Monday, December 5, 2011

Murder! The Population Of Twin Peaks Begins To Fall With The Pilot Episode!

The Good: Exceptional sense of mood, Great direction, Interesting characters and setting, Generally good acting
The Bad: Some hammy overacting by younger actors, So complicated it seems like a beginning (of many threads!)
The Basics: When Laura Palmer is murdered, the FBI is called in to investigate what might be part of a killing spree now reaching into the weird lumber town of Twin Peaks!

Every now and then, a television show comes along that is so different from everything else that is on at the time that it makes the general television-watching audience sit up, scratch their heads and let out a collective "huh?!" The best of those programs endure even as time passed. So, for example, as someone who was not into Northern Exposure when it was first airing, I find that reviewing the DVDs of that series (reviewed here!) left me underwhelmed. It did not seem terribly audacious or interesting and works that came after seemed to be, at least, on par with its originality as a dramedy. But as far as groundbreaking goes, few series' hold up like Twin Peaks, which had a killer first season and some truly great episodes before it fell into a creative tailspin.

The hard-to-find pilot episode, available on VHS, starts the series off with almost all of the essential elements needed to get a viewer into this intriguing series.

Pete Martell is going out fishing to escape his loveless marriage to Catharine when he finds the body of high school Senior Laura Palmer, a troubled girl who seems to have lived multiple lives such that no one truly knew her. As the police investigate the body, Laura's mother begins to get frantic looking for her and her father, Leland Palmer finds himself embroiled in helping millionaire local businessman Benjamin Horne get the final signatures needed to get investors for Horne's resort vision in Twin Peaks. The negotiations with Horne's investors soon collapse when Horne's daughter, Audrey lets the foreign investors know about the murder and Leland becomes incapacitated with grief once he learns of Laura's death.

As news spreads about Laura Palmer's death, her classmates react with shock and fear, her best friends (and boyfriends) quickly becoming determined to find out what happened to her. Sheriff Harry S. Truman, in a little over his head, calls in the FBI when another young woman who was last seen with Laura Palmer, Ronette Pulaski, wanders in a dazed state across state lines. Truman calls in FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who arrives in Twin Peaks as enthusiastic about the pie, coffee and trees as he is about solving the murder of Laura Palmer. Cooper almost immediately finds a paper letter "r" underneath one of Laura's fingernails, linking her murder to an unsolved case and now compelling Cooper to stay in Twin Peaks until the murder is solved.

The pilot episode - none of the Twin Peaks episodes have names, which is somewhat irksome - quickly establishes the border town of Twin Peaks, Washington, as one of the oddest places on Earth, filled with some of the most intriguing individuals. Catherine Martell manages the lumber mill that Josie Packard owns, which puts her husband Pete in an emotional tug-of-war, Benjamin Horne seems like the monolithic businessman with ambitions of further riches until his best friend and lawyer's daughter is killed and he sees the effect it has on her and his own daughter, and Laura Palmer seems to have been dating both the high school bad boy, Bobby Briggs and the sweet James Hurley. While she associated with Ronette, she is also seen frolicking on video with the school's good girl, Donna.

It is a place of contradictions and from the opening frames with its haunting score by Angelo Badalamenti, Twin Peaks is a very distinctive place. Harry Truman welcomes Cooper, a stretch for local law enforcement who usually resent when the Feds come in. And Cooper, what makes him so delightfully weird from the outset, in addition to his uncanny intuition and immediate brilliance, is his ability to make conversational leaps that illustrate a strong multitasking mind. In his first exchange with Truman, Cooper establishes his control of the situation before enthusiastically asking about the trees and then politely demanding the preliminary investigation materials. It's enough of a difference from the usual straightlaced detective story to intrigue viewers.

More than that, the "Pilot" episode does what a good pilot ought to do. Longer than the standard episode, this Twin Peaks episode provides enough threads to establish a place that people want to learn more about and characters they would like to see again. So, for example, in this first episode alone, there are two major plotlines begun; the Laura Palmer murder investigation and the Benjamin Horne initiated attempt to grab that Packard Lumber Mill in order to create his Ghostwood project. The two overlap as Truman is involved with the widow Josie Packard.

