It’s been nearly 26 years since the last episode of Twin Peaks aired on ABC. In that quarter century, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s drama — a bizarre murder mystery set in a small Pacific Northwest town where the corpse of popular teen Laura Palmer is found wrapped in plastic — has acquired a two-pronged reputation that goes something like this:
1) The first season is an utter masterpiece, and among the most influential TV dramas ever made, with the creators of shows like The X-Files, The Sopranos, and Lost all pointing to it as an inspiration;
2) The second season is an utter disaster, with which Lynch and Frost were barely involved, and should be avoided at all costs.
The truth is, appropriately for a show like Twin Peaks, stranger and more complicated than that, and it makes a rewatch before the series returns to life on Showtime on May 21 a tricky thing. Lynch has remained mum about how much of the original series he thinks might be useful for viewers to watch (or rewatch) before the new episodes begin, though he did note at the Television Critics Association press tour that the prequel movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me would be valuable, since it chronicles the final days of Laura Palmer’s life.
As for the original series itself, the first season more than lives up to its reputation. It’s a seemingly incongruous mix of tones, in which each cast member seems to be starring in a different kind of show, but the strange parts and the raw emotional honesty somehow tie everything together, and Frost (a veteran of more conventional TV shows like Hill Street Blues) was able to provide just enough narrative unity to make Lynch’s trademark weirdness feel coherent. Those eight episodes are incredible, and more than worth revisiting before the Showtime revival.
But so, for that matter, are the first nine episodes of season two, which bring the Palmer investigation to a conclusion. In fact, making my way through the series on Netflix over the last couple of months, I was startled to realize how many of the show’s most iconic moments — both my favorite piece of odd Twin Peaks humor and the show’s single scariest scene — take place over that nine-episode stretch. The Twin Peaks that lives in the collective memory of all who experienced it requires those nine hours, not just to bring closure to the Palmer case, but because this was the series with all its elements working in stunning harmony.
And then… well, that’s where season two’s reputation comes from. Lynch wasn’t involved for a long stretch, other than a few appearances in his recurring role as hearing-impaired FBI boss Gordon Cole, and the difference between genuine Lynch weirdness and the other writers’ imitation of it was palpable and awkward. And without the murder case as a spine for the whole series, many of the characters who had functioned perfectly as bizarre side dishes were suddenly being treated as main courses, without being remotely complicated or interesting enough for it.
It’s possible that the revival may refer to some post-Palmer storylines, but that seems unlikely, and most of those later episodes are so dire that any viewer (newcomer or alum alike) would be better off jumping straight from that ninth episode to the finale. Lynch returned to direct it, and while not all of it works (there’s an interminable scene with Audrey chained to a bank vault door), there’s a dazzling sequence where Cooper finally gets inside the mystical “Black Lodge” that’s worth the price of admission, and among the strangest things ever put on network television. (At close to 10 minutes, it’s longer than the bank vault bit, but earns its duration, as well as the amount of time within it that’s just Cooper going in circles trying to find a way out.) And the ending will almost certainly be a part of the new episodes, so it has more utility than what came before.
But if you’re going to skip everything from “Dispute Between Brothers” through “Miss Twin Peaks,” here are some of the stranger — and usually very badly-done — things that happened in between. (Now, some of these stories began during those first nine episodes, but nearly all the ones that did continued past the end of the Palmer case, and no longer had its shadow to hide their ridiculousness.)
Nadine went back to school.
Big Ed’s wife was already one of the first season’s more cartoonish figures — a one-eyed paranoiac obsessed with inventing silent drape runners — but she was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, especially with that short episode order. Season two, though, spent a lot of time on a traumatized Nadine regressing to her teenage self — while also becoming super-strong due to her adrenal glands going into overdrive — going back to high school, joining the wrestling team, and pursuing football star Mike Nelson, who initially wanted nothing to do with this creepy old lady (who kept inadvertently injuring him), then became sexually infatuated with her. This is one of many season two storylines that feels like it was pitched as a writers room dare, then somehow made it into the final product and hung around for a loooooong time.