TV Review: David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’

David Lynch returns to the small screen in Showtime's reboot, which confounds and indulges but still communicates astonishing vision

The stature of “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch’s two-season surreal murder mystery that ran on ABC in the early ‘90s, is such that its modern-day reboot almost defies interpretation. Showtime’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” picks up the story of Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) 25 years later, and attempts to be an homage, a sequel, and a standalone story. The unique nature of this revival is overshadowed by the fact that the show itself was always a surprising, weird gem in the otherwise predictable stable of broadcast television programming. It’s hard to know whether it is more surprising that “Twin Peaks” ever existed or caught in the first place, or that 27 years after its cancellation, it has returned on premium cable with so much of the original cast and crew preserved. Lynch brought auteur-ish filmmaking to television, which elevated the medium for many viewers. Now its most prestigious, high-minded arm has brought him back. And it has the marketing blitz to prove it.

This is a long way of saying that it is difficult to know where to begin with Showtime’s “Twin Peaks,” which premiered its first two parts Sunday night. Fans of Lynch — and fans of the series, who have mythologized its idiosyncratic details over the last two decades — will take in the director’s vision with open arms, savoring its bizarre iconography and nonlinear storytelling. They will undoubtedly find a lot to be happy with in this two-hour premiere, which is parts 1 and 2 of “Twin Peaks: The Return” (though there is no clear delineation between parts). Lynch, who directed the episode and co-wrote it with Mark Frost, begins with the Black Lodge, which he explored extensively in the second-season finale and in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” the prequel film. The new “Twin Peaks” uses grounding footage from the old “Twin Peaks” to establish some of the basics of the mythology: Cooper is stuck in the Lodge while his doppelgänger — inhabited by Bob (Frank Silva), an evil spirit — is in the world. Lynch, throughout “Twin Peaks,” is at his absolute best in Black Lodge scenes, and there is a bit of relief in seeing that even in this Showtime interpretation, the Black Lodge is still eerie and destabilizing.

At the same time, the Black Lodge is also where one of the first obvious differences between the old and new “Twin Peaks” emerges: the simple fact of production values. Much of the odd, creepy charm of the original “Twin Peaks” was that Lynch was shoehorning his bizarre vision into a murder arc of a soap opera — with its interminable pacing, melodramatic music, and small-town archetypal characters. Part of that mood was a low-budget sensibility, which translated to artfully deliberate poor quality. It’s one of the reasons “Twin Peaks” is so aesthetically unique. But Showtime gave David Lynch nearly carte blanche for this new production, and as a result, it really doesn’t have that low-budget patina. The production values make for immersive, textured shots of the woods around the town of Twin Peaks — sometimes, the trees seem like more fleshed-out characters than the minor characters they are partially obscuring, and Lynch sometimes films unfolding scenes as if the viewer is just another character in a video game. But for every moment that feels fascinating in a new way, there is self-indulgence. The bankable popularity of “Twin Peaks” also makes for an inexplicably stupid scene at the Bang Bang where the indie-electronic band Chromatics performs to a room of middle-aged townies taking tequila shots. Nothing says rural, small-town, faded glory like an impossibly cool synthpop band. Could it be possible that sometimes, network notes are a good thing?

The finest scenes of the new “Twin Peaks” occur nowhere near Twin Peaks at all. In New York City — introduced in a swooping series of shots that feel like how an animated comic-book show would take us to the villain’s “HQ” — a man is watching, and filming, a glass box. It has a circular aperture that looks out onto the city from its high perch at the top of a skyscraper. And opposite the glass box is a couch, with two tasteful lamps and an end table. Sam’s job is to see if anything appears inside the box. If you watched “Twin Peaks” while sitting on a couch, you may have noticed that just as you watched a glass box waiting for something to happen, the box — and the man on it — watched you in return. That the box then erupts with something unnameably evil — just at the moment, of course, when Sam (Ben Rosenfield) is distracted by the charms of Tracey (Madeline Zima). Their violent, brutal death is not quite the type of gore that “Twin Peaks” is known for, but that’s what made it so interesting. The show’s aesthetic is typically fuzzy. But the glossy box gleams in its careful lighting, and in the middle the aperture is a perfect circle, an eye unto the world. The unnameable evil, when it emerges, is like a creature constructed of white noise, a blurry bit of static. It is terrifying.

A little less terrifying is what has become of Cooper’s doppelgänger — let’s just call him Evil Cooper. He is in Buckhorn, South Dakota, and he looks like a washed-up rocker from the ‘80s who never realized the party ended. MacLachlan is doused in spray tan and wearing snakeskin; Lynch’s manifestation of evil appears to be a guy wearing leather with a half-ponytail. The effect is kind of ludicrously seedy, and MacLachlan is a little uncomfortable there; he’s better in the moments where he is called on to emote silently while trapped in the Black Lodge. At the same time, Evil Cooper isn’t just a joke: In the back half of the episode, he kills Darya (Nicole LaLiberte) with close-range, heartless violence. Evil Cooper is creating mayhem for Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard), who is beginning to have an arc that looks like Leland Palmer’s (Ray Wise) — he dreamed committing an awful murder that turns out to have been real. Evil Cooper follows his wife home, and then kills her with her lover’s gun, saying: “You did good. You followed human nature perfectly.”

Human nature sometimes seems like it is the furthest thing from Lynch’s mind. “Twin Peaks: The Return” contains several long shots that reduce its characters to just tiny figures in a vast landscape. And yet even amidst the new surrealities of the Black Lodge (the Arm is now a tree with a brain!?) its most meaningless stretches continue to delight him. “Twin Peaks” attention to the most bathetic moments of human existence is strangely comforting, even as a comedy of manners in an apartment complex’s anonymous hallway gives way, with one twisted doorknob, into a ritualistic horror show. Lynch and Frost have doubled their cast in “Twin Peaks: The Return,” out of apparent curiosity for how all of these people live. It’s at times a confounding amount of detail; late in the two-hour episode, when Jennifer Jason Leigh turns out to have been next door the whole time, the scale of what this reboot is trying to accomplish is both daunting and a little maddening.

“Twin Peaks: The Return” is weird and creepy and slow. But it is interesting. The show is very stubbornly itself — not quite film and not quite TV, rejecting both standard storytelling and standard forms. It’s not especially fun to watch and it can be quite disturbing. But there is never a sense that you are watching something devoid of vision or intention. Lynch’s vision is so total and absolute that he can get away with what wouldn’t be otherwise acceptable .

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