“It is Happening Again”: TWIN PEAKS and Meditations on Four Weird Hours of Television

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Preceded by a week where my social media feed was filled with in-jokes, excitement, and callbacks, “The Return” of Twin Peaks dropped last weekend on Showtime. There is already a lot of great writing about Lynch and his spiritual noir mini-verse out there, including this thoughtful plunge through the complexities of the original show by Matt Zoller Seitz and the excellent recaps on my old stomping ground, the MUBI Notebook.

But now that the first four episodes that Showtime has made available are still bouncing around in my mind, and since I can’t go anywhere in LA without seeing a Twin Peaks billboard announcing that “It Is Happening Again”—a line from the original show, warning our hero Special Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) about a murder—here are a few disparate thoughts on a disparate series.

First and foremost, if you’re looking for a recommendation on whether or not you should watch it—the most widely used and least interesting part of a critic’s job—I hereby abdicate my responsibility. At the risk of useless tautology, the people who should watch the new Twin Peaks are the sort of people who’d like the new Twin Peaks. To watch it is to follow Lynch down a rabbit-hole on a journey that may filter out all but the most dedicated, with any payoff still very much up in the air. But I’d be lying if I said I’m not fascinated by where it can go.

It is Happening Again. A good tagline, particularly when it’s superimposed on the iconic face of Laura Palmer hovering above Santa Monica Boulevard every six blocks. But it’s worth parsing what “it” and “again” mean in regards to the original show. The reason I’d heartily encourage just about everyone to give season 1 of Twin Peaks a try is that the strictures of network television forced David Lynch’s aesthetic and metaphysical obsessions into an accessible form without ditching his essence.

We carry a certain number of preconceptions about how serialized television works. TV—that great destroyer of attention spans—is about flow. It should prioritize forward motion. It should have one main event that becomes the axel of the show, with subplots forming the spokes of a wheel. It should have an interconnected group of regular characters who relate to one another in different ways. Most episodes should end on a reveal, a twist, a cliffhanger, or some tease to get you to tune in next week. The episodes should have an A-storyline and a B-storyline that arc in tandem. There may be soap opera-ish subplots, like romances or intrigue that don’t really effect the main story, but which we invest in anyway because we care about the characters. And so on.

For the most part, the original Twin Peaks worked within that system. It was direct when it needed to be, bizarre when it could get away with it, and it combined its weirdness with tantalizing showmanship. It had a sneaky sense of humor. It moved at a loopy rhythm, but not outside the bounds of the speed of TV drama. And while doing so, it carved out an aesthetic and a mythology of its own, in which a cozy smalltown held innumerable sordid secrets, the FBI solved cases by interpreting dreams, and the material world was haunted by a spiritual embodiment of pure evil named Bob.

It is also something of an infamous cautionary tale about how far you can string your audience along before they start to turn on you. In the second season, it solved the central murder in one of the most potent TV episodes I’ve ever seen. After that, it fell into a diffuse camp-fest that I haven’t heard any fan defend. Then it ended on a Lynch-directed grand finale, which is possibly the single most abstract thing to ever air on primetime network television. (I know baby boomer Peaks viewers who still feel cheated by it). For a coda, Lynch and most of the cast returned for a theatrical film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a messy, cathartic, often frighteningly emotional prequel that scrambled expectations from the show and flopped with audiences, but now has Lynch fans pushing hard to get it recognized as an underrated masterpiece.

So it should surprise no one that the youthful and now-nostalgized 1990s Twin Peaks, with its coffee and pie, poodle skirts, soap opera parodies, revamped 50s teen melodrama, and jazzy soundtrack, isn’t exactly “happening again.” Lynch recently said that cable has become “the new arthouse”, which implies not only a breakdown between the prestige of television and the prestige of movies, but a breakdown of conventional TV itself. The new Twin Peaks is if nothing else a ballsy rejection of the norms that even the best Golden Age of Television shows play by. Yes, a lot of your favorite characters are back (sort of). But as much as it’s a continuation of Twin Peaks, it strikes me as a continuation of David Lynch, a new sandbox for the director who drifted into semi-retirement ten years ago, focusing on avant-garde video shorts instead of feature films. And now he has 18 hours with which to play.

