Twin Peaks: The Pilotrecommended viewing

She's dead, wrapped in plastic
★★★★★
☆
Released: 
1990
Director: 
David Lynch
Starring: 
Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, Sherilyn Fenn
The Setup: 
High school girl is murdered in Pacific Northwest town exposing dark undercurrent of society.
Discussion: 

I was obsessed with this show while it was on, and vividly remember the whole phenomenon, the running in to work to dissect every little nuance and try to deduce the killer, and then the heartbreak as ABC killed off the series through erratic scheduling, and creator David Lynch stopped paying attention, going off to direct the [hideous] Wild at Heart, causing the show to just get worse and worse. After recently reviewing the prequel film Fire Walk With Me, and looking for a TV show to watch on the treadmill, I decide to revisit the first season to see how it stands up--particularly once the "whodunnit" aspect is removed, and one can simply look at what is there. Turns out what is there is still pretty compelling.

The 90-minute pilot is directed by David Lynch himself, and written by him and series co-creator Mark Frost. It really stands alone as a movie in itself, although it's difficult to discern exactly how until the series plays out. One also has to kind of contextualize the series as a sort of ancillary of Blue Velvet, as not only does it star many of the same actors and have the same musical composer, but it also concerns itself with dark secrets and mysteries festering just underneath the happy surface of a small town.

The opening shot of the credits is a bird on a branch--which could come straight from Blue Velvet--followed by hypnotic footage of mechanical equipment at a mill performing pre-programmed movements, over and over. Pete Martell, played by Jack Nance of Eraserhead, goes out fishing and happens upon the a nude female body. He calls the Sheriff, named Harry S. Truman. The immortal lines "She's dead... wrapped in plastic," are uttered, and the first glimpse of the series' off-kilter sense emerges when Harry asks not the expected qustion--who?--but an unexpected one: "Where?" Harry and the town doctor soon determine that the body is that of one of the most popular high school girls in town, Laura Palmer. The image of Laura looking unsettlingly beautiful in death, sand like glitter stuck to her forehead and a halo of wrinkled plastic, also sticks right in the head.

Lynch cuts from the discovery of the body to Laura's mother calling her down to breakfast. He is able to do things like cut to a close-up of a ceiling fan in such a way that makes you say "Yeah, ceiling fans HAVE always been a little bit terrifying, haven't they?" She calls around looking for the girl, finally reaching her husband in a business meeting. As he is talking to her, the sheriff pulls up outside, in the background. When he sees the sheriff is looking for him, he knows instantly that something has happened. We then have the haunting image of the dropped phone laying on the floor, the mother's shreiks of agony emitting from it.

So you're starting to get the sense of the Blue Velvet idea of the hidden horror behind everyday domestic objects gone into overdrive. What's different--and moving--in Twin Peaks is that everyone seems to know, on some level, that something is deeply wrong beneath the surface. For example, both of Laura's parents, separately, know at once that their daughter is dead, despite us never seeing either of them being told. This continues in one of the more striking images of the pilot--Laura's best friend Donna is sitting in class, when she suddenly sees a girl run outside, screaming. She looks over and sees Laura's empty seat, then immediately starts crying, knowing something is wrong. One is also rather taken aback around this time of the audacity of kicking off an entire series with a deep dive into inconsolable grief.

But we're not out of resonant images yet! We cut to a remote rail bridge, mountains in the distance, wind howling, and an obviously assaulted young woman, barefoot and naked except for a ripped shirt, ropes hanging from her wrists, walking out of the wilderness. It's only a moment, but it's such a galvanizing image it's no wonder it became one of the key promotional shots of the series. This is Ronette Pulaski, who was at the same crime scene as Laura, and whose crossing of a state line precipitates the involvement of the FBI, in the form of Kyle McLachlan's Dale Cooper. He is introduced driving into town, talking to "Diane" on his small recorder, about the case, yes, but also about details that would become a hallmark of the series: great coffee and cherry pie.

He meets Sheriff Truman and they like and respect each other immediately, a welcome relief from the tired old police-FBI rivalry we usually get. The off-kilter atmosphere contiues as they examine the body, the flourescent light flickering and buzzing in the background. Cooper finds something, and asks an asstant to leave. "Jim," the assistant says. Cooper repeats the request to leave, and the guy does. Apparently both the flickering lights and the mistake in dialogue were both genuine accidents that Lynch decided to leave in--kind of amazing when you consider that flickering electricity was incorporated as a symbol of spiritual evil come the production of Fire Walk With Me. They find a typed letter under Laura's fingernail that ties her in as the victim of a serial killer, and ensures Cooper's continued presence on the show. Soon after a number of clues pop up that expose the secrets going on in Laura's life, like that she was doing cocaine, advertising in swinger magazines, and had over ten thousand in cash in a safety deposit box. These things are interesting when you consider that in the original concept of the show, Laura's death would NEVER be solved, it would just fade into the background as the individual dramas took over. One has to note that in order to make Fire Walk With Me, they had a challenge of making up a story of Laura's final hours that included all of the clues thrown out in the pilot. Anyway, another golden moment from the pilot that sets up the tone of the show is when Cooper grabs his tape recorder and quite seriously intones "Diane, I'm holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies."

