Thirty years ago, on April 8, 1990, Twin Peaks premiered and changed television forever. Before Twin Peaks, acclaimed film directors had worked in television, but never had a filmmaker as uncommercial and artistically challenging as David Lynch been given the reins to a primetime broadcast series. It was a huge risk taken by pre-Disney ABC, and it didn't fully pay off the time -- the show was a hit in Season 1, but its ratings fell off the cliff in front of the Great Northern Hotel in Season 2 and it was bitterly canceled -- but Twin Peaks' reputation and influence outlasted its brief run. Without Twin Peaks, there would be no The Sopranos, no Lost, no Atlanta, or any other auteur-driven show that tries to unsettle rather than comfort its viewer. And there would be no Twin Peaks: The Return, when Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost came back after 25 years to make an even more uncommercial and artistically challenging show, the likes of which had never been seen on TV before. They redefined what was possible on television twice, with different versions of the same show.
And it all started with the pilot. Also known as "Northwest Passage," the pilot was written Mark Frost & David Lynch and directed by Lynch, and aired as a two-hour TV movie at 8 p.m. on Sunday night. The numbers may not have held up over the course of the series, but the pilot was a hit, with 34.6 million people tuning in to watch Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) start his investigation into who killed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Contemporary reviews were positive, with Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker giving it an A+ rating and calling it "the first you-really-can't-miss-this show of the '90s."
But the real legacy of the Twin Peaks pilot is the way that people remember where they were the first time they saw it, and the way they keep obsessing over it 30 years later. In that spirit, here are 30 things -- images, moments, facts, feelings -- we love about the Twin Peaks pilot.
After Pete Martell (Jack Nance) finds Laura Palmer's body, he calls Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean), which sets up the series' first, tone-setting moment of offbeat comedy, when Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) gives Truman detailed directions on which phone to use.
Speaking of coats, Sheriff Truman's is beautiful. Sometimes it looks like it's made from leather, sometimes it looks like waxed cotton. Whatever it is, it's one of the reasons why costume designer Patricia Norris won an Emmy for her work on this episode. (Editor Duwayne Dunham won the show's other Emmy.)
When Truman and Doc Hayward (Warren Frost, co-creator Marc Frost's father) realize that the body is Twin Peaks' favorite daughter Laura Palmer, Truman clenches his fist and Hayward drops his head in a way that tells you so much about how much the whole town loved her.
When we meet Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis), who becomes a very important character later on, he's getting his shoulders rubbed by his wife Betty (Charlotte Stewart) while he reads the paper in his red kitchen. That's the life!
When Laura's mother Sarah (Grace Zabriskie) finds out her daughter is dead, she lets out a scream of agony that's one of the most devastating moments ever broadcast on television. So much of the acting on Twin Peaks is stylized or ironic, but not this moment. This is real.
There's a brief moment where this background actor does a little dance to end a scene. There's no context or explanation given for it; it's just a weird, delightful non sequitur of a moment. A Twin Peaks fan on Reddit wrote on a thread about this moment, "this was the moment watching the pilot for me that I knew this could be my favorite show ever."
A cop comes into Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) and James Hurley's (James Marshall) classroom and tells their teacher there's about to be an announcement. They look at Laura's empty chair, and at each other, and Donna starts crying, while James snaps a pencil in half. Their wordless, immediate understanding of the situation tells you a lot about Laura -- they were afraid something like this would happen to her -- and about Donna and James' own close relationship.
An entrance so iconic that Kyle MacLachlan is still recreating it on Tik Tok all these years later.
The pilot's clearest articulation of the show's mashup of wonder and whimsy with darkness and misery is the moment when Cooper and Truman meet for the first time, and almost in the same breath, Cooper asks Truman what the town's beautiful, majestic pine trees are (Douglas firs), and then softy, with his hands clasped, asks to see Laura's coroner's report.
The fritzing, blinking fluorescent light in the morgue was actually broken, but David Lynch loved it, because David Lynch loves the sound of buzzing electricity, and kept it in.
Another unscripted, serendipitous moment in the morgue is when Cooper asks the morgue attendant to leave and the actor responds by saying his real name, like he misheard the question and forgot he was in a scene. Lynch liked the moment so much he left it in.
Sweet, sensitive Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) breaking down in tears at crime scenes is my favorite secondary character development thing in the episode. The pilot includes so many moments like this that just introduce the characters and establish the tone and set up dynamics that will pay off later.
Just a funny line that gets repeated over and over in this scene.
The introduction of the show's most memorable phrase is like a bad dream.
The fallen deer head on the table in a conference room at the bank is one of the show's great bits of nonsense. No one knows if it's supposed to mean something, or just a weird joke David Lynch put in to troll people who think everything has to mean something.
The Log Lady's (Catherine Coulson) only appearance in the pilot. Lynch and Frost are populating the town and showing off how complete the world is from the very first episode.
The most Lynchian detail in the pilot is the shot of the lonely traffic light swaying in the night breeze that closes out a chunk in the middle of the episode before a commercial break. (The traffic light briefly appears again at the end of the episode, and traffic lights are a recurring image throughout the series.) What earns it the descriptor "Lynchian" is its uncanniness -- it's an object so familiar as to be mundane, but there's something eerie and wrong about it here -- and its ambiguous symbolism. Is it supposed to mean anything? There are threads all over the internet theorizing about the significance of the traffic light. Twin Peaks Blog even has an exhaustive cataloging of all the traffic lights that appear throughout Twin Peaks.
The theme song for Twin Peaks was written by Lynch and series composer Angelo Badalamenti and performed by dream-pop singer Julee Cruise, who sings it for the rowdy patrons at the Bang Bang Bar. "In the ruckus of beers flying through the air at The Roadhouse, we have Julee singing a beautiful, slow-tempo song, and it's so outrageous. You would never have that kind of song in a place like that," Badalamenti said about the music of Twin Peaks. "The songs with Julee serve a two-fold purpose," he added. "They contrast the visuals and they set the tone for the show." This performance set the precedent for the incongruous, tone-setting musical performances that played a major part in Twin Peaks: The Return.
Like the traffic light, the stairs going up to Laura's room and the gently whirring ceiling fan above them take on an incredibly ominous cast in David Lynch's hands. The sound of the fan demonstrates Lynch's incredible gift for sound design.
The origin of Killer BOB, the demonic entity that's the villain of Twin Peaks, is the most famous story about the making of the show. The reflection of a set decorator and sometime actor named Frank Silva is visible in the mirror in this shot. It was an accident, but when Lynch noticed, he was thrilled, because he had found who was meant to play BOB. The rest is history.