Reviews — From the October 2017 issue

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The nightmare logic of Twin Peaks

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Discussed in this essay:

Twin Peaks: The Return. Showtime. Sundays, 8 p.m. May 21 September 3, 2017.

First, let’s stipulate that the timing here — the airing of terrifying and absurd new episodes of Twin Peaks in one of the most terrifying and absurd periods of American history — was, largely, an accident.

It is true that in the final episode of the original show, which aired on June 10, 1991, the ghost of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the prom queen whose murder set the whole series in motion, tells FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) that she’ll see him again in twenty-five years. It is also true that David Lynch, the show’s director and primary creative voice, and Mark Frost, his frequently overshadowed collaborator, somehow managed to air the first episode of Twin Peaks: The Return just three weeks shy of twenty-six years later. There is a testament to artistic perseverance in this fact, as well as to a light sort of madness. But mostly, the arrival of these new episodes on our screens was the product of luck. Lynch and Frost could not have known in 1991 what television would look like in 2017, or that it would be a place uniquely hospitable to reviving the story.

Ray Wise and Kyle MacLachlan in a still from Twin Peaks: The Return. Photograph © Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

They could not have known, for example, about the rise of so-called prestige television, which would make the small screen the most popular narrative art form of the twenty-first century. They could not have known that it would kick the novel and the feature film into the gutter, where they would be left to fight over pulpy young-adult dystopias and comic-book superheroes. They could not have known how streaming video on something called the internet would turn television viewing from an appointment affair into a twenty-four-hour buffet.

Only in this present landscape, when seemingly every week brings a new “must-watch” television show of “ambition,” does an idea like resurrecting Twin Peaks become attractive to your average television executive. In the frenzy to capture people’s attention, cable television networks have become gaping maws of need. They need not just to produce “content” but to produce the sort of content that makes people happily hand over ten dollars a month for a subscription. And to do that, the networks need to produce and air the sort of television that will, as people tend to put it, “dominate the conversation.”

For that purpose, Twin Peaks arrives with heavy freight. A broadcast-network unicorn when it first aired in 1990, the show was that rare item of popular culture that inspired a cult almost before it arrived. The ostensible hook was a murder mystery, the question of who killed Laura Palmer. But that was pretty much the only convention the show made use of. After Palmer’s body is found washed up on a riverbank, wrapped in plastic, things get Lynchian very quickly. The townspeople’s displays of grief are elaborate, disturbing in their extremity. The investigation proceeds not by rational induction — Agent Cooper is no Sherlock Holmes — but mostly by a kind of nightmare logic. Most of the series was subservient to the visual in a way that’s seldom seen on television. And if it was impossible to know what the show meant when it placed Agent Cooper in a black leather armchair in a room with red velvet curtains next to a phonograph and a dwarf (Michael J. Anderson) dancing awkwardly to soft jazz, it was also impossible to wipe the image from your mind.

As I write this, only twelve hours of the new season have aired. As is typical for a Lynch production, it’s not clear what, if anything, has happened in them, at least insofar as traditional plot development is concerned. But the new episodes have served their intended purpose. Showtime has seen a record rise in online subscribers. And though there haven’t really been formal reviews of the show so much as a plague of bewildered recaps, the general consensus seems to be that it has more than delivered. While the pace is slow — the initial promise of nine episodes ballooned to eighteen when Lynch refused to curtail his ambitions — the audience has decided it has the time for it.

The nature of that time is inflected, of course, by our political moment. I could mount a grand argument about the way in which a work that contends with fractured narratives, overblown villains, and relentless spectacle suits the emotional experience of this year. I could say something about nostalgia and its anxiety-soothing properties. But the comfort Twin Peaks has been providing feels more concrete than that. On several occasions this summer, a Twin Peaks–watching friend told me, “This is the only thing keeping me going.” I have felt the same. And it is only with difficulty that I can articulate what it is about this strange, awkward, and self-contradictory series that felt quite so much like grace.

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, who won this year’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, is the author of the forthcoming book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion.

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