How Twin Peaks stretches television into the unknown

The original Twin Peaks changed both series television and David Lynch’s own artistic outlook. Whatever we term the series’ recent extension, it surely shows that distinctions of format are only as important as we expect them to be.

Brad Stevens
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Al Strobel as Mike aka The One-Armed Man, Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper, and the evolution of The Arm in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

Al Strobel as Mike aka The One-Armed Man, Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper, and the evolution of The Arm in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

It seems appropriate for a discussion of David Lynch’s most recent audio-visual work to begin by mentioning an ambiguity concerning precisely what this work should be called. It has turned up on several Best Films of 2017 lists as Twin Peaks: The Return, and is often referred to as Twin Peaks Season 3. But the onscreen title reads simply Twin Peaks, and though each of its 18 ‘parts’ is individually named, these names are absent from the opening credits.

Of course, none of these issues are particularly unusual where television is concerned, and the questions they raise in this context can be traced to an uncertainty (addressed by Nick James in his editorial, Category Error, for the February issue of Sight & Sound) as to whether what we are dealing with here is a TV series (it premiered, one episode a week, on Sky Atlantic and Showtime), a lengthy film (it was screened over the course of three days at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), or something else entirely.

The original Twin Peaks is surely among the most ‘impossible’ shows to have originated in the US. If asked, circa 1989, to name those American directors least likely to flourish in episodic TV, David Lynch would have figured prominently on anyone’s list. Nonetheless Twin Peaks proved, at least for a while, to be not only a phenomenal critical/commercial success, but one that worked entirely on its auteur’s own idiosyncratic terms, melding an ironic view of melodramatic conventions with a surrealist vision. Indeed, Lynch has often been credited with irrevocably transforming television, paving the way for that Golden Age represented by The Sopranos (with its frequent recourse to dream sequences), The Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks (1990)

Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks (1990)

Yet it could just as easily be argued that television transformed Lynch, previously a key postmodern figure. Whereas modernism viewed narrative as a problem, postmodernism viewed it as a joke, a hoax that had been exposed and deserved only our derision. Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990) belong securely within this tradition, as does the feature-length Twin Peaks pilot.

As the latter series developed, however, Lynch clearly found himself caring, in an unironic way, about characters who had initially existed in inverted commas, introducing a depth of feeling that would be retained in his later, more mature output. Turning from Twin Peaks’s 1989 pilot to its prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), one is struck by the sharp difference in tone; the scene in the pilot in which we are asked to laugh at Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz)’s grief upon confronting Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee)’s corpse feels callous in a manner that has no equivalent in the later film, or any of Lynch’s subsequent theatrical efforts.

Lee and MacLachlan in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Lee and MacLachlan in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

If Lynch is unique in having progressed from a postmodernist to a modernist position, the revived Twin Peaks suggests he may now be essaying an entirely new mode – and still progressing by moving backwards. When I first saw Inland Empire (2006), I had the impression this would be Lynch’s cinematic finale; the communal celebration with which it concludes indicated he had achieved a personal/artistic resolution, rendering anything he might do afterwards redundant. And one can hardly describe the new Twin Peaks as free of redundancy; on the contrary, it is very much about redundancy, treating narrative as less a dynamic process than a form of stasis, something constantly folding back upon itself (ultimately folding all the way back to the opening shots of the 1989 pilot).

Positioning the new Twin Peaks as an expanded footnote to its earlier incarnation enables Lynch to tap into something fundamental about the storytelling process, specifically (though not exclusively) as it functions in television. The episodic series is usually seen as a format in which narrative reigns supreme. Yet by their very nature these series cannot stray too far from a point of departure, which explains why even the best of them often feel as if they are treading water. In The Sopranos, this repetitiveness is part of the point, its various plotlines dealing with individuals who are incapable of change; the Tony Soprano we bid farewell to at the end of episode 86 in 2007 is essentially the one we greeted at the start of episode one in 1999 (his total failure to profit from his numerous therapy sessions is far more revealing than anything he actually says during them).

Twin Peaks takes a different but complementary approach, narrative itself, rather than the characters’ emotional limitations, being the central concern. If long-form televisual works habitually stretch out their stories, the stretching here becomes an aesthetic event.

Twin Peaks: the Return (2017)

Twin Peaks: the Return (2017)

Take a scene from episode seven, set inside the Roadhouse. As it begins, we see Jean Michel Renault (Walter Olkewicz) standing behind a bar while a man sweeps the floor. This shot continues for almost two minutes before a phone rings and Renault answers.

An image we may at first read as an establishing shot gradually morphs into something much richer and stranger, perhaps a Godardian disquisition on the nature of work and play. Television viewing belongs to our leisure hours, an activity we engage in to escape or forget the realities of alienated labour – surely the last thing we want to do while being entertained is spend several minutes watching a man sweep a floor. Once we begin to adjust our expectations and appreciate the audacity of this rule-breaking approach, though, the shot becomes not only hypnotic but also hilariously funny, its humour being generated by our self-awareness – we laugh at ourselves for expecting to see something other than what Lynch ends up showing us.

MacLachlan and Lee in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

MacLachlan and Lee in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

The discovery that serial structures can be extended in ways that have little or nothing to do with (and may be directly opposed to) narrative progress thus brings Twin Peaks into the realm of slow cinema; the aforementioned shot could easily belong to one of Lav Diaz’s epics, whose comparably daunting running times have very different connotations. Yet Lynch demands we perceive this work in precisely those commercial terms it renders so problematic, and if the notion of the TV series as part of a flow of programming has been obscured by the existence of streaming and DVD/Blu-ray box sets, the new Twin Peaks evokes this concept through a glass darkly, even bearing ghostly traces of other televisual formats; like a chat show, most of its episodes end with performances by musical guest stars (the first season did something similar by incorporating a soap opera, Invitation to Love, into its fictional universe).

Lynch’s latest creation is thus a perfect example of a ‘between’ text – between cinema and television, modernism and postmodernism, narrative and non-narrative, work and play. Suspended precisely between two opposed regimes of images – one promising undemanding entertainment, the other stylistic rigour – it demonstrates that the gap separating Hollywood from the avant-garde may not be so wide as we might think.

 

In the January 2018 issue of Sight & Sound

The stars turn and a time presents itself

The theme of loss permeated every moment of Twin Peaks: The Return, and revealed itself as the focus of what could be David Lynch’s final work. By Michael Ewins.

 

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