Despite any claims to the contrary, the new Twin Peaks does have a clearly defined plot, though at this point, the most honest way to synopsize it would be to just make a list of its currently disconnected elements. It is, in a literal sense, all over the place, jumping from New York to South Dakota to Las Vegas to, only infrequently, the town of Twin Peaks itself. There’s a grizzly murder in the midwest. There are three (or at least two and a half) Kyle MacLachlans running around. There’s a mysterious sealed chamber in Manhattan where a hapless college student is paid by a mysterious billionaire to watch an empty glass box for hours on end just in case something—we don’t know what—happens to appear in it. (It’s the most tantalizing part of the premiere, and as Keith Uhlich points out on the MUBI Notebook, a pretty handy metaphor for the show itself). The Log Lady warns that something is missing. And then there are stray oddities filling out the edges, like a scene in Part 4 where Michael Cera shows up to do what I gather is an extended Marlon Brando impression.

In short, Twin Peaks has doubled down (and then some) on a strictly-for-cultists appeal. It is not simply best appreciated, but perhaps only appreciated, by those with memories of the first two seasons and the prequel film burnt fresh into their minds. (They’re the only ones for whom a mention of a “blue rose” or a stray owl flying overhead are likely to signify). Yet it is so different in tone and feel from the original show that it would be laughable to call it fan service. Or if it is fan service, it’s for cultists not of Twin Peaks but of Lynch as a whole, where fandom has meant an abiding, patient, nerve-shredding curiosity to see what he’ll do with each new vessel he sets his eye on—the latest being the freedom of very R-rated cable in an age where all the context a viewer needs is just a convenient binge-watch away.

Some observations:

  • The pacing and structural choices defy explanation. Consider that this is a season of television where you can watch the first hour and still not be entirely sure what the new mini-series is actually about. Compared to what your average commercial-free cable drama would pack into an episode, Lynch is utterly unconcerned with taking advantage of just how far a story can move in 60 minutes of screen time. Even the episode endings are eccentric; the credits start to roll on moments or musical numbers that can seem like arbitrary places to put a “To Be Continued…”
  • The near absence of music is striking. Only rarely, and when pushed, does it replay its famous musical score.
  • I’ve found the new show to be almost completely humorless, though not for lack of trying. Many scenes are clearly written as comedy, but play out on screen without much attention for energetic, quick-witted chemistry. The over-riding atmosphere is that of a sleepwalker.
  • Like any film or show that revisits the same cast so many years ahead, it becomes—whether it wants to be or not—a story about aging. There is something inherently melancholy about each creased and weathered familiar face, and the show seems well aware of that. Glimpses of old footage, seen at the beginning of the series, are phantasms that melt away.
  • It contains some of Lynch’s most extended and purely abstract setpieces since he debuted with Eraserhead, and I’m not sure that animating his dreamscapes on a computer does Lynch any favors. In fact, it robs his world of tactility. (Who’d have thought that, thirty-something years after Lynch turned down directing Return of the Jedi, he and George Lucas would have hit the same wall?)
  • Many scenes that check in on the old cast seem strangely placed and dislocated from the plot. Are they nostalgic throwbacks for the fans? Will they become important later? Or are they merely their own discrete vignettes, spinning outward in the Lynch-verse? None would surprise me.
  • The subtlest, most controlled performance belongs to Matthew Lillard, which is something I never thought I’d say about anything.

This sense of narrative diffusion is hardly new to Lynch. Mulholland Drive also spends its much of its first half introducing characters and narrative directions that either disappear or get flipped on their head by the end, and yet the whole picture still arrives at a satisfying and coherent conclusion.

It’s entirely possible that the new Twin Peaks is doing something similar on a more drawn out timescale. I’d say “time will tell” if Lynch ties it all together, but I strongly suspect that time won’t; being confounded will become a feature, a bug, or at least an inevitability. Still, one advantage of TV being the “new arthouse” is that, in an age when it’s harder and harder to get audiences to care about either an old-fashioned or a radical ideal of cinema, the most brilliant work on television is much more capable of getting millennials abuzz. (When the numbers came in, the broadcast ratings were disappointingly low, but the number of people who signed up to watch it on the internet broke Showtime’s records). I expect our new Twin Peaks is something we’ll be debating for quite a while to come.

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