Auteur Theory: ‘Twin Peaks’ Pilot Episode

After the dark and uncompromising vision of ‘Blue Velvet’ saved his career (perhaps just in the nick of time), avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch decided parlay that success by doing the unthinkable: He took a job working for mainstream network television. This was the wisest decision he ever made, and his pilot episode for ‘Twin Peaks’ remains one of the best things he ever directed.

“She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.”

On the most superficial level, ‘Twin Peaks’ was a captivating murder mystery that kept the entire world guessing “Who killed Laura Palmer?” for most of a year. Much like Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’, the characters’ attempt to find a killer causes them to uncover many dark, disturbing secrets about their small American town and about each other. However, that crime story was just the lure to drag viewers into the bizarre world created by Lynch and veteran television writer Mark Frost. Once there, the series became many other things: a fantasy, a soap opera, a supernatural thriller, a teenage melodrama, an offbeat comedy, and a devastating portrait of the dark underside of American society. It managed to be all of these things at once, without contradiction, woven up into a tightly structured narrative that demanded strict attention from its audience.

In the spring of 1990, ‘Twin Peaks’ was utterly unlike anything that had ever aired on American television. In fact, it still is. Despite countless imitators that have attempted to copy one aspect or another of its formula (the supernatural intrigue of ‘The X-Files’, the small town shenanigans of ‘Northern Exposure’, the quirky characters of ‘Picket Fences’, the ongoing serial murder mystery of ‘The Killing’, etc.), no other series has ever fully replicated its perfect blend of elements. Frankly, no other series has ever had the audacity to even try. The ambition of this show is still staggering. The fact that Lynch and Frost pulled it off within the restrictive confines of network television is a miracle.

Revisiting the pilot episode now, more than two decades later, it’s still an amazing piece of work that hits the mark on every level. Despite the obvious constraints against graphic sex, violence or profanity imposed by network censors, the episode (and the show as a whole) never feels watered down. It features moments of raw, searing emotions that are among the best scenes that Lynch has ever directed, including Sarah Palmer’s unbearable howl of agony over the telephone line when she realizes that her daughter is dead, or the chain reaction of horror that sweeps through the high school as word first spreads. Somehow, these are interspersed with other moments of levity, such as Agent Cooper’s childlike enthusiasm for cherry pie and fir trees, without any jarring tonal disconnection. The power of Lynch’s vision holds everything together. It flows beautifully from one extreme to the other.

It had been years since I last sat down to watch ‘Twin Peaks’. A small part of me feared that it wouldn’t hold up to my memories of it. To the contrary, it’s every bit as good as I remembered. Within moments of its haunting opening credits, I found myself fully immersed in the show’s world all over again, instantly engaged by its characters and prepared to relive every aspect of their journey.

The Mystery: After the body of teenage Homecoming Queen Laura Palmer washes up on shore, and another girl who’d been beaten and raped stumbles back into town, local law enforcement calls in the FBI to help investigate.

Family and Friends of the Victim: Father Leland Palmer and mother Sarah Palmer, best friend Donna Hayward, surviving victim Ronnette Pulaski.

The Heroes: FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, Sheriff Harry S. Truman, overly-emotional deputy Andy Brennan, stoic deputy Hawk, town doctor William Hayward.

The Initial Suspects: Boyfriend Bobby Briggs, secret boyfriend James Hurley, Bobby’s football teammate Mike Nelson, wealthy businessman Benjamin Horne, conniving sawmill forewoman Catherine Martell, abusive trucker Leo Johnson, kooky psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Jacoby.

The Local Color: Sawmill owner Josie Packard, mill lumberjack Pete Martell, perky police receptionist Lucy Moran, town coquette Audrey Horne, diner owner Norma Jennings, waitress Shelly Johnson, gas station owner Big Ed Hurley and his crazy wife Nadine Hurley, elderly Mayor Dwayne Milford, the One-Armed Man, the Log Lady.

The Clues: Laura’s diary, the letter “R” under Laura’s fingernail, the train car murder site, the videotape of Laura and Donna’s picnic, the two halves of Laura’s heart locket, “Fire Walk With Me” written in blood on newspaper, Fleshworld magazine, $10,000 cash, the corner of Sparkwood & 21.

The Iconic Imagery: The ceiling fan in the Palmer home, the Great Northern hotel, the Double-R Diner, trees blowing in the wind, the empty school hallway, Laura’s prom photo, the Packard sawmill, Ronette Pulaski walking across the bridge, Nadine’s eye patch and drapes, Cooper’s tape recorder, cherry pie, coffee, flickering fluorescent lights, the Road House club, James’ motorcycle, the deer head on the conference table, the lonely traffic light swaying in the breeze, the donut spread (“a policeman’s dream”), Mike and Bobby barking like dogs in their jail cell.

‘Twin Peaks’ was the richest, boldest, darkest, most innovative, most engrossing, and most wonderfully strange show to ever air on network television, and it hasn’t lost a bit of its power in the last 22 years.

