Here's my take on the pilot after a rewatch.
The major places of interest all get a nod in the feature-length pilot. The Packard Mill, Benjamin Horne’s business empire and the Great Northern Hotel, Big Ed’s Gas Station, The Roadhouse, Double R Diner and, of course, the forest which surrounds the town with its Douglas firs whispering to one another at night. The way the series sets up major character arcs in its pilot episode can only be appreciated with hindsight. I have frequently heard Twin Peaks described as devoid of plot, but I think much is there in the pilot and it’s exquisitely done. Significant plot points and important character developments are foreshadowed as the viewer gets to learn about the town of Twin Peaks and its inhabitants. The pilot also never feels like it's going through the motions with the kind of tiresome but necessary exposition, which can sometimes make pilots drag.
Aside from the dated technology and some very of-the-era haircuts, the series ages remarkably well. Perhaps it’s the fact that some of the characters, notably Audrey Horne, appear more like fifties Hollywood starlets than nineties teens. The show has little of the styling used in other examples of classic nineties television and it doesn't consciously endeavour to demarcate a particular era with soundtrack, pop culture references and costume. The story itself and its place in an indiscriminate small American town also lends a certain timelessness to the show. Perhaps it's because several of my favourite current shows pay homage to the eighties and to Twin Peaks itself, but the story absorbed me as much today as it did in the nineties. Like the ever smiling Laura Palmer, the iconic all-American sweetheart trapped in photographs, on cassette tapes and on grainy hand-held film, the show is suspended in time and place, but continues to captivate in 2017. The first image of Laura Palmer - "she's dead, wrapped in plastic" - and the screams of Laura’s mother coming from the end of a telephone receiver retained their provocative power.
I had forgotten the point at which Twin Peaks gets super weird and I kept expecting jumps and scares in the pilot. In fact, the pilot doesn’t feature anything particularly odd per se. It doesn’t introduce the audience to the Black Lodge, the Man from Another Place, the Red Room or BOB, but there’s nevertheless something unsettling about the viewing experience. Twin Peaks has an oppressive strangeness which is omnipresent – the viewer may not know the significance of the fan on the landing outside Laura Palmer’s bedroom, but by focusing on its mundane whirring and the ticking clock in the Palmers’ house, the sense of something not quite right is inescapable. When Laura’s mother, Sarah Palmer, asks “who’s upstairs” the answer may be innocuous but there’s enough of a pause to make the moment feel sinister and cause viewer disquiet. Someone or something else lurks in the Palmer house and in the forest’s trees. The ever present wistful, dreamlike musical score from Badalamenti and haunting Lynch-penned Julee Cruise vocals of ‘Falling’ serve to reinforce the shadowy mystique of Twin Peaks, a town full of secrets.
There’s an undercurrent of male violence and sexual dominance which pervades throughout the pilot. There’s the beer-swilling Leo who is quickly positioned as a domestic abuser and the hyper-masculine presentation of Bobby and Mike who fight and throw threats of physical violence around, culminating with their animalistic barks and howls from behind the bars of their jail cell. Then there’s philanderer Benjamin Horne, the tycoon who uses his wealth and influence to assert his power. Even sensitive loner James is a bit of a brooding ‘rebel without a cause’ type, as he tears off into the night, straddling his motorbike. The women of Twin Peaks also embody certain stereotypes. Audrey Horne is the entitled rich girl, Laura Palmer plays into the virgin/whore dichotomy and Donna Hayward is the good, church-going girl with an eye for her best friend’s boy and the tantalising potential to become the good girl gone bad. Each of the women, particularly in the pilot, invite simplistic surface readings which cater to hackneyed depictions of women on screen. Yet it is striking that the pilot’s very first shot is Josie Packard’s reflection. In Twin Peaks, nothing is quite that obvious. What we are shown on the surface is illusory and fragmented, something not quite real. The stereotypes aren't, perhaps, so simple or straightforward. There's a lot of duplicity, a lot of reflections and doubling and a number of instances where stereotypes are subverted once one looks beneath the surface. There is much more to be said on gender, sexual violence and the women of Twin Peaks than this recap allows, and I intend to grapple with that more fully in later posts.
Despite its dark undercurrent and the unnerving sense of something amiss, the pilot is peppered with wry humour and moments of charm. Dale Cooper, in particular, is eminently likeable and characters such as Lucy and Andy provide comedic relief. With its quirky dialogue and bizarre moments, Twin Peaks establishes itself as a subversive exploration of small town suburbia and incorporates formulaic soap opera style plot lines into what becomes a surreal, dark and disjointed series in which plot gives way to the supernatural strangeness of Lynch’s eerie world. It’s one of the things that works so effectively. Violence is present but not overwrought. Uncanny forces in Twin Peaks pervade the town’s environment but the characters themselves have their own narrative force and demonstrate the capacity for inflicting horror in a way which is distinctly human, as opposed to supernatural.
The technique of shining a light just enough to show something moving in the shadows contributes to viewer unease. The pilot both lulls the viewer into a false sense of security and advises against complacency. Juxtaposing dreamy music with the piercing screams of Sarah Palmer at the end of the pilot serves as a clear warning. There is something very wrong in Twin Peaks and the worst is yet to come.