Twenty-six years ago David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” broke the mold for what a television series could be. No one had ever seen anything like it, but in the ensuing 26 years the rest of the television universe almost caught up with Lynch, creating dozens of high-quality, mysterious, quirky shows like “Lost,” “Fargo” and “True Detective” that were imbued with the “Twin Peaks” DNA.
When Lynch agreed to produce one more season of “Twin Peaks” on Showtime, his fans wondered whether he’d try to top himself or settle for a nostalgic update of the beloved characters’ lives (as in, say, “The Gilmore Girls”). Well, “Twin Peaks: The Return” wrapped up on Showtime last weekend and I can safely say that once again Lynch has delivered something that’s never been seen on television before. I definitely don’t understand what it is I just saw or what Lynch was trying to say except that it was profoundly emotional, beautiful, perplexing and spellbinding.
“Twin Peaks: The Return” seemed to be about the age-old battle between good and evil with a heavy dose of free-form spirituality. Somewhat surprisingly, Lynch seems to embrace old fashioned traditional values. Sinners who give themselves up to lust, greed, cruelty, misogyny, or drug-use rarely come to a happy end, and the old-fashioned virtues of love, kindness and bravery usually triumph, even in a world of profound pain. For all their thrashing around, evil people are frustrated in their desires.
But if the themes are old fashioned, Lynch’s storytelling techniques are revolutionary – for television at least. With “Twin Peaks: The Returned” he essentially introduces modernism to television. Modernism as a philosophy and aesthetic has been around for over a hundred years, of course. Think of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which nearly caused a riot at its premiere. Or T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” or anything by Picasso. Modernists believed that traditional forms of art were insufficient to tell stories in the modern age and created new, often-head-scratching techniques to communicate the absurdity of the 20th century.
As the most mass of the mass mediums, television never had a modernist period. With limited broadcast time and the expense of supporting nation-wide networks, television almost always opted for traditional storytelling, falling back on increasingly tired tropes developed by cinema and the stage.
Lynch began to introduce some modernist touches with the original “Twin Peaks”: a dream world with a dancing dwarf, a one-armed man, a giant, and other creatures from another dimension who talked backwards. Plus all that complicated plotting, languorous pacing, eerie shots of stoplights. But as weird as some of that was, the show still stuck to standard plot- and character-driven driven story structures.
With “Twin Peaks: The Return” Lynch smashed all traditional storytelling. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he delivered two different series under the rubric of “Twin Peaks: The Return.” One was a more comprehensible story that climaxed at the end of episode 17 in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s office. The other was a meditation on death and reality that culminated with a second ending in episode 18 that seemed designed to satisfy only David Lynch himself.
Lynch’s most obvious innovation was the show’s glacial pacing. He submitted a script that would normally be shot in nine episodes but ended up being stretched out twice as long. As viewers, we’ve become accustomed to faster and more frenetic cuts, but in the new series Lynch would let the camera linger past the limit of what you would have thought was the breaking point of your patience. The very first scene in the first episode shows a young man watching an empty box. Depending on your perspective, this was either mind-numbingly boring or mesmerizing, which is why I ended up watching the series alone after my wife quickly bailed out.
But the slow pace was nothing compared to the surreal symbolism, weird fixation on dreams and numerology, depiction of evil spirits, and most of all, the Black and White Lodges, those extra-dimensional spaces of good and evil that seem to have some kind of connection to Native American mythology. For sheer craziness, probably nothing on TV will ever match episode eight, which turned out to be the “Twin Peaks” creation story. The episode is impossible to describe except to say that it includes extraterrestrial creatures, the birth of the atomic age, flying orbs of good and evil, profound disorientation, and the Nine Inch Heels.
He also introduced dozens of characters who appeared in just one scene, only to have them disappear just when we began to care about them. Ultimately, if you wanted to survive the show you could only stop thinking and give yourself up to the experience itself.
Will the new “Twin Peaks” usher in a wave of experimental television? Clearly new business models are emerging that would support it. Showtime’s CEO and President David Nevins told TheRinger.com’s Andy Greenwald that the show was a business success – even with tiny linear ratings — because it drove more new subscriptions than any show in the network’s history. I hope future showrunners take the right lesson from this, though. It’s not enough to be weird. David Lynch is a supremely talented filmmaker with a strong moral and artistic vision who was willing to do some fan service to keep viewers happy, but ultimately delivered the show he wanted to create.
In the end, I think “Twin Peaks,” will be a unique television experience. Many shows have returned after long absences but only David Lynch had the ability, clout, fan base and imagination to deliver a very personal but perplexing artistic vision that strayed far from the core of the original series. There just aren’t that many artists who can pull this off.