‘Twin Peaks’ Is Back, As Strange And Stunning As Ever

Twin Peaks is somehow back, 26 years later, and I have a review of the two-hour premiere coming up just as soon as I massage your jaw…

“Hello, Agent Cooper. You can go out now.” -Laura Palmer

Early in the premiere, we are introduced to a young man, who sits in a large loft space in New York, spending night after night on a cozy couch, staring at a glass box on the off-chance that something miraculously appears in it.

This is Sam, and though he appears not long for this story — as he and his friend Tracey are attacked by the blurry/smokey/human? creature that emerges from the box while the two of them are hooking up — he is for a few moments a stand-in for every Twin Peaks fan who has spent the past quarter-century staring at the boxes opposite their own sofas, thinking of what a miracle it would be if new episodes of this show could somehow burst forth from it. Sam doesn’t know that’s why he’s there, much less the terrible fate that awaits him, but he is any of us who has ever told a friend, “The owls are not what they seem” and been crestfallen when they didn’t get the reference, any of us who enjoys a slice of cherry pie along with some damn fine coffee, any of us who can quote chapter and verse about Senor Droolcup, Mr. Tojamura, and the pine weasel.

Somehow, we are here. Somehow, David Lynch, Mark Frost, and a whole bunch of their surviving actors — including a few like the late Catherine Coulson, who survived just long enough to film a few scenes here at the start — have come back together after all this time to fill our boxes with this thing we’ve waited for across all those years, never really expecting to get it, not even entirely sure that we wanted it.

But was what came out of the box tonight a delight akin to Leland Palmer singing “Mairzy Doats” to Ben and Jerry Horne, or was it our version of the blurry monster, there to make us wish we’d never looked at the thing in the first place?

Well, it was definitely not a regretful monstrosity, even though it was slow and strange in ways that felt like Lynch was deliberately baiting his audience to see how much they would tolerate — and how much they actually remembered about the old show — after so much time away. Only some of the original characters returned, and most of them only briefly, with a large chunk of the story so far taking place in South Dakota with a new group of people, and structurally at points it felt like Lynch went into the editing room looking to find out how much he could randomize the order of scenes and still have the story vaguely make sense. And parts of it dragged like the worst offender of the “it’s really an XX-hour movie” nonsense plaguing current TV drama, magnified by a factor of Lynch.

And yet I loved every plodding, baffling minute of it.

Obviously, some of this is the nostalgia talking. If I haven’t spent the last two and a half decades staring at a blank screen thinking only of the idea of Twin Peaks returning, I’ve felt echoes of its genius in so many of the shows I’ve since loved that it’s never too far from my critic/fan brain, and that’s even allowing for the mess the original show became after Laura’s murder was solved. So I thrilled to see Dr. Jacoby still wearing his two-toned glasses, to see Ben and Jerry again snacking and sniping, to get those brief, poignant glimpses of the Log Lady on the phone with Hawk, both actress, character, and director all painfully aware of how little time is left. But I’m also a TV revival atheist, preferring that my darlings stay in a glass cage not in my living room, but in my memory, rather than returning as pale imitations of their former selves that make me question what I loved in the first place. Nostalgia tends to do more harm than good with these things, because they remind you of how much better the shows were back in their day.

The Return, though, never felt like a brand cash-in — Lynch and Frost returning to their most famous creation for lack of other ideas — nor like a show that had no business existing outside its original time and space. We may get there eventually, especially if we start spending more of it with the original gang and less with the citizens of Buckhorn, South Dakota. But for all of its self-indulgence with pacing and content, and for all off its opaqueness even by Twin Peaks standards, this felt thrillingly alive and fresh, even as it was continuing a story that Lynch and Frost had to abandon back in 1991 due to low ratings and various bad creative choices like the drawer knob.

The premiere only lingered with one original character, but it was the most important one, and the one whose fate was left most up in the air by the events of the finale(*). The big question I had going into all of this would be how the show dealt with the idea that the series ended with Dale Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge while a doppelganger controlled by Bob was posing as him out in the real world. All the promotional photos featured Kyle MacLachlan styled like the coffee enthusiast we knew so well; would there, I wondered, be a throwaway reference to him having escaped the Lodge years ago, to more easily set up what the new stories would be about? Instead, the premiere gives us the more depressing answer: Cooper has been trapped there all this time, along with Laura, Leland, Mike, and even the Giant, while Bob has gone rogue in the doppelganger body, growing his hair out to Hawk lengths, wearing leather, and leaving death and mayhem in his wake. It’s not a new story, but the dark continuation of the one we watched back in the day — and that Lynch and Frost are hoping enough of us remember well enough to follow now.

