Defenders of the recently concluded Twin Peaks: The Return revival on Showtime may insist that co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost are at different stages of their lives and careers than they were when they originally created the show in the early 1990s, and the pair has no interest in telling a story with a traditional narrative anymore.
But that decision, and most critics’ joyous praise for their deviation from the norm doesn’t acquit the creators from the charge that they altered the deal with viewers — and in particular, fans of the original series — without warning. Twin Peaks built its impassioned fan base on a traditional narrative, and the creators exploited the enthusiasm for that old style to ensure the creation of this new, very different, often deeply dissatisfying product.
In the Showtime series, Lynch and Frost abandoned conventional storytelling to explore mood, visualization, philosophy, existence, and whatever else popped into their minds during the creative process. Disappointed viewers are not being unreasonable or dumb or provincial for expecting a traditional narrative, with setups — establishing characters, desires, conflicts, etcetera — and payoffs and resolutions. Instead, the new series resembled a joint dream journal, or as some fans jokingly labeled it, “the David Lynch Sketch Show.”
Perhaps here a healthy serving of blame should go to Showtime and the network’s promotional department; if the series had been promoted as the Lynch-Frost Dream Journal Sketch Show, fans wouldn’t have expected . . . well, Twin Peaks. The promotion for the Showtime series featured the old cast, red curtains, cherry pie, coffee, doughnuts, owls . . . You can’t begrudge fans for expecting nostalgia when the show was explicitly promoted as nostalgia.
Some fans have wondered, with good reason, whether The Return includes a lot of unused ideas for other projects and stories from Lynch and Frost that were shoehorned into the world of Twin Peaks. For starters, almost two-thirds of the series takes place outside the titular location. The protagonist, Dale Cooper, spends almost the entire series as a man in a semi-vegetative state that no one notices, some sort of absurdist commentary about disconnection in modern society. Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh play a pair of backwater quippy assassins, as if they’ve wandered in from a Quentin Tarantino movie. Gordon Cole, Albert Rosenfield, and Tammy Preston meander through South Dakota in what must be the most leisurely FBI investigation of all time.
For certain fans, The Return was a long, uncomfortable realization that what they loved about Twin Peaks was not what Lynch or Frost loved about it, and given the chance to return to this place and these characters — with 18 hours without commercial interruption, the freedom of premium cable, and the full budget they wanted! — they had little interest in exploring or answering the unresolved questions on fans’ minds.
Heck, the creators of The Return didn’t want to explain much of anything. That ominous glass box that seemed so pivotal in the first two episodes? They never went back to it or explained its significance. What is that symbol that Mr. C said was what he wanted? Never explained. Did that drug dealer “Red” have some sort of supernatural powers? Never mind, he barely returns again at all.
Where’s Audrey? We don’t know, but we know that everything we saw in this season was just an unnerving illusion. “Find Laura,” the great Ray Wise croaks twice, in the opening and closing episodes, as the soul or ghost of Leland Palmer. We forget about that seemingly urgent plea for the interim 14 episodes.
The final line of dialogue in the original series was, “How’s Annie?” As far as we can tell from the new series, she may not even exist anymore. Sarah Palmer seems possessed, but we’re not going to explore that too deeply; we need the time for more lengthy driving-at-night scenes. What happened to Becky and did her husband commit suicide? What was the significance of that frog-bug thing in Episode 8? Sorry, we need another four minutes of unrelated dialogue by non-recurring characters in a Roadhouse booth, followed by a five-minute musical number.
“Don’t get hung up on the details,” the series defenders will insist. “The show is about mood and styles, not particular plot details and resolving mysteries.” Except for at least the first 16 episodes, if not the entire run on ABC, the show WAS about plot details and resolving mysteries! If the creators don’t care about what happens to these characters from scene to scene . . . why should the audience?
Disgruntled fans are now speculating that Lynch and Frost once again had different views on how the story should progress. It’s fair to point out that Frost’s book published last year, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, ended up having almost nothing to do with what appeared in the new series. Yes, FBI agent Tammy Preston is in both, but the book and television versions of the character are wildly different, and the dossier that makes up the bulk of Frost’s book not only doesn’t appear in the series it appears to contradict the show. Lynch told reporters that he didn’t read his co-creator’s book, and it shows.
The show’s steadfast refusal to offer much closure or even narrative pace would be easier to take if it was top-to-bottom terrible. Sometimes The Return offered some really powerful visuals or moments or sounds, but it just couldn’t string them together to maintain much narrative momentum. (The decision to treat the 18 episodes as 18 chapters of a novel, with minimal priority placed on closing each episode on a climax, made the pacing even more frustrating.)
Some of the new characters fit just right. Amy Shiels’s perpetually spaced-out Candie was a consistent joy in a show that desperately needed it; Jim Belushi and Robert Knepper grew to be surprisingly charming gangsters. Most of the returning cast fit into their old roles like comfortable clothes. A couple fans griped about the performance of singer and model Chrysta Bell — “David Lynch’s New Muse,” as Vanity Fair described her — as Preston, but she deserves some slack: Her character didn’t have much to do in this story, other than offer occasional bits of expository dialogue and react to Lynch’s self-indulgent performance as Cole.
Has any other show completed a metamorphosis as completely as Twin Peaks did in its various incarnations?
Has any other show completed a metamorphosis as completely as Twin Peaks did in its various incarnations? The pilot is two hours of straight-up crime drama, with no supernatural elements. You could argue that the first season doesn’t have any supernatural elements at all, other than Cooper’s open-to-interpretation dream. The Log Lady could be a prophet or just a crazy old woman. At the start of Season Two, we meet the otherworldly Giant, but the show’s supernatural element still consisted of characters seeing and hearing otherworldly things, the realm of symbolic visions and possible hallucinations explored by the first season of True Detective.
In Showtime’s The Return, the supernatural is present, tangible, and a clear and present danger. Within the first hour, a gruesome demonic creature bloodily murders two young people. We’ve moved from the FBI chasing a potential serial killer to a malevolent spirit in a New York high rise; evolving from Silence of the Lambs to Ghostbusters. Once again, the “deal” with early viewers gets changed without warning.
By the end of this presumably final run, we’re dealing with parallel dimensions, time travel, reincarnation, tulpas (sort of spiritual clones) . . . our protagonist’s final words are, “What year is this?” Perhaps that closing query is a not-so-veiled shot at fans of the original series; it’s not 1990 anymore, so stop pretending that it is.
If the theme of the series is that you can’t go home again, you can’t live in the past, and you need to move on from powerful memories from long-ago . . . why did they make an 18-episode revival?