Through its first two hours, David Lynch’s new ‘Twin Peaks’ is unsettling, weird, funny and basically impossible to review.
Two things I was wrong about regarding Showtime’s revival of Twin Peaks, which premiered with two hours on Sunday (May 21) night before its Cannes Special Screening bow: First, when the show was announced and then when David Lynch briefly pulled out of the project, I was vocally skeptical that a man who had directed only four movies in the past 20 years (none in the last 10) was going to somehow turn around and direct 18 hours of television in a year; and second, as the premiere neared, I frequently joked that audiences expecting the David Lynch who broke television when ABC birthed Twin Peaks in 1990 were about to have their brains broken by a rude introduction to the David Lynch of Inland Empire.
Apparently Lynch really did direct and co-write the entirety of Showtime’s Twin Peaks experiment — the 18-episode run is being called a limited series — and although there may have been a long time between the project’s announcement and its premiere, it wasn’t any longer than the gap between the announcement and premiere of the vastly less ambitious J-Lo vehicle Shades of Blue.
And although the first two hours of Twin Peaks (two additional hours were made available OnDemand immediately afterwards, but I have yet to see them) jump between locations, times and dimensions (or whatever the heck is going on with the Black Lodge) with abandon, they don’t represent some audience-taxing chunk of confrontational art like Inland Empire. The thing that struck me most immediately about the premiere is how relatively cogent it was, with a clear emphasis on “relatively.” What premiered on Sunday was as accessibly scary, disturbing and audaciously funny as many of the best parts of the original Twin Peaks, and nowhere near as hallucinatory and subtextually distilled as the prequel film Fire Walk With Me.
That does not mean that I could tell you in any linear description what happened in the two hours. Lynch and Showtime decided not to make episodes available to critics early and embargoed those critics who attended the Los Angeles premiere event until after the first airing on Sunday to keep plot details hidden.
This will take the form of a normal review, rather than a recap, and won’t give away more than the general plot outline, but even within these parameters nothing I describe would “spoil” anything. Twin Peaks is a sensation that engulfs you and a journey you take, not a list of events that happen. It’s also a really strange show to attempt to review off of only two episodes. I generally bristle at the showrunners who claim their series is a 13- or 22-hour movie, but it’s obvious this Twin Peaks is going to be an 18-hour unit. There was no discernible separation between hours and if credits hadn’t rolled, the second hour could probably just as easily have flowed into the third. This isn’t episodic TV. It’s another thing.
With a proper spoiler warning, what are the basic details I can provide?
Well, Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is in the Black Lodge, that red-draped room with the the zig-zag floors that reminds me of the Hitchcock/Dali collaboration in Spellbound. It’s there that Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) told Cooper that she’d see him in 25 years when Twin Peaks ended 25 years ago. I’m not going to tell you what Cooper is doing there or if it’s voluntary.
In the town of Twin Peaks, Hawk (Michael Horse) gets a call from the Log Lady (the late Catherine E. Coulson), which has him looking into the files from Agent Cooper’s time in town. “Something is missing and you have to find it,” is part of her log’s message to him. Eventually, the investigation may involve coffee and donuts, but so far it has not.
There’s a guy who looks like Agent Cooper, only as a leather-clad badass, going around causing trouble. He might have supernatural powers or appetites or he may just be strong.
In New York City there’s a guy whose name I don’t think is ever given and his job is watching an empty glass box in the concrete-walled loft of a towering high rise. He initially notes that his predecessor saw something in the box, but he has not.
Oh and in Buckhorn, South Dakota, a grotesque murder investigation quickly focuses on the local principal (excellent new addition Matthew Lillard), who professes innocence. As we know, in Twin Peaks, sometimes people do things they don’t want to do and don’t remember doing.
That’s all I would tell you about Lynch and Mark Frost’s narrative if this were a traditional review — and I don’t think it tells you much or spoils much.
An attempt to critique or unwrap Lynch’s thematics or symbolism would probably just be undone by the fourth or fifth episode, but a lot of it comes straight from the original series, so if you saw the shimmering pale horse as a harbinger of doom before, it probably still is. There are numbers referenced and I’m not going to try to unpack them; I legitimately don’t remember if they tie in with numbers given in the original series. References to animal savagery and the inherent savagery of human nature are everywhere, but nobody utters the word “garmonbozia” once. You’ve gotta make audiences wait.
