“Twin Peaks” begins as “Blue Velvet” ended, with a bird. Cue the slow transitions between that bird, the mill, and other locations around the titular town. Of course, if you watch the series with the “Log Lady Intros” filmed for reruns of the show and later included with home releases, the series begins with Catherine Coulson intoning “Welcome to Twin Peaks”, which is just as fitting an introduction both in-narrative and as a signifier for co-showrunner and director David Lynch’s career. Nonetheless, “Twin Peaks” proper begins with a bird, and around a third of the pilot passes before protagonist Dale Cooper enters, who in many ways also feels like a natural growth out of Lynch’s career, a matured version of Kyle MacLachlan’s similarly inquisitive protagonist from “Blue Velvet”, but one who’s fully learnt and internalised how to be a happy, fulfilled man with a lust for life, in a world with plenty of darkness.
That balance between light and darkness is so integral to the series, not just in the very familiar “good versus evil” way, but in how Lynch rides the line between comic and tragic so hard in the series. In the pilot, many character’s reactions to hearing of Laura Palmer’s death play as comic at first in how overacted and bizarre they are, but as the shot lingers, they morph into something sadder and more earnest Grace Zabriskie is the master of this). Lynch is a master at unsettling audiences, and the way the first season of the show so skillfully careens between the comic side of the show’s satirical send-up of soap operas, and the tragic side of its focus on grief and loss, is a huge part of what makes it work so well. The second season would delve more into a supernatural horror element too, but lost a lot of that careful tonal balance in leaning far too hard on the comic element for many episodes in a row. The first season is much more cohesive and consistent.
The first season squeezes nearly as much mileage out of the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer as it can without actually making any effort to come near answering that question. Mark Frost intended the finale to be as full of cliffhangers as possible, and miraculously he manages to make it work without feeling overly gimmicky at the cost of storytelling, but there was always going to be an expiration date on Lynch and Frost’s intentions to not reveal Laura’s killer, and instead just use it as a centrepiece to expand out stories of the town from. That expiration date does not come until the second season, and the first season trucks along as a damn fine piece of television for that, a nearly-perfect union of Lynch’s quirks and darkness with Frost’s very strong handle on television storytelling and worldbuilding. It’s easy to see why the first season captured audiences as it did.
Some of the success even seems semi-miraculous, like the whole Bob character coming from Lynch spotting the set decorator who would end up playing Bob, Frank Silva, in a shot by accident, reflected in a mirror, and that sparking up the whole idea for the character. Or how the red room footage, shot for the international pilot in an awkward sort of epilogue that didn’t really work, was repurposed in such an effective way that it would put to rest the idea that the success of that side of the series was just for weirdness’ sake – it didn’t work in the international pilot because it was truly random and not unified with the storytelling at all, but in the actual series it works fantastically because it plays so well with Cooper and his relationship with both the town and the world at large. It works as a beginning rather than an ending (though the series would eventually make it work as both in the prequel film that also functioned as an epilogue).
The first season rarely meets the promise of the red room dream scene again, but is definitely where the show worked most consistently. I give it four cassettes, and a doughnut.