[Jill Duffy, Girl Reporter, looks episode by episode at Twin Peaks, which she is watching for the first time. For more in this series, click the label at the bottom of this post, or see her name on the sidebar.]
The summer before seventh grade, a friend of mine gave me a Grateful Dead bootleg tape. The friend had a sister who was almost ten years older than we were. The sister was married to a hippie. She and her hippie husband wore a lot of tie-dye. This was 1991.
Before I listened to the tape, I remember thinking I should hide it from my mom. I had heard about the Grateful Dead and knew that they were affiliated with the whole 1960s hippie recklessness, which I thought meant they were way into drugs, which by 1990s standards meant they could be anything from serious acid-trippers to agitated meth addicts. Naturally, I assumed they were a combination of both, as evidenced in their dark and troublesome band name. Who would ever be grateful to be dead, I thought, except deeply disturbed people? It was not beyond my imagination that perhaps they were even associated with dark occult-like things.
Finally, I got my first taste of The Dead. I remembered being surprised that I already knew at least two of the songs on the tape, and that the rest of them were happy sing-songy little ditties. Before long, I was comfortable playing that music loud enough for my mom to hear. “Are you listening to the Grateful Dead?” she asked. “Yeah,” I chirped. “Do you like them, too?”
She rolled her eyes.
Watching Twin Peaks for the first time ever has been something of a similar experience. There has been so much obscure pop culture references and lore about the show over the last 17 years since it debuted, and having absorbed them without any real reflection, I had certain expectations about the show. However, I have no idea what hard information those expectations were based on. Twin Peaks has been something I’ve always just kind of heard about. I’m familiar with David Lynch’s works and style. I saw Eraserhead while I was still in my high school years. I’ve even seen Fire Walk With Me – at least twice. Blue Velvet I liked. And Mulholland Drive I liked even better.
But I don’t think I really knew what I was in for when I started Twin Peaks.
The pilot, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, was not what I expected. It sets up a murder mystery, and no matter whether you think calling it a murder mystery misses the “point” of the show, it is irrefutably the genre that Lynch imitates. We have a murder, a detective, an unknown town, characters who lead double lives, and a number of musical cues that fit with the genre as well.
I’m still dumbfounded as to how this show ever made it onto prime time broadcast television.
The show is also very funny. Who knew? Episode one opens with Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan) in a hotel room, speaking into a voice recorder, hanging upside down from an inversion rig, shirtless and wearing only boxer shorts and cowboy boots with metal fittings to hang from the rig.
Later in the episode, a character named Pete gives coffee to Cooper and Sherif Harry Truman (the name alone warrants a little chuckle), only to rush in moments before they drink it and shout, “Don’t drink that coffee! You’ll never guess. There was a fiiiish … in the percolator.”
Cooper also has an unbridled enthusiasm and goofy grin to match, especially when encountering new people or things that he really takes a shine to, like a good cup of coffee. At times, he invokes an old timey, film noir detective cadence to his speech, which is hilariously out of place in the simple logging town of Twin Peaks circa 1990.
Of course, the simple town and its people are more than what they first appear to be, and uncovering exactly what is a huge element of the show. But the reveals are as much like a soap opera as a murder mystery, delivered nearly every scene. (There is a joke about soap operas in a later episode; I’ve watched only as far as to the end of episode 4.) Leo Johnson is a soap opera character. He is callous in general, but absolutely monstrous to his wife, Shelly. Just as he is about to beat her with a bar of soap flung into a sock for supposedly losing a piece of his laundry, he announces “This is gonna hurt you.”
None of this is the midget-dancing, phonetically-backward-recorded dialogue, evil-spirits-in-the-woods kind of stuff I had been expecting. That stuff is there, too, and less at first, but there’s a lot else going on to contribute to this bizarre show.
As in the pilot, we get a lot of information in episode 1. Lynch lays before us a bounty of clues, most of which are left to open-ended interpretation for the time being. Why does Laura’s body have bite marks on it? Who drugged Big Ed’s beer at the Roadhouse? What does Donna means when she says to her mother, “You know how troubled Laura was”? When the video tape of Laura and Donna is played, and it lingers into slow motion, letting us, the viewer, have contact with Laura, whose voiceover do we hear saying, “Help me,” and what should we – or someone else – help her from?
The episode ends with Dr. Jacoby (he’s a complete weirdo), Laura’s psychiatrist, listening to audio tapes Laura made for him, presumably a part of his treatment (and again, giving us exposure to Laura nearly first-hand), and him opening a coconut and removing from it the half a heart necklace that we saw from the pilot.