Unlike Fire Walk With Me, which occasionally wallowed in nudity and mature language because Lynch was unshackled from network restrictions and because he was depicting the nightmarish descent of Laura Palmer’s last days, this Twin Peaks could nearly have passed ABC’s current standards, even the partially exposed butt. There’s at least one visceral scare and several moments that left me scrawling “Ew” in my notes, but it’s possible that the most unsettling part of the early episodes is the shocking alien beauty of Lynch and cinematographer Peter Deming’s depiction of the nocturnal lights of New York City and Las Vegas. Lynch has an ease and familiarity with the intimacy and smallness of Twin Peaks, causing even brief shots of urban space to take my breath away.
So much that happens in the first two hours of the new Twin Peaks is off-putting and alienating and it’s all exactly Lynchian enough to smooth over how much time is spent watching an unconventional show do a very conventional thing, namely mark the passage of time.
“Is it future… or is it past?” is a question asked by a well-known face in the Black Lodge, and we’re supposed to think it’s all deep and ominous, but it’s a pretty fundamental question raised by any TV or movie reboot.
Nothing in these first two hours is exactly like the Fuller House characters each walking down the staircase or strolling in the front door to 30 seconds of hooting and hollering, but it’s not entirely different either. At the LA premiere, the audience gave each returning character a round of applause and nearly every entrance is designed to evoke a similar reaction from audiences at home or on social media. And once the returning characters appear, clock how many of their initial lines of dialogue contain references to new job titles, to children either nascent or non-existent when we left them last, or direct callbacks to things they said or did in the original series. Whether Lynch wants to mess with the lines between future and present and past, as he surely does, he’s not opposed to a little continuity.
The Fuller House brand of nostalgia is something along the lines of, “Look at how pretty and perky our characters are 15 years later and how precisely honed our comedic craft remains,” but Lynch’s brand of nostalgia is always more mixed up with a melancholic reflection on the past and loss. 25 years passing is a lot of time, and Lynch wants us to be shocked or moved when somebody has changed, whether it’s a new beard as a signifier for a character in a new line of work or weight packed onto a formerly gangly character as evidence of domesticity. There’s a reason so many of the original Twin Peaks cast members — so many of Lynch’s favorite movie performers, too — were actors with recognizable credits from years before. Lynch grooves on taking the familiar and sanding it down, eroding it, weathering it. Lynch also wants us to marvel when somebody hasn’t changed at all, as with Mädchen Amick’s Shelly. And he wants us to reflect on death, a mourning process that is organic whenever you return to the land of Laura Palmer, and which is unavoidable given how many cast members have passed since the original series and even since production began on the reboot.
Familiarity also brings humor. I can’t imagine audiences knowing how to respond to Richard Beymer and David Patrick Kelly as Benjamin and Jerry Horne if they haven’t watched previous episodes, but hearing their fraternal rhythms unchanged is funny. Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) gets at least one laugh from a line that’s a direct callback to the series, and others just because we know Lucy. Chuckles otherwise come from expected Lynchian disconnects, like the woman more concerned about her dinner party than her husband being charged with murder. I laughed a lot at these first two hours, a nice relief after Fire Walk With Me, which had too much misery on its mind to make room for mirth. I like my Lynch to include uncomfortable amusement.
TV is a quirkier place now than when Twin Peaks first premiered. Audiences are more accustomed to fits of surrealism and untrustworthy subjectivity in shows like Westworld or Mr. Robot or Fargo or The Leftovers. It would have been fair to wonder if Twin Peaks might look quaint in 2017. The most significant thing I can say by way of review when it comes to the start of Showtime’s new Twin Peaks isn’t really whether it’s good or bad, because I’m not there yet and the show’s past has taught me to be cautious. I also have a hard time reviewing things like performances, both because there are so many people who appear so fleetingly in these opening episodes and also because acting for David Lynch is such a peculiar thing, down to blinks and tilts of the head. The question, then, is whether Showtime’s Twin Peaks feels of a piece and whether it works. For the most part, so far it does.
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Richard Beymer, Kimmy Robertson, Michael Horse, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Jason Leigh and hundreds more.
Creators: David Lynch and Mark Frost
Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime. Premiered May 21.