(*) I suppose at some point we could get closure on who died in the bank vault explosion. But I also wouldn’t object to Audrey simply reappearing, alive and well, without any explanation of how she made it out.

Having just rewatched the original series and Fire Walk With Me — and having so much of the show seared into my DNA so that I could quote certain lines of dialogue along with the characters even after not seeing some episodes since they first aired — I can’t speak to how accessible it was to those who didn’t do that recently, let alone to the poor bastards who attempted to tune in to see what all the fuss was about but didn’t want to do the homework first. But it felt relatively — again, it’s David Lynch, so everything is very relative — accessible to me (especially compared to Fire Walk With Me), in part because so much of it was about the fates of Cooper and the demon wearing his face, in part because a lot of what wasn’t about that involved Bill Hastings and the other new figures in Buckhorn.

Cooper’s the obvious choice for the return to dwell on, not only because of that 1991 cliffhanger, but because Kyle MacLachlan was always the glue that magically held all these mismatched pieces together. He could work with any character, in any setting, in any of the many sub-genres and conflicting tones that the series liked to play with, and perhaps the biggest the reason the end of the Palmer case caused so many problems in season two is that it put Cooper at a narrative distance from so many of the supporting characters, when he was essential to making them all feel like they mattered and belonged in the same show. So far here, he’s mostly playing a new character — the real Cooper appears intermittently, and is often just listening to the other Black Lodge residents tell him what to do — but is able to find a take on Bob-as-Cooper that feels reminiscent of what both Frank Silva and Ray Wise did with the show’s chief villain back in the day, but dialed back just enough to be functional as a more prominent part of the story. Bob-as-Leland was a monster who only occasional got to come out and play, and was all unleashed, disgusting id whenever he appeared. This Bob has gotten to enjoy freedom for a very long time now, and has relaxed into it, even as he’s still sowing devastation wherever it pleases him to do so. I’m hoping the real Cooper emerges from whatever static-ridden hell he was trapped in when last we saw him tonight, just because he’s a marvelous character and I want to see how MacLachlan plays a version of him who’s returned to the world after a terribly long exile, but the doppelganger was enough to carry a lot of this.

The Buckhorn case, meanwhile, was a dark mirror of what happened with Leland and Laura Palmer: respected community figure is apparently possessed by Bob and commits a savage murder of which he’s unaware, then leaves a memorably garish corpse behind. We don’t know exactly what Bob is up to with this poor guy (so well played by Matthew Lillard, whose vibrations of panic and fear were as palpable as any bit of visual flair Lynch presented throughout the premiere), but the shape of it is familiar enough to work as a stand-in to ease us back into the world and its monsters without having to spend too much time playing catch-up with the old gang(*).

(*) Most of those reunions with the original supporting characters felt simultaneously fun and obligatory: Lynch and Frost wanting us to see the brothers Horne together again, or Lucy and Andy, but not necessarily having a grand plan for them. I wouldn’t put it past either writer to make Jerry’s weed business, or Dr. Jacoby’s new shovel collection, hugely important to the larger plot, but the closing sequence at the Bang Bang Bar came the closest to feeling like the series had been continuing in secret all these years, and this was the first episode we were all being allowed to see since Cooper’s doppelganger asked, “How’s Annie?” And even that scene would have been more effective — and felt less anti-climactic — if it had taken place before Cooper’s escape from the Black Lodge and, briefly, into the glass box.

