Even after 30 years, the spell cast over you as you watch the pilot of David Lynch‘s short-lived, cult-hit TV series Twin Peaks is one you won’t want to shake off. To this day, I can think of a better pilot which also marked a major paradigm shift in the way we watch television to this day. The Twin Peaks pilot set the stage for a television-watching experience unlike any other that had been seen in primetime. The pilot also inspired numerous copycats, sparking the mind of writers and showrunners for years to come. There has never been a pilot quite like the Twin Peaks pilot. So, if you’re curious about the series or are considering finally dipping your toe into the world of Lynch, now — and with the help of this pilot — is the time to do it.
As a filmmaker and artist, Lynch has been a bit alienating in his storytelling. If movies heavily imbued with the surreal and symbolic feel too foreign or if watching everyday objects become dream-like oddities as people act like otherworldly, emotional rollercoasters is a lot to process, then Lynch-as-creative-voice may have not be your thing. While his first feature, Eraserhead (which almost feels like it’s daring you to reject it from the minute you press “Play”), is some of his best work, it marked Lynch early on as an artist you needed to take time with. He was never going to serve up big, popcorn flicks like contemporaries Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, although damn if he didn’t try with his Dune adaptation. Of course, that’s what makes Lynch such a special director and what makes his work worth watching, even if he’s risked being classified as an “I’ll get to his work someday” kind of director. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen onscreen, even when he’s dealing in more linear narratives or familiar settings, as was the case with his more mainstream hits The Elephant Man and the aforementioned Blue Velvet.
Twin Peaks is a major creative leap for Lynch, who really expanded the scope of his interests as he and series co-executive producer Mark Frost delivered hour-long episodes every week across two seasons. The move to television huge for Lynch, as he assimilate his creative interests into a mainstream outlet and hoped the series would take with the American viewership. Twin Peaks aired on ABC, one of the three biggest networks in TV then and to this day in addition to NBC and CBS, which meant it would hopefully reach more people than any of his previous work. Even though Lynch had achieved mainstream success with The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and Dune, a chance to get a guaranteed audience every week for a show from the mind of a director and writer of Lynch’s ilk was huge, especially in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. So, when Twin Peaks finally debuted its pilot on April 8, 1990, it’s no surprise it made an impact and has remained a fascinating, cult-favorite bit of television given where it came from and the stature it has achieved in the pop culture consciousness.
Back in 1990, the Twin Peaks pilot gathered high praise for its blend of bold storytelling. Richard Hack‘s review of the pilot printed in The Hollywood Reporter read, in part, “It’s television at its best — climax, building, and climaxing again, ever drawing the viewer into its intrigue,” before noting a big caveat which would make the show a tricky watch: “Lynch expects the viewer to suck the Tootsie pop slowly until the inner chewy nucleus is revealed. TV viewers chomp through their pops.” In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Ken Tucker called Twin Peaks the “wingdingiest thing to make it onto network television in many a full moon”, going on to agree with Lynch’s characterization of the show as “Peyton Place meets Blue Velvet” before continuing,
“It’s that and more: It’s Mayberry R.F.D. Goes Psycho; Pee-wee’s Playhouse Has a Nervous Breakdown; and the first you-really-can’t-miss-this show of the ’90s.”
Tucker wasn’t wrong then, and his assessment remains true to this day. If you’re looking for a TV series to spoon-feed you its ideas or give it to you straight, you can change the channel. That was clear at the time, when Twin Peaks was competing for eyeballs with the likes of Cheers, Seinfeld, and Beverly Hills, 90210 on Thursday nights. It remains even truer today, where there are damn near a million and one shows of all shapes and sizes to choose from, many of which are far less heady (no shade!) than Lynch’s creation. But the twistiness — in all meanings of the word — of Twin Peaks is its biggest selling point. It’s an invitation to escape reality, where a Log Lady introduces each episode and a mysterious Black Lodge causes you to lose track of time, while presenting you with a familiar setting — Twin Peaks, Washington, population 51,201 — and the kinds of characters you’d expect to be living in that small town. Twin Peaks expands on a thematic interest close to Lynch’s heart, too, investigating the darker side of suburbia where secrets are hidden in plain sight and forbidden relationships of all sorts are nurtured — an idea first explored in his 1986 feature, Blue Velvet.
