It’s happening again

To screen returneth: Director David Lynch (left) and actor Kyle MacLachlan at the screening of Twin Peaks at the 70th Cannes film festival

To screen returneth: Director David Lynch (left) and actor Kyle MacLachlan at the screening of Twin Peaks at the 70th Cannes film festival   -  Reuters

Twenty-five years after its last episode aired, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks is back — and is, unsurprisingly, one of the best shows going around

If you’ve watched the first four hours of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks revival, you know that Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) has spent most of this time looking very, very disoriented. Almost as if he had seen a ghost. Or, you know, sat through back-to-back viewings of Dune. And why shouldn’t he? In the second season of the show — 25 years ago, in case you had forgotten — the Giant (played by the lurching Carel Struycken) had consoled Cooper in his own way: “That gum you like is going to come back in fashion.” The late, lamented Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) had appeared in THE Red Room (no, I will not acknowledge the existence of another) and promised him: “I’ll see you in another 25 years”. Well, here we are now, Lynch. Entertain us?

Definitely, defiantly Lynchian

In April 1990, Twin Peaks, created by Lynch and Frost, premièred on ABC. It was billed as a murder mystery with some supernatural elements — for the first one-and-a-half seasons, the primary storyline involved the murder of Laura, a beautiful, troubled teenager from the one-horse lumber town of Twin Peaks, and its investigation, headed by Agent Cooper and aided by Sheriff Harry S Truman (Michael Ontkean) and his deputy Hawk (Michael Horse). Soon, both Cooper and Laura’s psychic mother Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) receive visions that convince Cooper of a possessing spirit called Killer Bob (Frank Silva) being responsible for Laura’s death.

Slowly but surely, we were shown the unpacked lives of long-time Twin Peaks residents such as Leo (Eric Da Re) and Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick), James Hurley (James Marshall), Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), Colonel Garland Briggs (Don S Davis), Catherine and Pete Martell (Piper Laurie and long-time Lynch favourite Jack Nance, respectively), and so on. As the investigation into Laura’s murder grows murkier, so do these lives — nobody is quite what they seem to be, and many have harboured deadly secrets for years.

Superficially, it felt like something out of an Algernon Blackwood story: in particular, the time-honoured weird fiction trope of nature as metaphor for the unknown/unknowable, and the fear it inspires. The woods outside Twin Peaks are, after all, the stage for the real action in the show; by the end of the second season, both real and metaphorical curtains are parted in the middle of the forest. This becomes all the more clear when a city slicker like Cooper is instantly enchanted by the greenery, reacting like a besotted child when told the trees are mostly ‘Douglas firs’.

However, where Twin Peaks is unique is in its peculiar mixture of Americana (Dr Jakoby’s red-and-blue glasses, the beauty pageant, every on-screen second of Heather Graham), screwball comedy (Lucy and Officer Andy) and that special quality we now call Lynchian — what you’d feel like in a world of body horror, stock images, cosmic intuition and mirrors (lots and lots of mirrors). Non sequiturs fly overhead even as you’re checking out the scenery. Remember, the very first line in Twin Peaks is Pete Martell saying, to nobody in particular, “The lonesome fog-horn blows.” (And let’s not even begin with the phonetically reversed speech.)

Before Twin Peaks, in fact, Lynch’s career had been a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. His debut film, Eraserhead, shot on a shoestring budget, would become one of the more influential horror films of the last 50 years. Elephant Man was an earnestly made, surprisingly accessible biopic. But the cracks were beginning to show. Lynch’s indulgence, his over-reliance on pop-cultural parody and his growing reputation for being a producer’s nightmare — these three elements combined to make Dune (which starred MacLachlan and, for some reason we’re yet to fathom, Sting) a spectacularly bad film. This was a crying shame not only because of Lynch’s obvious talent, but also because the source novel is regularly cited as one of the greatest works of speculative fiction. In the end, the film was released with ‘Alan Smithee’ as the director; this is a common pseudonym used by directors who are unhappy with the way their films have turned out, generally due to a clash of vision between director and producer. Prior to the release of Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet was the only truly Lynchian masterpiece in existence.

