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Twin Peaks: The Return Is For Fans of David Lynch, Not Twin Peaks

Yes, the original Twin Peaks series was a television series, and yes, those who proselytize about modern, more intellectually-exertive shows being serialized movies rather than that TV shows are annoying and usually wrong. But if there was ever a time to make the claim that something advertised and premiered like a TV show is a lot more like a film, it’s Twin Peaks: The Return. David Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost first delivered the show as a bulging 400-page script; later, it was whittled down into 18, hour-long chunks. More importantly, however, Twin Peaks: The Return does not feel like a TV show–not the original show it follows, nor anything since it. It feels a lot like a very long David Lynch movie–or perhaps a few of them, filleted out and intermingled.

Moreover, Twin Peaks: The Return is a show that Twin Peaks fans who have mixed-to-negative feelings about David Lynch’s deeper filmography may well not like. Many who have their own specific, personal idea of what the true, most meaningful essence of the Twin Peaks universe is may also share the criticism that this glacial, surreal, and brutal thing–Lynch’s first scripted fiction work in 11 years–does not keep with the spirit of the original ABC-broadcast Twin Peaks. It doesn’t, in many, many ways.

But the original was much more of a team effort than most people, especially those who didn’t make it all the way through season 2, would like to remember. (David Lynch directed 6 of its 30 episodes, and wrote less than that.) The Return, instead, keeps with the spirit of what Lynch has always contributed to the Twin Peaks universe: the series’ most surreal stretches, such as the long detours into the Black Lodge, and his later, more harrowing films set in its universe, either literally (1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) or very abstractly (1997’s Lost Highway). The Return, across at least its first four hours, is as slow-burning and perplexingly evocative as those films, and will appeal most directly to its adherents, instead of those who primarily enjoyed the original series as an uncanny portrait of a grieving, lusty small town. 

Fire Walk With Me is important to Twin Peaks: The Return, just as Lynch hinted it would be, not only because of its place in the Peaks mythology but because the grimy mood and atmosphere of the 1992 film flow so seamlessly to the new show. To the chagrin of many fans of the series who paid to see the film in 1992, Fire Walk With Me made clear how dark and violent Lynch’s conception of the “evil in these woods” truly was. In the movie, we saw Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and the demons surrounding her engage in the kind of hedonistic, destructive behavior that was only discussed secondhand on the show. Angelo Badalamenti’s most romantic and bittersweet themes (like “Laura Palmer’s Theme,”) were downplayed in the score, in favor of sinister, industrialized cow-punk and bursts of murky atonality. In The Return, the Black Lodge now perverts the new credits sequence, which features the same theme music and some old sights from the town, with the Red Room’s rippling curtain and the jagged black-and-white tiling spinning into the camera like an oncoming tornado.

When they’re not in the town of Twin Peaks or the great beyond, Lynch and Frost follow people with no connection to Twin Peaks outside of the fact that they’ve interacted with one of three iterations of Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan). Sometimes, as the case of the South-Dakota-set storyline starring a truly engaging, middle-aged version of Matthew Lillard, these new events bear light similarities to the occurrences Cooper investigated so many years ago. One plot provides a whole new element, delving into sci-fi and horror with the help of a monitored odd glass-box portal to another dimension. When something does actually emerge from it, it recalls the grainy, digital demonic visions of Lynch’s last film: 2006’s free-associative epic Inland Empire.

As we’re jolted back from scenes like these to the various scenarios in which the different Coops have become embroiled, Lynch and Frost channel several other genres. There are the pitch-black noir exploits of the wizened Evil Dale, who has been wreaking murderous havoc outside of the Black Lodge for 25 years, and has even started to look a little like Bob. Then, when the Cooper we all know and love is ejected from the Lodge, Lynch and Frost permit some physical comedy. He totters around like an amnesiac Mr. Bean, repeating fragments of people’s words back to them in baby-speak, clumsily eating pancakes while Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” blasts, and emptying slot machines with a vociferous “Helllloooo!” It is deeply crazy stuff, thank God.