The series was last released on DVD by Paramount Home Entertainment in a Gold Box Edition back in 2007. Unfortunately, the studio hasn’t shown any interest in releasing it on Blu-ray to date. However, the complete first season, comprised of this pilot and seven further episodes, can be found on VUDU in 1080p “HDX” format for a purchase price of $19.99. While VUDU doesn’t offer any of the episodes individually or for rental, 20 bucks for unlimited streaming of the whole first season in 1080p seems like a good deal to me. I happily purchased.

The pilot episode is the 94-minute American broadcast version, which leaves off on a cliffhanger for the next episode. The so-called “European” version of the episode with an additional 20-minute tacked-on ending that attempted to wrap up the whole story is not available. (That version exists mainly as a curiosity anyway; only the broadcast version is considered canon to the rest of the show.)

The episode is properly presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio with pillarbox bars on the sides of the frame. Picture quality is sadly inconsistent. Some scenes have very nice detail and texture, while others are distractingly soft. Interior scenes and close-ups tend to fare better than wide shots or exteriors, but not always. Some of this may be the fault of the production’s low television budget (though it should be said that ‘Twin Peaks’ had exceptional photography for the time), some may be due to the video master, and some may be due to VUDU’s compression. Overall, the image has good contrast, shadow detail and colors, though dark scenes tend to be extremely grainy, and the compression often leaves the grain looking blocky. Despite its flaws, it’s still a solid upgrade from DVD.

Meanwhile, the Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack sounds pretty great for lossy audio. The theme music has a robust presence, and sound effects such as car and motorcycle engines demonstrate some throaty bass. Like anything Lynch directs, the episode has a terrific sound design with fascinating ambient tones and noises.

Including the pilot, ‘Twin Peaks’ ran for a total of 30 episodes. Hopefully, if this first season sells well, VUDU and Paramount may eventually offer the second season for streaming as well. (A Blu-ray would be even better!) In the meantime, I’ll gladly take what I can get.

Rating: ★★★★★


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  1. August Lehe

    Any chance ‘American Gothic’ might get a deluxe Blu Ray treatment? I recall it was set in the South. It featured a sheriff Buck (that’s Buck with a B.) One episode would be super, the next would be a yawn! And just when you were sure Sheriff Buck was Satan himself, he would doublecross this week’s villains and save the helpless and doomed victims.

    • Josh Zyber

      I remember American Gothic. The show has a small cult following, but I doubt enough of one to justify a Blu-ray release. Then again, the ’70s ‘Invisible Man’ series got a Blu-ray, so you never can tell.

  2. Lone_gunmen

    A couple of years back, I watched the entire show over a 24 hour period, with only a few breaks in between for snacks and bathroom breaks.

  3. EM

    There was quite the buzz about this series when it premiered. I tuned in to the first episode…and shut it off about 10–20 minutes in. Not long after, I mentioned this in a discussion about Twin Peaks at my dorm cafeteria. “You just don’t get David Lynch!” one of my companions said, as though she were about to pass sentence. Perhaps not, I said…but I thought that the real problem was that David Lynch didn’t get me. 🙂

  4. I have to admit, I was in school when Twin Peaks came out (around 14 or 15 I think) and absolutely loved every minute of it. But I must admit, I haven’t watched it since, for fear that it won’t hold up, and ruin those memories.

    After reading your thoughts, Josh, I’m tempted to get the box-set now (albeit DVD), and re-watch them all. 🙂

    I remember it was one of those things the whole family watched, and at school a lot of people watched it too, and we’d all be talking about it the next day. Kinda like today’s kids and reality TV, I suppose… *sigh* ahh, those were the days!! I can’t imagine teens enjoying something like Twin Peaks these days, certainly not without vampires…

    • The entire series is available in HD on netflix streaming. I imagine most here already have that.

      PS Not sure how they got HD, and not sure its 1080p but it looks better than ever.

      • Josh Zyber

        Good to know, thanks. The problem with Netflix, of course, is that you can never tell when something will be dropped from the stream on a moment’s notice.

      • Thanks for the heads-up

        I’m in the UK, so not sure about Netflix here, but it’s a moot point, since I haven’t got it. 😉 I’m not really that bothered with streaming stuff, since the broadband isn’t always great even for SD streaming.

  5. TWIN PEAKS is probably my all-time favorite TV series (I go back and forth between this and THE SOPRANOS as my favorite). There’s no doubt it was the one series that changed the face of TV and what you could do on it. The season two episode when we finally find out who killed Laura is STILL the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on Network TV.

    It’s a damn shame David Lynch is so protective of this property (he refuses to revive it – yes, there have been offers – and actually wishes he had never revealed who killed Laura…which was his original idea, but caved to network pressure) as a “reboot” would do quite nicely on a network like AMC or even somewhere like HBO.

    • HBO, indeed. Would take care of “the obvious constraints against graphic sex, violence or profanity imposed by network censors”.