Twin Peaks: The Return (2017, Dir. David Lynch), Episodes 1-4:
It still seems faintly unreal that over a quarter century since Twin Peaks streaked across television skies like a comet, we’re now back again in that strange little hamlet in the misty Northwest. The original series was unlike anything ever before or since — utilizing every TV cliché in the book (soap opera twists, police procedural plots, the quirky small-town vibe), it veered close to parody, and often surrendered to it, but it had a sense of adventure all its own. Fearlessly switching between tragedy, absurdist comedy, and downright experimental storytelling at whim, Twin Peaks was a dazzling high-wire act. It was also never meant to last, given that the guiding hand behind it all was David Lynch, the most restless and protean of directors. Once the series’ central mystery of who killed Laura Palmer was resolved — network TV back then wouldn’t allow the question to linger for more than a season and a half — there was nothing left to do but get lost in a thicket of strangeness and humdrum subplots (who really wanted to see James (James Marshall) having his little “Double Indemnity” adventure with the married suburban couple?).
Nevertheless, Twin Peaks was the exemplar of a new approach that subsequently infected everything from The X-Files to Lost. No longer would genre television be a safe, comfy haven; Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost had essentially announced, You can go anywhere with this. Stylized and stylish, as authentic a slice of Americana as we would get in pop culture (right down to the coffee and cherry pie), Twin Peaks was a work of whimsy that also burrowed into not-so-pleasant emotional spaces. The original television show concluded with one of the great cliffhangers of all time, as stalwart FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was trapped in the netherworld of the Black Lodge, with the malign spirit of “Bob” taking Cooper’s guise back on Earth. That was followed up by the uncompromising prequel movie Fire Walk With Me (1992), which fizzled at the time with critics and audiences; in retrospect, it’s probably Lynch’s most underrated, sustained work. Snicker all you want at his boy scout humor and his characters’ cornball sincerity, but there’s no denying the story’s naked honesty or power when Laura Palmer (Cheryl Lee), overwhelmed by addiction and demonic possession, scant hours from her death, confesses in tears to her boyfriend, “Your Laura disappeared. It’s just me now.” At his best, Lynch finds the uncanny in the mundane, and the heart behind the soap opera theatrics, and the original Twin Peaks often found him operating at his best.
Which brings us to the here and now, and a new 18-episode season of Twin Peaks bankrolled by Showtime. Swathed in expectations and secrecy, the series promised to be unadulterated Lynch: he directed all the episodes as essentially one gargantuan movie, which was split up into TV-length segments. If anyone expected the new season to be a nostalgic walk down memory lane, or a complete explication of the mysteries that have been built over previous seasons, they haven’t been keeping up with Lynch, who’s only retreated further into his own head space since Fire Walk With Me. Naturally, he zigs instead of zags from the get-go. More frank in its nudity and violence than the original series (but nowhere near as punishing as the movie), this new Twin Peaks doesn’t seem interested in going home again. Lynch certainly isn’t: the town of Twin Peaks and its denizens has occupied maybe one episode’s worth of screen time in the initial four-episode run currently available to the public. Instead, we’re tossed head-first into a far-flung series of incidents that don’t make immediate sense. A murder takes place in South Dakota that somehow relates to Bob’s activities. The famous backwards-talking midget from the Red Room has become a CGI talking tree (just read that sentence again — would you find it in anything other than a Lynch project?). In the series’ most theatrical passage so far, a young man in New York City sits in a cavernous empty room, tasked with watching an empty glass cube, much like an audience huddling around the boob tube. When he’s distracted by the charms of a female associate, the amorous couple receives retribution for their inattention as a wraith materializes inside the cube and proceeds to wreak havoc (for Lynch, nothing is worse than not being present in the moment). And what of Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) and those four shovels he’s painting in gold? Or that gargoyle-like figure in the jail cell who fades away, its head floating out of frame like a balloon?
If all that sounds like the usual dose of unexplainable Lynch weirdness, you’d be right. But Agent Cooper, who could be reliably counted on in the original series to be our rock and guide in negotiating this bizarre world, isn’t himself. Suffice to say that he manages to escape the Black Lodge, but his mind and soul don’t join him immediately. Like the camera spinning around the floor tiles of the Black Lodge in the series’ updated title sequence, we’re off-balance, being jerked around in ever-dizzying circles. Lynch cheekily addresses our confusion when his character in the show, FBI Director Gordon Cole, confides in episode 4, “I hate to admit this, but I don’t understand this situation at all.” He’s never been about giving the people what they want, but the overriding question in this latest iteration of Twin Peaks becomes: Is this show giving anybody what they want?