After Twin Peaks, however, every single thing he has made is instantly recognisable as a Lynch film (look at Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire or the Twin Peaks prequel Fire Walk With Me). And isn’t that the very definition of an auteur?

The idiot (box) savants

Critic Uday Bhatia recently wrote that without Twin Peaks, there would be no ‘prestige TV’ auteurs like Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) or David Chase (The Sopranos). This is correct in more ways than one.

First, Twin Peaks proved that long-form storytelling on television could steer clear of clichés, pitfalls that would blunt the sharpest of plots. The Laura Palmer case was a ripping murder mystery, first and foremost. All the supernatural stuff with Killer Bob and his one-armed accomplice Mike notwithstanding, watching Cooper and Truman do their thing was deeply satisfying. Their pairing (an eccentric detective mellows down, a boring almost-cop gets a life) would gain spiritual descendants down the years, such as the American Watson-and-Holmes duo in Elementary, to cite a recent example. Cooper’s eccentricities would become legendary: the coffee-and-pie habit especially.

Second, Twin Peaks basically wrote the playbook for the slow-burning American small-town mystery. Where you see Stranger Things, I see Twin Peaks discovering the Predator films at a Stephen King conclave. Where you see True Detective season one, I see Twin Peaks with hallucinogens and the complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche thrown in. Even Childish Gambino improbably described his show Atlanta as “Twin Peaks with rappers”. (Imma let you finish, Child, but that shit was weak as f***, you hear me?).

Finally, Twin Peaks set the benchmark for visual innovation in television. To all those hyperventilating over Legion and its endlessly inventive nightmare visuals, I say just this: Lynch was here first. The Red Room — which, I have to say, I cried upon seeing again — was just superbly shot, at least 10 years ahead of its time. As are the claustrophobic shots of Killer Bob indoors, like his legendary first appearance, hiding behind a bed. The first four hours of the third season push the envelope further.

The revival

The weight of expectations could easily have weighed down the Twin Peaks revival. Lynch and Frost, however, pick up right where they left us, in the Red Room. And it feels like we were never away. The Black Lodge’s mysteries resume. Mike’s evil arm, which was cut off and became ‘The Man From Another Place’ (the superb Michael J Anderson), has evolved into… a brain, with arboreal branches supporting it. The long-suffering Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Breaking Bad) is now Sheriff Truman (a different one). Agent Cooper and his doppelgänger are alive and well (almost). Andy and Lucy have married, and Michael Cera, playing their son Brando, delivers a sensational cameo that goes beyond comic relief. Hurley is still cool: the still-ravishing Shelly (Amick’s body language is an all-too-brief masterclass in character continuity) informs us that following a bike accident, he has gone “real quiet”. The Horner brothers remain brotherly; one or both of them may well be horny still.

The new mystery, meanwhile, is an old one with new accessories. We are still not sure about the Black Lodge/White Lodge gateways and what exactly are the rules that govern entities like the Giant, Mike or Bob. But we do know that Cooper has come back to us, and that a mysterious, as-yet unknown billionaire has something to do with this. Minutes before Cooper returns, he (or a vision of him) manifests inside a special machine guarded by the billionaire’s flunkies. Meanwhile, a fornicating couple, unaware of the machine’s power, is hacked to death by something — or someone — who emanates from the machine (I was hoping that the jaw-dropping Madeline Zima would have a longer run on the show, but... oh, well).

There’s more phonetically reversed speech, there’s a ladder that reaches outer space (yes), there are long, lingering shots of machines slicing and dicing (remember the lumber mill shots from the first season?), there is some fairly gross vomiting and there is a lot of evil Cooper. Add to the mix a brilliant Naomi Watts and Lynch himself in fine form (as the partially deaf FBI agent Gordon Cole), and you have a winner.

In one of the Giant’s advisory speeches to Cooper, he began by saying “It’s happening again,” slowly, deliberately, with an aggrieved expression. That moment was a microcosm of what Twin Peaks is really all about — that uncanny part inside all of us, which knows not just our secrets and our fears, but also all that we can stoop to, if given the right Bob-shaped nudge.

For now, I suggest you knock back a cup of coffee, maybe grab some cherry pie and drive back down that Douglas fir-lined highway.

Published on June 09, 2017

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