You know Twin Peaks is going to be a special show from the minute you hear composer Angelo Badalamenti’s unforgettable theme for Twin Peaks: A mix of jazz and country, with guitars twanging as synthesizers pump out smooth, ethereal hooks. As the music plays, the credits stay focused on a factory on the outskirts of the small Pacific Northwest town of Twin Peaks, population 51,201 (as of April 8, 1990, that is). You can almost immediately sense something is up with this show as credits roll over machinery just doing its job, completely unaware that elsewhere, local beauty Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is dead, swaddled in plastic and discarded on a rocky beach.
Over the course of an epic 93-minute premiere, Twin Peaks puts all of the important characters on the board while illustrating they may all be neighbors, but the ways in which their lives intersect and the secrets they keep are more explosive than you might realize. Laura’s death is the catalyst for two seasons worth of stories, unraveling the lives of those closest to her. The investigation into Laura’s death begins in the pilot and plays out through Season 1, with Kyle MacLachlan turning in a career-best performance as Agent Dale Cooper, our audience surrogate who comes to town to investigate Laura’s demise and becomes permanently entwined with the town itself.
What makes Twin Peaks such a riveting, inventive, immensely rewatchable, deeply good pilot is that it essentially takes something familiar, changes a few things here or there, and presents it as something completely new and maybe occasionally unsettling. A quiet, industrial, all-American town where nothing bad ever appears to happen is thrown into turmoil when its gorgeous, blonde homecoming queen shows up dead on a beach. That one woman in town who might normally be the town spinster or gossip is now a bespectacled, log-carrying citizen doling out odd turns of phrase, promising that her log knows all. A coffee-obsessed FBI agent keen to make a break in the case decides on his suspect to question next not by using facts but by saying a name, throwing a rock, and seeing if the rock will break a bottle. A teenage girl who might be a bit fast for her age stands in the middle of a diner or in her father’s office at the hotel he owns, swaying to jazz music with her eyes closed, with nary a care about who might be watching. On one level, you understand the Twin Peaks pilot is telling the relatively simple story of a lawman investigating the murder of a teenage girl with the help of local authorities and a colorful cast of townsfolk. On another level, you begin to suspect there is something afoot here and you can’t quite put your finger on it, leaving you wanting more in order to piece it all together.
Lynch has seemingly always been interested in unpacking the Leave It to Beaver version of American life which prevailed in his youth. With idea as his thematic foundation and counter-culture creativity influencing the way in which he interprets it onscreen, it’s no surprise Lynch’s career evolved to the point he created Twin Peaks. In doing so, he became accessible where once he might have been inaccessible. He challenged viewers with the presentation of his ideas, the way in which he told his story through stilted, odd, nostalgia-laced dialogue, characters who were maybe a few degrees left of center but ultimately identifiable, knowable. Lynch has never crafted work which fits neatly into a mold and even when the work does look like something we’re familiar with on the surface, like Twin Peaks, it still manages to surprise.
For my money, Twin Peaks is a show unmatched in its staying power and its influence. To this day, when we see something in a movie or TV show that feels slightly askew, deceptive despite its familiarity, or perhaps glossed over with a moody sheen, we liken it to Twin Peaks. When something supernatural collides with the quotidian, it’s Twin Peaks-esque. The Twin Peaks pilot remains the best pilot all these years later because it is such a singular object of fascination which hits on truths about life in modern America, goes deep on the eternal melodramas of life we all encounter from time to time, and brings the dreaminess of the subconscious into our tangible reality. It will never be a relic lost to time because of its continued influence, both in the way it has inspired a sub-genre of TV unto itself or seemingly rooted itself into the creative consciousness of those folks creating TV for us today.