Welcome to a new (and hopefully more than very occasional, but you know… time permitting) feature here at Go Fug Yourself called How Does It Hold Up? wherein we look back at old movies and TV we once loved to see how they’ve weathered the passage of time. In honor of the Twin Peaks reboot premiering on Showtime on Sunday — this Sunday! Yes, we do plan to recap — we’re getting in the wayback machine and traveling to Twin Peaks, a small and hella fucked up logging town in Washington state, to revisit the pilot episode of the groundbreaking David Lynch series.
(Obviously, if you haven’t watched the original series, this post will have spoilers — but you’ve had twenty-seven years, my friend.)
WHAT WAS IT? Twin Peaks was a breakout drama/mystery hit for ABC in 1990, then tanked dramatically when the season finale was less than traditionally satisfying, and the second season went to a super weird and dramatically untenable place. Lynch followed it up with a feature film — a prequel, Fire, Walk With Me — which did not go over well. (And which, in fairness, I have never seen.)
HOW DID I FEEL ABOUT IT THEN? OMG. I was so so into Twin Peaks. My Dad and I watched every episode — my mother went up to bed; she wasn’t interested — and then I was generally so terrified afterwards that I would be unable to walk up the stairs by myself to go to my room and I would instead follow him around the house, watching him lock up, so that I could be safely escorted. The next day at school, my friend Tara and I would huddle around our lockers to discuss (this was before the Internet even existed or I would have spent all my time on a message board). There were no spoilers to be had, there was no such thing as binge-watching. You just had to sit and wait for an entire week to find out what happened next, and for me those six Twin Peaks-less days were exquisite torture. I owned the soundtrack. I owned several t-shirts. I owned a book called The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes, which I actually think is around here somewhere; it was very funny. It had a long bit where Agent Cooper decides, for science obviously, to see how long he can go without peeing, and I always think of it whenever I really have to go. Because of Twin Peaks, I have a feeling of deep unease around ceiling fans. I taught myself how to tie a cherry stem in a knot with my tongue because Sherilyn Fenn did it (that skill has come in handy). My sister recently bought me a pillow that looks like a log so I can walk around being the Log Lady when I feel the need.
Obviously, I cannot even talk about Bob.
Okay, that’s a lie. I have not watched the Twin Peaks pilot since I was fifteen years old, for several reasons. The first, and most boring, is that because I am old, there was a long period of my existence where you really had to work to re-watch things. Video tapes were really expensive, and there weren’t very many channels, so it’s not like things were rerunning all over the place all the time. We couldn’t just call shit up on our tiny hand-held computers and beam it into our faceholes, like we can now.
But more truthfully, I was (a) too scared of Bob, the….well, it’s complicated, but for the purposes of this sentence, he was basically a demon. Just now, in fact, I popped over to Wikipedia to confirm that Bob was actually a demon and not, you know, theoretical — the jury is still kinda out? — and his picture popped up and I whimpered and placed my hand over it. I have literally never been so scared of any fictional being in my life, before or since.
But also, I have a fear of revisiting things that I love, in case I find my love for them diminished. (I’m looking at you, The X-Files.) Sometimes, I like to hold them as they were, perfect in my heart, and avoid breaking the spell.
SO HOW DOES IT HOLD UP? Despite my dramatic proclamation five words ago, the pilot of Twin Peaks is still — to borrow a turn of phrase from our fearless leader Agent Cooper — damn good.
Part of this is thanks to the essential Lynchness of it all — that which was off-kilter and surreal, intentionally weird, or darkly funny in 1990 still feels that way today. Weird is timeless; it’s trying to be modern that ends up dating a piece, for better or worse. For example, late in the pilot, there is a classic David Lynch musical interlude at the roadhouse wherein the singer (Julee Cruise, who appears in a lot of Lynch’s work) pops up wearing something so profoundly 1990 that it’s almost a shock to the system.
What even are those earrings?
Basically, Twin Peaks’s placement in space and time was always fuzzy at best, even when it was brand new. Although the pilot is technically set in 1989 (we know because there’s a moment at the mill when Piper Laurie is yelling at Joan Chen in front of a calendar that says FISCAL YEAR 1989), the styling of the women in particular feels vaguely ’50s, giving the show a feeling of being unstuck in time that is evergreen, and actually might be more effective now than it was then. (The men, on the other hand, demonstrate an unsettling preference for acid-washed jeans.)
Has anyone ever looked so ’50s whilst brattily ruining her father’s business deal? Out of frame, she’s even wearing saddle shoes.
Postmodern issues of the flexible nature of time and place aside, the hard truth is that the pilot is just a really technically adept piece of filmmaking — not a surprise, given the talent behind the camera, but also not a given. Even shows that go on to be terrific can have an unwieldy first episode that labors to haul its players into position. Not so here. We spent nearly two-thirds of the 90 minute pilot without knowing how Joan Chen and Piper Laurie’s characters are related to each other (Joan is married to Piper’s dead brother and owns the mill), even though we’ve seen them interact more than once already; we don’t even lay eyes on Kyle MacLachlan until half an hour has passed. Relationships between characters are revealed naturally, slowly, and the connections between them arrive organically. It’s masterful.
The most interesting thing to me, in revisiting this after nearly thirty years (yikes!), is both how much I remember about the details of the plot — there is a subplot involving a hotel deal with a bunch of Norwegians that caused me to scribble, “Oh, right! The Norwegians!” in my notebook — and how much I forgot about the performances. Most of them are excellent (if occasionally veering to the Super Weirdo, which is typical for a Lynch project), but many of them are far better than I remember. I don’t know if back in the day I was just immune to how bad teen actors could be, given that there basically weren’t any teen shows at the time (Beverly Hills, 90210, wouldn’t premiere for six months), but it’s striking in retrospect how good Lara Flynn Boyle and Sherilyn Fenn were. Madchen Amick doesn’t get much to do in the pilot, but it’s fun to see her playing a young women living in a deeply screwed up small town given that she’s currently the best actor on Riverdale, which owes a huge debt to Twin Peaks in ways large and small.
Most notable to me was how good Dana Ashbrook is as the rage-filled, obnoxious, and deeply strange Bobby Briggs; conversely, I also had no memory of how ham-handed James Marshall was a sweet bad-boy motorcycle enthusiast James Hurley. There is a moment where he sobs to his Uncle, Big Ed (who is married to a woman wearing an eyepatch who is obsessed with her living room curtains, because this show is great) that poor dead Laura Palmer was “the one,” and I laughed out loud — the only time in the 90 minute plot where I laughed at a moment that I don’t think was supposed to be funny. So his performance hasn’t aged well, and I’ll be interested to see how he’s handled in the new series, as I believe he’s only in one episode. But one clunker of a performance out of twenty? Not a bad batting average.
And finally, in case you were wondering, Bob is not (visually) in the pilot, which ends with Laura’s mom looking up the suburban stairs of their home and screaming. I braced myself for him to appear to menace her — I would have sworn he did — but he was still off-frame.
Waiting for us.
See you Sunday.