And for all my worries that Lynch might be too out of practice (Inland Empire was 11 years ago, and most of what he’s done this century has been shorter and more experimental) to helm all 18 episodes, this was the work of a director in full command of his talents and his desires. Just look at something as theoretically stock as the glimpse of the New York skyline before we get our first look at the glass box. There should be no new way to film Manhattan anymore, and no need for anyone to bother for the sake of an establishing shot. But Lynch and his collaborators somehow made it look terrifying and alien, as if they had photographed the city, then traced over it, then did a computer modeling of what they had traced. It was, like so much of Twin Peaks, an image at once recognizable and profoundly not right. Or look at the design of the tree representing “the evolution of the arm.” It’s elegantly, disturbingly simple, with the flickering lights and the lumpy, barely-detailed face somehow giving it just enough character that it could be treated as an equal to Mike or the Giant (and a stand-in for the Man From Another Place, I suppose). Image after image — the blurry monster, or Laura Palmer getting imprinted onto the Black Lodge curtains and flying away screaming — was like that; even if I’d understood zero of what was going on, I’d have been pleased just to be looking at all of this for a while.

Could Lynch have cut the glass box scenes in half? Probably. Did the sequence with the cops trying to get access to Ruth Davenport’s apartment run on for way too long? Absolutely. But if those moments, and so many others, were self-indulgent, they were also entirely purposeful. There needs to be that sense of anticipation for what will appear in the box, and when — an almost agonizing demand for Lynch and Frost to get flipping on with it after we’ve already had to wait since the first Bush presidency — especially since Cooper isn’t the first figure we see come through it, as I assumed. And the business with the apartment key was, like Ben and Jerry’s argument, an effective way to make clear that the revival could still have the original’s sense of whimsy and odd comedy, and wouldn’t just be grimdark like most of Fire Walk With Me. The key sequence surely could have made that point, and gotten its jokes across, more briskly, but it was no more drawn-out than Senor Droolcup bringing a glass of milk to a wounded, baffled Cooper in the season two premiere. This is Twin Peaks, the exasperated faces of the cops seemed to be saying; if you can’t go along with this, you may want to tap out now.

Now, the story has to start moving in a more coherent direction in the not-too-distant future — and perhaps it already has in the two additional hours that Showtime released digitally as I was writing this review — because even Lynch’s style and MacLachlan’s charisma will carry this enterprise so far. But I went into the night terrified that all the usual TV revival problems would become exponentially worse when filtered through Lynch’s own storytelling eccentricities, and I came out of it exhilarated. Baffled at times, but exhilarated. So often in the original series, I couldn’t explain why I loved what I was seeing, but just keenly understood that I did. That’s how I felt again tonight.

This was Twin Peaks, dammit. Now where’s that pie?

Some other thoughts:

* Last year, Showtime released a comically long list of names — 217 in all — of actors who would be appearing in the revival, including many who were new to the series. Among those popping up tonight besides Lillard: Jennifer Jason Leigh as Evil Cooper’s friend Chantal, Ashley Judd as Ben’s new assistant Beverly, Benjamin Rosenfield (Nucky’s nephew from Boardwalk Empire) as Sam, Madeline Zima (alum of Showtime’s Californication) as Tracey, Balthazar Getty as the man at the bar making finger guns at Shelly, Jessica Szohr from Gossip Girl as the friend of Shelly’s getting the eye from James, Max Perlich as the Buckhorn handyman very put out to be questioned by the cops, George Griffith and Nicole LaLiberte as Evil Cooper’s sidekicks Ray and Darya, and Patrick Fischler as Vegas bigwig Duncan Todd.

* When Evil Cooper is trying to hack the FBI and the Yankton federal prison system, he gets a call from a man he thinks is Philip Jeffries, the mysterious disappearing and reappearing FBI agent whom David Bowie played in Fire Walk With Me.

* Lucy and Andy’s son is named Wally, and he shares a birthday with Marlon Brando. Not bad, those two.

Finally, two bits of housekeeping: First, come back to the blog sometime around noon Eastern tomorrow for a conversation about these first two episodes with my editor Keith Phipps — who recapped the entire original series for The A.V. Club, where I imagine we’ll go much more in-depth with the references to the original series, to Fire Walk with Me, etc. The plan is to do these conversation pieces every Monday, but both vacation plans and other summer disruptions (like the return of Game of Thrones in mid-July) may complicate that. There’s so much going on in this show that the conversation format (especially with someone like Keith, who knows the original show even better than I do) seems a better approach than weekly reviews, especially without screeners or prep time.

Second, as mentioned, Showtime released the third and fourth episodes digitally as I was writing about these first two. Please don’t discuss those in the comments. Keith and I will be doing a conversation piece about those soon, either later in this week or after they’ve also aired on Showtime.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com