Thursday, 7 August 2014

TWIN PEAKS, 1.0 - 'Original Pilot' (aka 'Northern Passage')

Thursday, 7 August 2014

written by Mark Frost & David Lynch | directed by David Lynch | 8 April 1990
PETE: She's dead. Wrapped in plastic.
Twin Peaks, Washington, "five miles south of the Canadian border and twelve miles west of the state line"; population 51,201. On 24 February 1989, a beautiful amber morning finds lumberjack Pete Martell (Jack Nance) discovering the dead body of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee); laid on a river bank, naked, wrapped in a sheet of plastic. Welcome to Twin Peaks; population 51,200..

Pete's chilling discovery heralds one of television's most famous murder-mysteries; an original and peculiar series that captured the imagination of world audiences in the early-1990s. A twisted, melodramatic soap opera about an apparently innocuous community hiding a strange, horrifying underbelly. Twin Peaks burned brightly in pop-culture from 1990-91 before its flame was extinguished, but its influence heralded a rise in U.S shows willing to take risks and play with the conventions of small-screen drama.

This pilot episode (sometimes referred to as "Northern Passage"), is a 94-minute introduction to the titular township and its inhabitants. It certainly has moments of eeriness, but actually plays surprisingly straight for a series with a reputation for bizarre sequences and dream-logic weirdness.

After the discover of Laura Palmer's ashen body, steadfast Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) is called to the scene and the tragic news spreads across the unassuming logging community like wildfire. Laura's mother Sarah (Piper Laurie) is perturbed by her daughter's disappearance, first calling Laura's boyfriend Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), who doesn't answer, then her lawyer husband Leland (Ray Wise) at the Great Northern Hotel—just as the police arrive to give Leland the heartbreaking news. Sarah herself left dangling on the phone he drops in pure shock, half-sensing the tragic news being delivered to him.

Indeed, there's a curious feeling that permeates this episode that Laura's death wasn't totally unexpected (in some odd, liminal way), particularly from her best friend Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), who shares questioning glances with her boyfriend James Hurley (James Marshall) when noticing Laura's empty desk, moments before the cops arrive to inform the teachers of a student's demise. Principal Wolchek makes a sonorous announcement that echoes around the school's empty halls, as the kids huddle together for support in their classrooms. Laura Palmer was more than a seventeen-year-old student whose life has been tragically cut short, she was a potent symbol of beauty and innocence for this close-knit community, and her passing has stirred big emotions...

First episode are tough nuts to crack, and Twin Peaks is trickier than most to acclimatize to as a viewer. Perhaps more so with the passage of time. You need to learn to "tune in" to its screwy signal. The discovery of a murder victim is a common drama tradition that helps pull you along, but for the first third of the episode we're chest-deep in a sea of new faces, families, and unfamiliar relationships. Viewers are also kept on the outside because we weren't acquainted with Laura Palmer before her death (no flashbacks are even offered), so we have no investment in this young victim beyond a natural curiosity as armchair sleuths. Not that it really matters, of course, because Laura is more a symbol than a human being.
COOPER: Oh Diane, I almost forgot. Got to find out what kind of trees these are. They're really something.
The performances are also a little anomalous, however intentional that might be; but it's particularly noticeable whenever Angelo Badalamenti's amazing synth score rises up to tweak our responses to whatever the actors are doing. David Lynch's work often places an emphasis on music and droning tones to help put viewers under a spell, and that's definitely true here. You could re-dub Twin Peaks with different music and almost get an entirely different show, which goes to show how key the audio is to the show's box of tricks.

Things perk up once FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) arrives in town after the first half-hour, clutching a Dictaphone he uses to laboriously recount his activities, expense,  and random thoughts to his office's unseen "Diane". When Cooper's introduced, we instantly have someone to latch onto as a fellow outsider, and Twin Peaks begins to find shape with Cooper as an audience proxy. Cooper's nascent investigation even reaps unexpected early reward, thanks to his odd demeanour hiding a razor-sharp intellect, aided by a boyish inquisitiveness and natural aptitude for judging human behaviour.
SVEN: Excuse me, is there something wrong, young pretty girl?
AUDREY: They found my friend Laura... lying face-down on a rocky beach... completely naked. She'd been murdered.
Cooper's just the man for the job, and it's not long before he's making progress by interviewing prime suspects and finding clues: Laura's locked diary inscribed with a final entry about meeting "J"; a key to a deposit box containing $10,000, and an issue of Flesh World magazine containing a photo of Ronette Pulanski (Phoebe Augustine), a teenage girl found walking across a railway bridge in dirty, tattered clothes (apparently a survivor of whomever killed Laura); a camcorder showing Laura and Donna together (with the mystery cameraman's motorbike reflected in Laura's pupil); the discovery of the murder scene in an old rail car containing a pile of soil, half a gold-heart necklace, a scrap of paper marked 'FIRE WALK WITH ME'; and a letter "R" that Cooper tweezers out from under Laura's fingernail as evidence they're dealing with a serial-killer who previous murdered an out-of-town girl called Theresa Banks. For a series often opaque with mystery, it's surprising that we get so many clues and progression in the second half of the first episode!

Twin Peaks is aptly named; not just for the locale's iconic mountains that adorn the town's iconic welcome sign, but for the duo that created the series. Mark Frost, a realist responsible for Hill Street Blues, whose writing's imbued with pragmatism and expertise when it comes to cop procedurals... and cinema's David Lynch, the auteur behind Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, blessed with a gift for creating nightmares through strange collisions of image and sound.

These two creative peaks reached epic highs back in 1990, which we'll ascend again through these retrospective reviews. I hope you'll join me. But, please remember to be careful when discussing episodes in retrospect, so don't post spoilers for any episodes to come. Try and focus on the episode being reviewed only refer backwards. Any comments that don't stick to the obvious common sense rules will be deleted...

Notes from the Black Lodge:

  • This pilot was released across Europe as a television movie (partly explaining why so much progress is made by Cooper), and marketed as a satirical spoof of U.S melodrama! Bizarrely, the European edit has a different ending where Agent Cooper even solves the case! Scenes from that ending are used in episode three of the commissioned ABC series. Interestingly, this isn't the only time David Lynch has been asked to condense a serialised idea into a feature, as the same fate befell Mulholland Dr. (planned as his grand return to small-screen drama, before the story was shrunk into a feature and released to great acclaim in cinemas.)
  • It's fun to spot all the famous faces in Twin Peaks (RoboCop's Ray Wise, Carrie's Piper Laurie), but it's just as fascinating, 24 years later, to spot actors who became famous as a consequence of this series: Kyle MacLachlan is now familiar to fans of Sex and the The City and Desperate Housewives; M├Ądchen Amick's career didn't sky-rocket, but she's worked steadily since (remember her in short-lived NBC drama My Own Worst Enemy?); Men In Black II's villain Lara Flynn Boyle is almost unrecognisable as fresh-faced waitress Donna; and I'm sure Stargate SG1 fans will spot the late Don Davis. It's also a little sad to be reminded how some actors failed to catapult themselves to stardom off the back of Twin Peaks, most notably Sherilyn Fenn.
Images from the Red Room:

(This review was originally posted 2 July 2009, and has been republished with new HD-sourced vidcaps and amendments to celebrate the release of the Twin Peaks - Entire Mystery Blu-ray box-set.)