Twin Peaks Season Three: A Spoiler-Free Review By John Tatlock

John Tatlock prepares himself some damn fine coffee and stays up all night to bring us the first review: The alpha programme of modern TV returns, but you'll find no cosy nostalgia here, he says

There’s a conventional wisdom about the remarkable, flawed, and ultimately ill-fated 1990-1991 incarnation of Twin Peaks, that runs something like this. Series creators David Lynch and Mark Frost had their glorious vision ruined by clueless TV executives who, in demanding a resolution to the show’s central mystery – "Who killed Laura Palmer?", part way through the second season – destroyed the "goose that lays the golden eggs" (as Lynch later bitterly described it).

This is only partly true. The question of "Who killed Twin Peaks?", at least in terms of the show’s sudden and irreversible ratings decline, is that David Lynch did it, several episodes earlier, in the first 20 minutes or so of the second season premier.

It’s difficult to over-state what a colossal success the show’s first season had been. In the US, the pilot episode drew in 34 million viewers, about a third of the overall TV viewership for its time slot. To put this in perspective, that’s about half of that year’s Superbowl broadcast. The regular series then settled down to a still-impressive 15 to 20 million or so. These were, and remain, unimaginable numbers for a whimsical art-house project, and you can be sure we’ll never see the like again. Twin Peaks, with its unprecedented mash-up of soap opera, sit-com, detective story, and horror serial, may feel like a cult show, but at least at first, it was a huge and unexpected mainstream hit.

Frost and Lynch co-wrote the first three episodes, and Lynch directed two of them, but for the latter half of the first season, Lynch was largely absent, directing his film Wild At Heart, and Frost mainly took the reins.

Critical praise was near-unanimous, awards rained in, and its stars became in-demand talk show guests and bankable magazine cover fodder. Then, Lynch returned to direct the season two opener, and everything changed overnight.

There’s another conventional wisdom about Twin Peaks which is "season one good, season two bad". But for my money, the first seven episodes of season two are the show’s absolute high water-mark, artistically speaking.

Season two opens immediately after the season one cliffhanger; protagonist Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) lies bleeding from a gunshot wound on his hotel room floor, having been shot at close range by an unseen attacker. Various other characters’ fates have been left dangling also, and a solid 19 million people tuned in to see what was happening with all their favourite storylines.

Cooper then spends the next twenty minutes lying completely stationary, talking alternately to a senile bellhop and a probably imaginary giant, who speaks very slowly, saying things like "there is a man in a smiling bag". This scene goes on forever, and makes no sense at all. In short, Lynch has returned and Lynchified things, and it’s mesmerising. Though not to everyone.

Reportedly, the viewership data showed huge numbers of people giving up, presumably in bewilderment or irritation, even before reaching the first commercial break. And from the following week, ratings went into vertiginous decline, never to recover. Twin Peaks was cancelled even before the end of the season, with the final six episodes only airing after a letter-writing campaign by the more devoted fans.

Which goes to show that you can’t please all the people all the time, especially not with dialogue like "Without chemicals, he points".

As well as a decline in ratings, the critical reception began to cool, the most commonly-made complaint being that Frost and Lynch seemed to be making it up as they went along, dangling the murder mystery like bait, with no intention of solving it. As both Frost and Lynch have since confirmed, this was always exactly what they were doing, entirely intentionally.

Frost had cut his TV teeth as a writer on some 48 episodes of the police drama Hill Street Blues, a full third of the show’s entire run. He brought with him that show’s structure of a large, diverse cast, with a huge number of sprawling, open-ended storylines, and envisioned Twin Peaks following a similar format. Lynch, for his part was equally disinterested in conventional plotting, and the pair spent most of the early development period mapping out the town and its inhabitants with no particular story in mind. They had the idea of a body washed up on the shore of a lake quite early, but no more than that, and the murder mystery was always intended to recede into the background as the series progressed.

The reality of Twin Peaks is that rather than subverting or parodying the tropes of soap operas, it exalted them; the town of Twin Peaks is carefully crafted to be a beguiling place for viewers to luxuriate in. The story is not the focus, it’s simply a device for making the characters collide with one another in interesting ways.

The show’s non-sequiturs and tonal lurches from tragedy to goofball idiocy aren’t really a formal innovation, they’re just the conventions of the mainstream episodic TV of the time turned up to 11 and with no filters for even slight plausibility. "Who shot J.R.?" was a question that had animated the soap Dallas in the 80s. Twin Peaks was doing the same thing, but adding, "Was it a demon from another dimension? Hey, it could have been."

A couple of decades later, the influence of the show is everywhere, to both positive and negative effect. On the upside, Twin Peaks kickstarted modern TV’s high standards in cinematography, writing and performance. It’s hard to recall now, when you can see drama of the calibre House Of Cards or Game Of Thrones at home, while cinema is wall-to-wall superhero flicks, what a poor cousin of the big screen TV was in 1990.

The casting of a lead actor of Kyle MacLachlan’s stature was an almost unimaginably bold move back then, but a quarter of a century later, there’s little distinction between movie actors and TV actors, at the high budget end, at least. Anthony Hopkins shows up in HBO’s Westworld, Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch gets cast for glossy docu-dramas and blockbuster action movies and nobody bats an eyelid.

On the downside, Lynch and Frost’s anti-narrative trickery is surely to blame for tiring exercises in audience-baiting like Lost and Westworld; shows that don’t appreciate the difference between "conveying a sense of mystery" and "just not bothering to explain what’s going on".

Returning at last for a third season, some 26 years after its audacious and deeply strange season two cliff-hanger, the obvious question is: can Twin Peaks still cut it?