So the first 30 minutes cover the discovery of the body, the waking up of the town and grief over Laura's death. The second third covers the afternoon, with a spewing out of clues and introductions of characters, and the final third occurs that night, where things are starting to get wild and unruly again. But first, more comedy with exchanges such as "Who's the lady with the log?" Reply: "We call her the log lady." Then brawls at the roadhouse, teen Bobby surfing on the hood of his car, drunk, and about to drive some more, Donna sneaking out of her room for secret meetings in the woods. They bury the half of Laura's heart pendant that is now sought-after evidence, which will become important at the end.

So by the end you realize that this pilot has covered the entire first day Laura's body is discovered, and winds down as the day does, with Cooper and Truman retiring for the evening. The pilot contains a brilliantly electrifying ending--one which only Lynch would give consideration to as a show-ender--in which Laura's mother bolts awake, screaming, as she has a vision of someone digging up Laura's heart pendant. What other director would end with someone having a VISION in an otherwise real-world show [until season two, that is]? It also brilliantly sends the show on its way by opening up a new set of mysteries, and ending on images of the dark, tangled woods which are the show's main metaphor.

So perhaps you know that Lynch was required to make an ending to "wrap up" the story so the pilot could be released as a complete movie in Europe. So the version that was available on video for years was the European version with an additonal 20 minutes that wrapped up the story. Basically, instead of seeing a hand digging up the locket during Laura's Mom's vision, she remembers looking for Laura in her room that morning--and remembers NOW that there was a creepy man [Bob] crouched at the end of Laura's bed! This is also Lynchian brilliance--seeing a new detail of something ALREADY SEEN--and I tell you, it pretty much made me jump out of my skin when I first saw it! Another amazing detail that was just an accident is that you can see Frank DeSilva, the character that plays Bob, in the mirror above Laura's mom when she has the vision! And THAT ACCIDENT is the reason Bob became such an important element of the show. Basically they get a police sketch, the one-armed man calls Cooper, they all meet at the hospital, and lo and behold, Bob is right downstairs. They're yakking when the one-armed man comes in and shoots him. Then we have a title '25 years later' and we're in the red room, where we have most of the infamous second episode dream, and that's it! An extremely unsatisfying ending. I'd love to see some of the European reviews that had to deal with this as a straight movie. It's a strange idea to end a film with a killer who hasn't been in the movie up until now. Even Lynch says he only devoted the smallest amount of attention to creating this ending.

From here the first season would contnue to introduce clues, and new characters, and new revelations, which in retrospect can be seen as doing an expert job of stringing the audience along--willingly--and pulling them further into the story. The first episode after the pilot had one of my favorite humorous moments, in which Audrey sits down to breakfast with Cooper and talks about her older brother: "He's 27 and in the third grade. He's got emotional problems. Kind of runs in the family. DO YOU LIKE MY RING?"

Then of course the second proper episode had the famous dream sequence. It was a special time to watch this as it was broadcast, as for me personally, I had NEVER seen ANYTHING like that on television before. At that moment most people who were into it became totally hooked, and it's a testament to the quality of the rest of the season that it manages to keep introducing clues and characters, seeming to draw ever closer to the answer. In fact, so much is centered on solving Laura's killer, it's difficult to believe that they never intended to solve the crime.

The second season is legendary for its precipitous drop in quality--although my friend is watching it for the first time, and doesn't find it that bad, so maybe it was just the frustration of watching as it was being broadcast [No, by the end he was pretty sour on it]. First, there was pressure to wrap up the Laura mystery, and once they did [in a Lynch-directed episode that is another one of those things unbelievable--and unbelievably violent--to see on television at the time], all of the new storylines they tried to spin out to replace it just weren't as compelling. And they got ever-weirder, trafficking in different dimensions and doppelgangers and suchlike. None of this was helped by the fact that ABC moved the series to the Friday night "death slot," and canceled and pre-empted it so many times it might be a month or so between episodes. And finally it was cancelled.

Now, looking back, it's difficult to see how important this show was in providing the spark between the rote, episodic, low-budget and low-quality television from before to the higher-quality television we have now. This series introduced a rich, cinematic quality to the images, and got rid of that overlit, washed-out look that ruled televison before. Prior to this show, people were not at all used to following a continuous story from week to week, as is not common on famed shows from The Sporanos to Lost. Part of the ratings problems they had as the season went on is that people could join the series later if they hadn't seen the prior episodes, and recall at the time TV shows weren't available after broadcast, so there was no way to catch up. But this one show can successfully be argued to be that first step toward the era of higher-quality TV shows on recently.

I think pretty much everyone should watch the pilot, and you'd do fine to watch the rest of season one as well. Then you might just want to rent the episode from season two where Laura's killer is revealed, because that's some bang-up television as well, and will round out the story. But no need to stick around other than that.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, especially the pilot, which should be seen as a mini film in its own right.

RELATED FILMS:
TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME covers the week leading up to Laura's death, but is very different in style and tone from the show.
BLUE VELVET set the tone and general content for this show, and is of course a genuine classic in its own right.