Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

TV: Twin Peaks: The Return

September 9, 2017

In an increasingly insane world, the bar for artistic mindfuckery continues to rise. Indeed, we’ve reached the point where much of Twin Peaks — the short-lived, iconic serial from the early 1990s that blended soap opera, black comedy, and paranormal horror to memorable effect — probably looks quaint and normal when held up to the current TV landscape it helped to shape. Well, into this landscape comes Twin Peaks: The Return, one of the most anticipated TV revivals of all time. Reactions to this eighteen-episode season will be as polarizing as contemporary politics, but for my money it’s a metafictional masterpiece that shattered my wildest expectations.

If you missed it, the original Twin Peaks told bizarre tales of murder, mayhem, and reality-bending terror in a small Pacific Northwest town, characterized by spine-tingling shocks, oddball humor, and often-captivating weirdness. The murder of popular high school girl Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) turned the close-knit, simple town of Twin Peaks on its ear, leading the FBI to send Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) out to investigate the crime. But Laura’s death wasn’t a run-of-the-mill murder, and Cooper — brought to enigmatic life in a career-making performance by MacLachlan — was no ordinary agent. He was a quirky, spirited man of virtue devoted to pursuing cases of inexplicable, unnatural strangeness. Around this central mystery, a strange universe was created, bringing to life dozens of quirky, memorable characters and even more unforgettable moments.

At its best, Twin Peaks was fascinating, unmissable television. I remember jam-packed viewing parties in my college dorm when it came out, full of donut-eating, coffee-slurping fanatics anxious to see the next installment. It was a kitchen sink of fearless invention, running its huge cast through a gamut of unpredictable left turns and plot twists, mashing genres with abandon, developing cockamamie mythologies, and just generally doing things never before done on TV. Angelo Badalamenti’s moody scores and Lynch’s singular eye for the uncanny gave it a simmering, unnerving ambience. For a brief, shining time, it was an enrapturing phenomenon.

Alas, there was also Twin Peaks at its worst. The second season is a mess, full of subplots that lead nowhere, aimless arcs, rambling scripts, nonsense plot turns. Network interference, which resolved a mystery best left ambiguous, shoulders a huge part of the blame for the show’s downfall. Twin Peaks was so far ahead of its time that executives didn’t know what to do with it, so naturally they did their best to wreck it. Despite this, Twin Peaks’ influence has lingered all these years, thanks to its unassailably great early episodes, and perhaps also its overlooked but intense, lore-building prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (which, incidentally, is crucial viewing for the new series).

With all this baggage, expectation, and memory behind it strides Twin Peaks: The Return — or perhaps “ambles” is a better word. Paced so patiently it makes Scandinavian art cinema look like it’s on cocaine, The Return gradually brings us back to the mystical town of Twin Peaks after twenty-five years. They were years, no doubt, full of active speculation about what such an unimaginable reboot would look like. Most beloved franchises receiving such a lavish second run would reactivate a graying cast and try to cash in on bygone mystique with splashy branding and knowing nods and winks to its own history. To their credit, Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost seem to recognize what this approach, if unmitigated, would most likely mean: Twin Peaks as a shadow of its former self, attempting futilely to re-live its glory days. So they opt instead for a radically different approach, something of an extended artistic experiment.

Veteran viewers will recall that the original series ended with Agent Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge, a dark, backwards dimension, while his evil doppelganger roamed free in the “real” world. Indeed, the final shot of the series showed Dark Cooper laughing hysterically into a shattered mirror, possessed by the sinister “Bob,” an otherworldly manifestation of evil. Since any resurrection of the show surely requires Agent Cooper, Twin Peaks: The Return develops largely as an extended chronicle of his return from the Black Lodge. But “The Return” has a second connotation, one that speaks to the incredibly gradual, elliptical approach Lynch and Frost took to this project. It’s not just about Cooper’s return to the city of Twin Peaks, but about the unlikely return of the entire Twin Peaks phenomenon: not just for Cooper and the characters, but for Lynch and for Frost, and for the viewers. It’s a metafictional meditation on what Twin Peaks was, what it means, what everyone wants it to be; it is, in other words, messing with the very idea of Twin Peaks, and totally fucking with everyone who’s watching and interpreting it.

In light of that, no simple plot summary can suffice to describe its unpredictable narrative strategy, which plays out like a stream-of-conscious distillation of Lynch and Frost’s creative efforts, which are multifaceted. For they do aim to revive, re-energize, and successfully cap off the legacy of their long-ago, infamous creation. But they also want to cleverly subvert that legacy, and generate something new. To that end, it’s a series designed to both live up to expectations and to confound them.

