.)

It took me five years to finally watch Twin Peaks, the series. The only copies in the town I then lived in were on VHS, rented from the tiny independent video store housed in a house. (When they went out of business, I owed them a late fine of $2. I still feel bad about that.) I promptly got the bug, watched the tapes as fast as I could rent them, and theorized like mad with the one person I knew who also liked the show, a kindly bartender. He explained the finale to me over strong drinks, and then I was done with the show. This was before the internet was fun, so it didn’t occur to me to look elsewhere for more theories and speculations, much less a fan community. I haven’t re-watched it in the many years since.

All of that backstory is by way of warning: I’m not a die-hard Peakean. In fact, I don’t even know if TPers have a name for themselves. That’s all information I could easily find out, now that I’m used to spending my days glued to a computer screen, but I’m oddly disinclined to eavesdrop on 20-year-old arguments, get tangled up in sides, camps, or even the dreaded ‘shipper wars that every show has. When I review this show, I want to watch the show and talk about the show. I don’t want to pick sides, start fights, or invest in a SuperDuperGold DVD set. Twin Peaks isn’t that kind of show for me.

What kind of show is it, then? The pilot episode doesn’t do justice to the delightful zaniness that is to come. Frost and Lynch shot the pilot, Lynch did a movie (Wild at Heart), and then Frost and Lynch began work on the first non-pilot episode. The pilot establishes important characters and a few of their relationships. It welcomes us to the town of Twin Peaks, pulls back the lace curtains a bit—but not all the way—and leaves me with a strange impression of humor-laced tragedy. In other words, even in the face of tragedy, people still make bad jokes, still have bizarre personality tics, and generally still live their lives.

That tragedy, of course, is Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), who is found dead in the show’s opening minutes. Laura Palmer is screen-siren beautiful even in death, and just as inscrutable. We learn in the pilot that she is a homecoming queen who dates the football quarterback, a tutor, and a beloved daughter.

But for some reason, no one seems surprised that she is dead: At the end of the episode, her secret boyfriend James Hurley told Donna, Laura’s best friend, that “It all made some sort of terrible sense that she died.” Even before that, her mother’s panic in the morning when she can’t be found feels like she had been waiting for that moment for months, and her father, once warned of Mama Palmer’s panic, tells the sheriff that his daughter is dead, rather than the other way around. Even the opening lines, when Pete Martell tells Sheriff Truman “She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic,” the first question isn’t “Who?” but “Where?” When Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) and James (James Marshall) see the police at school, their first thought is of Laura, and their first reaction is to cry.

The overall impression is of a town, and a girl, on the brink. Laura finally tipped over into something—shocking but not surprising itself. The town, meanwhile, continues on its way for a while, but might never be the same. With a population just over 50,000, Twin Peaks may be “a town where a yellow light still means ‘slow down’ instead of ‘speed up,’” but the main industry is intrigue (with a healthy dose of tourism and logs).

And the intrigue industry is definitely impacting the tourist and log economies. The Hornes, who own The Great Northern hotel, are trying to con some Norwegians into building a golf course (with houses), but son Johnny has “mental issues” and daughter Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) is one breakdown away from a borderline-personality diagnosis. Meanwhile, Benjamin Horne is working with Catherine Martell to take down Josie Packard (Joan Chen), Catherine’s sister-in-law who inherited the mill. The Sheriff is dating Josie Packard, while his friend Big Ed (James’s uncle) is cheating on his crazy wife Nadine with sexy Norma (Peggy Lipton). Norma, of course, is Shelly Johnson’s (Madchen Amick) boss—and Shelly is married to a crazy truck-driving maniac who beats her and just so happens to come home with blood on his shirt after Laura’s death.

While the adults play those games, the teenagers follow suit. Laura was dating Bobby in public and James in private; Donna was dating Bobby’s best friend Mike in public and falls for James in the pilot. Bobby and Mike, unfortunately, are terrible actors: I sometimes wonder if the director just said, “Give up acting! Just stare and vibrate a little without blinking!” This makes their teenage rages and exaggerated misbehavior all the more disturbing, as they seem just like the cartoon villains one would find on a Lifetime special. No wonder Donna’s dad doesn’t let Mike in the house.

In life, that was Laura’s world. Now that she’s dead, her place in that world—and whatever else it might encompass—has to be discovered by a hero, a man who should need no introduction, the greatest detective who ever lived: Special Agent Dale Cooper.

Special Agent Dale Cooper is a straightforward man who appreciates good coffee, good pie, plain speaking…and absolutely loves the process of detection and discovery. In the pilot, some of his smiles seemed horribly inappropriate, until I realized he was So Very Happy that he had found a clue—he is certainly not haunted by Laura Palmer’s death, at least not in any traditional sad-detective way. How he will come to relate to Laura and the circumstances of her death is one of the main arcs of the series.

How the town relates to that death and those circumstances is equally important. In the pilot it emerges that Laura did not die alone: Ronnette Polanski lived through whatever rape and torture killed Laura, but remains comatose. Ronnette gets short shrift in the town’s imagination, perhaps because the cast of characters the show focuses on knew Laura better, perhaps because Ronnette was working-class and Laura came from Twin Peaks’s small aristocracy.

In the pilot, the town is like a live wire. When the kill site is discovered, there’s a quick shot of the train car surrounded by men who aren’t police officers, holding rifles as though they expect the killer to still be inside. The pilot effectively captures the way each member of a small community can be struck differently but with equal virulence by the same tragedy. Likewise, it introduces the idea that no one can really know Laura Palmer, not James the secret boyfriend who claims she wasn’t acting like herself, perhaps not even Donna who claims to know her better than Laura realized. And if we can’t know Laura, perhaps we can’t know anything that’s going on in this tiny town.

