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Written by Mark Frost & David Lynch
Directed by David Lynch

Airdate: 8 April, 1990

To start things off by noting that Twin Peaks was the weirdest thing to ever air on American television at the time of its 1990 premiere is to engage in the laziest of clichés. But the thing is, it was. Certain episodes probably still are, for that matter. The only thing I can think of that matches Twin Peaks at its most outlandish for sheer full-body weirdness is the 1968 series finale of the British show The Prisoner, and I'd stack the dreamy musings of David Lynch against The Prisoner's pop psychedelia any day.

At the level of narrative, at the level of content, Twin Peaks isn't all that novel. A fast-talking urbanite cop is called in to a small town to investigate a horrendous crime; he discovers in the process that the homey, jes' folks environment that initially strikes him as such a beatific rural wonderland is, in fact, a simmering pit of cruelty and amoral barbarity. Twin Peaks didn't invent this; this isn't even the first time that David Lynch explored the "small towns harbor venomous secrets" motif in a project he made with star Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet preceded Twin Peaks by four years). But I still think this is as good a treatment as we've ever been given: the television format helps with that, letting us sink into the quirky, colorful town of Twin Peaks, WA week after week like a warm bubble bath, only to find after a while that somebody filled the tub with eels. Part of it is simply the assemblage of talent: for something so singular in its tone, Twin Peaks lucked out by finding such a huge ensemble who could all meet Lynch and Mark Frost's writing, and when necessary the writing of their collaborators (though this is a show inordinately sensitive to losing its two main creators, even for the space of an episode), with only a couple weak cast members.

Re-watching the pilot episode, I wasn't genuinely concerned that it wouldn't hold up - I've long held that it's one of the best projects of Lynch's career even considered separate from the series to follow, and I've revisited it several times - but it was still gratifying to see that, even in an era when all of television has basically picked up Twin Peaks's baton, this episode is still something special. Even with network notes, standards & practices, and a TV budget, the Twin Peaks pilot gets to the heart of Lynch's work more than any of his projects at that point had since his feature debut, Eraserhead. Its combination of menacing horror and frivolous camp has been replicated in nearly all of the too-few major projects he's completed since the show ended; at the time, nothing, not even Blue Velvet, had gotten the admixture so perfectly right as the pilot's sprawling 94 minutes.

That's true before we even know that we're watching a murder mystery; it's true before we've even gotten out of the opening credits, a languid collection of shots of idly disinterested birds, close-ups of blades being sharpened, and an aerial view of a postcard-ready waterfall, all in sunwashed hues of gold, set to the first of many gorgeously bizarre, off-putting music cues written by Angelo Badalamenti for the series. The effect of the Twin Peaks theme song on me is hard to put into words: it's warm and cozy and relaxing, but somehow it's all of those things in an extremely upsetting way. It's too slow, is part of it, like a dream where no matter how hard you pump your legs, you can never get up to running speed. The music was repurposed with lyrics by Lynch as the song "Falling", sung by Julee Cruise, who fell into Lynch's sphere of influence with Blue Velvet, and falling is exactly the experience it suggest; but falling in the sense of an endless, gliding tumble, removed from any sort of physical space but an expansive void.

Badalamenti's music shades, with only a brief pause, into the other piece of music that's going to define the next 29 episodes, "Laura Palmer's Theme", which starts and ends with a tuneless synthetic drone and shifts to a lovely piano motif in the middle; as a piece of music, it's the perfect embodiment of the show's thematic pairing of the beautiful and the ugly, the innocent and the evil, the light and the dark. When we first hear it, though, it's all about introducing the town of Twin Peaks as a place where this foreboding hum covers everything like a cloud. We see very little, just a Chinese woman, Josie Packard (Joan Chen) studying herself in a mirror, and a flannel-clad old man, Pete Martell (Lynch muse and Eraserhead star Jack Nance), attempting to say good-bye to his disinterested wife Catherine (Piper Laurie), but the throbbing hum of Badalamenti's score impregnates it all with a sense of doom that coils right up in the pit your stomach. I'm also inclined to call the opening the best-shot part of the pilot: cinematographer Ron Garcia (who would not return to shoot any of the series proper) captures something ineffable about the wet grey of the Pacific Northwest skies that seems to somehow infect the land itself. Those first exteriors are an outstanding example of what overcast skies can do for colors, making them "pop" even while remaining decidedly drab.

In short, we're introduced to Twin Peaks not as a mystery nor a character piece nor even as a panorama of a community (which is what the show mostly ends up being, at the level of narration): we're introduced to it as something close to pure tonality, an atmosphere of gloom that exists in a somewhat free-floating way. That atmosphere almost immediately proves to be appropriate of course, as Pete's fishing trip leads him to spot the body of dead homecoming queen Laura Palmer, tied up in a plastic tarp and washed up on the rocky show of a river. But even once we know what we're dealing with, the pilot always privileges tone, mood, and attitude above matters of storytelling. Basically, this does the only thing a pilot needs to do: it introduces us to the many characters we'll be following, setting up their relationships, giving a sense of the spheres of the town (the lumber mill, the high school, the Great Northern Hotel, the sheriff's office), and setting in motion conflicts that will play out later. But it does this... it does it well and not-well at the same time. We walk out of the episode knowing a hell of a lot of stuff, much of it pure melodramatic mechanics about who the evil business people are, and who's fucking who, and whether they're doing so within the confines of marriage (nope). Since one of the things Twin Peaks will do particularly well is to play like Peyton Place rewritten using nightmare logic, it's well and good that we get the soap operatic elements rolling. But we're not told this stuff; we're given impressions of it, and largely repetitive impressions at that (late in the show, when Michael Ontkean's Sheriff Harry S. Truman tells Kyle MacLachlan's Agent Dale Cooper some details of the local power structure, it comes as something of a complete surprise, since we've met these characters as bundles of emotions rather than as figures behaving in a certain way). For most of the characters, trapped in basic melodramatic infidelity plots, there's little to particularlise them other than the distinctive faces of the actors.

