TWIN PEAKS: A Master Class in Mind-Bending Television

Kyle MacLachlan gives a career-defining performance as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper: a good cop whose arc takes surprising and rewarding twist and turns.

One of the great things about TV compared to movies is its ability to open tons of mystery boxes, and still have flexibility to choose to address them or keep the audience hanging. Some have succeeded more than others (I’m looking at you Lost), but extremely few have expertly balanced both objectives for their audiences. Among these few works is a series that, while extremely popular during its initial run, quickly fell into obscurity due to its abrupt cancellation, and subsequently gained cult status, prior to receiving a revival. Twin Peaks is incredible television. It is just as much a fascinating experiment in surrealism, as it is groundbreaking in twisting the classic noir mystery with dark, satirical undertones. Given how dense this series is with surprises, I’ll attempt to take on the herculean task of giving my spoiler-free thoughts on the original series (1990-1991), as well as it’s third season revival, The Return (2017).

Calling Twin Peaks Seasons 1-2 a noir cop drama on acid is a surface level description for this show…but still accurate.

Twin Peaks Seasons 1-2 (1990-1991)

The first two seasons of Twin Peaks give us some insight into show creator/director David Lynch’s surrealistic art-house mindset. What exactly is surrealism? Its a film-making style that traces its roots back to the 60’s, where it was pioneered by Wonka-esque filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowski as a complete revitalization of non-traditional storytelling. Sometimes, people do bizarre things and events happen seemingly out of the blue, without seeming purpose or relevance to the immediate scene. In other cases, it could be subtly disorienting editing choices, such as strange wide angle shot framing, or sound editing denying the audience to know where certain noises are coming from. The best way I can possibly describe extreme surrealism is lots of colors, shapes, lights, and utter chaos. David Lynch, “the modern surrealist director” as he’s known in Hollywood, was clever in my mind for using this distinctive style in the context of a murder mystery. The show initially takes place in the eponymous sleepy town of Twin Peaks in 1989, deep in the mountains of Washington state, following the murder of local high school student Laura Palmer. The death impacts the small town profoundly, but things take a turn for the shocking and enigmatic as hints of a supernatural influence take shape.

This is where the series’s protagonist finds his place. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by the incredibly talented Kyle MachLachlan, arrives on scene in the misty mountain town with a sense of duty and a spirit of adventure. Cooper is not just an average, classic “good cop”: He’s an optimist in the greatest sense possible. Rather than choosing to be characterized as a grungy, aggressive cop to fit the dark, misty environment of the town, Lynch and MachLachlan developed this character in the complete opposite spectrum. Cooper is fascinated and pleased by the simple things, indicated by his famous line “This is a damn fine cup of coffee”, or his constant compliments to the town’s diner for their cherry pie, or being impressed by the size of the local Douglas fir trees. He’s also very spiritual, firmly believing in concepts of fate, divine providence, and Buddhist senses of meditation. It’s a brilliant character concept for a surrealist show, because when things get spooky as his investigation goes deeper, he is rarely shocked, and treats these experiences as legitimate signs of progress. Cooper’s stark contrast and ability to react to the mystery completely differently than the rest of the town makes for a truly innovative character, carrying the show’s tone to gripping new levels.

The cast of Twin Peaks is perfect for the show’s bizarre and creepy setting: diverse in characterization, unique in contributions to the plot.

Agent Cooper doesn’t do all the heavy hauling for Twin Peak’s narrative. Where this show also succeeds is taking its local townsfolk and making them each distinct and relatable. How many times have you seen a show or movie that takes place in a small town where you can’t remember who’s who besides the main protagonists and antagonists? Twin Peaks avoids this entirely, while introducing a massive cast ensemble where everyone earns their own place and relevance. Despite the plot introducing supernatural elements, these characters feel very grounded in reality, each with their own unique quirks. Their overall response to the death of Sarah Palmer is far from hollow, and bring a deep sense of humanity to the show’s often bewildering narrative. Sheriff Harry Truman brings a classic cowboy-type into the fray, to act as a sort of guide for Agent Cooper to fit into the town. Audrey Horne is a flirtatious and mischievous high school student who decides to take matters into her own hands and attempt to discover the dirty secrets of the town. Agent Albert Rosenfield, a macabre forensics specialist with a snarky attitude and dark sense of humor, adds subtly hilarious levity to the show’s darkest moments. I could go on and on and give each character the spotlight they deserve, but suffice it to say, no scene is left feeling empty. While the plot is super engaging and the visuals striking, the first season of Twin Peaks is more than anything an extremely focused character study.

