Warning: This post contains some spoilers for Twin Peaks: The Return alongside references to details from the original series.
“Is it future, or is it past?”
-Mike (a benign spirit inhabiting a shoe salesman sitting in an extra-dimensional waiting room)
It almost goes without saying that Twin Peaks felt like nothing else on TV back when it debuted on ABC in the early 1990s. Excitingly, the same applies to last night’s premiere of Twin Peaks: The Return on Showtime and Sky Atlantic. A beloved cult-classic has surfaced 25 years later, and it immediately throws both old and new viewers into the deep-end without the slightest hint of a flotation device.
Don’t expect any “here’s what happened a quarter-century ago” catch-up sequences. Laura Palmer gets no explanation. Margaret the Log Lady gets no explanation. And the dual Dale Coopers/Red Room/extra-dimensional lodges/otherworldly spirits sure as hell get no explanations. Ostensibly, Twin Peaks: The Return aims to please fans by making such choices, but going into the series blind in 2017 probably doesn’t leave you that far behind, even if it’ll make those Dale Cooper-Red Room sequences extra surreal and obtuse.
The truth about the fantasy-meets-murder-mystery-meets-soap-opera stew that is Twin Peaks has and always will be an old cliché: it’s about the journey, not the destination. And Twin Peaks: The Return seems primed to be unlike anything else currently on TV when it comes to characters, plot, point of view, and possibilities.
“Do you recognize me?”
-Laura Palmer (well, at least something that appears to be Laura. Of course, Laura died and set this whole thing off… )
If the original Twin Peaks proved not to be for you, the new episodes likely won’t be either. Despite the extreme hiatus, having co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost return to the series (Lynch worked in film for much of the maligned S2) has reinvigorated it with the original DNA.
To start, Twin Peaks maintains its unflinching violence and terror. The ‘90s series features some of the most visceral, ugly crying you’ll ever see on the small screen after Laura’s parents find out about her murder. That kind of raw humanism will likely come, but here, grief isn’t as prevalent as the emotion that precedes violence—terror. Two relatively unknown kids on an unusual assignment in New York City shriekingly succumb to something resembling a Harry Potter death-eater. Another anonymous neighbor turns up dead in brutal fashion—missing an eye, missing her own body, surrounded by hardened blood. Lynch and Frost have always used a slow TV approach to many things, the brutality of evil included. Refreshingly, that hasn’t changed after a quarter-century.
Lynch and Frost’s surrealist/auteur aesthetic has carried over, too. Longtime musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti again provides the scoring, combining the old (that familiar credits sequence) with new flurries (is that an ARP 2600 analog synth booming when we fly over treetops or the evil spirits emerge in NYC?). Dialogue continues to feel Hemingway-esque by being short, succinct, and at times slow or repetitive. Visually, the camera still lingers longer than you’d expect on everything, giving us uncomfortable looks at portraits of Dale Cooper or an RV in the woods. Lynch and Frost rely on some of their classic techniques, too, like stationary cameras set in a far corner of a room or unusual old-school effects depicting Cooper floating through space and time or spirits attacking. And yet, drone shots establishing New York City also fit the visual language these two created long before such technology became accessible.
In the most delightful bit of carryover, Twin Peaks maintains its mysterious oddness. Our story has expanded from Washington and another world to include South Dakota, New York City, and Vegas for unexplained reasons. For instance, the two kids in NYC, Sam and Tracey, sit in a large studio apartment that contains nothing but a couch, some cameras, and a giant glass cube with a valve open to the outside world.
“[This place] belongs to some anonymous billionaire,” Sam says. “I’m supposed to watch the box and see if anything appears.”
“There’s a lot of equipment,” asks Tracey. “Is that some sort of science experiment?”
“I guess you could say that,” Sam replies.
Elsewhere, Evil Dale Cooper manages to record a phone call and produce it on a handheld device immediately. Good Dale Cooper interacts with a barren white tree with a talking brain on top (and the people around him still talk in subtitles and distorted English). Lawman Hawk maintains a relationship with the medium Log Lady and follows her vague instructions, no questions asked. All this makes little sense to a viewer, but it makes perfect sense within the world of Twin Peaks.
A murderous, grounding element
-Good Dale Cooper (interpreting the following instructions: “It is in our house now. It all cannot be said aloud. Remember 430, Richard, and Linda.”)
Most importantly, Twin Peaks: The Return has a real-world murder to solve. No matter how off-the-rails the original series seemed to get, the quest to resolve Laura Palmer’s death acted as a guiding light for otherwise dissonant storylines involving grieving parents, quirky FBI agents, and local good/bad entities or otherworldly forces.
In the new season, local principal Bill Hastings (newcomer Matthew Lillard fitting in seamlessly) learns his fingerprints turned up at the crime scene for that brutalized anonymous neighbor. He swears innocence but admits to his wife, “I wasn’t there… but I had a dream that night I was in her apartment.” Naturally, she responds by acknowledging each of them have been engaging in affairs and he can rot in jail for life. As always with Twin Peaks, things—naturally, including the owls—are not what they seem. This feels like enough of an inciting incident/mystery to set off the Rube Goldberg plot Lynch and Frost have in store for 18 episodes.
Of course, things could also unexpectedly go awry in a blaze of artistic glory—this is Twin Peaks, after all. I didn’t watch the original as it was happening (I blame slow aging), but I binged the series in its entirety on Netflix a few years back. That approach really emphasized the stark difference between the show pre- and post-Laura Palmer revelation (the then-series finale notwithstanding, since Lynch returned to handle it). “Uneven” would be a kind way to describe that second season, a 22-episode saga likely stretched beyond its narrative means by networks wanting to capitalize on a surprise hit.
But no need to go revisit the past; there’s a reason you’ve kinda, sorta seen Twin Peaks, even if you haven’t seen it. The original stands as a television touchstone that has inspired many aspects of the modern-day classics we all obsess over. Lynch and Frost established the template for writing/directing TV auteurs (a hands-on approach now implemented in everything from Louie to Mr. Robot). They stand among the first to believe genuine human anguish can be enough drama to move a series (see The Wire or The Leftovers).
The value of a defined aesthetic (Fargo, Mad Men), the ability to shapeshift across genres (Atlanta, Community), the construction of an ever-growing mythology that extends well beyond the screen (Game of Thrones, True Detective, Westworld)—Twin Peaks did it all first and did it well for a whole season. Lynch originally didn’t even want to reveal who killed Laura Palmer (famously saying the network killed the goose that laid golden eggs), drawing up an ambiguous blueprint that later became a template for Lost. If this show had come along in the era of subreddits, individual episode recaps, and endless fan theories, it might have morphed into the biggest series ever and avoided any business-interest handcuffs getting in the way of whatever Lynch and Frost had in mind.
In that light, Twin Peaks: The Return feels like television’s Michael Jordan comeback moment. An all-time great has re-emerged for a new, more informed generation to see firsthand. But the question of whether the series can maintain its original peak form will linger over everything. Most likely, at times it’ll be thrilling (Jordan’s first stint, when he won three titles capped by an iconic flu game), and at times it’ll feel dated (Jordan’s second stint, as those later Wizards teams never made the playoffs). Either way, let’s all enjoy the fact that we get to wander in the woods of the Pacific Northwest one more time.
Twin Peaks airs Sundays on Showtime, and simultaneously at 2am on Sky Atlantic on Monday morning in the UK. Showtime has already made episodes three and four available online for subscribers.
More Info: arstechnica.com