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How the New Twin Peaks Made Television Strange Again

David Lynch wanted to create a small-town Marilyn Monroe. He came up with Laura Palmer.

Illustration by Jeremy Enecio

Twin Peaks was born, at least as legend has it, in a small room in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, where two men sat contemplating a malevolent, banal mill town in the Pacific Northwest. The director, David Lynch, and the writer, Mark Frost, had first met in 1986 to plan a film about Marilyn Monroe, based on Anthony Summers’s blockbuster biography, Goddess. Summers, a former BBC reporter, interviewed more than 600 subjects for the book and concluded that not only was Robert Kennedy implicated in Monroe’s death by barbiturates, but that he cleaned up the crime scene, scrubbing any ties to the scions of Camelot. Rather than tearing down this fringe theory, The New York Times’ reviewer, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, praised Summers for weaving together such an “extraordinary welter of detail” about the Monroe case that he seemed to summon up the dead. “The ghost of Marilyn Monroe cries out in these pages,” he wrote. “Who will put her spirit to rest?”

It makes sense that Lynch and Frost were both drawn to the same menacing, glamorous source material. Frost came from Hill Street Blues, a cop procedural that relished an intricate mystery. Lynch was fresh from making Blue Velvet, a cryptic art-house thriller that features, early on, a close-up of a rotting human ear. That shot of severed cartilage is what filmheads refer to as an iconic “Lynchian” image—a term that has expanded into an accordion of meanings since the world first listened to a deformed baby crying in Eraserhead in 1977. David Foster Wallace came closest to nailing its essence in 1996: “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.”

Lynch revels in the shudder of creepy proximity that comes over the viewer when the everyday turns sinister, when the wallpaper peels back to reveal the insects skittering underneath. Many refer to Lynch’s work as dreamlike—the result of twice-daily Transcendental Meditation sessions that, he claims, break down the barriers between the subconscious and the waking mind. But his dreams can also feel like looping nightmares. Perhaps a woman who should have a complete face only has half a jaw, perhaps a mirror warps and contains a demon, perhaps an old man drooling in the corner can see the future. Pauline Kael called Lynch’s vision “the work of a genius naïf ... you feel that there is very little art between you and the filmmaker’s psyche.” Lynch’s work passes through the “so bad it’s good” wormhole and out the other side, often obliterating the question of quality altogether. It asks you to wonder what the hell you just watched, and then to wonder whether or not you had the powers of perception to grasp it. And it all begins with the eerie truths that lurk beneath “normal” American life.

The Marilyn fable contains flashes of the ordinary: Norma Jeane Mortenson was, after all, once just a foster child from the skids of Los Angeles. But there was already a lot of mythology baked into her tale, and Lynch and Frost’s collaboration on Goddess fizzled in the script stage. Lynch wasn’t yet ready to splash around in the seedy noir shadows of L.A. (That would come later, in 2001’s Mulholland Drive.) Perhaps he wanted to conjure up another beautiful dead blonde who could serve as a fresher cipher, a Marilyn without the baggage, an undiscovered starlet onto whom an entire village projected their fantasies of goodness and sin. Lynch and Frost’s Marilyn may have withered on the vine, but in her place, they came up with Laura Palmer.

Laura’s story also fit the proportions of television back in 1987, which Lynch saw as “restricted.” After making movies, working in television was, he said, “like going from a mansion to a hut.” Twin Peaks is a town made of dumpy corners: musty honky-tonks, faded Formica diners, drab municipal conference rooms. And yet Lynch mapped a bizarre glamour onto the place by force. It was the discord between the prosaic and the glittering—Audrey Horne’s otherworldly jukebox dance, the alpine grandeur of the Great Northern Hotel, Kyle MacLachlan’s smooth complexion and hyperarticulate monologues—that gave Twin Peaks its carbonation. The surreal Red Room, where Laura Palmer whispered murderous secrets to Agent Cooper in his dreams—and where she promised to see him again in 25 years—felt almost natural amid the carnival of oddities Lynch brought into viewers’ living rooms.

Twenty-five years later, Laura Palmer is back, in Twin Peaks: The Return, and the “hut” has become culture’s hottest real estate. Lynch himself has argued that television is now the medium that can best transmit an auteur’s cinematic vision to the largest number of people. “The art houses are gone,” he told New York Magazine in May. “So cable television is a godsend.” The idiosyncratic high-low shimmer that Lynch pioneered has become the standard for premium drama. Even the most mediocre shows now borrow from the Twin Peaks playbook. The gloaming setting, the dead girl at the heart of the narrative, the casual use of the gory or grotesque, even the ominous synth theme (ahem, Stranger Things)—these have all become familiar tropes. What could Lynch put on Showtime in 2017 that would recreate the jarring sensation of first encountering the show on a grainy screen on ABC?

Lynch almost didn’t return for The Return. In 2015, he briefly pulled away from the project, claiming that Showtime wouldn’t grant him a large enough budget to make all 18 hours exactly the way he saw them in his head. The show’s original cast—including Sherilyn Fenn, Mädchen Amick, Kimmy Robertson, and Sheryl Lee—responded with a campaign to #savetwinpeaks. Twin Peaks without Lynch, they insisted, was like “pies without cherries” or “a sheriff’s station without donuts.” The actors knew that he was the new season’s best chance of success among a field of shows that had been weaned on, well, Twin Peaks. To stand out once again, they would have to follow Lynch’s loopy subconscious to some place entirely new and as discordant as the original show.

