Seriable’s Mark Jones takes us back to classic serial drama Twin Peaks, starting with this review for the pilot.
“Gone fishing” are the words that open one of the most strange and influential TV shows ever made, spoken by Pete Martell before he discovers the body of Laura Palmer washed up on the banks of the lake near his home. It’s the line that Pete utters upon finding the body when he’s on the phone to the local sheriff’s department that really sticks in the mind though and “she’s dead, wrapped in plastic” sets the mood perfectly.
The discovery of Laura’s body forms the central mystery that is the glue which holds together the storyline of the pilot and episodes beyond, who killed Laura Palmer? This constant unknown is crucial to the plot of Twin Peaks and all the other important sub-plots in the series are somehow connected to it.
The first thirty minutes of the pilot are taken up by establishing who Laura Palmer was and how her death affects the population of Twin Peaks. During this time we are introduced to key residents of the North-western town, including Pete the keen fisherman and husband of Katherine Martell who runs a saw mill owned by her deceased brother’s wife, Josie Packard. One of the subplots involves the scheming of businessman and owner of the Great Northern hotel Benjamin Horne with Katherine to acquire the mill for its land.
While threads like these might seem less significant and initially less interesting when compared to the main mystery of Laura’s death they are actually the basis for important overarching storylines and are much more than the soap opera-like day-to-day dramas that they appear to be. There are many different elements in Twin Peaks though including teen-drama, thriller and comedy but the constant reminders of Laura’s gruesome demise grounds the lighter moments.
One thing that becomes clear is that Twin Peaks is an insular small town where everybody knows everybody and it’s worth remembering that even though the welcome signs says 51,201 it was originally meant to be 5,120.
It takes the pilot a while to get started but enough curious characters are introduced such as Audrey Horne and the eye patch wearing Nadine, and events like the return of Laura Palmer’s friend Ronette Pulaski to maintain the audience’s interest until the arrival of the eternally optimistic FBI agent Dale Cooper, played so well by Kyle Maclachlan.
Dale Cooper’s entrance is without a doubt one of the high points of our introduction to Twin Peaks and possibly one of the finest character entrances in a TV show ever. Driving along in his car Dale talks only into his Dictaphone, recording a message for the never-seen Diane, with a dialogue which not only is amusing but establishes the quirky nature of his character and fondness for coffee and the local cherry pie. It soon becomes clear that despite appearing a third of the way through Dale is the hero and will become the catalyst for all the strange happenings that he will witness.
With Lucy and Andy already shown to be characters with a certain capacity to be funny, Dale adds another level of humour to the proceedings, which is more quirky than slapstick. Like Walter Bishop in Fringe it is his ability to draw an almost childlike glee from his work, no matter how dark it might be, that makes him such an intensely likeable character. He doesn’t take things too lightly to come across as insensitive, but he’s clearly passionate about figuring things out. His intelligence is another important aspect of his personality and pretty soon after his first meeting with Sheriff Harry S. Truman a kind of Holmes and Watson relationship is established.
It’s in the hospital where Dale meets Harry and it’s also where another key character is introduced, the sex-obsessed Dr Jacoby. If it wasn’t clear by the way he was stroking the Hawaiian girl on his neck tie (one of several examples of suggestive imagery associated with the Dr and his obsession with Hawaii) it becomes more evident later on and Dale clearly is on to him when he remarks to Harry “that guy’s a psychiatrist?”. Jacoby’s unusual interest in Laura Palmer sets him up as a suspect, and from the arrival of Dale the episode shifts into who-dunnit mode as Cooper is now on the case.
Apart from the suspects it’s established that there are plenty of colourful characters in Twin Peaks who all have a secret hide though we only get briefly introduced to them, the Log Lady being one of the most enigmatic. She’s only briefly seen in the pilot at the town meeting, another great scene in which Dale surveys the locals. The great thing about the characters in the pilot is that they leave you wanting more, why is the lady carrying a log? What’s the perverted psychiatrist hiding? And why is Nadine wearing an eye patch? are all smaller mysteries that circle the central mystery of Laura’s death.
The pilot takes place over a twenty-four hour period and by the end of it the audience is clearly still only at the beginning of the mystery. The first supernatural event to occur happens at the very end when Sarah Palmer has a vision of someone digging up the half of Laura Palmer’s broken heart necklace that was buried by Donna and James. Up to this point in the episode weird things have happened, but this is first time that it’s hinted that something out of the ordinary might be going on.
