Twin Peaks is a sprawling saga of the weird, the dark, and the wonderful. It smashes teen angst and small town politics up against a spiked wall of supernatural evil and serves it up with a strange sense of humor that even today makes me laugh. Despite its short run and disastrous ending, it stands as one of the biggest blasts of magic to ever grace the small screen. (Apparently I really like this show!)
The sheer size of Twin Peaks makes the success of its pilot particularly noteworthy. It’s a double episode, one hour and thirty-three minutes long, and it manages to introduce the viewer to every major character and every convoluted relationship that will shape the first half of the Twin Peaks saga. It also manages to squeeze in glowing shots of the Cascade range, eerily uncomfortable images of ceiling fans, loving frame-filling shots of Sheryl Lee (in roles as the Homecoming queen, the charming daughter, and the Dead Ice Princess), and the beginning of a long-running gag about donuts. By the time you finish watching it, you know you’ve landed in a dangerous place filled with devilish schemes. The pilot is a master class in structuring material for maximum intensity and tightness.
In that first hour, just what you learn about Laura Palmer, the girl whose murder is the epicenter of the Twin Peaks world, is nearly exhausting. We learn who her parents are, who her best friend is, and that she was beloved by her family, school staff, and community alike. We discover that she’s seeing a psychologist without her parents’ knowledge. We learn she has two boyfriends, one the high school quarterback who’s as perfect on the outside as she herself is, and one a sad biker from a broken home. She also does cocaine, reads illicit skin mags (and probably answers the ads), and somehow has $10,000 in a secret safe deposit box. She’s a Janus of utter mystery, both saint and sinner, virgin and whore. David Lynch and Mark Frost pile on character details that would normally take an entire series to discover.
But they don’t stop there. They set up the illicit relationships between two other couples, a plot to bring down the Packard saw mill, and introduce a small neighborhood’s worth of weirdos and nutjobs. There’s a woman with an eye patch with an obsession with drapes. A lady who carries a stick of firewood the way others would cradle a baby. A psychologist with a tiki addiction and a creepy connection to the dead girl. A wife-beating control freak who drives long haul truck. A trouble-making teen with a penchant for sexy vintage wear. A deputy and his bubble-headed girlfriend. And last, but certainly not least, Special Agent Dale Cooper, a law enforcement officer so odd he puts Fox Mulder to shame. All of them appear fully developed and completely engaging. It would be nearly impossible to introduce all these characters in a short story: there would simply never be enough time to make any of them feel real or believable. But Lynch and Frost bring them all to life in one extended episode.
So, how do they do it? How do they keep the story on pace while introducing the huge cast without ever losing control of the twisted mystery they set up at the beginning?
- No character is introduced on their own. Every character is given someone else in the scene to riff off of. Dale Cooper appears alone in his car, but he is recording a message to his secretary. In the first scene of the episode, Josie Packard sits in her bedroom with no one to talk to, but she can hear the sounds of Pete Martell going about his morning, and her expressive face responds to them. Only Audrey Horne starts her day alone, but she has a chauffeur to ignore and sends sly glances back at the hotel to warn us that she’s planning something no good for the people inside. Every character is introduced in a way that exposes them in action and in relation to someone else. It’s tremendously effective, because it sets up both character and tension right away.
- Every character is given a response to Laura Palmer’s death. Even the characters who aren’t suspects or closely tied to the victim are presented in a way that adds dimension to the mystery. Twin Peaks is a small town: everyone has something to say about the situation. This keeps the action focused, even while introducing a really large cast of characters. As the Log Lady warns us, it is a story of many, but it begins with one.
- It satisfies the viewer with a constant stream of answers. The writers build the viewers’ trust by introducing a question and then answering it shortly after. Who is the dead girl on the beach? Boom: next scene–it’s Laura Palmer. If Bobby’s not at football practice, where is he? Bang: in a minute we see him at the Double R Diner, prepping Shelley Johnson for a little pre-homeroom loving. Frost and Lynch wind us up with mini-mysteries and comfort us with the answers. There’s no attempt to string the viewer along, and that leaves them plenty of rope to hang us with later on in the series.
That trust is a vital part of the show’s success. Lynch and Frost wind up taking their viewers to some of the weirdest situations ever put on television. They advertised a mystery show and delivered a psychedelic walk through the human psyche and the history of evil, and people went with them and loved it, because from the very beginning, they knew they could trust the writers to scratch the itches the show stirred up.
Anyone can write like that. All you need to do is ground your openings in full-fledged characters that are fully engaged in their world. Give everyone and everything a role to play in the situation you’ve created. And never, ever let your readers down.
It probably won’t hurt to have a few mentions of coffee and cherry pie.