One strategy to this effect is to withhold the show’s own legacy in the early episodes, which barely visit Twin Peaks or its familiar denizens, instead ricocheting from New York to South Dakota to Nevada, where new, peripherally connected characters become entangled in the paranormal mysteries surrounding the Black Lodge, the mysterious disappearance of Major Briggs, and the “Blue Rose” FBI cases. These brand-new corners of the Twin Peaks universe are visually more reminiscent of Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive than the original series — right down to the casting. (Balthazar Getty and Naomi Watts, among others, feel like imports from other corners of the Lynchverse.) The new look and feel serves to make what we do see of the old gang look clunky and unconvincing, at first. Whether it’s Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) and Andy (Harry Goaz) puttering about the Twin Peaks sherriff’s department, Deputy Hawke (Michael Horse) having stilted conversations with the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson), or Doctor Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) spitting anti-government propaganda on cable-access TV like a left-wing Alex Jones, these scenes look jarring and amateurish compared against the new modern world that surrounds them. They play like purposely dated, awkward trips down Memory Lane. The clash of these scenes with the shiny new material generates intense cognitive dissonance, leaving viewers to wonder if they’re actually even watching Twin Peaks, which is surely the intended effect.

This glorious sense of disorientation never quite leaves, although it does grow, shift, and evolve around the thin procedural framework concocted by Frost and Lynch to simulate conventional narrative. Some of this (glacial) momentum-building occurs through FBI investigations — lead by Lynch’s onscreen persona, Gordon Cole, and his erstwhile partner, the foul-mouthed Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) — as they track strange new phenomena that may explain Cooper’s long-ago disappearance. There’s also a smidge of mystery-solving back in Twin Peaks, where Sherriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster) and his team start uncovering clues that appear to cast new light on the Laura Palmer case. And then, of course, there’s the parallel journeys of Dark Cooper, carrying out Bob’s nebulous agenda of evil in the real world, and the real Cooper, who just wants to set the world right. The real Cooper, though, spends most of the series shambling around trapped in the body of yet another doppelganger, a Joe Schmoe insurance salesman named Dougie who nobody seems to realize is barely autonomous. Nonetheless, these throughlines serve to at least partially resemble the linear mystery-solving requirements of the Twin Peaks revival mission.

But this rickety structural frame is adorned with all manner of material, which ranges from the stunningly beautiful to the deliberately clumsy, all clocked with mesmerizing, meditative slowness. Gorgeous scenes of riveting strangeness are followed up by clunky, ugly ones, as if to remind us that when Twin Peaks wasn’t brilliant, it could also be terrible. First-rate special effects in one scene give way to dated, simplistic ones in the next, and while both are effective, somehow the cheaper thrills are even more disturbing. Then the old, familiar characters finally do start to turn up, taking larger roles on the stage…only to be jarringly replaced in the next scene by random, brand-new people we’ve never met, and aren’t sure we’re supposed to care about, who may or may not be integral to new developments. This strategic mindfuckery seems designed to keep the viewer from settling into their Twin Peaks comfort zone, which feels like a raised middle-finger to devoted fans, but also, simultaneously, a wholly appropriate gift to them. Twin Peaks was never supposed to be comforting or familiar or expected, right?

Accompanying this general sense of disorienting atmosphere is a clever infusion of metafictional elements. Twin Peaks: The Return is a curiously self-aware beast, that seems to know how unlikely it is — a “blue rose” TV project, something that doesn’t belong in nature. It was resurrected, one can imagine, to deliver what we expected of a new Twin Peaks, but ultimately, repeatedly, it refuses. The metafiction starts early; indeed, the first episode spends considerable time on a young man whose job it is to patiently monitor a small glass box — a metaphor for us, the viewer, waiting for our show to relaunch. But that’s just the first of many such touches. One telling subplot, for example, reveals that Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) has turned the R&R into a franchise diner, and her conversations about it with her new beau Walter (Grant Goodeve) play out like thinly veiled commentary on Twin Peaks as intellectual property, something the world is attempting to commodify. Other metafictional turns are more elegiac, acknowledgements of the slow passage as time. The earth-shattering events of the original series notwithstanding, many of Twin Peaks’ citizens still had to live out the intervening years. And so we see “Big Ed” Hurley (Everett McGill) quietly eating soup alone at the Gas Farm, a picture of stoic sadness at a life mislived, or the traumatized Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) freaking out at the supermarket, warning the young checkers that terrible things can happen to people, like they did to her many, many years ago. Even Forster’s role as Sheriff Frank Truman is a logistics-inspired metafictional touch that plays off of the show’s heightened-reality soap opera aspects; he replaces Michael Ontkean’s Sheriff Harry Truman (Ontkean is retired from acting) in a manner that suggests old-school TV casting sleight-of-hand. And then there’s the Log Lady, who breaks the fourth wall to stare into the camera as she talks about her character’s imminent death — heartbreaking when you consider that actress Catherine E. Coulson was also talking about her own mortality. (Coulson was ill during shooting, and died shortly thereafter.)