As well, seemingly random character elements are added to give a much broader sense of time and place. This is not just about Laura Palmer's murder when Bobby Briggs is seen having an affair with the married Shelly Johnson, young wife of the truck driver Leo Johnson, who is supposed to be out of town, nor when we meet Bobby's stiff and articulate Air Force Major father. We see Audrey Horne acting up as the spoiled daughter of Benjamin, despite not truly knowing Laura well. And the blooming romance between Laura's good-guy boyfriend James Hurley and her best friend Donna seems largely unrelated to Laura's murder.

But it works.

Setting is only one component of any piece, but in Twin Peaks, the setting takes an ordinary murder investigation and makes it a part of a larger tapestry and the spectacle behind it makes the viewer want to see what that larger image is. Twin Peaks relies on the supernatural from the beginning as Sarah Palmer, Laura's mother, has a vision of one of the clues Cooper is hunting down. These supernatural insinuations trump the passe conceits of Cooper and Truman reading through Laura's diary for clues, as does the sheer weirdness of the laying out of donuts at the police station, the shrill one-eyed woman, and the convenient Indian tracker Truman has for a deputy.

Indeed, all that truly sucks this episode down as a work worth the time and attention of anyone who likes drama, crime investigation and/or supernatural stories is some of the acting involving the younger actors. Twin Peaks is a series that seems to operate on two hemispheres; from the first episode, there are plot and character elements dealing with the adults in Twin Peaks and others dealing with the young adults (high school seniors) of the town. The actor who plays the principal gives a particularly over-the-top and hammy performance when announcing Laura's death to the school, making the episode seem somewhat ridiculous given that Deputy Andy earlier was freaked out in a similarly emotionally unrestrained way when dealing with the body. Many of the young actors, like Lara Flynn Boyle, Dana Ashbrook, and James Marshall, are stiff, at best in the roles in the pilot, which is somewhat expected given that it is a pilot episode.

But the more mature cast often seems instantly at ease in the strange and wonderful setting. Piper Laurie has a passion that makes Catherine - apparently totally unconnected to any of the young people of Twin Peaks, much less Laura Palmer- instantly compelling and intriguing to watch. Similarly, Michael Ontkean plays Harry S. Truman with a laid back quality that makes him likable and easy to watch.

It is Richard Beymer and Kyle McLaughlin who dominate the pilot episode, though. Beymer plays Benjamin Horne and it's quite a different part from his portrayal of Li Nalas on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "The Homecoming" (reviewed here!) where I first discovered Beymer. As Horne, Beymer is authoritative, powerful, commanding a visionary leader who has strong goals and focus that he is able to articulate with great precision. Beymer's abilities make him able to present the character with the same realism and depth as he portrayed the confused, desperate to go unnoticed Li Nalas. His few scenes quickly establish him as one of the most memorable characters in this strange burg.

But it is Kyle McLachlan who is responsible for carrying the episode from the moment he enters. Often playing opposite his tape recorder that Cooper is dictating into, McLachlan presents a man who is efficient, intelligent and yet strangely awkward in his very formal and direct conversational style. He is good-natured and inquisitive and McLachlan plays those qualities with the ability to turn them on a dime to be all business with an undertone of anger. And he sells it.

The pilot episode is pretty much essential to understanding all that comes next and while fans who are already converting everything to DVD might resent it, the pilot episode is not available on DVD outside the ultimate boxed set. Thus, it's useful to pick up as a video to have and to watch so what follows may be easily understood.

And viewers who watch the pilot are going to want to see more. It's accessible to anyone who likes drama, weird characters, surreal murder mysteries or just great television.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Twin Peaks - The Complete Series on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. (largely because the pilot episode is not included in the first season DVD release, reviewed here!)

For other intriguing pilot episode reviews, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
"The First Episode" - Northern Exposure
"Emissary" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"Pilot" - Millennium


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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