As a Twin Peaks obsessive, it's almost impossible to approach what Showtime seems to be calling Twin Peaks: The Return with a neutral palate. For the past few weeks, I've stood in front of subway posters that declare "It Is Happening Again," trying in vain to imagine what that means to someone who doesn't hear it in Carel Struycken's gently terrifying voice. It is happening again, but for some of us, it's also happening for the first time—and as nostalgic thinkpieces sprouted like Douglas fir seedlings in the run-up to the new series, I found myself wondering: Will this be legible at all to people who are new to the whole phenomenon? And for us old hands, will we find you can't go home again?
So, while analyzing these new episodes, I'll do my best to refrain from focusing on the good old days—or, at least, save the knowing nudges toward the end. But while discussing the premiere, it's inevitable—and, I think, also worthwhile—to contrast Twin Peaks: The Return with the original. The mysteries at the heart of Twin Peaks's first two seasons—the murder of Laura Palmer and the mystical methods Special Agent Dale Cooper uses to find her killer—provide the clockwork that keeps the show ticking along. (Network pressure to name Laura's killer—which co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost were maybe never planning to do—is widely blamed for the show's flaccid second season.)
But with Twin Peaks you're not so much watching the clock as you are watching the cuckoos: observing the people of Twin Peaks, Washington, in their intricate dance of love, betrayal, and intrigue, seeing how the shockwaves caused by Laura's death and the subsequent investigation jostles every connection in town. For all its supernatural moments, Twin Peaks is a profoundly human show—and you can tell right away that Twin Peaks: The Return is not going to be like that.
This new installment plunges deep into chilly, weird territory in its very first scene, in
which Cooper faces off against the Giant—a figure so profoundly unsettling that it took the original series eight episodes to work up to him. Back then, we'd learned to love Cooper as a morally upright, easily delighted coffee enthusiast before he was revealed as a vessel for arcane knowledge. But from the outset, the new Twin Peaks is a glittering puzzle rather than a character study. Its center of gravity is art, not heart.
After brief glimpses of present-day Twin Peaks, we're whisked away to New York City (a place where the original show, obsessed with the gloom and mystery of the Pacific Northwest, would scorn to set foot). It's perhaps the clearest indicator that we're onto something other than a quirky, dark, funny, and ultimately human portrait of a town. This is bigger, and colder, and more modern, like New York itself—or the enormous glass box inside a New York skyscraper that a young man watches constantly, waiting for something to appear inside.
There's a murdered woman this go-round too, but unlike Laura Palmer—discovered dead by someone who knew her, autopsied by the doctor who delivered her, eulogized by the priest who performed her baptism—her death is impersonal and detached, literally. Her head's found in a bed, but it's paired with an unidentified male body. Like the glass box in New York, it seems like a metaphor for the distance between the old Twin Peaks and the new. The central tragedy is disjointed and chimerical in a way that pushes it out of the realm of sentiment. The police officer who sees the body stares in disbelief instead of breaking down in tears. In a series that flits from the Pacific Northwest to New York to South Dakota to Las Vegas, the tragedy isn't even that central.
But nothing encapsulates the distance we've traveled in 26 years like watching a dark Mercedes peel in over the sounds of a track heavy with drums and distorted vocals, disgorging none other than Special Agent Dale Cooper looking like Tommy Wiseau. Anyone who watched the series' deeply weird finale, of course, knows that this is actually Cooper's doppelgänger, free to roam the world while his soul remains trapped in the purgatorial Black Lodge.
And in a way, this is Twin Peaks' doppelgänger: something that wears its face, but with a different hairstyle and a cooler jacket and murkier, crueller intentions. Even the scenes in the Twin Peaks sheriff's office—by far the most homey and familiar for fans of the show—feel a little off. They have a stilted, slow pacing to them, the dialogue resembling an impossibly long pan down a telephone cord. It's like we're back in the town of Twin Peaks, but the people there are being bossed around by David Lynch.
What these first two episodes resemble most is David Lynch Presents David Lynch's Twin Peaks Project, by David Lynch. The framing and pace scream Lynch, as does the sound design. Part of the reason Twin Peaks worked so well is that Mark Frost's more accessible brand of weirdness served to temper Lynch and keep his feet on the ground. Their chemistry more closely resembled alchemy. By comparison, one of my notes on Twin Peaks: The Return first episode reads "IS MARK FROST EVEN INVOLVED HERE?"
But Twin Peaks: The Return was never going to be Twin Peaks: The Recapitulation. When you look back at the original series, it feels in many ways retro, even hokey (and that's the price you pay for influencing everything that comes after you). Twin Peaks is being reborn amid a changed TV landscape—a landscape it helped to change. Lynch and Frost could've returned to the old formula without losing its charms, but attempting to look back while continuing to move forward requires an unwillingness to get bogged down in nostalgia. It takes the nerve and vision to make something that will unsettle and disgust and challenge people instead of charming them. I'm excited—and, yes, a little apprehensive, as it should be—to continue to be unsettled, and never charmed.
Notes for Peaks freaks of old:
- Notice something different about the Black Lodge? That's right, they changed the orientation of the chevrons, and it's messing my shit right up.
- Do you think Andy and Lucy named their kid after Waldo?
- Dying to find out who the other Sheriff Truman is. Wife? Kid? Michael Ontkean is not actually listed as a cast member on IMDB, so... wife AND kid, who both took over Harry's old job?
- It's a nice touch that at least half of Ben and Jerry wound up being, you know, Ben & Jerry.
- Man, remember when the Black Lodge scenes were, like, this huge tonal shift from the bulk of the show? Those days are gone, my friends.
- Twenty-seven years and a haircut later, and I still laugh every time I see James Marshall's face. ("James is still cool. He's always been cool." OK, Shelly, whatever you say.)
- Thanks for coming back to say goodbye, Agent Jeffries.
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