Showtime’s reboot of Twin Peaks is David Lynch unleashed. Mark Frost, who tethered the art-house director’s gnomic vision to the narrative imperatives of network television in the 1990s, has a much lighter touch on the reins this time around. The flowering of premium cable over the past decade-and-a-half has proven there’s an audience for television that breaks the traditional molds that once ruled the medium. But what about a showrunner who melts the new molds down and refashions them into Möbius strip?
Lynch has directed all 18 episodes of the new Twin Peaks (as opposed to six of the 30 episodes in the original two seasons). The first two episodes aired on Showtime on Sunday night, and the third and forth are also streaming on Showtime’s web site and app. From the opening shots, the series has the stretched-out rhythm of a Lynch film: dialogue scenes full of long pauses and repetitions, techniques that at first feel stilted then inexorably reshape your sense of how a story can unfold on screen. If you squirm at an early scene that lavishes almost a full minute on a man unpacking shovels from a cardboard carton, by the time Lynch devotes three minutes to the same man methodically spray-painting the shovels gold, the pacing seems just right, even though you still have no idea what he’s up to. (Besides, he’s Russ Tamblyn’s Dr. Jacoby, back again with those mismatched sunglasses!)
At the end of the second season, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) promised Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) that they’d meet again in 25 years. That’s just what they do, in the red-curtained parlor with the herringbone-tiled floors that may or may not be the Black Lodge. (Some superfans insist that this room is merely an antechamber.) The same solemn giant who appeared to Cooper in the original series returns to offer cryptic prophecies and instructions to listen to scratchy noises emitted by a Victrola. “It is in our house now” is one of his more ominous pronouncements. Meanwhile, Evil Coop is at large in our world, sporting a Waylon Jennings hair cut, a leathery tan, a snakeskin-patterned shirt, and a dead-eyed stare. The only thing he could ever be up to is no good, and he pursues his obscure plots with a coldly proficient violence. When he reproaches one of his low-life associates—a fabulous slattern who lives in a corrugated metal shack with an overall-clad geek and a figure in a wheelchair you can’t quite see—for the ineptitude of the hoodlum she posted on guard duty, she shrugs and says, “It’s a world of truck drivers.”
There appear to be three main plots in the new season. One concerns Good Cooper’s efforts to leave the limbolike place he has inhabited for the past quarter of a century. (As far as his former associates are concerned, he vanished off the face of the earth shortly after the events of the second season concluded. Viewers know that he was possessed by the evil entity known as Bob.) According to Laura, to accomplish this, Bob, who has hijacked Cooper’s body, must be forced back into the Black Lodge. Evil Cooper is seeking some unspecified “information” that he’s perfectly willing to kill to secure. At the same time, the authorities in South Dakota attempt to solve a freakish murder, the corpse unveiled in a scene reminiscent of Mulholland Drive. Even in the age of gross-out procedurals, no one is better than Lynch at conveying the alien quality of dead bodies, their bleak, impenetrable privacy.
Quite a few of the old gang return: Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) is as dotty as ever and Andy (Harry Goaz) as dim, only now they have a 24-year-old son (Michael Cera, in a scene-stealing turn toward the end of Episode 4). Hawk (Michael Horse), now deputy chief of police in Twin Peaks, gets a call from the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson, in her final role before her death from cancer in 2015). He must dig up the old Laura Palmer case files, she tells him, and look for something missing, something to do with Agent Cooper. The atmospheric flourishes are back, too. Chic bands that play whispery dream music inexplicably perform at the local honky-tonk. There are luxuriant shots of Douglas firs roiling in the wind, lonesome railroad crossings, and small pools of flashlight glow skidding over tree branches and brambles. Lights flicker and electrical outlets buzz. When a character, in desperation, vigorously runs his fingers through his hair, the soundtrack captures every tiny rustle and squeak.
The new Twin Peaks is less bustling and gossipy than its predecessor. There are fewer notable minor characters, even though the action sprawls from the Midwest and Las Vegas to New York City, where a young man has been hired by parties unknown to watch a big glass box for hours on end, waiting for something to appear inside. In Vegas, a seemingly powerful executive is asked by his assistant, “Why do you let him make you do these things?” and replies, “You better hope you never get involved with someone like him.” Lynch has always favored a brooding, inward-looking perspective, which can make his films seem claustrophobic even as they enthrall. The earlier version of Twin Peaks vamped on the prime-time soaps popular at that time and filled in around the central mystery of Laura’s death with comic and dramatic subplots about intrigue at the Packard mill and Benjamin Horne’s real-estate development schemes as well as at least two romantic triangles. This business lightened the mood, but it could also be tiresome and formulaic.
Above all, the new Twin Peaks is gloriously trippy, including a long sequence in which Cooper (the good one) struggles through a serious of obstacles, drifting in a staticky limbo, trying to understand the frantic warnings of an eyeless woman, and gazing out over a vast purple ocean. The Arm—an otherworldly manifestation of the severed limb of a onetime shoe salesman returning from the original series—has evolved into a writhing, electrified tree with a fetal lump of a head. The camera tracks from a character weeping in the county jail to another cell where a man with white staring eyes in a face blackened by filth fades into a wispy phantom and vanishes. “Have you ever seen this?” Evil Cooper demands of a terrorized woman, showing her an ace of spades playing card where the central spade has been replaced by a strange black blob with tiny dangling tentacles. “This is what I WANT!” (This ought to be ridiculous, but Lynch makes the card seem like a frightful abomination.)
If this new Twin Peaks were the work of an unknown director or even just Lynch’s first foray into the medium, it would probably be dismissed as too weird and cryptic, a bit like David Milch’s post-Deadwood flop, John From Cincinnati. But Lynch has a track record. He’s launched us on so many wild roller-coaster rides through the human psyche, and while the new incarnation of this series will surely attract criticism from those who think Lynch ventures too far off the beaten path, plenty of us have learned to climb aboard and trust him, no matter what bizarre turns the car takes or how seedy the scenery gets. This isn’t the fusion of art-house sensibility with mainstream entertainment that many viewers expect from Twin Peaks; it’s basically an 18-hour David Lynch film whose viewers have a big head start on the backstory. For those who can get comfortable with all the director’s imponderables, the series’ spell soon becomes immersive. This may not be the Twin Peaks we grew up with, exactly, the show that changed television forever by proving how far the medium could reach. Instead, it’s the Twin Peaks we’ve grown into, the one we’re finally ready for, wherever it plans to take us.