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‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ Takes on Peak TV — and Wins (Column)

SPOILER ALERTDo not read if you have not watched “Part 9,” the July 9 episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return.” 

To get metatextual for a minute, possibly the most quintessential phrase of modern television writing is in the above sentence: “spoiler alert,” that phrase which warns an interested reader that they might not want to know what lies ahead. It’s a helpful warning, of course, because surprise is such a potent emotion, and especially unique to a serialized medium like television, where you could be just one week behind a beloved story. But the phrase is perversely irritating, too: The implication is that all that matters about a piece of writing is whether or not it engages with plot details — and that merely stating the basics of plot is enough to ruin it, when so much of storytelling is not about what’s being concluded but how it’s being concluded.

There are a lot of things about “Twin Peaks: The Return” that challenge present norms of television, and some are a lot bigger than the phrase “spoiler alert.” But a satisfying thing about the Showtime revival of the 1990 series is that it feels un-spoilable. There are some clues, of course. You can let slip that a certain cast member is in an episode, or that an unexpected celebrity cameo occurs. You can attempt to explain the status of the mystery. You can even try to describe, frame by frame, the central images of “Part 8” — and you would convey at least some of what “Twin Peaks: The Return” is up to. But any successful effort to really spoil a viewer would become so involved, and so tedious, that it would eventually become more practical — more efficient! — to just watch the hourlong episode. I am reminded of the comically large maps that pop up in Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges’ work, which are so successful at modeling the world that they become as huge and cumbersome and unnavigable as the world itself. On Twitter, writers who cover TV have been morbidly joking that David Lynch’s return to the medium strains recapping culture to the breaking point. It certainly proves a challenge.

It’s interesting that starting July 16 (next week), “Twin Peaks: The Return” and “Game of Thrones” will be competing for viewers’ attention at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights. If “Twin Peaks” is completely immune to recapping, “Game of Thrones” — with its wide-ranging source material, online databases of character names, and sudden deaths — is eminently recappable. Both shows are beautiful in their own ways, but “Game of Thrones” tends to be a show where the audience sees things happen, while “Twin Peaks” tends to be a show where the audience is made to keenly feel the uncanny — so keenly, that it is unsettling, horrifying, and often even comical. (Maybe the humor of “Twin Peaks: The Return” is really the key to its essential ephemerality. It’s hard to recap a joke; you kinda had to be there.) Sunday night’s episode marks the halfway point of the 18-episode season, but it’s hard to say what has happened in the first several episodes of “Twin Peaks: The Return.”

Indeed, when the show tries to explain itself to itself, it turns into incredulous sarcasm. Last night in “Part 9,” Albert (Miguel Ferrer) heard the plot of just a sliver of “Twin Peaks: The Return” — the sliver taking place in Buckhorn, S.D. — and deadpanned, “What happens in Season 2?” As far as we know — for now! — this particular limited series won’t get a Season 2. But Albert’s joking is one of the more metatextual moments of “Twin Peaks” — a singular phenomenon, both in 1990 and in 2017, because of how auteur David Lynch puts avant-garde filmmaking through the paces of contemporary television. In 1990, “Twin Peaks” was an otherworldly window in a TV schedule that otherwise fielded “Wings,” “Full House,” and “Who’s the Boss?” — a moment before TV’s redefinition, expansion, and explosion.

In 2017, TV means something very different. There are exponentially more scripted shows than ever before and each is fighting for an ever smaller share of the audience. Albert’s skepticism is both an investigator commenting on a melodramatic chain of events — and that of a TV executive questioning uneconomical storytelling. “Twin Peaks: The Return” positions its plotline as a pitch — knowing, even as it does, that the outcome isn’t what the industry looks for. “Twin Peaks: The Return” is slow, bloated, full of exposition, violent, and opaque — the same criticisms lobbed against “True Detective’s” Season 2, for example — and yet it makes an unlikely but arresting case for these disruptions. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why; part of Lynch’s genius is that he can get away with what other creators can’t. But these inversions of episodic television as it is typically practiced are what make up the substance of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” a series that could only exist because of Peak TV and at the same time completely defies it. The multitudes of television in Peak TV creates anxious movement, because networks are desperate to create buzz in a crowded environment. David Lynch could care less about buzz — perhaps he just knows he already has plenty of buzz to work with — and as a result “Twin Peaks,” already a slow universe, seems even more absurdly plodding in “The Return.” “Part 7” indulged in an 184-second long scene of a man sweeping the roadhouse floor, and more broadly, the audience has been watching no one realize that there’s something seriously wrong with Dougie Jones (Kyle MacLachlan) for hours now.

“Part 8,” so far, is the pinnacle of “Twin Peaks: The Return’s” refusal to be either summarized or sped up. It unfolds with slow, radiant grace, using an atomic bomb test in 1945 as the starting point for a moral history of “Twin Peaks.” It’s both incomprehensible and obvious — a surreal sequence of scenes, leading towards one very strange but very unequivocal moment in which a creature crawls into a girl’s mouth. “Maybe I’ve been too immersed in all things Lynch over the past several months,” said New York Times recapper Noel Murray, “but I didn’t think that any of the above was as opaque as it seemed.” If television typically uses the constraints of quick production and cheaper budgets to tell workmanlike stories with complex implications — consider how much there is to ponder and unpack in the average episode of a multi-camera sitcom — David Lynch’s television uses ultra-high production values to tell extremely abstract stories with what turns out to be very simple implications. In “Part 8,” it’s that the universe is governed by forces good and evil. And to paraphrase Murray, that subconscious, extra-planar war, and how humans engage in it, is the fundamental spine of the “Twin Peaks” universe. Perhaps we let Lynch get away with more than other creators because we are confident that he will deliver something extraordinary on the other side of it. Or perhaps we sense that Lynch believes so fervently in what he’s communicating that it goes beyond fiction for him, toward some articulation of the moral order of the world. That sincerity — and its utopian wholesomeness — is also at odds with the subtlety and grit of prestige dramas. And yet it’s also, confusingly, captivating.

Maybe all of “Twin Peaks: The Return’s” charms can be summed up in the totally unnecessary but ever-so-pretty concert scenes, in which high-profile and/or bleeding-edge-of-cool bands play at the town Roadhouse. How Nine Inch Nails ended up performing a highly produced concert in a town with a population of 51,201 is beyond the average person’s intellect or reason. But there is probably no greater example of mutually agreed-on upon value of the ephemeral than live concerts, which offer a chance for intimacy and experience with a creator’s work that can’t be reproduced in a recording. But so many concerts struggle to provide that experience — there are so many barriers between you and the music, whether that is the hurdle of a hundred-dollar ticket, the traffic jam on the way to the parking lot, the mediocre opening act, or the irritatingly tall person standing in front of you. The Roadhouse’s concerts are the fantastical ideal of concerts — tiny, intimate, effortlessly cool, booked by someone who has exactly your taste in music (electronic pop numbers about death, apparently). “Twin Peaks: The Return” positions these concerts as moments of total, blissful immersion into art — no livetweeting, no second-screen Candy Crush, no frantically googling who Evil Cooper’s companion of the week is. I don’t know if it’s always working. But it’s a brilliant goal to have.

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