Friday, November 06, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #94: Twin Peaks: "Pilot" (1990)

Writing about David Lynch's classic and creepy Twin Peaks (1990-1991), critic Terrance Rafferty noted in The New Leader (April 9, 1990, page 86) that the "all-American surrealist takes to television like a parasite to an especially nourishing host."

In more straightforward terms, author Robert J. Thompson noted that Twin Peaks is one of television's "most interesting and compelling aesthetic achievements." (From Hill Street Blues to ER: Television's Second Golden Age, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1996, page 155.)

Indeed, thinking back to the year 1990, I remember a nation utterly captivated by the soap opera. Twin Peaks was a legitimate pop culture phenomenon in those days, down to the parodies ("Twin Beaks" on Sesame Street), down to the New York Times best-seller The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, down to the Time Magazine cover story on Lynch, and even the Twin Peaks Access Guide to the Town (which featured a recipe for some damn-fine cherry pie...).

I also recall with great clarity attending parties at college wherein suddenly the word would go out (usually loudly...) that it was time for Twin Peaks, and there would be this mad rush for the nearest TV set. Students huddled before the tube with rapt attention, and as soon as Angelo Badalementi's moody theme song began it grew so quiet you could actually hear a pin drop. That spell was not broken for the entire hour as active viewers sussed out clues, sought revelations, and reveled in the program's quirky symbolism.

Another potent personal memory of Twin Peaks involves the surprising collapse of the phenomenon early in the series' second season. The oft-heard complaint was simply that dedicated viewers had -- because of family or job obligations -- missed a single episode and found themselves utterly lost; unable to keep up with the twists and turns of Mark Frost and David Lynch's bizarre, labyrinthine program. This feeling of missing out, of not keeping up, of being on "the outs" with something popular, actually generated a kind of vicious backlash. When the feature film based on the movie, Fire Walk with Me (1991), was released at a later point, it was (unfairly...) greeted with derisive boos and hisses by critics and fans alike.

The fashionable had turned into the unfashionable, seemingly overnight...

Twin Peaks was the tale of a small, Douglas Fir-lined town in the Pacific-Northwest (population: 51, 201) that suffered a terrible tragedy on February the 24th of 1990. The corpse of beloved high school student Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) was discovered - wrapped in plastic -- on the banks of the river near the Packard Saw Mill. The crime was so horrendous, so awful, that it sent the town into a literal tail-spin of suspicion and accusations, and resulted in an FBI investigation led by fastidious agent, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).

As Cooper and town sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean) sought answers about the brutal crime, a dark underside was also unearthed. Seventeen year-old Laura Palmer -- the "golden girl" of the local high school -- had been a cocaine user. She had also kept a secret diary of her kinky sexual escapades, and had at least two lovers. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Those memorable characters and intriguing situations are all set up -- ably and artistically -- in the ninety minute pilot episode of Twin Peaks that aired on ABC on April 8, 1990. For purposes of this review, I screened the original TV version of the pilot (rather than the International version) simply because this post is a "flashback" to the series as it aired on American television. And even in 2009 -- almost twenty-years after it originally aired -- the Twin Peaks pilot is mesmerizing; and certainly one of the ten greatest TV pilots of all-time.

Who's The Lady With The Log? We Call Her The Log Lady...

One of the reasons this pilot stands up so well involves Lynch's multi-layered approach to the material. In other words, Twin Peaks is concurrently a "thing" (a melodrama; a soap opera, a serialized TV series) and a parody of that very "thing."

Specifically, melodrama -- literally "a play with music" -- is a drama of heightened emotions that concerns family crises, hardships, and domestic tragedies. In Twin Peaks, Lynch parodies this hot-house, emotionally-unrestrained genre, and in particular, the melodrama as it has existed throughout American television history.

Accordingly, Badalementi's droning, monotonous, ubiquitous (but gorgeous...) musical score serves as the 1990s equivalent of the maudlin organs you might hear supporting a General Hospital or Guiding Light episode of the early 1960s. This exaggerated musical score is integral to the soap opera aura of Twin Peaks, and it constantly lifts the tenor of the pilot from grounded reality to a brand of rarefied, hyper-reality.

Tragedy arrives hard and fast in the Twin Peaks pilot with Pete Martell's (Jack Nance) discovery of Laura Palmer's corpse. Again, this is a terrible turn-of-events, especially for Laura's parents, Leland (Ray Wise) and Sarah (Grace Zabriskie). These fine actors weep and wail, shouting to the Heavens over their grievous loss in the earnest tradition of the soap opera or melodrama.

Yet, Lynch quickly and methodically distances us from that continual and genuine suffering, almost literally turning it comedic in the process. To wit, Sarah learns that Laura is dead while conversing with Leland on the telephone. Leland drops the telephone in shock at the news (reported by Sheriff Truman), but Lynch's camera doesn't follow Leland, as we might expect.