The show’s particular flavours of weirdness are now well-absorbed into the fabric of modern TV. Stranger Things did the seamless genre-hopping thing, True Detective stole the occult detective story shtick (with a lead character like a PTSD-suffering Agent Cooper), and distinctive, auteur-led shows are the TV drama norm. Even something as completely batshit crazy as Netflix’s The OA was warmly received last year; in this kind of company, old Peaks can’t help but show its age.

Outside of television, Lana Del Rey has made an entire career out of essentially being Laura Palmer singing from beyond the grave, and the show’s influence on a wide swathe of videogames from Silent Hill to Bully is clear.

So to some extent, we might ask, why now? And perhaps even, why bother? The answer, I would say, is that despite its beloved cult afterlife – and I am an ardent fan myself – Twin Peaks was Lynch’s one great failure, and remains unfinished business.

Faced with plummeting ratings as Lynch took things weirder (and far less commercially viable) in season two, the studio demanded, and got, a resolution to the Laura Palmer storyline. Despite not wanting to do it, Lynch rose to the occasion and delivered some of the most gut-wrenchingly effective episodes of the whole run, putting the previously implicit incest and domestic abuse sub-text right up front. But as soon as Laura’s killer was revealed, he seemed to lose interest and largely abandoned the programme. With Frost also frequently unavailable, working on his movie Storyville, and Frost and Lynch’s visions of the show having by now radically diverged, Twin Peaks had no firm hand on the tiller, and slumped into a sluggish parody of itself.

Lynch returned for the final episode and righted the ship in spectacular fashion, with one of the strangest hours of TV ever broadcast, but it was all too late, and the series was not renewed. Without Frost’s involvement, he then made the much darker prequel film Fire Walk With Me. The film was poorly received by both critics and fans who wanted a resolution to the TV version’s open story strands.

The passage of time has been kind to it, though, and it now stands up well as the beginning of the latter half of Lynch’s cinematic career, and the spiritual parent of his later works Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. It also answers the more interesting question: not who killed Laura Palmer, but who was she? The film asserts messy human experience as the heart of the matter, over tidy TV plotting. Re-watching it decades later, it’s possibly Lynch’s most straightforwardly moving and compassionate work, forcing you to identify with the victim, even as she spirals into self-destruction. Of course, this is not exactly a fun watch, and the film tanked at the box office.

Lynch has now declared himself retired from feature film-making, and without enough to do all day, the thwarted potential to Twin Peaks seems to have niggled at him enough to attempt this rebirth.

Lessons clearly learned, there are no other writers or directors, and no opportunities for Frost and Lynch to go out of sync. Every one of Season Three’s 18 episodes has been written both of them together, and every one directed by Lynch alone. Furthermore, Lynch’s determination to not compromise this time almost derailed the whole venture, over disagreements with production backers Showtime about scope and budget. Showtime eventually relented and gave Lynch what he wanted; the budget to make an 18-hour movie with no interference. God bless these wonderful people and their emptying wallets.

With absolute creative control, and the heavily-promoted return of almost all of the original cast, Frost and Lynch have done something more audacious than any planned-by-committee reboot would have dared: Twin Peaks Season Three, on the evidence of the opening two-parter, is almost nothing like Twin Peaks.

I shall avoid spoilers, but suffice to say, very little that’s familiar appears in these episodes. Agent Cooper is a large presence, though MacLachlan’s performance of him is something new; ditching young Cooper’s aw-shucks persona in favour of something darker and wearier. Other returning characters are so far reserved for brief cameos, albeit ones pregnant with intriguing plot strands. The geographical sprawl of the show is vastly increased, with much of the action taking place outside of the eponymous town that was previously the sole backdrop.

Probably more striking is the huge change in the aesthetics of the show. Old Twin Peaks had music as a central element, with Angelo Badalamenti’s score as celebrated as the show itself. Season Three so far features almost no music at all, but rather "sound design" credited to Lynch.

This means that one of the old show’s signature moves – moments of soap melodrama sent way over the top by Badalamenti’s haunting themes – is entirely absent. Instead, we have stillness, awkward silence, and an almost excruciating lack of pathos. To the lack of conventional narrative is added an absence of cues on how anything should feel. There is none of the old show’s romanticism, and in its place, an eerie coldness and brutalism.

This extends to the photography and lighting, which has none of the cathode-ray warmth of the old show. The colour-space is stark and hard-edged and unabashedly modern. Lynch is signposting that you’ll find little cosy nostalgia here. Also greatly amplified are the horror elements, with a couple of astonishingly gory moments that made me emit actual gasps.

In the closing minutes of this opener, we are taken to somewhat more familiar territory, with beloved characters in a recognisable place, and the band Chromatics taking on Julee Cruise’s job of singing curiously pertinent songs in the background from the original show (though Cruise is apparently also to return in later episodes). Whether this points the way forward, or is just a wink to the fanbase remains to be seen.

It’s a little too early to say whether Twin Peaks is the creative success its long-time devotees want it to be. I suspect its huge departure in style will alienate some, fascinate others, and probably bring in an entirely new audience. But as the alpha programme of modern box-set TV, it would have been a shame if it had returned in the form of a greatest hits package. Instead, Lynch and Frost have picked up their old premises and struck out for new territory.

It’s been said by people who caught the show’s one early preview a couple of days ago that it feels like a summary of all Lynch’s work to date. I’ll go along with that, but impressively, for a film-maker so late in their career, it pushes forward too.

In spite of one of the old show’s more enigmatic promises, that gum you like has not come back in style. But so far, the new gum has a lot more to chew on. Also, if the director holds to his word, and never makes another feature film, this may be last 18 hours of cinematic Lynch we’re ever going to get.

He seems determined not to disappoint, and I for one am rooting for him. And now I’m going to go and watch it again.

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