With the first two series of Twin Peaks, David Lynch invented prestige TV. With Twin Peaks: The Return, he’s reimagined it as a perverted, psychedelic soap opera.
Kyle Maclachlan would not be as fine a Lynchian collaborator if it were not for his early face; a face of such specific, all-American, unsullied beauty — somehow like a soap star's and a movie star's, generic and unusually perfect all at once — that its presence in an ugly scene can't help but seem perverse.
"He is," Rich Cohen wrote in Rolling Stone in 1994, "the boy next door, if that boy spent lots of time alone in the basement". At 30-ish in the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, he is the unspoiled cherry in the rotten pie, and now, in Twin Peaks: The Return, he is another, stranger proposition, one without such clear outlines.
What if that same boy next door had spent another two decades in the basement, and this basement were not underneath a house at all, but in another dimension? What if it were not a basement, but the Black Lodge? Like Agent Cooper, Twin Peaks gave itself a long enough sabbatical to let its undercurrent of evil Americana fester into something different, then appeared again as a split personality.
In its latest season, it has spent a little of its time as a sitcom, and a lot as a daytime serial drama somebody might hallucinate if they were both high and unemployed. It is half gorgeous, serious television show, and half jarring, soapy mess. In that sense, it is a lot like Kyle Maclachlan's face. This was not what anybody was expecting; what most Lynch fans had imagined would transpire was a somewhat-dutiful return to everything that Peaks had first invented, i.e. TV as a serious, cinematic art form.
"Without Twin Peaks, and its big-bang expansion of the possibilities of television," James Parker wrote last month in The Atlantic, "half your favorite shows wouldn't exist. The absorptive, all-in serial, sonically and visually entire, novelistically cantilevered with deep structure and extending backwards into the viewer's brain, was simply not a thing before Lynch and Frost… You didn't tune in to this show the same way that you tuned in to L.A. Law or Murder, She Wrote. You tuned in psychedelically... ready to be transported. You were in, or you were out: a binary decision… remarkably, this has since become the norm."
Like Agent Cooper, Twin Peaks gave itself a long enough sabbatical to let its undercurrent of evil Americana fester into something different, then appeared again as a split personality
In 1990, what Lynch gave us was the sprawling story of a teen girl being raped and murdered, and an agent being sent into the boondocks to investigate the mystery. There were less real, more abstracted elements at play; but at its core, the story was humane and pitch-dark. It disturbed the viewer the way that life disturbs the living. Now, post-True Detective and with a darker, edgier mainstream, Lynch has given us a version of our much-loved Peaks detective somehow closer to old-style televisual form than ever.
Trapped inside the body of one Dougie Jones — a gambling, hooker-screwing, haute-suburban family man whose work is in insurance, and whose face looks, as it happens, just like Agent Cooper's — Coop is nearly catatonic. Stripped of all humanity and left to re-learn basic human faculties, he is the Lynchian rebuff to every image of the hapless sitcom father. He has a son called "Sonny Jim," and a wife called "Janey-E." (If you'd rather look for deeper meaning, he is every patriarch who's ever earned a higher office and a better family than he otherwise deserves: and if the sight of Coop-as-Dougie, near pre-verbal, winning on a dozen slot machines and taking on the nickname "Mister Jackpots" with a five-year-old's demented glee does not remind you of another famous father-figure, I will give you forty thousand dollars and a gratis limo ride to Lancelot Court.)
Twin Peaks: The Return is difficult watching. It is far more angular than Twin Peaks, and its pauses stretch out into even less bearable church-service silences — like the silences of bad soap operas, yes; but also bad job interviews, bad dates, and plain bad writing. Actors often speak as if they're being held at gunpoint. In one scene, the dialogue has been recorded at a distance and is barely audible. The show has all the terrible effects Lynch loves: its CGI is like the CGI on the Sci Fi channel, and the garmonbozia — a pale and supernatural substance meant to represent "pain and sorrow" — still appears to be creamed corn. Agent Cooper's Ken doll face is Agent Cooper's Ken doll face, but is now appended with bad wigs, false tan, a badly cut lime green jacket, and awful snakeskin shirts. The sleekest style of the best of modern television has been ridden over, roughshod, in a speeding pickup truck.
It is also, and believe me when I say this is a compliment, a daytime soap as written by android or algorithm. Another way to say this is to say that Twin Peaks: The Return feels like the future, i.e. strange, chaotic, hard to know or fathom, as if aliens were trying to recreate our pre-Peaks programming. Back in 1990, Twin Peaks was unthinkable. In 2017, it is a medium-sized, hip cult. What Lynch has done to bring back the idea of Twin Peaks as a culture shock is to arrive at high art via lowbrow culture, episodic cinema through soap and sitcom shorthand; prestige television through the perfectly-imperfect pervert's lens of daytime TV.
What Lynch has done to bring back the idea of Twin Peaks as a culture shock is to arrive at high art via lowbrow culture.
In the character of Dougie Jones, I noted some of another far less art-house Kyle Maclachlan husband — Sex and the City's Trey Macdougal; a man who responds to an unexpected marriage proposal with a chipper "alrighty, then," and who thinks that giving a cardboard baby to his "reproductively-challenged" wife is "funny — not funny ha ha, but funny." Playing a literally limp-dicked WASP whose mannerisms are like those of a preteen boy-scout should not be rewarding for an actor: it is to Maclachlan's credit that he makes the imperfections in the perfect, a la Lynch, work into something like a credible perversion. Sex and the City was, whatever its detractors might have said, another prestige television show not always noted for its realism. I wonder if Lynch ever watched it? Swedish cinematic existentialist Ingmar Bergman never missed an episode; perhaps because post-Twin Peaks, there was not much guilt or pleasure in TV's guilty pleasures.
"To calmly anticipate another ream of seamless prestige television, of the sort that is now ubiquitous," Parker's piece at The Atlantic concluded, shortly before the new season began, "feels like an insult to the raw wizardry of David Lynch."
"Like postmodern or pornographic," David Foster Wallace suggested when attempting to define what was or was not Lynchian in nature. "Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that's ultimately definable only ostensively - i.e., we know it when we see it."
He then winnows it down further to being about "[the] deconstruction of the weird irony of the banal," which is why to find the creeping freak inside the family-man dynamic of The Bold and the Beautiful, having already found him deep inside the slick American dream, is a natural move.
With Twin Peaks, Lynch dared the viewer to believe in TV as a medium worthy of respect. In The Return, he makes us fear its repetition, and its fake, flat affect, and its dead-eyed family values. By the time the latest hour — a dreamy, static journey to the centre of an atom bomb so like a nightmare that I had to speak aloud not once, but twice, to know I'd stayed awake — aired, it felt like a Very Special Episode: a mass-hallucination of the kind you see in bad T.V. when someone hits their head, or passes out, or wakes to find that it was all a dream, but somehow also more like looking into hell itself.
No hour of television that has come before is like this; all the more because for seven weeks, we've been immersed in something gesturing, however wildly and unnaturally, at the familiar. This gesturing, I think, is passing. Coop will come around and no longer be Dougie, and we will no longer be in any place we recognise, and it will feel both worse and better: Lynch's comic soap-opera has lulled us, and then fucked us up, and bombed us into horror. It is happening again.
Text Philippa Snow