Based on the evidence so far, the answer to that question is very mixed. It’s an undeniable kick to see MacLachlan and the other familiar actors again, and while Lynch has never been one for nostalgia, he clearly has affection for these characters. (Maybe too much affection — at one point our favorite waitress Shelly (Mädchen Amick) says of eternal drifter James, “James is still cool. He’s always been cool.” If only saying it would make it so.) Whether Lynch can do something interesting with these old (and new) faces is still open to debate. His rhythms have always skirted the line between hypnotic and narcotic, and so far in the new Twin Peaks, they have fallen out of whack uncomfortably often. Scenes are stretched to the breaking limit and beyond in their duration. The characters banter in monotones. The comedic bits, like an extended riff involving an absent-minded neighbor and the police, dribble out instead of fizz. In another scene, a man is arrested for murder, and his wife complains, “But the Morgans are coming over tonight!” While it’s a typical Lynchian moment of deadpan humor, the timing of the joke and the line reading lack oomph. It’s as if Lynch, in his Zen-like old-master phase, is content to just let things happen onscreen, as each scene plays out just like the last, character interactions and happenings steamrolled into a flat, meditative state. Even Angelo Badalamenti’s music, with its lounge jazz swagger and synthesized grandeur, has been pared down to a now-familiar thrum of ambient menace, and ladled over every scene, like a rushed recipe for tension. Meanwhile, scenes with our familiar characters play out in isolation, just flotsam in the narrative ocean, with seemingly no connection to the overarching narrative. It doesn’t help that the story’s mysteries have been murky thus far. Lacking an organizing principle like the death of Laura Palmer to galvanize the plot and characters, the series has struggled to gain a semblance of coherence. (One wonders about the extent of co-writer Mark Frost’s involvement this time around, given his reputation for reining in Lynch’s excesses in the past.)
Of course, coherence and David Lynch have never been best buddies — the point of much of his work is that there’s not necessarily a simple point. You can get away with a lack of straightforward narrative momentum when you can conjure up moments of free-floating dread and beauty like he does. When firing on all cylinders, he captures the immediacy of your most blissful dream, or your worst sweat-drenched nightmare. Remnants of that cinematic grandeur remain in a few scattered scenes, such as the aforementioned glass cube episode, or in a passage that unfurls with infernal dream logic wherein Cooper is deposited in a house in outer space, trapped alongside a woman with her eyes glued shut. These vignettes might make for good eye candy, but they’re devoid of any emotional context. If the original Twin Peaks was a Norman Rockwell painting with hints of Munch and Hopper in the depths, the new season plays like confusing abstract expressionism. Accordingly, the new characters resemble design elements more than flesh-and-blood creatures. As one of Bob’s untrustworthy associates, Nicole LaLiberte is nothing but long legs, while Chrysta Bell is defined by a playful smirk and swaying hips as Cole’s FBI assistant. Famous faces are featured in walk-ons throughout, whether it’s Ashley Judd as a manager at the Great Northern Hotel, or Jennifer Jason-Leigh as a treacherous tramp (natch), but none have stuck around long enough to make an impression. The new character who makes the biggest splash is Michael Cera as the wayward son of Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) and Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz). Dressed up like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, given a bonkers monologue about his trials and tribulations on the road, his appearance comes close to recapturing a bit of the old nutball strangeness, although even his scene is dragged out way too long. The best bits so far have involved the original characters, in simple and relatable moments: the dying Log Lady (the late Catherine Coulson), touchingly raw and vulnerable, relaying a final message to Deputy Chief Hawk (Michael Horse), or former bad-boy Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), now a cop, seeing Laura’s photo for the first time in 25 years, overpowered by memories.
“And now you’re nothing like you seem,” sings the Chromatics during one of the show’s many musical interludes at the Bang Bang Bar, summing up the series’ appeal, and the career of David Lynch. Is the new Twin Peaks what it currently seems to be, or does it have additional surprises up its sleeve? Since this is a show (and review) in progress, it is very possible that all the random goings-on will eventually tie together to make a certain sense — but what of Lynch’s sensibility? Will plot legibility be of much help when the filmmaking is so distended that a gag involving Cooper hitting jackpots at a casino goes on for fifteen minutes when it could (and should) have been done in five? Like Cooper, who has yet to step foot in Twin Peaks after four episodes, the series has been remarkably aimless thus far. Lynch has been many things, but you don’t usually associate the word “slack” with his work. His best stuff has always been fueled by undercurrents of rage and chaos, as exemplified by the character of Bob, the wounded id unleashed. What are we to make of this calmer, blander, more obtuse version of Lynch, in which Bob is no longer an uncontrolled force of nature but a soft-spoken, calculating gangster with a mullet? Has Lynch lost the desire or nerve to push uncomfortable buttons like he used to? Time and the rest of the series will tell; judging by early critic and audience reaction, it certainly seems that everyone is willing to go along for the ride. You can’t go home again and you don’t necessarily want to — but one would hope that we can go to an interesting place. Whether Lynch takes us there in the new Twin Peaks remains to be seen.