It’s the fact that no real bad guy has been established up to this point that makes the ending more intriguing and the viewer want to see more. There are several suspects but no one really stands out as a villain though it appears that many may have a motive. Everyone looks like they’ve got something to hide, including the sheriff Harry who is revealed to be having an affair with Josie at the end of the episode.
The acting is pretty much superb all round but it’s Kyle Maclachlan who gives the standout performance with all of Dale’s quirks expertly crafted. There is of course some old school Hollywood charm thrown into the mix as well with Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn (who were both in West Side Story) and everyone is a perfect fit for the part they play, even if in the case of James their character is a bit wooden. Other characters will come into their own later on and some, in the case of Donna’s Sister, will never be seen again but for now we’re just starting to get to know people.
Of course the acting is helped by the fantastic dialogue and as I mentioned before there are so many memorable lines that Twin Peaks is almost like the Casablanca of TV shows. From “she’s dead, wrapped in plastic” to “the Norweigans are leaving!” everything is judged perfectly from the moments meant to scare you to the belly laughs created by the juxtaposition of the dark goings on with the more absurd elements.
The sense of humour which is so important to the show balances out the darker and stranger stuff going on and varies from the more on the nose humour of Lucy and Andy, such as Lucy’s introduction where she takes forever to describe the location of a telephone to more subtle dialogue like:
Dale:“Who’s the lady with the log?”
Harry: “We call her the log lady”
“Diane I’m holding a chocolate bunny”
The balance of drama and comedy in the pilot is perfect and helps to cement the idea that Twin Peaks is a show about darkness and light.
Location is a key element of the pilot and throughout Twin Peaks and some could be considered characters in themselves. Places like the sawmill, the Great Northern Hotel next to the waterfall and the Double RR cafe all make the world of Twin Peaks feel real, helped by the fact that so much was shot on location.
Music is another important part of the equation and Angelo Badalmenti does a fine job of scoring the episode. From the opening theme to the strange noirish jazz to the songs ‘Falling’ and ‘Nightingale’ everything sets the mood perfectly, whether its to indicate that something funny’s going or to create an eerie ambience. The music adds so much to the feel of the show that it’s hard to imagine it working so well without it, it might even be hard to sit through the almost tedious opening sequence but as it is Badalmenti’s score turns it into an overture for each episode. Watching the opening sequence prepares the viewer for the episode and leaves them wondering at the significance of the bird, which Lynch fans might remember was an important symbol in ‘Blue Velvet’.
Though the pilot only hints at the strangeness which is to come it unmistakably has the fingerprints of director David Lynch all over it. It might not be quite on the same level as Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ in terms of its weirdness (at least not yet) but it does manage to deliver a sense of disquiet seldom seen in a television show. Scenes like the one where Dale and Harry visit Laura’s body in the morgue with lamp that flickers and buzzes makes the viewer feel uncomfortable as does the way seemingly unimportant objects such as ceiling fans are loaded with an unexplained significance by lingering shots. The framing of certain shots creates moments which imprint themselves on the audience’s mind like the arrival of Ronette Pulaski walking half-naked across the rusty bridge with the mountains in the background.
Overall the pilot succeeds at sucking the viewer in but what it does best is establishing a cast of characters which are instantly memorable in addition to creating a world that you want to return to. Part soap opera, part whodunnit with a healthy dose of humour and darkness thrown in it’s clear that Twin Peaks is not your average serialized drama. By modern standards it might seem a bit slow but it gives the episode a dream-like feel and at times has the atmosphere of an old movie with the strong cast of characters who almost feel like they were plucked out of another, making it feel all the more strange.
If you’re watching the Gold Edition box set you’ll notice there are two versions of the pilot. One is the original version aired in the US, the other an extended version with a ‘closed’ ending that was intended for foreign markets. If you’re just embarking on your journey into the woods then save the extended version until after you’ve watched the whole thing as much of the future mythology of the show is included, if only briefly. As an ending designed to tie things up it’s fairly ridiculous while it’s hard to be too critical, as we have it to thank for giving us much of what makes later episodes so special, it feels incredibly forced and the acting less convincing than what we’ve already seen. As a curiosity it’s worth watching if only for the scene of Lucy and Andy at home, with Andy practising the trumpet, but it will definitely seem confusing if you only watch the extended version.
Overall a solid 8/10 Seriable stars. The best of Twin Peaks is yet to come..