Twin Peaks: The Return is also very aware of the modern television landscape it’s invading. For example, there’s a late-developing subplot involving a British security guard at the Great Northern named Freddie (Jake Wardle), who just happens to have a magically empowered hand thanks to a mystical rubber glove. This knowing wink to the modern superhero craze seems to steer us toward a destined showdown in the climactic finale — an expectation that’s sort of delivered, but also savagely undermined. This “changing times” metacommentary plays out more brilliantly in a Breaking Bad-like scene in Las Vegas, when a stakeout of Dougie’s house devolves into a road-rage-inspired shootout. It starts with Chantal (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Hutch (Tim Roth), playing two of Dark Coop’s flunkies, in the back of a van. Chantal rather deliberately devours Cheetos shortly before getting into a verbally abusive beef with an “accountant” who has a Russian accent. In the resulting mayhem, comical mob bosses Bradley Mitchum (James Belushi) and his brother Rodney (Robert Knepper) cautiously witness the violent conflict, and deliver an exchange that could easily be interpreted as Frost and Lynch’s behind-the-scenes metacommentary on the state of the industry, if not the world. “What the fuck kind of neighborhood is this?” Bradley asks. Sympathetically, Rodney responds, “People are under a lot of stress, Bradley.”

Then there’s the plight of poor Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), whose scenes — which appear to be completely disconnected from the plot — unsettlingly depict her imprisonment in a loveless, gaslighting marriage. These scenes play out like an encrypted warning to the viewer not to trust everything they see; indeed, Audrey’s subplot culminates in goosebump-inspiring triumph and terror. The show’s metafictional peak may come during an arm-wrestling match between Dark Coop and a Montanta gang leader. The uncomfortable struggle between the two men is a metaphor for the challenging artistic vision of The Return. When Dark Coop effortlessly bends his massive opponent’s arms back, he says, “Starting positions, more comfortable.” He’s cagily alluding to our expectations of seeing the Twin Peaks of the “good old days,” a comfortable vision The Return seems hellbent on disrupting.

Alas, for all the groundbreaking audacity of Twin Peaks: The Return — which manages, improbably, to lay waste to the elevated artistic standards of the new Platinum Age of Television — there are definite flaws. One is an over-indulgence in interminable Roadhouse rock videos that feel like advertisements for Lynch’s favorite musicians. But worse are some “old school” Hollywood habits that I could have done without. The show’s blind spots for race and gender are glaring. Racial diversity is virtually nonexistent; I counted three people of color throughout, and one of them a mystical being that stands in for a white person. With few exceptions, the show’s women are shrill nags, sexpots, or hysterical, and while the violence against women depicted in The Return may be integral to the misogynistic villainy at the core of the Twin Peaks universe, it’s also egregious. Let’s face it, it also might have felt more sure-handed if Lynch weren’t “getting his dirty old man on” during his onscreen moments: adding the ludicrously sultry Agent Tammy Prescott (Chrysta Bell) to his FBI team, dating outrageous French caricatures, or experiencing “Monica Bellucci dreams.” (Well, that last one was kind of inspired, but still…) One shouldn’t forgive these uglinesses, even if they are true to the form and spirit of the original series.

And yet, it’s sort of possible to forgive them, in light of everything else the show delivers. I haven’t even made mention yet of the amazing eighth episode, a creepy, powerfully dreamlike art film in miniature, which ties the death of Laura Palmer and the battle of good and evil in with the development of the atomic bomb, not to mention delivering some of the season’s most terrifying chills. This episode alone is mind-exploding, justification in itself, as far as I’m concerned, for the entire project. But there’s also the double-episode finale, which sort of provides a conventionally satisfying conclusion to the whole of the Twin Peaks mythos, and then utterly erodes that comfortable resolution in a manner that is just as artistically satisfying. It adds up to a fascinating, rich, multifaceted, and wholly unforgettable journey back into this universe. With it, Lynch and Frost have impossibly converted a notorious, unfinished pop-culture curiosity into an implausibly, unconventionally complete masterwork.

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