[I]f you needed an idea of just how weird and tangled the legacy of Twin Peaks has become in 2017, there was plenty of evidence on display at a sold-out screening of Fire Walk With Me at the Royal Cinema in Toronto this week. Donuts and coffee were on offer, a few moviegoers showed up in costume, and, most puzzlingly, two burlesque routines were specifically devised to accompany the screening. (This wasn’t even the first Twin Peaks burlesque event to hit TO this year.) The event’s organizer and host, Alicia Fletcher, introduced the routines and the film with a sort of trigger warning about the film’s explicit, prolonged depictions of rape and murder, before wryly announcing that it was time to bring on the strippers. (Fletcher speaks to the choice to combine Fire Walk With Me and burlesque in this interview.) Watching a burlesque performer hump a log to the tune of an amusingly edited version of “The Power of Love” (with each instance of “man” replaced with, well, “log”) while donut-downing patrons – myself included – waited to subject ourselves to the movie’s onslaught of terror and sexual violence offered a handy synecdoche of what it feels like to be a Twin Peaks fan with even a slight modicum of self-awareness.
Things won’t get any simpler when Twin Peaks returns, this time all helmed by David Lynch and presented sans network restrictions on Showtime. When it premiered in the early 90s, the TV fan and criticism landscape was very different – despite what Showtime’s promos would have you believe, there was definitely precedent for movie auteurs making the journey to television (from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which the master of suspense himself directed 17 episodes of, all the way to Michael Mann’s involvement with Miami Vice), and yes, there was plenty of precedent for TV shows acting as major cultural touchstones, but Twin Peaks helped to reshape the concept of televisual fandom and speculation. Twin Peaks laid the groundwork for the TV-show-as-fan-universe dynamic that The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer would go on to greatly expand upon and diversify, and now it’s returning to be judged by the fan and critic culture it helped to spawn.
Sight unseen, the new season faces an uphill battle. Twin Peaks’ third season has many masters to sate, and inevitably some will come away disappointed with the offering. In an attempt to prefigure the hot takes that seem inevitable to arise, I have attempted to categorize the most obvious grievances by audience segment.
Twin Peaks fans
While Twin Peaks is generally thought of as Lynch’s (and co-creator Mark Frost’s) child, the nature of a network TV show demands collaboration, and the original run of Twin Peaks sometimes struggled to reconcile the gaps between the imaginations and abilities of Lynch’s collaborators and Lynch himself. Even very capable directors – including Lesli Linka Glatter (who went on direct series-best episodes of Mad Men and Homeland, among many others) and Tim Hunter (The River’s Edge) – sometimes struggled with the more obviously surreal elements of the series and deploying them effectively, as well as having to juggle those elements with the series’ many goofy subplots and characters. Indeed, Peaks’ status as both a send-up of and loving homage to soaps essentially demanded that it devote much of its screentime to criminal conspiracies, love triangles, and other salacious banalities that exist far from the iconic imagery and characters that linger in the popular imagination.
The new Twin Peaks seems unlikely to operate on the same rhythms. This time around, Frost and Lynch wrote a 400-page tome of a script, which Lynch then directed in its entirety, divvied up into 18 episodes. With no mediating force (beyond Showtime’s reportedly modest notes process) or creative restraints, it seems unlikely that the new season will spend quite as much of its time devoted to the less-fondly remembered plot aspects of the original run. That said, the tension between the sillier aspects of the show and the grim case at its heart was what drew many to forge such a strong association with it, and that kind of push-pull tonality may be absent with Lynch more strongly at the helm. The non-involvement of a few key players (most notably Michael Ontkean and Lara Flynn Boyle) is likely to sting for original-run fanatics, as well. Most importantly, it’s been two and a half decades since Lynch has waded in these waters, and even the small glimpses we’ve gotten of the new season (to say nothing of the intimidating new cast list) indicates that something not altogether very much like the often-cutesy preceding series is likely to emerge. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
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.
- Simon Howell