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The new Twin Peaks is beautiful, terrifying, hilarious, and frustrating

This article discusses imagery and “plot” elements from the first four episodes, the last two of which (discussed here only vaguely) are currently available from on-demand streaming services and will air on Showtime next weekend. However, only one section of this article specifically mentions material from Episodes 3 and 4 in any detail, and it has a separate spoiler warning. Really, though, the term “spoilers” doesn’t really apply here and I’m mildly embarrassed to even use it.

“Odd reverberations.”

One of the quirks of watching the new Twin Peaks episodes on the streaming service CraveTV (one of the two ways you can catch it in Canada) is that whenever you pause, then resume the action, the closed captioning turns on. This wouldn’t even be worth mentioning, except that this particular caption – odd reverberations – offered maybe the best way to begin talking about these episodes: this is emphatically not the series you remember, and perhaps just rewatched. This is Twin Peaks (2017), not Twin Peaks, Season 3.

And yet…every so often, there are those reverberations.

In its first four hours, the new Twin Peaks already feels very much like a culminating work, a dense mix of old and new ideas, with apparent references to old Lynch works (not just Twin Peaks) bumping uglies with entirely new concepts and effects. Even the elements that should be a comfort – the return of Kyle MacLachlan’s Dale Cooper, for instance – are delivered in messy new forms that seem to act as distancing agents, keeping us from getting too comfortable. The original series had a cocoon-like effect; this new series, by contrast, is sprawling and oblong, jutting out in every possible direction. Some of it is brilliant, some of it is infuriating, and much of the what remains is just completely baffling. In that sense, it’s very much the natural heir to the original series: this isn’t a nostalgia trip, but instead something that feels as alien to the current TV landscape as the original series must have on ABC in 1990.

To the extent that this new Twin Peaks evokes the old one, it’s amplified. The goofy bits are goofier, the surreal imagery is much stranger and more prominent, the scenes of banal dialogue are longer and even harder to glean any tangible meaning from, and the attempts at both humor and horror are more overt than we’re accustomed to (generally speaking; the original run, of course, featured plenty of goofiness, as well as some abject terror).

It’s when the new Twin Peaks leans into its extremities that it’s most compelling. We get plenty of time in the mythical Red Room, for instance, and these sequences manage not to feel out of step with those in the original despite the unusually legible writing (the use of familiar idioms like “two birds with one stone” rings particularly false), but it’s when the room’s famous curtains begin to bob and waver, and the room itself begins to burble and come apart, giving way to an entirely new, more radical class of imagery, that the show feels like it’s truly embracing its legacy. After all, in 1990, Twin Peaks didn’t feel like, well, Twin Peaks, as we appreciate it now – its reputation hadn’t been established and its future icons were just images. It’s only fitting that these new episodes should leave us aghast – whether in awe, in bafflement, or just in annoyance.

Perhaps the most alienating factor for original series fans will be the persistent chilliness. Much of these four episodes takes place well beyond the boundaries of Twin Peaks, WA, and in spreading the action out to North Dakota, New York, and even Las Vegas, Lynch and Mark Frost (who co-wrote the new scripts) leave behind much of the sentimental sheen of the old series. The sequence in the first episode which a pair of lovers (Ben Rosenfield and Madeleine Zima) are brutally slaughtered by a shadowy force has a viciousness even beyond the stuff of “Lonely Souls,” more dispassionate. Angelo Badalamenti’s music cues, which provided a pillowy undercurrent for basically the entire original series, is deployed much more sparingly here, replaced by long bouts of cold silence or comparatively blank, character-free drones. Most cruelly of all, the violence, and in particular the violence against women, is deployed in a more cavalier fashion. Heads get severed and blown off, in one instance with the wound still smoking, with none of the tragic weight of the sad fates of Laura Palmer or her cousin Maddy. These moments of violence and terror seem to be more commonplace, even banal events in this darker new world.

Crucially, though, the new Peaks isn’t entirely callous, though much of its warmth is dependent on the returning characters. (Reverberations, remember?) The scenes of Margaret, aka the Log Lady (Catherine Coulson) calling in to provide intel to now-Deputy Chief Hawk (Michael Horse) are quietly heartbreaking, charged as they are by Coulson’s apparent frailty. (Coulson died of complications from cancer in September of 2015.) Our first glimpses of Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabirskie), Shelley (Mädchen Amick), James (James Marshall), and Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) effortlessly trade on our emotional connection to these characters – yes, even James. If anything, Marshall, based on his brief appearance in Episode 2, is a more interesting screen presence at 50 than he was at 25. The Roadhouse sequence at the end of the second episode that reintroduces us to several of those characters is one of the few times that it feels like Lynch and Frost giving us the sort of material fans might reasonably pine for – and coming as it does after nearly two hours of insanity, it’s a sequence of remarkable relief, warmth, and romance, complete with Chromatics (whose entire shtick is essentially “ersatz Lynch”) doing their best Julee Cruise, and doing a fine job of it. 

