Diane, it’s April 8th, 2020. The outside world is a pretty surreal place right now, but there’s plenty to keep me occupied during my time staying at home. Lunch was a tuna fish sandwich on whole wheat, a slice of cherry pie and a cup of coffee. Damn good food. Another activity that’s keeping me occupied is marking the anniversary of one of the best television shows to grace our screens, the surreal masterpiece that is David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks.
You see, Diane, April 8th also marks the 30th Anniversary of the original airdate of the pilot of the show, broadcast into people’s homes on ABC to the tune of 34.6 million viewers. I’m going to go back to that time Diane, back into the mystery of Laura Palmer and mark the occasion with a viewing of the very same feature length pilot that hooked viewers three decades ago. I’ll put the coffee on, black as midnight on a moonless night. Let’s rock.
She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.
Angelo Badalamenti’s theme kicks in over the credits, filled with images of the sawmill and the running waterfalls of the town of Twin Peaks. Badalmenti’s music is both soothing and unnerving and sets the tone for what we are about to witness. The town seems peaceful and placid as we come in on sawmill manager Pete Martell (the late Lynch regular Jack Nance) as he heads out on a normal fishing trip that will change the town of Twin Peaks forever. Heading out and looking across the bay, Martell’s eyes fall on a strange object on the shoreline, something wrapped in plastic. A body.
Without further ado, the effect of this discovery ripples across the town, as Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean) and Doctor Haywood (Warren Frost) identify the body to be that of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the Homecoming Queen. The town is shaken as Laura’s parents and friends are informed of untimely and violent demise. A beautiful, popular, seemingly sweet-natured girl who was involved in many areas of her community, the death of Laura Palmer is unfathomable to the seemingly normal community of Twin Peaks, a town where, we soon come to realise, everyone has their own little secrets that they’re trying to hide.
The enduring appeal of Twin Peaks comes from its wholly unique tone. From these early moments of grief and despair following the news of Laura’s death, we already get a sense of the show’s idiosyncratic nature. The pilot has all the trimmings of a soap opera drama, with secret affairs happening across both the teen and adult characters, along with ingredients of a murder mystery. But there’s something different, a little off, but very affecting. The performances are extreme, over the top, but when played against the delivery of devastating news, they rattle with tangible pain and anguish. That paired with Badalamenti’s music, with Laura Palmer’s theme moving from swooning sorrow and affection to dark, ominous tones, there is always the sense that all is not quite as it seems on the surface.
While the pilot doesn’t even get close to the surrealist warrens of the rabbit hole that the series would later travel down, it sets up nearly everything that is to come with an enticing sense of mystery and straight out weirdness. What it establishes so well is the looming image of Laura Palmer and how deeply felt her death is across the whole town. Whether it’s seeing the events put an end to a lucrative investment opportunity for hotel owner Jerry Horne (‘The Norwegians are Leaving!’) or the details that suggest Laura’s affair with biker James (James Marshall) may just be the start of her duplicity, it is clear that the secret life of the Homecoming Queen is going to open a Pandora’s box for the whole town, and one that won’t be closed so easily.
Diane, I’m holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies.
The pilot also establishes the major players and begins to craft memorable characters whose personalities drive the offbeat rhythm of the show. Nowhere is that more evident than in the character of Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, the FBI agent called in to investigate the murder. From his very first introduction describing his journey to Twin Peaks to his assistant Diane via recordings on his dictaphone, the character is instantly captivating. His dialogue is a mix of whimsical and detailed, and that this small moment in the car firmly establishes the character of Cooper crisply and effectively. His upbeat outlook going in to the murder investigation would be alarming if he wasn’t so damn good at his job. Striking up an easy, doughnut loving, rapport with Sheriff Truman, Agent Cooper quickly gets to the heart of Laura’s secret relationship with James, and finds details and clues in the most unlikely of places.
The character of Agent Cooper and MacLachlan’s career-defining performance is a pure representation of why this show and this pilot clicked with audiences, and is a major component of its iconography 30 years on. He is odd, hypnotic, funny and a stickler for the details, traits the show very much shares. He and the show feel both so in control, despite the seemingly inane diversions they make along the way.
Fire Walk With Me
As any good pilot should, the first drive into the town of Twin Peaks lays down the tracks for what is to come with setting up a small town USA landscape that is being held up by a number of secrets, a foundation which is set to crack. Operating almost perfectly as its own David Lynch movie at an hour and half (an International version added an additional 20 minutes to operate even more as a feature, even going as far as to reveal the killer), it’s a nigh on perfect introduction to the unique world, setting down the tone, character quirks and the ominous sense of something darker lurking within the sea of Douglas Firs that make up the landscape.
It’s hard to picture what it must have been like to see this for the very first time, particularly if you were under the impression that you were simply going to get a new murder mystery to gossip about at work the next morning. The show would go on to be far more than about ‘who killed Laura Palmer’, but the pilot uses that mystery to entice you into a world through an hour and a half dedicated to character and forbidding tone. We may not have been able to see what the future held for the show, or come close to guessing the outcome or the brain-melting avenues the 2017 return would go into, but that’s part of why this pilot works so well. Here is a town we think we know. But boy, this is just the beginning. Oh hell, I might just go and watch the whole cherry pie again.