They were right. Twin Peaks: The Return does not feel like anything else on television. Nor does it feel like any Twin Peaks we have seen before. It plays like a David Lynch film stretched out into episodes, a continuation of the slow-burn abstraction that he played with in his last feature, the three-hour-long Inland Empire. Sure, the old gang is here: In the first four episodes, we’re reunited with Agent Cooper, Lucy, Andy, Bobby, James, Hawk, Ben Horn, Norma, Log Lady, Shelly, Laura, the Arm, and even Lynch’s own character, FBI agent Gordon Cole, as well as his transgender boss, Denise, still played by David Duchovny in drag. (In a rare nod to changing gender politics, Cole tells Denise how he stood up for her when she transitioned: “I told all your colleagues—all those clown comics—to fix their hearts or die.”)

The trademark Peaks-ian absurdist humor, the feeling of being trapped in the misty wilds with a gaggle of weirdos, is also back. When we finally meet the grown-up son of Lucy (the sheriff’s ditzy secretary whose pregnancy was a major plotline in season two) and Andy (the dimmest, dopiest cop on the force), the baby has inexplicably aged into Michael Cera, sporting a beret and a leather jacket. Cera calls himself Wally Brando and waxes philosophical about the Great American West. We have no idea why he speaks like a bad actor doing a monologue from On the Waterfront. But in its broad comedy and eccentric atonality, the scene is one of the most traditionally Twin Peaks of the reboot. Such moments are tinged with sentimentality, as if they are full-hearted outtakes from the lovable ragtag universe of season one. Bobby tenderly weeps over an old photograph of Laura Palmer (his first love); Shelly moons over James’s chiseled jawline at the Bang Bang Bar.

But very little of this new season takes place in Washington state. In the last quarter-century, Laura Palmer has become a kind of tragic Marilyn of the small screen, a celebrity in her own right. A copy of her “secret diary” became a New York Times best-seller—and was recently reissued in paperback—and dozens of books, including coffee-table homages, novelizations, and academic treatises, have been published about Laura and her world. To find truly new material, Lynch and Frost had to look outside the small town they had created. Whereas Laura’s death once destabilized an insular community, Lynch now shows the effects of her demise rippling through the entire world—even outer space—in an interconnected, hyperglobal age.

Lynch has always resisted discussing his own work. He told the critic Dennis Lim that “as soon as you put things in words, no one ever sees the film the same way. And that’s what I hate, you know. Talking—it’s real dangerous.” The new Twin Peaks makes those conversations particularly difficult. The first episodes of The Return show us sights that make little to no sense. We get a glossy, ominous Manhattan high-rise where a young man has been hired to watch over a giant, empty glass box (an unsubtle metaphor for television, if ever there was one). We get an as-yet-unrelated crime in Buckhorn, South Dakota, where a woman’s severed head has been placed onto a bloated male body. We get Kyle MacLachlan spread out into three different bodies: Agent Cooper talking backwards in the Red Room, his evil doppelgänger wearing a lizard-skin shirt, and a louche Vegas huckster named Dougie Jones.

Lynch loves to double characters (he cast Sheryl Lee both as Laura and as Maddy, Laura’s cousin) and to work with actresses who look alike (as Sherilyn Fenn and Lara Flynn Boyle did in the early 1990s) in order to disorient viewers and break down their notion of a “TV character” with distinct physical and personality traits. Lynch forces his audience to think more fluidly about personae—if Agent Cooper is now three people, was he ever really even one?—and about the borders of the fictional world he creates. When blondes from Lynch’s earlier works appear in The Return—both Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive) and Laura Dern (Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart) make cameos—the viewer wonders whether they’ve crossed over into Twin Peaks from another contiguous territory of the Lynchian universe. The point of all this is to keep us dazed and wanting.

The Return is obtuse and jarring, even a bit alienating, and yet it seems to tilt toward some cohesive whole that only David Lynch and Mark Frost know about. By the fifth episode, the new world they created starts to make some kind of strange sense: that evil, once unleashed among the Twin Peaks pines, has expanded into a web that covers the entire country like an arterial map. If the reboot lacks the same commercial watchability of the initial series, perhaps it is because Lynch and Frost want to emphasize the ways in which the world has become ever more complex since they first envisioned their frozen teenage Marilyn. When they showed Laura Palmer in a body bag, they created a new template for prestige television: It needed to shock, to impress, to mystify. Now, to do it again, they need to be even more oblique.

The fifth episode ends with Kyle MacLachlan as the zonked-out Dougie, staring at a bronze statue of a cowboy outside an office complex for so many hours that a policeman has to tell him to stop loitering. But he just stands there, as the sky grows dark, a fool in lime green trying to make sense of the American idea. Lynch has asked viewers to follow him yet again into the dark, with only the vaguest of promises that the naïf will once more turn out to be a genius.