The social justice crew (AKA: The new breed of TV critics)
Lynch has never been popular with social-justice-minded critics. His casts are overwhelmingly white and his heroines are often put-upon victims with a limited sense of agency. (The subtitle and conceit of his masterpiece Inland Empire: “A woman in trouble.”) No one has ever accused a Lynch work of being “woke.” Lynch himself appears like an antique from another time, shouty and broad in his performance style and creaky in his mysticism and open advocation of Transcendental Meditation. Even at the time, Fire Walk With Me was critically reviled for the way it centered Laura Palmer and her already-familiar story of abuse, torture and eventual murder at the hands of men, including her own father. For critics who demand that stories of women be “empowering,” Lynch’s films don’t frequently offer easy ways in.
As others have more eloquently noted, the rise of social consciousness and political point-scoring as a guiding principle for criticism and judging the merit of a work of art has hobbled a new generation of critics and limited the means by which we can appreciate pop culture. The overwhelming majority of popular critics are mainstream American liberals, and series that flatter their sensibilities are overwhelmingly likely to garner praise. Just look at the rapturous reception to Hulu’s totalitarian fantasia The Handmaid’s Tale, or the second season of Netflix’s doggedly laugh-free comedy Master of None, series that are praised more for the way their viewers can pat themselves on the back for their own enlightened attention to contemporary concerns than they are for any inherent aesthetic or formal qualities.
Lynch’s work (with the possible exception of The Elephant Man, a movie premised around the idea that the limits we place on empathy are arbitrary and inhumane) has always seemed to exist separately from worldly concerns, at least on the surface. Lynch’s films aren’t intellectual exercises reverse-engineered from a set of predetermined narrative or thematic goals. That’s absolutely not to say that one can’t wax intellectual about his work, as many have, but to say that, for instance, reading Ebert’s infamous pan of Blue Velvet is in no way an adequate substitute for actually watching it. In the same way, assailing Lynch for relying on images or tropes of violence against women is totally fair, but if you’re going to use that as a cudgel to beat his work with, you’re going to miss out on Sheryl Lee’s incredible work in Fire Walk With Me, bringing a character who’s always been viewed through others as an object to vivid life as a subject.
When Twin Peaks originally debuted, David Lynch was more or less a household name. Blue Velvet had scandalized the country and dazzled (most) critics, building on his expanding cachet following the underground success of Eraserhead, the flirtation with prestige acceptability with The Elephant Man, and the high-profile fiasco of Dune. He’d earned two Best Director nods at the Oscars, and his name became synonymous with a particular brand of surreal and poisoned yet strangely alluring Americana. ABC was able to cash in on his notoriety in order to produce a built-in audience, tuning in if only to see how far he’d be willing to push the network envelope.
Fast-forward to 2017. Major directors making their way to the small screen is now old hat – everyone from Jane Campion to Guillermo del Toro to Alfonso Cuarón (remember Believe?), among many, many others, have taken stabs at the medium. More importantly, there is no such thing as a “TV aesthetic” any more. Even on network TV, there’s a much broader palette at work than simple shot-reverse shot, from hyperviolent impressionism (Hannibal) to documentary and mockumentary (most single-camera comedies since The Office) to fossilized retakes on classic multi-camera comedy (NBC’s productively subversive The Carmichael Show).
Moreover, series from the canonical to the misbegotten have deployed imagery lazily classified as “Lynchian” for well over a decade now, from The Sopranos’ extended dream sequences to Legion’s primary-colour-dappled centerpieces. (If you really want a taste of the Lynchian on television, your best bets are probably the Adult Swim “infomercials” – yes, including Too Many Cooks, though Unedited Footage of a Bear gets even closer.) It’s been 16 years since a Lynch feature made its way to any kind of popular acclaim – Inland Empire was strictly for diehards – and in Lynch’s material absence from The Discourse(tm), the entire concept of what qualifies as Lynchian has eroded well astray from and below Lynch’s actual aesthetic core and capabilities. (And it certainly doesn’t help that the Beautiful Dead Girl trope, which Peaks helped to bring to a new level of ubiquity and seems likely to revive with the new season, has been overused in countless series and films in the intervening years.)
As the new Twin Peaks reunites Lynch and Frost for the first time since the original run (with the exception of the in-jokey oddity On the Air), it’s difficult to know whether the new season will truly represent, as Showtime’s David Nevins expressed, “pure, uncut” Lynch, or whether it will be some new form of productive compromise between Lynchian madness and the constraints of old-school network storytelling. What is clear is that much has transpired since the last time Lynch captured the popular imagination, and that contemporary audiences might very well not cotton to Lynch’s sensibility without a recent reference point.
The rest of us
So let’s say you’re familiar with the original run of Twin Peaks but you’re not overwhelmed with expectations, or you’re a Lynch newcomer but you’re open to new and unfamiliar aesthetic stimuli. How should you best enjoy the new episodes?
The only advice I can offer: fuck the zeitgeist and tune out the discourse as much as possible. (I wholeheartedly include my own thoughts in this roundup of folks whose opinions you should disregard.) Groupthink and superficial ideological readings dominate current TV and film criticism and choke our collective understanding and openness when it comes to taking art at face value and deriving valuable experiences from it, and it’s precisely this kind of viewing that will put viewers at a disadvantage when it comes to enjoying Lynch, whatever form the new season winds up taking.