The Show That Broke Television. Twice

Back at the dawn of time, before ‘Spooky’ Mulder opened his first X-File, before Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof inflicted the obnoxiously opaque Lost on us, before multi-season long-form storytelling was even a thing, a tousle-haired Buddhist and a strait-laced network scriptwriter sat down with a copy of the rule book of writing for television, and stabbed it in the face. What killed it was loss of blood, from numerous shallow wounds, no single one serious enough to have caused death, but by the time this televisual odd couple had finished the deed and were wrapping the corpse in plastic sheeting to dump in a frigid river near the Canadian border, the encyclopaedia of received narrative wisdom was thoroughly extinct. 

In crafting Twin Peaks back in the pre-streaming late 80s, David Lynch and Mark Frost broke every rule imaginable – sympathetic characters have dark undercurrents, resolutions are parcelled out with baffling new questions attached, even the establishing shots of locations bristle with a trembling, queasy menace – and by the time the show had run its short course and been axed by a befuddled ABC, the once-cosy world of easily-solved television crime had been liberally splattered with innocent blood, incestuous rape, and the incoherent illogic of nightmares.

Forget cosy police procedure; Twin Peaks was about a crime that really hurt, and unpicking its labyrinthine threads took FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper to the brink of madness, and then across. Famously, the uneven second season ended on a doozy of a cliffhanger, and when Lynch picked up the story in 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, fans were eager for the closure network television had denied them. What they got instead was a two-hour horror show, set before the series and wrapping up questions to which we already knew the answers. It was baffling, it was beautiful, it was painfully sexy and almost unbearably sad, it expanded the Peaksverse all the way to Oregon and had a sublimely bonkers cameo from David Bowie as an FBI agent several steps ahead of the heroic Dale Cooper on the trail of Bob. What is wasn’t, was an ending. To find that, we had to go all the way back to the beginning. “I’ll see you again in twenty-five years,” the shade of Laura Palmer told Cooper in the waiting room of the Black Lodge. At the time, we had no idea that she actually meant it.

 a cold dip back into the meandering river of David Lynch’s dark imagination

And here we are. A quarter of a century on from Fire Walk With Me, and Laura and Dale are back, still sitting in that damn red room where everyone talks like a hidden Satanic message on a record played the wrong way and the Venus de Milo sometimes has arms. Make no mistake, though; Twin Peaks - The Return is not a sequel to the ABC television series Twin Peaks, it’s a sequel to the oneiric, flesh-packed toothache of a movie that followed it. Tonally, structurally, and musically, Showtime’s 18-part reboot is a cold dip back into the meandering river of David Lynch’s dark imagination, where even the simplest dialogue scenes are punctuated with squirm-inducing silences and cross talk, where every lascivious flash of corruptible young flesh is leavened by bloody brutality and gushings of toxic vomit.

Four episodes have been unleashed (perhaps ‘detonated’ is a better word) via Showtime’s streaming service and Sky Atlantic on-demand, which is less than a quarter of the series, and already the fervent online commentariat are loudly divided. Those who came to the show for loveable kookiness and a straightforward plot are calling foul, while those who came hoping for a new TV show made by the lunatic responsible for Eraserhead and Inland Empire are in heaven, albeit a heaven packed with people complaining that they don’t get it.  

But the truth is, there’s nothing to get, at least not yet. The new Twin Peaks is slow, strange, and haunting. Characters appear before us in moments of isolated incomprehension, and so far, the only person who has done anything but tell lies is the Log Lady, whose voice cracked painfully as she delivered her log’s last message to the gnomic Deputy Hawk. Who built the glass box in the industrial Manhattan loft? Why does the toothsome barista Tracey (Madeline Zima) want so badly to know what’s going on up there? Why are high school Principal Bill Hastings’ (Matthew Lillard) fingerprints all over the scene of a murder involving two bifurcated bodies? And what exactly has the version of Cooper with the demon Bob inside him been up to for the last twenty-five years?

Over the next four months, these and other questions may be answered, or they may not. For all we know, we may be treated to fourteen hours of Michael Cera’s wonderfully bad Brando impression, interspersed with mildly gratuitous nudity and slapstick goofiness from the “good” Coop, whose brain appears now to be mush after twenty-five years in the waiting room. Nothing is certain in the world of Twin Peaks – remember, we are in the hands of the man who made a show about a teenage girl who was raped and murdered by her own father, and who kept her dead body, beautiful and blue, on screen for the better part of three whole episodes, rubbing in the audience’s face the sickness of our culture’s prurient fascination with the beautiful and the dead.

 Nobody can predict where this series is taking us, and thank God for that. As the wise Deputy Hawk once said, “you’re on the path. You don’t need to know where it leads. Just follow.” The world of this small logging town, filled with secrets and fringed by whispering woods, has always been short on answers and long on meaning, and on the evidence of the first four episodes of Twin Peaks – The Return, nothing has changed, and nothing will ever be the same.

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