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DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING: , Michael Ontkean, Ray Wise, , , James Marshall, , Jack Nance, Sheryl Lee

PLOT: The murder of a homecoming queen brings an eccentric FBI agent to a small Northwestern town seething with secrets.

Still from "Twin Peaks" pilot (1990)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite being among the best and tensest 90 minutes ever to air on American television, the pilot of “Twin Peaks” won’t make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies for two reasons. First, it’s not weird enough; although future installments would supply some of the WTF-iest moments ever to grace the small screen, the opening installment of the epic series plays things very understated and close to the vest, merely hinting at the undercurrent of uncomfortable weirdness that would become the show’s dominant tone. Second, and more importantly, the “Twin Peaks” pilot is incomplete. It ends on a cliffhanger, and not only is nothing resolved, many of the main storylines have not even been introduced yet.

Both those objections are addressed in the alternate international version of the pilot, which added an additional twenty minutes of footage which solved Laura Palmer’s murder (differently than the series would in Season 2). This version was shot at the financing studio’s insistence (they hoped to recoup some of their four million dollar investment if the series was not picked up) and released as a theatrical feature overseas. The alternate ending includes the iconic “Man from Another Place” dream sequence which would later grace episode 2, which by itself scores enough weird points to get the international version into consideration. The ending also resolves the mystery and the story; unfortunately, it also ruins it. Because the pilot didn’t have time to explore the forest of suspects, red herrings and side plots the script hints at, to someone who had never seen the series before the solution comes out of nowhere and would makes you wonder what the point of introducing all the minor characters was. This out of place, tacked-on ending perhaps makes the international version play even weirder, but it destroys the pilot’s fragile beauty—an unforgivable sin.

COMMENTS: After having bottomed out with his confusing flop adaptation of Frank Herbert’s cult novel Dune in 1984, David Lynch was on an upswing going into the 1990s. 1986‘s  Blue Velvet had earned him his second Academy Award nomination for Best Director and, looking for a new challenge, he had become interested in turning his talents to the small screen. Lynch befriended writer/producer Mark Frost (“Hill Street Blues”) and the two men worked on a couple of ideas that never got off the ground—a biopic of Marilyn Monroe and a comedy titled “One Saliva Bubble”—before Lynch came up with the idea (legend has it, in a coffee shop) for a mystery soap opera that begins when a body washes up on the shore of a lake. From this core of an idea Lynch and Frost developed the idea for the sprawling “Twin Peaks,” and, remarkably, they convinced ABC studios to finance this pilot for a proposed series (on condition, as noted, that Lynch film an alternate ending so that the movie could be marketed as a feature film if they decided not to turn “Twin Peaks” into a series).

It was shot in upstate Washington, in and around the town of Snoqualmie, a place where small town America seems to have pitched camp in a forest of primeval secrets. With Lynch’s meticulous eye for sensual detail, the pilot looked like a lush feature film rather than a made-for-TV cheapie. The technical aspects of the production were superb, beginning with Angelo Badalamenti’s instantly unforgettable bass and synth theme. The amazing cast (there are more than two dozen major characters, and nary a dud) are a mix of Lynch regulars (Jack Nance, Kyle MacLachlan), fresh photogenic newcomers (Sherilynn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, James Marshall), and veteran actors who, for various reasons, had not been seen onscreen in some time (Peggy Lipton, Piper Laurie, Russ Tamblyn). Of course, as good as the technical aspects and the acting in the pilot are, it’s the writing that makes “Twin Peaks” an unforgettable experience. The script is packed with quotable, frequently absurd lines, starting with Pete Martell’s immortal “she’s dead… wrapped in plastic!” Coffee-loving, gee-whiz FBI agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan) dictates “Diane, I’m holding in my hand a box of small chocolate bunnies”; later, he will ask “who’s the lady with the log?” and get the unsurprising answer “we call her the log lady.” One of my favorite, often overlooked lines is spoken by Donna’s poetry-writing kid sister, a character who never appears again after the pilot. She begins a scene debating whether “blossom of the evening” or “full flower of the evening” scans better, when her sister enters her room and asks her to cover for her when she sneaks out of the house to rendezvous at a roadhouse bar so she can investigate her friend’s murder on her own. “Actually, now that some time has passed,”she muses to herself as Badalamenti’s ominous chords swell and her sister disappears out of the window, “I like ‘the full blossom of the evening.'”

The fact that such a small, reflective moment can make an impression in a movie that includes deputies breaking down in crying fits at crime scenes, a waitress trying to hide an affair from her psychopathic coke-dealing truck driver husband, and distraught parents howling in psychic pain at the news of their daughter’s death indicates just how solid the writing is throughout the film. Quirky comedy and an omnipresent feeling of impending doom exists side-by-side, often in the same scene. Like Agent Cooper, who does not appear until a half hour has already passed, we are dropped into a community that has existed long before we arrived, and has kept its virgin secrets safe from outsiders. Everyone in town is connected to each other, and to the murdered girl. The waitress/owner of the local diner is mentor to a junior waitress who is having an affair with the captain of the football team, who was Laura Palmer’s boyfriend; she, in turn, is having an affair with the local gas station owner, who is the uncle of a motorcycle punk who was secretly seeing Laura behind the quarterback’s back. And so on; for each layer of mystery the pilot peels back, there are two more layers underneath. Secrets upon secrets; it hooks the viewer as effectively as any series pitch ever has. One-armed men wander the halls of the local hospital, and the town’s psychiatrist wears a tie with a hula dancer and eyeglasses with one red lens and one blue lens. It ends on a cliffhanger; a gloved hand digging up a piece of jewelry, possibly a clue, possibly a piece of evidence that could be used to frame another character for the murder. Intercut with this is a scene of Laura’s mother waking from a nightmare vision, screaming.

In 1990, America had never seen anything like this on television before—and the strangeness was just getting started.

The alternate international cut of the pilot is considered a non-canonical disappointment to most fans. It’s available on the Twin Peaks Gold Box Edition set.


“…the wingdingiest thing to make it onto network television in many a full moon… Lynch has called Twin PeaksPeyton Place meets Blue Velvet.’ 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… Will Twin Peaks be a hit? Not a chance in hell.”–Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

One thought on “CAPSULE: TWIN PEAKS (PILOT) (1990)”

  1. Alicia Witt reprised the role of Donna’s sister Gersten in a later episode of the original series quite memorably. She also appeared on the 3rd season as well.
    It astounds me as to how often the Twin Peaks fanbase (or those writing about the show) get simple details wrong.

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