John Bruni reviews TWIN PEAKS: season 1, episode 1

Twin PeaksPilot: “Northwest Passage”
Originally broadcast April 8, 1990
Written by Mark Frost & David Lynch
Directed by David Lynch
My rating: ★★★
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Wrapped in plastic.

Ah, 1990! What a different era for television programs! Back then, we had ALF, MAMA’S FAMILY, FALCON CREST, NEWHART, ALIEN NATION, SWAMP THING and a variety of others. The original LAW AND ORDER debuted that year. And then there’s TWIN PEAKS . . .

What can be said about TWIN PEAKS that hasn’t been said before? It’s generally considered one of the strangest shows to ever appear on network TV, and it’s no surprise, since it comes from the twisted brain wrinkles of David Lynch (and Mark Frost, who is an excellent novelist in his own right; check out THE LIST OF SEVEN and THE SIX MESSIAHS). There are two major questions about this series that need to be taken into consideration. First, is the show as fucked up as everyone says it is? And second, does it hold up to a modern audience?

When you look at the surface, there is nothing complicated about the idea for this show. In the small, isolated town of Twin Peaks, everyone’s sweetheart, Laura Palmer, is found murdered and wrapped in plastic by a local fisherman, Pete Martell (played by Lynch’s favorite actor, Jack Nance). The town falls apart, and the local sheriff, Harry Truman (played with wonderful simplicity by Michael Ontkean) struggles to find the killer. The FBI loans out one of their special agents to aid in the case. And that’s pretty much it.

What makes this so complicated is the characters. They are so goddam fucking crazy that it’s astonishing to behold. There’s Bobby Briggs (played with the perfect balance of love and rebelliousness by Dana Ashbrook), who at first seems like an all-American high school quarterback, but who turns out to be a drug dealer who likes boning his boss’s wife. And then there’s that boss, Leo Johnson (played scumbaggishly by Eric DaRe), a trucker who loves to beat his wife in addition to doing all sorts of odd criminal jobs which may include murder. Let’s not forget about James Hurley (played a bit blandly by James Marshall), one of Laura’s secret boyfriends who is the first on the list of suspects. There’s Dr. Jacoby (played quirkily by Russ Tamblyn), the town shrink who would much rather be in some kind of tropical climate. Of course, all of these men lead right back to, you guessed it, Laura Palmer. It would seem that all of them have been fucking her.

But that’s not even dipping into the Twin Peaks pool. There’s the ladies of the show, Shelly (Leo’s wife, played like a woman in peril by Madchen Amick), Donna (Laura’s best friend, played like a sweetheart by Lara Flynn Boyle), Audrey (who specializes in secrets, sexily portrayed by Sherilyn Fenn), Norma (who owns the RR Diner, played by Peggy Lipton in a pure moment of normalcy), Nadine (a one-eyed woman who has an obsession with developing silent drape runners, played with lunacy by Wendy Robie), Catherine Martell (Pete’s wife, who is cheating on him, played with utter coldness by Piper Laurie) and Josie Packard (who loves Harry and is in a constant struggle with Catherine over the Packard Mill, played with tender coldness—if you can imagine that—by Joan Chen). Don’t forget the loony Log Lady (played bafflingly by Catherine E. Coulson), whose log insists that it saw something the night Laura Palmer was murdered . . .

Then there’s Laura’s parents, Leland and Sarah, played to the highest pitch of hysteria by the incredible Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie. And Bobby’s father, Maj. Briggs, who might be the most reasonable member of the cast (played with authority by Don S. Davis). Or how about Ben Horne (played sleazily by Richard Beymer), who runs the local hotel and is constantly trying to get foreign interests into town? Not to mention the most awkward couple in Twin Peaks, Deputy Andy Brennan and dispatcher Lucy Moran (and if you think there is a more capable couple of actors to play them than Harry Goaz and Kimmy Robertson, then fuck you, you’re lying).

But considering the craziness of all of these people, none of them hold a candle to Special Agent Dale fucking Cooper, played with utter brilliance by Kyle MacLachlan. He’s a city boy who has gone out into the wilderness for this assignment, and everything about small town life impresses the hell out of him. He can’t get over how wonderful the Douglas firs smell. He enjoys a damn fine cup of coffee like no man alive. He’s whittling a whistle “because that’s what you do in a town where a yellow light still means slow down.” He constantly talks into his pocket recorder to a woman named Diane who never appears on the show. He’s got unconventional ways of investigating crimes, and he has an undying appreciation of Tibet and the Dalai Lama.

Wow. That’s an incredible who’s who. Now that we know just about everyone in town, what actually happens in the pilot episode?

Well . . . not much. For an overstuffed and overpopulated 94 minutes, surprisingly little happens. In addition to finding Laura’s body, they find one of her friends, Ronette Pulaski, in a fugue state (she’s the real reason Cooper is brought in, since she was found over the state line). They find out there might be some connection between Laura and a roadhouse called One Eyed Jack’s across the US/Canada border. There’s a whole lot of hand wringing and crying out in anguish, but that’s about it.

That’s the major problem with this episode. Everything is so melodramatic. It’s too much. Angelo Badalamenti’s score, which eventually finds its stride in the series, sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb while a lot of good actors ham it up as much as they can.

As a result, the pilot is pretty clunky. Despite its obvious flaws, it shows a lot of promise. The characters make for an amazing circus to watch, and while the plot is kind of bland, it gives viewers a wonderful mystery: who killed Laura Palmer? Everyone loves a question like that.

It’s clear at this point that the creators don’t even know who did it, but only if this isn’t your first time watching the show. In fact, this pilot doesn’t even qualify as horror. The horror to be found later in the series isn’t even hinted at yet. Stay tuned for more.

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About John Bruni

John Bruni is the author of DONG OF FRANKENSTEIN (New Kink), POOR BASTARDS AND RICH FUCKS and TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE (StrangeHouse) and STRIP (Riot Forge). His short work has appeared in anthologies like A HACKED-UP HOLIDAY MASSACRE (Pill Hill), ZOMBIE! ZOMBIE! BRAIN BANG! (StrangeHouse) and the critically acclaimed VILE THINGS (Comet). He edited STRANGE SEX 3 for StrangeHouse, and he was the editor and publisher of TABARD INN: TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE. Find out more at www.talesofquestionabletaste.com and www.talesofunspeakabletaste.blogspot.com.
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