Like Inland Empire, The Return consists largely of scenes that seem to pulsate more than progress forward, and chooses moments to gracefully fall entirely out of time and space. Perhaps the first and most notable example of this type of scene in the original Twin Peaks comes at the beginning of the second season premiere: Cooper bleeds out on the ground of his hotel room at the Great Northern while a nameless old waiter fusses about getting him a glass of milk, instead of calling the hospital. Here, Lynch forced his network-TV audience to follow his lead and stop looking for a clear risk-reward structure in his dramatic structure. Ultimately, more standard TV conventions did prevail in the original Twin Peaks—we did find out who Laura’s killer was, and afterwards, numerous side plots barreled forward to inauspicious conclusions. But the Lynch-specific brand of slow, cyclical, self-assured pacing is the entire stock and trade of The Return, which accommodates a meager amount of conventionally plot-advancing scenes and dialogue in its opening hours, even when focused back at familiar, down-to-Earth locations like the Sheriff’s Office.

The Return’s first four hours are full of moments where humor, terror, logic-adjacent symbolism, and catchily-phrased riddles all fold into one another. They’re strewn with uncanny images one imagines coming to Lynch fully formed, ones he and Frost adjusted the mythology of the show to make room for. Parts 2 and 3 explore the netherworld Dale moves in attempting to extricate himself from the Black Lodge. We see some seriously weird new kinks in the 25-years-later version of the Red Room: The Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) has mutated into a haunted tree with a bleating, fleshy heart-mouth. Another flickering, shape-shifting dimension adjacent to the Black Lodge moves in strobing stop-motion, and is full of the numbered cuckoo-clock-looking portals–flanked by odd dials, ready to lead Dale into the depths of space, or through car cigarette lighters or electrical outlets. Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine), who you probably won’t recognize unless you Google, and an unknown woman with her eyes sewn shut, linger in this realm as well, for some reason.

Most of Lynch’s countless imitators do a bad job trying to approximate Lynch because they’re not as funny as he is. The key to enjoying The Return, if you’re trying your hardest, is realizing that laughter is always an acceptable and usually the best reaction to many of Lynch’s most outlandish and challenging moments (This does not include the series’ most violent, even nauseating moments, primarily to the handiwork of Evil BOB-Cooper). I’m not just talking about the cutesier town-based jokes, though I did enjoy our brief glimpse of Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly) discussing his entrepreneurial foray into the burgeoning 21st-century Pacific Northwest pot industry. I’m talking about when Coop walks up a ladder into space and sees Major Briggs’ (RIP Don S. Davis) floating head–that is funny. Watching Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) spray-painting shovels gold–almost in real-time, with no explanation–is funny. I don’t know if Michael Cera playing Andy and Lucy’s The-Wild-One-obsessed son Wally is funny in its specific content, but on a larger scale, it’s an extremely funny thing to give a good seven minutes of uninterrupted screen time.

There is little to steadfastly understand; it’s just fun for fans to make slack connections between all the bits of occult lore you’ll remember if you have a strong memory of the show and Fire Walk With Me. The best part of watching Lynch is giving one’s self over to that sense of gleeful non-comprehension with a gentle letting-go, rather than a forceful kick off the side of the pool. You don’t have to understand the meaning of that “Sycamore” street sign Dale glances at while driving through the housing development, remember why Laura’s arms “bend back,” or overthink the interdimensionally-significant properties of strong black coffee (in this case, there’s a latte, too, that is pivotal) and cooked corn. Theorizing is fun, of course, but that’s all it is; with Lynch, you’re never going to strike something solid if you keep digging. The visceral impressions the haunting and hilarious scenes leave, with their vague symmetries and demonic watermarks, are the warm heart of Twin Peaks: The Return, as with all of David Lynch’s best work.