Instead, we suddenly get a close-up of the phone, and the camera pans down and down -- ever-so-slowly -- the long telephone wire, all-the-way to the dangling receiver. Emanating from that receiver are Sarah's tortured cries, still audible even though nobody is listening. But those cries -- now disembodied -- go on and on and on, ad nauseum, and make the moment read as funny, not tragic. Again, this augmentation occurs in tandem with the overblown musical score. The crying has gone on so long, and with such sustained passion that it turns silly, and Lynch informs us that is so by removing the crier from the frame so we're not actually laughing at the person's pain; we're laughing at the over-the-top reaction.

The deadpan, circular dialogue in Twin Peaks likewise adds to the strong sense that the soap opera form is being parodied here. Straight answers are given to straight questions, and yet everything about the interrogatives and their rebuttals are absurd. "Who is the lady with the log?" asks Dale Cooper. "We call her the log lady," replies Sheriff Truman. Tell me, do you glean any important contextual information from that particular back-and-forth?

Again and again, Lynch undercuts the seriousness of the tale to parody the soap opera form. After the discovery of the corpse, he cuts to shots of a blubbering detective at the crime scene, a sobbing idiot named Andy. Again, this isn't typical crime-scene behavior. Later, as Sheriff Truman is about to get the call about Laura's death, his receptionist, Lucy, goes off on a sustained riff about how she is going to transfer that particular call. To that phone. By the lamp. The black one. On the table.

Again, the very serious form of the soap opera is successfully undercut here by Lucy's focus on the picayune. The examples are too numerous to mention just in the pilot alone, but I must admit, I nurture a special affection for a very funny camera set-up in the local high school. Sheriff Truman is just about to arrive to tell the students of the bad news, but before we see him (in the background of the frame), a young high school student inexplicably and robotically moonwalks from his locker (on the right of the frame) to the left side of the screen. It's unmotivated, it's bizarre, and it's funny as hell.

Later in the series, Twin Peaks further satirized soap opera forms in everything from crazy character contrivances (like Laura's lookalike cousin Mattie...) to direct reference to the genre. In the latter case, the characters would often be seen watching a sophomoric soap opera entitled Invitation to Love. With Twin Peaks, Lynch seemed to be telling audiences how silly the form of the melodrama was at the same time that he was enticing the audience with a superlative example of the form.

The Girl in the Plastic Bag

The strange alchemy of Twin Peaks is so compelling because the series is part soap opera, part soap opera parody, and much more too. The show veers into mystery, into horror, and even bizarre police procedural. The pilot changes tenors easily and quickly, and we're often left feeling deeply discomforted by the unconventional shifts.

The death of Laura Palmer is greeted with terrible mourning throughout the first episode (even on the part of the taciturn school principal...) and Lynch seems to be playing on societal stereotypes about young blond women. The victim here is not randomly selected.

On the contrary, Laura Palmer symbolizes something significant. Mid-way through the pilot, Lynch's camera pushes in towards an athletic trophy case...where an iconic portrait of Laura stands -- dead center of the shot. The implication drawn from the photograph's placement in both the frame and the case, of course, is that golden-locked Laura is the ultimate trophy in America of the 1990s.

In traditional folklore, fairies and other spirits of the forest are universally drawn to blond-haired women, and if you've watched all of Twin Peaks, that's a subtle clue about the nature of this particular crime. But there's more than that going on too. Blond hair is often considered part and parcel of the "essential female" in our culture, and hair color is "entangled not only with the concepts of femininity and beauty, but also with intimations of mortality in a youth-oriented society," according to author Anthony Synnott in The Body Social, Self & Society (page 109).

Sometimes, blondes are also stereotypically associated with loose morals or promiscuity, and as a character, Laura seems to encompass every aspect of the Blond Mystique.. She's highly-desirable (a trophy) in terms of male sexual ownership of her. She's a symbol of life, vitality and the future in the youth culture, and she's also derided (the Madonna/Whore Complex...) because of her overtly sexual nature in what appears a conservative (but ultimately corrupt...) adult society. I find fascinating the many ways this pilot contextualizes and re-contextualizes Laura: as loving daughter (to her parents), as romantic fantasy (to James), as best friend (to Donna Hayward), as crime victim (to the investigators), as innocent school girl (to the principal and others), and even as kindly tutor/ teacher (to the Horne 's son). But, at least in the pilot, it is impossible to say that we "know" Laura. That's part of Twin Peaks' great appeal: that Laura is different things to different people and the audience can only guess at the "real" Palmer.

By making a golden-haired, "All-American" beauty the victim of a terrible crime, Lynch is granted an opening to study a lot of things about society. How men view women; how women view other women; how society glorifies and then destroys women, and female beauty, even. It's the same delicate dance Lynch waltzed in Blue Velvet (1984), a film that in many ways a prototype for Twin Peaks. He likes to gaze at the underneath; at the meaning behind symbols we take for granted on a conscious level.

