[It should be obvious, but there are loads of spoilers below from the first four episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return.]
In a year that has brought us some pretty trippy TV so far, Showtime's Twin Peaks revival has managed to uncork the weirdest, wildest, most unfathomable four hours of television I have seen this year on a major media outlet.
And for David Lynch fans, that's probably going to sound like heaven.
First off, be warned: Those who know little about the world of Twin Peaks will have a tough time understanding anything about Twin Peaks: The Return. This series — at least, judging by the first four hours unveiled online Sunday — is a serious love letter to hardcore fans of the original show and of Lynch's work in general. (Those watching the TV broadcast only saw the first two hours.)
Lynch — an eccentric, visionary director known for button-pushing films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet — has assembled a rambling, oddly paced, hugely surreal story that vaults from a spiritual limbo to spots all over the country, including New York City and Buckhorn, S.D. As fans might expect, the action starts in the purgatory of the Black Lodge's Red Room, the otherworldly space where Kyle MacLachlan's FBI Agent Dale Cooper found himself trapped at the end of the original Twin Peaks, as his body was taken over in the real world by an evil entity known as BOB.
What story there is in these new episodes seems to center on Cooper's efforts to get out of the Black Lodge. Meanwhile BOB has mobilized a small group of hench people to help him prolong his time on the mortal plane. To get to that plot, viewers must dig through a mountain of symbolism, mysterious scenes and mind-bending visuals for story nuggets that surface only occasionally.
But as any Twin Peaks fan can tell you, the story really isn't the point. It's the willfully eccentric characters and purposefully obtuse scenes that fuel enthusiasm for the show. And Lynch — who wrote these episodes with co-creator Mark Frost and directed each one — takes advantage of Showtime's premium cable environment to unleash his most unbridled vision yet.
The first new episode begins with an old scene: Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in footage from the show's final 1991 episode, gesturing to Cooper inside the Red Room, promising to see him in 25 years. Later, Palmer's prophecy is fulfilled when Cooper has a new conversation with her in the Red Room 25 years later; she tells him, "I am dead. Yet I live." He goes on to speak with a one-armed man and a tree that seems to have a brain, before pushing himself through a series of trippier and trippier environments, trying to reach the mortal plane. Told you it was surreal.
Meanwhile, some of the law enforcement characters Cooper left behind in Twin Peaks have become aware of a mystery that needs solving. Sheriff's Deputy Tommy "Hawk" Hill gets a call from the Log Lady (a woman who receives psychic messages from a log she carries around) telling him that something is missing that has to do with Cooper, who disappeared 25 years ago.
Cooper, as fans know, originally came to Twin Peaks to solve Palmer's murder with the help of the town's sheriff, Harry S. Truman. Here, we learn that Harry Truman is sick (actor Michael Ontkean is retired and declined to reprise the role), so an appropriately world-weary Robert Forster pops up as his brother, Sheriff Frank Truman, joining Hawk to try to figure out what's missing.
But as much as Lynch has said he loves the characters and world of Twin Peaks, most of these original characters get very little screen time in the first episodes. Instead, Lynch widens his vision considerably, concocting another murder mystery in which a woman in South Dakota is killed and left in her bed, but police discover only her head, placed atop the body of a man, also likely murdered.
There are more than 200 people in the cast of this revival, which gives Lynch lots of room to provide cheeky parts for actors you wouldn't suspect. Michael Cera shows up as a character named Wally Brando, who is dressed like Marlon Brando's character from the 1953 film The Wild One. David Duchovny reprises his role as transgender government agent Denise Bryson. Ashley Judd, Naomi Watts and Richard Chamberlain all make brief, unexpectedly entertaining appearances.
It's tough to communicate the eccentric, often deliberately stilted nature of Lynch's scenes while also making the characters feel natural, and not every actor manages that in this revival. Forster and Matthew Lillard, who plays a school principal accused of killing the woman in South Dakota, seem to handle these scenes best. But there are a few too many moments when even the intentionally awkward scenes feel a little too mannered and not natural enough.
MacLachlan is a longtime Lynch collaborator, and he shines in every oddball situation the director puts him in, from regurgitating a noxious poison as BOB to somehow sensing every slot machine that is about to deliver a jackpot while puttering around a casino as Agent Cooper.
The first hour, in particular, starts very slowly, piled high with references to the old series and surreal, tough-to-understand moments. It's as if Lynch wanted to weed out the casual looky-loos early to make sure those who stuck around for the next three hours were familiar enough with his style to enjoy what they were seeing.
And it is an acquired taste. More literal minds — like mine — will have a tough time with episodes that can go for many, many minutes in between coherent plot points. When watching the original Twin Peaks, the core mystery of Palmer's murder was enough to pull some of us through the thornier parts of Lynch's storytelling eccentricities. But so far, the revival's spine isn't supported as strongly with the whodunit elements, which may be a problem for some viewers.
In the back of my mind, I'm always debating whether the outlandish twists I'm seeing are part of a grand plan or just a fun bit of visual dexterity from Lynch. Given the director's start as a painter, I've always wondered if his ideas for film and TV start as striking visual images, using words, plots and storylines to stitch the visuals together after he'd decided what the scenes would look like.
And Lynch has obviously assembled these episodes with care. Advances in cinematography and special effects allow him to create images with more depth and texture than were possible on TV back in the 1990s. Even shots of a character unloading shovels or placing digital chips inside a camera are composed with care and filmed with a majestic breadth of vision.
It wouldn't be a Lynch project if loads of questions weren't left unanswered. Like: Why can't Cooper form a coherent sentence or remember his past life when he returns to the mortal plane? Who or what created a third incarnation of Cooper named Dougie Jones? Why is some unseen person paying people to try to kill both of Cooper's doppelgangers? And when is Sherilyn Fenn going to show up as Audrey Horne, already?
I also wish Lynch's vision had more room for people of color. His affection for styles swiped from the 1950s and Midwestern flavors seems to preclude featuring many non-white people in these episodes, beyond performers like Latino actor Miguel Ferrer as FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield, Native American actor Michael Horse as Deputy Hawk and Nafessa Williams as an African-American sex worker named Jade.
This new Twin Peaks won't necessarily revolutionize today's TV in the way the original challenged the staid formulas of 1990s-era television. But for fans who have loved the show's surreal, subversive spirit, Lynch has supercharged every element that made the original series a TV classic.