Returning to Twin Peaks

“Sheriff we’ve got a lot to talk about”: FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) in the 1990 series
What should we expect from Showtime’s revival of David Lynch’s masterful early-’90s show?

What should we expect from Showtime’s Twin Peaks, the spectacularly unexpected reboot of the quirky, genre-busting mystery series that rose quickly and fell even more quickly over the course of two seasons on ABC in the early Nineties?

First, if you find the whole thing too weird to enjoy . . . you’re not alone. Twin Peaks was always an acquired taste, a series that borrowed bits and pieces and styles of almost everything that had come before and mixed them in a blender: murder mystery, 1980s night-time melodrama, slapstick comedy, ’50s Americana nostalgia, the supernatural and occult, gripping psychological portraits, dark serial-killer horror, and surreal, dream-like imagery. The show was never designed for the widest audience or casual viewing.

We don’t know what twists and turns this new third season is going to take, but it’s a safe bet that the multiple plot lines will get more entangled than your headphone wires. Most of the old cast (at least most of those who haven’t passed away in the intervening quarter century) have returned, to be joined by a slew of new characters — there are a jaw-dropping 238 speaking roles in the coming 18 episodes.

On most shows, budgetary limitations require a small recurring cast. Picking out the murderer in a one-hour whodunit such as Castle gets to be pretty easy; just look for the biggest-name guest actor in the smallest role. On a crime show such as NCIS, every major national-security crisis is resolved by the same small team of agents. The size of the cast of the original Twin Peaks defied television conventions, and wasn’t equaled until HBO inaugurated the current golden age of prestige television with The Sopranos and The Wire. The liner notes to the original Twin Peaks soundtrack offered small portraits of 40 significant recurring characters. Because most people’s lives involve regular interactions with more than the same half-dozen people, the myriad complicated relationships of the original Twin Peaks’s characters offered a fictional community that felt more real.

One of the reasons “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” became a national media obsession in 1990 was because viewers could choose from an extensive menu of plausible options, as the opening episodes introduced viewers to a slew of suspicious characters. Laura’s boyfriend Bobby Briggs was a coke-dealing hothead. Town mogul Ben Horne seemed to be avarice personified. Trucker Leo Johnson was a psychotic, wife-beating drug dealer. Psychiatrist Dr. Jacoby had been secretly treating Laura and seemed unhealthily obsessed with her.

Efforts to preserve the secrecy of the show’s central mystery were so elaborate that a scene of the killer’s subsequent act of murder was filmed with three characters perpetrating it, meaning not even the cast knew for certain who the actual murderer was. And then came one of the biggest curveballs of all time, when it was finally revealed the killer was none of those suspicious figures, but rather Laura’s father Leland, a man who seemed to grow steadily more insane with grief in each passing episode. The show that some critics accused of being an empty exercise in quirkiness for its own sake was, at its heart, about a topic so emotionally charged it still remains virtually taboo: sexual abuse and the evil that can lurk behind a respectable façade.

SLIDESHOW: The Real Twin Peaks Locations

If the revelation that Leland Palmer abused and murdered his daughter wasn’t enough to scare away some viewers, watching Leland viciously beat his niece to death — seemingly possessed by the recurring demonic figure known only as “BOB” — terrified all but the most ardent fans. Some accused the scene of being exploitative, but most grasped the emotional truth and argument made by director David Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost: Violence against the innocent is horrifying, and shouldn’t be whitewashed or softpedaled. It is “normal” television, which usually portrays murder in such an antiseptic, anodyne way as to make it palatable, that represents the real moral transgression.

Sadly, we live in a world where some parents kill their own children. Beyond all the quirky supporting characters and humor, Twin Peaks was willing to explore topics and stories of emotional depth rarely if ever addressed in episodic television. The fictional town of Twin Peaks had no shortage of good people who wanted to do the right thing. But none of them were able to sense exactly what menaced Laura, or to intervene in time. And so came the feeling that follows every violent crime, sudden tragedy, homicide, or suicide: Why didn’t I see this coming?

The first 16 or so episodes of Twin Peaks mastered the cycle of raising questions and then answering them with information that spurred new questions.

The first 16 or so episodes of Twin Peaks mastered the cycle of raising questions and then answering them with information that spurred new questions. The show is surreal, with giants, dancing dwarves, a llama, ethereal roadhouse singers and acerbic forensic pathologists, but its defiance of well-worn television conventions only makes it somehow more life-like.

Life doesn’t always give us the clear answers we seek. Events, statements, and character motivations are open to interpretation and reinterpretation. And a lot of questions are never quite resolved. When the town seemed to collectively forget about a traumatized young woman who escaped the killer, was that poor writing, or a statement about the temptation of denial? Is the Log Lady crazy, or is the soul of her late husband trapped in a piece of wood? Doesn’t the town’s relentless celebration of coffee and pie start to seem . . . obsessive? Between Air Force major Briggs and FBI agent Cooper’s superiors, there are strong indications that the federal government knows something otherworldly is at work in the town and is keeping those secrets to itself.

Clearly, the supernatural, both divine and demonic forces, are at work in the woods outside the town, but there’s little or no clear “rulebook” on how these otherworldly forces affect the townspeople, only a sense that the town has always been strange and prone to events that no one can quite explain. In the wrong hands, the show’s supernatural element could have seemed corny and contrived, Lynch and Frost kept it odd and vague enough to fit with a wide variety of theological cosmology. If you’ve ever felt like someone or something up there was looking out for you, or someone or something up there was out to get you, Twin Peaks will make those hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Even the creators felt like the process of making the show had some strange bits of luck and pieces spontaneously falling into place, like an idea that was somehow willing itself into existence though the creative process. “It was one of those serendipitous things where you really feel [like] some hands were at work here putting this together, so we’re just going to buckle our seatbelts and go for the ride,” Frost said in one of the DVD commentaries.

A large cast, unexpected plot twists, questions begetting new questions and answers that leave a lot of room for interpretation — whatever the coming 18 episodes hold, one thing seems a safe bet: Twin Peaks will once again be unlike anything else on television.


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