Bits and Pieces

• Quick shout-out to the folks at the Sheriff’s Station: Lucy, Andy, Hawk. We’ll see more of them.

• Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), wacky shrink, was rubbing a very inappropriate place on his hula-dancer tie.

• Crazy Nadine seems to have a fixation with her drapes.

• The severed moose head on the table in the bank. Yep, it’s a David Lynch TV show.

• Zooming in on an image to catch a reflection of the person taking the film is equally Lynchian, as are the flickering light in the morgue (symbolizes a reality-shift or a personal satori) and the stoplight.

• Diane, to whom Special Agent Dale Cooper dictates his every move and every thought—I do not envy your job.

Clues?

• Laura’s diary entry for a few weeks previous said she was “nervous about meeting J tonight.” Who is J?

• Cooper says that the letter “R” under Laura’s finger matches her case to that of Teresa Banks, a year ago in another part of the state.

• Laura’s half of the broken-heart necklace was found in the traincar on a mound of dirt with a scrap of paper on which was written, in blood, “Fire walk with me.”

• Ronnette Polaski advertised her services in Flesh World, and Laura kept a copy.

• According to James, Bobby had told Laura that he’d killed someone.

For all its atmosphere, the pilot episode of Twin Peaks does not give an accurate picture of where this series is headed—and, trust me, it’s going to some very weird places. Having said that, it does a very impressive job of establishing relationships both covert and overt, and focusing on the two emphases of this show: Laura Palmer and the town itself. The final shots, of an unidentified hand taking James’s half of the heart necklace from the woods, of the stoplight, and of Mrs. Palmer’s sudden screaming as though she has seen something—in the living room? The scene in the woods?—are just a hint of the mysteries to come.

Three and a half out of four Douglas firs.

(Let’s try to keep spoilers for future episodes out of the comments. There might be someone out there who still doesn’t know who killed Laura Palmer.)

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

13 comments:

Billie Doux said...

I saw the show when it aired, but I don't remember it well (I was a lot younger) and to be honest, I actually don't remember who killed Laura Palmer or why. So I'm really going to enjoy these reviews. I enjoyed this one a lot; I laughed out loud several times. Terrific review.

Mark Greig said...

I'll second that. Terrific review, Joise. Made me wish I still had the series on DVD.

Josie Kafka said...

You might be able to find it online, Mark. It's on Netflix here.

No pressure to join my re-watch, though. No pressure at all. Nope, none.

Marieke said...

This show is actually from before my time, but I've heard so much about it... I think this might be the push I needed to finally start watching it :)

Thanks for that. Also, I have no idea who did it - can't wait!

Jess Lynde said...

Definitely a fun review. Like Billie, I watched this when it originally aired, but I remember almost nothing about it. I just have a few impressions of characters or moments. And I do remember who killed Laura, but I look forward to seeing how the clues play out in your reviews.

I think I liked the first season of this show, but fell off the wagon in Season 2. Still, I really enjoyed getting to visit Snoqualmie Falls a few years after the show wrapped, and seeing the "Great Northern" and the iconic falls from the opening credits. Very fun!

Gus Brunetti said...

I'm really happy. I like this show a lot but had nobody to talk about it with. It'll definitely be more fun to rewatch it with your reviews, Josie.

Must... resist... temptation... to discuss... future events...

I'll watch every ep right after you post your reviews.

Sooze said...

Oh no! Now I have to rewatch Twin Peaks! How could I not?

I watched when the originals aired, and although I remember NONE of the specifics, I do remember that I loved the zaniness of the show - and that NO ONE I knew watched it!

Looking forward to the rest of your write-ups, Josie!

Anonymous said...

I shall "Walk with you" Josie through this series. While the pilot just boggled me, it did a very good job at setting up the characters and their quirks. I look forward to this journey with you!!

Felipe said...

Catching that hogs reflection in a time before hd video, preposterous.

Thank you Josie, I've been meaning to watch this series for quite some time. I was too young to understand what was going on when the series first aired but I do remember catching bits and pieces of it. Cherry stems never fail to pop into my head whenever I hear Twin Peaks.

Did anyone else bawl their eyes out as the town reacted to Laura's death?

john chop said...

I'm excited I found a Twin Peaks review site. I've always wanted to watch this show and Amazon Prime just made it free. Twin Peaks would have had the popularity of Lost if there was a widely used Internet; bloggers and social media in 1990. Can't wait to continue this journey.

Geoff Sebesta said...

Ronette Pulaski, not Polanski.

If you get to Fire Walk With Me again, one of the most astonishing reversals that Lynch pulls off is making Bobby a thoroughly heroic and likeable character. I went from hating him to thinking he might have been one of the best actors in the whole show.

Docnaz said...

This was the show that brought me back to mainstream TV. From my teens, I only watched PBS and later cable movie stations. Somehow, In 1990 when I was in my 4th year of medical school ( the year where we got to relax and I had time to watch TV) I saw the previews from this show and watched it from the beginning until the last last few episodes which I have not gotten to see until now. It was so cool, so different, so "me". The music, the atmosphere, the beautiful actresses and and Agent Cooper. I was hooked. I don't believe any of his movies are as good as this show. This was truly the beginning of TV rivaling movies. At the end of this season, I bought a bottle of champagne to drink while watching the season finale. What nostalgia. Thanks for your reviews!

Docnaz said...

Felipe, when Laura's mother got the news and drops to her knees, I was in tears. The grief of losing a child was portrayed so well.