The characters for whom that's not true are the ones who immediately leap out, and in some cases will remain the most interesting in the whole run of the show, if not narratively important. But being interesting is much more what Twin Peaks is about than narrative. And so, as we leave the pilot, the characters who seem the most worth spending time with aren't the major drivers of plot, like soulful sad biker boy James Hurley (James Marshall, the obvious weak link in the main cast) and Laura's best friend Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), or the middle-aged lovers Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) and "Big" Ed Hurley (Everett McGill), but the weird little side characters who show up to do little but add to the atmosphere: Pete, made into a bizarre poet thanks to Nance's distended vowels; Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), who blasts through as something of a spritely agent of chaos, doing mischief for the pleasure of it; Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), who gives the pilot it's most entirely human moment when he asks, through his tears, for his girlfriend Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson) not to tell their boss Harry that he was crying at a crime scene.

And then we have our protagonist, Special Agent Dale Cooper; played with boyish gusto by MacLachlan, he's a remarkable character, one who deepens but also crucially doesn't as the show goes on. Even from the start, it's clear we're dealing with a for-the-ages marriage of actor and writing. Our introduction to Cooper, a third of the way into the episode, comes in the form of a long take monologue, the camera sitting low in the passenger seat of a car and pointing up at MacLachlan's face as he speaks into a handheld tape recorder, leaving memos for "Diane". If first impressions are lasting impressions, this one scene tells us damn near everything we need to know about Cooper. His rat-a-tat delivery immediately marks him as an outsider, more worldly than the denizens of Twin Peaks we've met to this point (so does Badalamenti's shift over to jazzier piece of music for Cooper than we've heard to this point). He speaks about the details of a crime in almost exactly the same cadence he speaks about the delights of rural life, homemade pies and trees (this particular trick of delivery will be trotted out a great many times in the course of the pilot, and is always delightful). He also delivers the single most important line of dialogue in the pilot, one that lacks the warped black comedy of the signature moments: "That's what I need: a clean place, reasonably priced." It's a manifesto, of sorts, a desire for the kind of no-nonsense pragmatic American that places like Twin Peaks are supposed to represent and shows like Twin Peaks leave as smoldering craters.

But even Cooper isn't the focus of any of this. He adds texture, color, and a psychological anchor (by default, as the only outsider, he acts as our guide), but he's still mostly there to contribute to the show's awesome blend of menace and goofy comedy, the aspect of the pilot that feels most Lynchian and still the most unique, all these years later. The tone of Twin Peaks is its most important aspect, and that tone is impossible to describe. Part of it is simply that the show is funny as hell, but funny in a way that feels transgressive and wrong given how dark the subject matter is (thanks for that go in part to Jack Nance, who gets things set off on the right foot at the very start: "She's deeeead. Wraaaapt in plaaastik" is horrible if you attend to the words, but who among us is thinking more about the dead body in that moment, than about Nance's alien dialect comedy approach to line delivery?). And funny without being funny - the gags are thoroughly absurd, but they don't feel like gags: a light sputtering madly during an autopsy, a deer head lying on a conference table, both of them called attention to in dialogue and then left unexplained; the incongruity of the Twin Peaks teenagers feeling like they're out of the '50s when their parents are from the '80s; the way that so many scenes stop, and then go on for five or ten seconds to let a character - usually Cooper - say some complete non sequitur and break the mood of the moment.

The absurdity - unusually pure absurdity, not just the "extra farcical" that we typically mean by "abursidity", but the actual absurd, aggressive and disorienting - makes up one half of the show's tone; the thick atmosphere horror makes up the other. I have mentioned the music, and that matters a lot. It helps to imbue even innocuous moments with dread. Above and beyond that, Lynch has a unique way of impressing that dread onto other spaces where it doesn't belong: famously, he could make a shot looking up a staircase in a normal single-family home seem like something out of a nightmare, owing just to the canted, Expressionist angles of the walls and railings, turning a normal domestic space into an abstraction of lines. The subsequent close-up of a ceiling fan, its motor humming along with Badalamenti's droning, is legitimately scary, and for absolutely no clear reason.

Basically, what makes the pilot a masterpiece, and still one of the highlights of Lynch's estimable career, is that he renders things alien and strange. Houses, high school students, love affairs, hotel lobbies: between the anti-humor and the feeling of an unseen cosmic evil, Twin Peaks makes them all feel wrong - wrong in some ontological sense, like they've been assembled improperly by an alien race. This mood pervades the pilot so much that by the time we arrive at the truly, explicitly uncanny scene of Julee Cruise singing her ethereal, dreamy ballads to an audience of enraptured drunken bikers, not even pausing the song as a fight breaks out, it basically just feels like the organic evolution of what we've been watching, rather than some stunning break from reality.

This isn't something that could be sustained very long, I imagine. And it's not: the pilot represents a height that Twin Peaks doesn't return to until the very last episode of its original run. Even the four episodes in between those two points which Lynch directed don't quite manage to do it for their entire running time. Still, let us not weep for Twin Peaks, which at its worst still exists a bizarre fascination, and at its best is some of the finest work ever made for the television medium. And let us weep even less for its pilot episode, a 94-minute tone poem of the finest sort, and the best piece of audio-visual entertainment released in America in 1990, to hell with the medium.

Grade: A+