Twin Peaks 2017: David Lynch At His Best, The Show At Its Worst
When Twin Peaks: The Return premiered, fans of the show who had been left angry, confused, and with an unresolved cliffhanger were delighted, because we’d finally get to find out what happened to the characters we grew to love: Audrey Horne, Hawk, Lucy & Andy, and, of course, Agent Dale Cooper. More than three months later, the 18-part epic wrapped up leaving its audience angry, confused, and with a (likely-to-be) unresolved cliffhanger.
If you are a fan of David Lynch and his style, this series is full of the things you love. If you are a fan of Twin Peaks, then this series is also full of the things you love, but barely resembles the source material and doesn’t treat what you love with much respect.
Twin Peaks: The Return is like if someone found your old family recipe for cherry pie and made it for you, but substituted the cherries for human eyeballs. From the outside, it looks like what you remember and what you want, but as soon as you look beneath the surface it’s horrifying and you end up losing your appetite.
Spoilers below the jump:
Before the show premiered, miles of digital column-inches were written discussing what a phenomenon this show was when it first aired in 1990. It was unlike anything on television, but it also was like everything on television at the time. It was a satire of prime-time soaps, murder procedurals, and small-town stories. This latest effort, however, is unlike anything on television now, eschewing satire for disjointed surrealism in lieu of a cohesive narrative structure.
The below tweet, which made me laugh for a full half-minute and makes me chuckle every time I think about it, both describes two specific developments from the last hour of the show and also, I think, captures the larger point about what fans of Twin Peaks wanted versus what David Lynch gave them.
I have watched all of David Lynch’s films (once), and I can see why people love them. His work is like visual poetry: it’s all symbols and imagery and if there’s a narrative in the thing, it’s definitely not the most important part of it. Yet, that’s not what made Twin Peaks culturally iconic nor what this particular fan of the series hoped to get from Lynch (and writer Mark Frost) in what was sold to audiences as an “an 18-part movie.”
I could write thousands of words detailing scenes and moments from the series that either met my expectations, exceeded them, disappointed me, and actually angered me. However instead, I want to focus on how this series may have borrowed names and actors from the first series, but none of what made it so special to so many people.
For example, one of the best relationships in the first run of the series was that of Agent Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, and Diane, the woman at the FBI who transcribed his reports. She was not a physical presence in the show, but rather was the person to whom Cooper spoke to in his mini-tape recorder. She was his confidante, friend, and (also) a mystery.
In The Return, Diane is played — quite brilliantly — by Laura Dern, and her character is savaged. First, she’s presented as a drunken, foul-mouthed woman with little-to-no sense of morality or human connection. She is also portrayed, briefly in the seventh episode and more fully in the 16th, as a victim of sexual assault (a common theme for this show). Then she is revealed to have been a “tulpa,” and the actual Diane was an Asian woman with no eyes and a mutilated face “because: magic.” Finally she’s revealed to be a version of the Dern character, who Cooper keeps making out with, has a weird sex scene with, and who then vanishes into the night calling herself “Linda.”
Objectively, this series featured a lot of Lynch’s finest work around his common themes: evil in banal places, “weird” folks, doppelgangers, questions about identity, questions about the nature of reality, and that we’re all just living in someone else’s dreams. The images on screen, the sound design that accompanied it, and the characters we meet all seemingly could only work in a Lynch film. But whatever Twin Peaks: The Return was, it wasn’t Twin Peaks.
Sure, some of the characters were the same and their stories continued admirably. Every second Dana Ashbrook’s Bobby Briggs was on-screen was a delight. Russ Tamblyn’s Dr. Jacoby (A.K.A. Dr. Amp) was a treat, having gone from a Leary-esque psychologist to full-blown internet talkshow host. Harry Goaz’s Deputy Andy and Kimmy Robertson’s Lucy were more cartoonish this time around, but still wonderful.
But what the series lacked overall was the sense of fun and excitement that fueled the first two seasons, dulling the horror and violence and giving the audience a home base — and a group of characters — to center themselves with in the story. That Kyle MacLachlan only played the version of Agent Cooper we were familiar with for a total of about 20 minutes in the full 18-hours is likely a large part of the reason why.