**Episodes 3 and 4 are explicitly referenced here.**

Not everything with the returning characters works and these scenes perhaps expose some weaknesses in the current Lynch/Frost dynamic. Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) seems to have caught Andy’s (Harry Goaz) overt idiocy in the intervening years, and seeing her character written as a technophobic klutz who passes out in the presence of cell phones is a bit of a drag. (These scenes almost work as a meta commentary on the new series’ reluctance to embrace and incorporate the technological advances of the last 25 years, but they wind up feeling more like a joke purely at Lucy’s expense.)

Indeed, while I warned last week of the perils of putting too much stock in social-justice readings/criticisms of Lynch’s work, it’s tough to deny that the new Peaks betrays from time to time that it’s very much the work of two older white men. For now, at least, most of the women we spend time with in this Twin Peaks are very much objects and victims, with a few notable exceptions (Jane Adams’ forensics expert, Naomi Watts’ heightened domestic parody). Unfortunately, this dynamic is most evident in scenes featuring Lynch himself as Deputy Director Gordon Cole – not because of Lynch’s actual performance, but because of the groanworthy sexual dynamics at play within this updated cartoon rendition of the FBI. While the return of David Duchovny as Denise Bryson (who’s been given more authority this time around, but notably does not have her title reflected in the credits, unlike her male counterparts) is welcome, the Cole/Bryson sequence is just as much of a minefield as one would expect – for every decent moment (Cole referencing his solidarity with her and having told their peers to “fix their hearts or die”), there’s a dull joke about hormones. It’s predictable, but still a bit disappointing, that even as the series pushes boundaries for visual storytelling, it remains cornily retrograde in other ways.

Worse still (and the overall nadir of these four episodes) is the material around Agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell). Both Albert (the late, great Miguel Ferrer) and Lynch’s camera ogle her with uncharacteristically transparent sleaze, and Bell’s almost unbelievably flat performance doesn’t help. Bell, who’s collaborated with Lynch on music but doesn’t appear to be a trained actor, comes across as totally out of her depth here, which is doubly concerning since it suggests that Lynch may have lost his gift for placing unconventional or inexperienced people in appropriate roles.

**End of overt spoilers.**

Thankfully, Lynch still has plenty of other gifts intact, most crucially his facilities for unforgettable imagery, oddball humor, and, maybe most crucially of all, his humanity. The Cooper sequence that closes the second episode and continues into the opening of the third contains some of the most daring visuals of any Lynch work, alternating between moments of breathtaking beauty and a return to the tactile junkheap of Eraserhead. A scene in the fourth episode featuring a very recognizable actor in a surprise role is definitely among the funniest in any Lynch work, period. Most promisingly, though, the series still clings to the original series’ reverence for human life even amidst the ramped-up violence and absurdity. Besides the Coulson scenes, Bobby’s appearance in the fourth episode and Robert Forster’s nicely weary Sheriff Truman make clear that goodness and nostalgia still have a place within Twin Peaks’ geographical bounds. Even the plight of poor Bill Hastings (an unexpectedly prominent Matthew Lillard) registers as not completely dispassionate, pitched somewhere between the fate of Leland Palmer and the strange journey of Fred Madison in Lost Highway. Despite the sprawl and the odd angles of entrance, the new Peaks still manages to come across as a human story.

White this Peaks is less performance and dialogue-driven than the original series or the film, many sequences do rest on the capable shoulders of Kyle MacLachlan, who actually plays multiple roles (doubly amusing since, even more than before, this has an absolutely immense cast, including quite a few recognizable faces not yet worth mentioning) and is the only actor to get top credits billing. Thankfully, he’s great, even though we have yet to spend any time with the Cooper we know and love. What most stands out about the aged McLachlan compared to his younger screen self is the newfound sonorousness of his voice – a quality that comes in particularly handy for a very unsettling sequence in the fourth episode. Indeed, one of the rare pleasures of this new season is the fact that everyone is so damned old. Ben and Jerry Horne (Richard Beymer and David Patrick Kelly), Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn, spray-painting shovels gold, as one does), Lynch and Ferrer, and others – all are way over TV and film’s median age, and there’s a distinct thread about infirmity and failing bodies and minds that seem destined to run through the entire season. It’s telling that, even in the Red Room and in the constellation of ambiguous spaces that orbit it, there’s no stopping the march of time – even the mighty Giant (Carel Struycken) is looking gaunt, and it’s not for nothing that each episode is dedicated to a fallen cast member.

For the handful of sequences that don’t work and new flourishes and storytelling decisions that aren’t entirely convincing yet, this first volley of new Peaks at least confirms that Lynch and Frost had absolutely no desire or concerns towards realizing any vision but their own: as a result, this iteration is unlikely to make anyone entirely happy. For all of its references to the original run, this new Peaks is very much its own beast, operating on its own rhythms. As one might reasonably expect, it feels much closer in character and style to Mulholland Dr. and especially Inland Empire for long stretches. Four hours in, it still feels like folly to try to guess at what the other 14 will bring – almost as much so as it was before any of it aired at all. Like it or not, that’s the best of all possible worlds.

Written By

Simon is a sometimes writer and podcaster living in Toronto.

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