The series unfortunately ends up in a bit of a slump during Season 2. Due to executive choices made by then-ABC CEO Bob Iger (surprise surprise), Season 2 suffered from a hindered plot mid season. As Lynch intended to supervise plot development while working on his film Wild at Heart, his guest directors took the show in directions that clearly did not match his intentions. Lynch came in last minute to direct the final episode, which was one of the best in the entire series in my mind, but not before Iger cancelled the show abruptly due to slumping viewership. This left the entire series on a massive cliffhanger that infuriated hardcore fans. While I acknowledge that Season 2 puts a slight damper on the whole show, it is still impressive enough to watch, and is redeemed via the finale, and Lynch’s creative direction nearly two decades later with The Return.

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

The Return picks up 25 years after the end of the second season (and if you watch the show, you’ll understand this significance to some degree). What David Lynch does that is far bolder than most directors is account for the cliffhanger audiences were given, and essentially restarts the story exactly where it left off, despite the massive time jump. I would’ve expected a significant degree of explanation for what occurred over the course of two decades, but the audience is given none. Strangely enough, this works in favor of the plot. It’s also important to note that The Return addresses some events that transpired in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks prequel film, Fire Walk With Me (which was infamously unimpressive and I don’t recommend it, but at the very least, you should familiarize yourself with that movie’s plot to fully appreciate The Return).

Bottom line: The Return is a different show. Surrealism is taken to the max, traditional narrative structures are trashed, and we are given a product that is completely unexpected, but not aggressively subverting. The season opens with a moment between Cooper and another character that is particularly jarring, but Lynch intentionally uses this scene to offer clues for the audience to understand the rest of the series. The Return demands the audience’s attention, which can be extremely challenging, but in a way turns the entire viewing experience into a sort of game. There is meaning in this season, with a subtle cohesive plot and running narrative, although seeing this clearly can easily be distracted by Lynch’s mesmerizing film artistry. A perfect example of this is Part 8, one of the shows most daringly experimental, yet concurrently important episodes. (You’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there). As both a challenge for the audience and the storytelling status quo, The Return is an incomparable viewing experience.

The Return brings back old cast members, often in ways not foreseeable, or whose arcs take dramatically different but sensible directions, compared to where the show left off in the 90s. Along with the old cast is a large new assortment of bizarre yet wonderful characters. Laura Dern (as someone who I will not name) gives perhaps the best performance of her career, while Naomi Watts plays a fiery housewife whose significance to the plot isn’t apparent off the bat. One of my favorite characters in this series is, ironically, none other than David Lynch himself, returning as the delightfully awkward Special Agent Gordon Cole, whose subtle comedic presence is pure gold.

This is one of those shows that has a jarringly controversial ending. I admit even I was shocked and frustrated for a bit. I implore you, if you choose to watch this show, you need to mull over the events for a bit. Let the puzzle pieces connect. In context of the previous seasons, and upon correlating the clues given, it is an impressive conclusion, one that is surprisingly meta. More loose ends are tied up than you’d initially imagine. Few answers are given outright, but the creativity of Lynch and masterful acting by the cast legitimize the perplexing circumstances that wrap up the conclusion to the Twin Peaks saga. This series is not for everyone, and honestly if I haven’t sold you already then it probably won’t be your thing. However, for those willing to embrace an escape from the TV norm, and are willing to put some serious thought into story and meaning, Twin Peaks is comprehensively one of the most visionary shows in TV history. 368P/THE/OWLS/ARE/NOT/WHAT/THEY/SEEM/10.

Don’t be mistaken: this show is nuts, but worth it for those with an interest in creative exploration.

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