A "Pretty Simple Town:" The Evil That Lurks in the Woods

One of the most important symbols in Twin Peaks is the dense forest that surrounds the town. In literature -- as far back as Nathaniel Hawthorne -- the forest has often been considered a place of evil.

Hawthorne wrote powerfully (in Young Goodman Brown, for instance...) that the American forests were inhabited by things both inhuman and devilish. His books were built around that belief; just as Twin Peaks is also built around them. Over the course of the series, we learn about the forest's Black Lodge and the inhabitants within: dwarves, giants and sadistic murderers. But the Forest also reflects a very human evil.

Consider this description of the forest (from the forest is a "place where vegetable life thrives and luxuriates, free from any control or cultivation. And since its foliage obscures the light of the sun, it is therefore regarded as opposed to the sun's power and as a symbol of the earth...Since the female principle is identified with the unconsciousness in Man, it follows that the forest is also a symbol of the unconsciousness. It is for this reason that Jung maintains that the sylvan terrors that figure so prominently in childrens' tales symbolize the perilous aspects of the unconsciousness, that is, its tendency to devour or obscure reason."

The woods have proven a dangerous place to fictional characters in works such as Little Red Riding Hood, The Blair Witch Project (1999), and, yes, Twin Peaks. Laura Palmer doesn't survive her night in the woods...a night of unconscious unbound. Rona, another resident of the town, also emerges bloody and beaten from the forest, and the pilot provides us a stunning shot of the girl "coming home," crossing a rusted bridge -- white-capped mountains and forest behind her in the distance -- as she returns to civilization. Depending on interpretation, the forest in Twin Peaks is either the realm where the Human Id goes wild and murder results; or the place where the human psyche is possessed by external spirits and specters of tremendous madness. But either way, the pilot begins to establish the symbolism of the forest as an important catalyst for series events. Between scenes, we see wind rustling through the trees, with a strange, sinister quality. Later we see traffic lights shining red -- warning us not to go any further (into the woods?) -- blowing in the wind at night. The forest represents an invisible malevolence, ever-present but virtually ignored.

On one level, Twin Peaks is about a girl who went astray (morally?) in the woods (adulthood?), and paid the ultimate price. It's a metaphor for life traps like drug use and exploitive sex. But Twin Peaks is no Afterschool Special. It is so weird, so spiky, so dark and demented that it encourages many interpretations, That's why the series dwells in the memory, in the imagination, even in the subconscious.

Even after all these years, Twin Peaks is a great mystery waiting to be re-opened and re-visited. And the punch line -- "the sequence of staccato images where we finally discovered who killed Laura Palmer " (Cult Times, October 1996, page 53) -- is one of the most terrifying scenes you'll find in television history. Like life itself, the series was wild, and weird; inexplicably absurd...and, at some moments, paralyzing. Lynch lulls you into complacency with the belief that his show is a put-on, a stab at soap operas, but then he hits you with his trademark whammies (like our final, alarming visit with Laura Palmer in the Black Lodge).

This "simple little town" is as as strange and surreal a place as mainstream TV has ever taken us, an often-dark reminder that "fate and coincidence figure largely in our lives."


  1. Great flashback, John! Early in our marriage, my wife and I were so caught up with this series. And we were equally guilty of falling out of it during "the surprising collapse of the phenomenon early in the series' second season." But, that first season this had us so enthralled. Perhaps, we felt (and or read) David Lynch became less involved by the second season, or felt twists were added (after "... we finally discovered who killed Laura Palmer") just to throw something on the wall to see if stuck (which is typical of soap operas, now that you analyze it). But, we very much agree that the sequence you refer to was one of the most terrifying scenes in American TV history.

    BTW, didn't Chris Carter throw in a brief homage (with striking background music) to Twin Peaks on one of X-Files episodes? I so seem to recall this. Anyway... a brilliant examination of a comet-like television series that still haunts many of us, JKM. Thanks for this.

  2. Excellent retrospective on this show. This was my gateway drug into the world of David Lynch and after seeing the Pilot ep. I knew I had to watch everything he had done.

    Like many, I was totally captivated by the show. Never missed an episode and even hung in there when it lost its focus in season 2 after the murder of Laura Palmer was solved. When Lynch did come back, boy did he ever with a vengeance. The series finale has to be one of the best and most maddeningly frustrating finales of a TV show ever!

    Back to the Pilot ep. I know exactly what you mean bout the little moments in this ep. that make it so great. There's all the little, what have been called, "visual haikus," like the repeated shots of the ceiling fan in the Palmer household or the traffic light swaying ominously at night, that establish an incredible mood and atmosphere.

    But it is the sudden non-sequiters that get me every time. Like the scene in the Donna's class where they are about to be told about Laura and suddenly there is a cut to a shot of a girl screaming and running across the schoolyard. that one gets me every time.