How Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’ Reinvented Television (Again)

David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” capped an extraordinary experiment.

A mystery that began decades ago, in which Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) ascended to the town of Twin Peaks to investigate the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee), made a belated, glorious return.

Twenty-five years after Lynch’s groundbreaking blend of mystery, light-hearted comedy and vivid horror ended its 1990-1991,both Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost, as well as nearly every original cast member, came back for a belated encore. It was a lavish risk on the part of Showtime, which aired the 18-part oddity. What it amounted to wasn’t a simple re-hash or easy to describe.

Lynch’s 18-hour movie is unlike anything else on television since the original incarnation.

A brief recap: Cooper has spent the past 25 years of his life trapped in The Black Lodge, an alternate world that is outside the known universe. As Cooper struggles to escape, his evil doppelganger is running a mysterious criminal operation.

Once Cooper is finally unleashed from The Black Lodge, he re-emerges as a simple-minded insurance agent, named Dougie Jones, who has supernatural abilities. As new and familiar faces expand the themes and scope of the story, the question of “Who Killed Laura Palmer” is now a quaint, distant puzzle.

In its place is Whatever Happened to Agent Cooper and, most vitally, “What Year Is It?”

Twin Peaks: The Story Before Season 3

The show that kept me enthralled as a young man once again wrapped its gorgeous velvet red curtain around me and didn’t let go. There’s much to say about the staggering achievement that is “Twin Peaks- The Return,” but first, a message from The Log.

When I was a 13-year old “Twin Peaks” addict, I used to hold a log while I watched the series. No, I’m not trying to begin this piece in a self-consciously “weird” manner. As many know, a famous character on “Twin Peaks” is The Log Lady, a kindly middle-aged woman who had a psychic connection to her wooden log. She’d cradle it, carry it around like a cat and declare messages “my log told me.”

After becoming a full-on “Peak Freak” and having no Internet or fan club to turn to, I’d view the show in a way to show my devotion. Perhaps it was early cos-playing or the ’90s equivalent of watching “Davy Crockett” with a coonskin cap. Whatever it was, I’d clutch a log as I watched every episode because, well…I was a “Peak Freak” and I supposed that was what a super fan of the show would do.

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The early days of the show created a phrase that became a household term: it was a “water cooler show,” meaning work colleagues would discuss it at their office job while waiting in line to refill their water mugs.

Well, I didn’t have a job, let alone a water cooler, in 1990 and knew no one at my school who cared at all about Lynch, surrealism or and that nightly serialized dramas were about to be forever changed.

There were “Peaks”-related products I could find, like an audio tape of Special Agent Dale Cooper’s reports to “Diane” or Jennifer Lynch’s book, “The Secret Life of Laura Palmer,” which, of all things, offered an explanation of female masturbation (thanks again, Jennifer Lynch!).

Yet, being a “Peaks Freak” was lonely at first, especially when the often great but inconsistent second season cooled the show’s reign as TV’s Next Big Thing. A year after the second season concluded with its horrifying final reveal, Lynch unveiled “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” a maddening, brutal prequel film.

While “Fire Walk With Me” gets better every year and offers the Lynchian doses of imagery both gorgeous and terrifying, it further alienated die-hards and burned the goodwill of newcomers. All these years later, pop culture has not only never forgotten “Twin Peaks” but time has caught up favorably with it. Even the once-ridiculed “Fire Walk With Me” is now a beloved cult film.

A big question “Twin Peaks: The Return” raises in the opening moments is, who is this for? Seeing this unfamiliar with what came before it just won’t work (unless take-it-or-leave-it surrealism is your thing). What this demands of its viewers is having seen seasons 1-2 and a viewing of “Fire Walk With Me,” in that order. The uninitiated may balk but the faithful have been rewarded with one of the definitive, most ambitious and consistently satisfying works of Lynch’s career.

A very big reason to be excited about “Twin Peaks: The Return” and see it (either for the first or sixth time) when it comes on Blu-ray: Lynch has gone back to narrative filmmaking.

Whereas Lynch’s extraordinary cinematic nightmares “Lost Highway,” “Mulholland Dr.” and “INLAND EMPIRE” began with a cohesive set-up then tumbled down the rabbit hole for the remainder of the running time, his new “Twin Peaks” comes with a sprawling, complex new story with a three act structure. Lynch and Frost have created a vast mythos that merits audience exploration and matches any cinematic “universe.”

Lynch’s prior works, “Sunset Boulevard” and especially “Being There” (with Dougie Jones acting as a simple, innocent sponge to society around him, in the same way Peter Sellers’ Chance did in the Hal Ashby film) are the clear inspirations.

Otherwise, nothing in this third season is familiar or routine, which is very, very good thing. If “Twin Peaks” brought surrealism into the mainstream (arguably as profoundly as Tim Burton did during the same era), then “Twin Peaks: The Return” is impressively, defiantly “weird” in a way post-“Peaks” works like “American Gods,” “The Walking Dead,” “Lost” and “The Leftovers” could only dream of.

There are too many great scenes and surprising performances to cite but here’s a few: The third episode (or “part,” as Lynch insists they be referred to) has a breathtaking, playful bout of experimental filmmaking that hearkens back to Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” So does the astonishing eighth installment, a nod to both “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Tree of Life.”

There’s also the “Mr. Jackpots” sequence, all the corporate parodies with Dougie at work, the terrifying sequence with the glass box and, hands down, the greatest arm wrestling scene ever filmed (sorry, “Over The Top,” but your reign has ended). In addition to MacLachlan giving life to three astonishing performances, Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, Dana Ashbrook, Sheryl Lee, Amanda Seyfried and even James Belushi give excellent performances.

Nothing in this third season is familiar or routine, which is very, very good thing.Click To Tweet

As it currently stands as a whole, “Twin Peaks” is no longer about the death of a teenager but how time can allow us to dig deep, rediscover and reconfigure ourselves. Lynch is urging us to not allow evil to numb us into detached complacency,  keeping us buttoned up. Lynch has removed the teenage martyr status of Laura Palmer and allowed her story to be one of reinvention. Some may argue that “Twin Peaks: The Return” softens the tragic core of the series but Lynch hasn’t cheapened or chickened out.

Lynch and Frost bring us to a conclusion that is terrifying yet full of possibilities. The creators have moved past the Norman Rockwell facade of the American Dream and gone straight into Rod Serling territory. Indeed, the final moments are blood chilling but thought provoking in a manner Serling would have loved (and possibly envied).

If anything, the jolt of horror that “Twin Peaks: The Return” ends on is reminiscent of how most nightmares conclude with an halting image of horror. Knowing Lynch’s work, that was probably the idea. Consider the amusing sequence depicting Agent Cole’s “Monica Belucci dream,” in which the actress (gamely playing herself) asks the question of “Who is the dreamer?” Although the answer is presumably narrative-driven, the dreamer in plain view is Lynch…and us.

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