In this series, no one really smiled, at least not the way that Cooper did whenever the case got interesting or a clue presented itself. His wide-eyed enthusiasm, kindness, and willingness to follow the mystery wherever it went passed through the television screen and infected the audience. Not only was the audience for the Showtime series denied that from Cooper, there was no other character to fill that role (sorry, Gordon Cole).
So, in this new series whenever characters would brutally beat or murder women, it came off as misogynistic torture porn rather than what audiences saw in Twin Peaks or, for a more direct comparison, the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. There was also a lack of general human empathy that was present in the town during the original run. The people of Twin Peaks, even the handful of conniving villains, felt connected. The people in this latest season are either buffoons, bastards, or completely aloof, like Robert Forster’s Sheriff Truman standing in inexplicably for Michael Ontkean.
Perhaps, like Lynch, I am being a bit too dramatic. For what it’s worth, I watched every hour of the series (a few of them twice). There were moments that seemingly recaptured the fun and weirdness of the show, like the aforementioned Dr. Amp or David Patrick Kelly reprising his role as Jerry Horne. Instead of a slick-talking business man who likes to party, he now grows legal pot (the town of Twin Peaks is in Washington state, after all) spending most of his time lost in the woods, including the above scene where his foot lies to him.
There was, of course, Michael Cera’s turn as “Wally Brando,” Andy and Lucy’s son. However the two new characters who were the most “Twin Peaks” of the entire show were Rodney and Bradley Mitchum, two gangster brothers played Robert Knepper and Jim Belushi. They are bizarre, funny, but — as Agent Cooper notes — have “hearts of gold.”
There’s also a sequence in the last hour of the series that involves replaying three full scenes from Fire Walk With Me, that I don’t completely understand but felt like Twin Peaks to me. (Of course, when Sheryl Lee is on-screen playing a version of Laura Palmer, it doesn’t get more Twin Peaks than that.) Were these moments enough to overcome all the moments that didn’t feel like Twin Peaks? Perhaps.
While I studied at the University of Pittsburgh, the best piece of storytelling advice I received came from author Chuck Palahniuk during a lunch with students I was fortunate enough to attend. He said that you can tell an odd story or you can tell a story oddly, but it’s damn-near impossible to do both at the same time. However, David Lynch has made a career of it, and if that’s the story of visual narrative that you enjoy, Twin Peaks: The Return is likely a masterwork.
But for those in the audience who’s artistic appreciation is, arguably, stunted by nostalgia, the series will disappoint you. There’s Sherilynn Fenn’s Audrey Horne, who is either dead or committed and stuck in a waking nightmare. At one point in the finale, upstanding FBI Agent Dale Cooper walks into a person’s home, sees an obviously murdered man, and never mentions it once. This is so out-of-character it’s offensive. Donna Hayward, played both by Moira Kelly and Lara Flynn Boyle, was a central figure in the story who, I don’t think, was ever even mentioned. This show took beloved characters whose stories fans invested in and ignored or mistreated them in a way that feels like a deliberate “fuck you” from the creators to us for ever caring about them in the first place.
Still, inasmuch as a David Lynch project is a just a series of moments put together on film, this show had some great ones. Seeing the original Agent Cooper again for the first time (with that classic theme scoring the scene) elicited an actual out-loud cheer from me when it happened. This series also features the final performances of Miguel Ferrar as Albert, Catherine Coulson as Margaret “the Log Lady” Lanterman, and Warren Frost, who played Doc Hayward. Each moment these actors are on-screen feels like a gift and, for those of us who only really knew them as these imaginary people, a chance to say “goodbye” to them.
Throughout these 18-hours, I’ve been angry, disappointed, but (inevitably) roped back into the story. I don’t know if I will watch it again (and if I do, it will be on a service that better handles skipping ahead than Showtime’s online player). Still, even though I didn’t love it like I hoped I would, I don’t regret watching it.
It wraps up enough of the Twin Peaks mythology that the overall story feels more complete (though that last hour was confusing and maybe undid all that, literally). Also, my conflicted feelings about the state of the show does what all good art is supposed to do: leave it’s audience feeling unexpected emotions and questioning things. Perhaps that’s all there is to it.
What do you think? Share your thoughts or reactions in the comments below.
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