Twin Peaks: The Return – A Subversion of TV Revivals

Rather than attempt to recapture its former glory, Twin Peaks: The Return did something totally new.

Twin Peaks: The Return is a failure. That is, if we’re talking about it as a revival of an iconic series from the early nineties. Fans who wanted to watch their favorite quirky characters in a cozy mountain town solving mysteries and engaging in crisscrossing soap opera affairs, with the occasional dip into surrealism, instead got an extended David Lynch film. Fans expecting to find out what happened to Audrey Horne, or whether Bobby and Shelly were going to be okay, or an answer to the question “How’s Annie?” were left out in the cold. A few exceptions aside, The Return defiantly declined to provide closure up until its very last minute.

The Return is one of the most fascinating, groundbreaking works of art to have ever aired on television. It succeeds as a wholly original work, challenging the audience to completely transform their expectations for a TV series. Instead of attempting to recapture the magic of its original run, it’s a subversion of a series revival, forcing fans to let go of the past and acclimate to something totally alien.

Twin Peaks, both new and old, makes hypocritical bullshitters out of us all. I used to scoff at fan theories about the nineties series, theories that would futilely attempt to piece together a sound through line out of the uneven grab bag of surreal Lynchian imagery, co-creator Mark Frost’s intricate soap opera plots, and all the other crap that other writers and directors introduced throughout the second season (the Pine Weasel, anyone?). It was my argument that the Twin Peaks experience was more about how it made you feel than anything else. Trying to tease full logical sense out of it was pointless.

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But then why did I read Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks and why its follow-up, The Final Dossier? Why have I read numerous Return fan theories (Cooper is stuck doing the same thing over and over forever! Coop and Laura have crossed over into our reality! The last two episodes are meant to be watched at the same time! Everything’s cool, Cooper’s already won!)? Why do I still hope someone somewhere is going to explain to me what in the blue hell is going on with Audrey?

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Now I’m on the defensive as diehard Peaks fans all over the web claim it’s about the journey, not the ending, which, okay, is sort of just a variation on my “it’s about how it makes you feel” argument. Nevertheless, I resist their claim!

It sounds braindead obvious to say it but I just need to highlight how absurd it is to suggest the journey or the destination can be taken irrespective of the other. If that were really true, Showtime could’ve just not aired the last episode, or Lynch and Frost could’ve written it but not bothered shooting it, or you could just choose to not watch it, or at least the last 15 minutes of it. The ending puts the journey in a new light. The destination is connected to the journey.

That said, I understand what these fans are getting at. The Return did such a thorough job of systematically decimating any and all expectations we had of television storytelling that I imagine very few of us expected it to close out with a bow neatly tied on top. The basic concepts I learned in screenwriting class about planting and payoff, cause and effect, were regularly ignored. Characters we followed nearly the whole series were unceremoniously shot. Storylines with no apparent connection to anything else were introduced and never revisited. Information we’d already learned would be repeated. New characters and plots were introduced well over halfway into the entire series run.

The penultimate episode technically delivered more of a conventional climax than the actual finale, bringing together everything that’d been setup earlier for a big showdown. But, even then, it made bizarre choices like bringing Dale Cooper back to Twin Peaks in the nick of time, only for him to stand idly by as other people defeated his evil doppelganger. And then the finale showed up and handily wiped away everything we’d previously known (possibly even the events of the original show).

To be clear, I enjoyed the finale quite a lot. It was a really cool Lynch film. But there’s no denying it was a major downer for Twin Peaks fans. It ended on a note that some convincing fan theories have spun as actually being positive, but, regardless, if the final moments of Dale confused about the present year and Laura screaming bloody murder left you with a warm and fuzzy feeling, you’re a huge weirdo.

Since it ended, most of the critical response I’ve seen has been loath to find any fault with how the series closed out. However, writing weekly reviews of The Return, I’ve arrived at all manner of contradictory dichotomous analyses and I’m comfortable in saying this was brilliant, enthralling television that left me very disappointed. Yes, it was mainly about the feeling, but the original Twin Peaks was also a soap opera and I got caught up in a lot of these characters’ lives. It sucks how few of them got any closure. Hell, some barely got any development.

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A question hanging over The Return is why did it have “Twin Peaks” tacked onto the front of it in the first place? A persistent concern I had and one that, amazingly, I don’t think I’ve once seen discussion of, is how bizarrely characterless this show was. Take Shelly, for example. She’s one of the returning characters who got quite a lot of screen time and yet, how much do you feel you know about middle-aged Shelly?

Young Shelley had an abusive husband she was terrified of. She was having an affair with Bobby. She had hopes of a better life and viewed Norma as a mother figure. She had a bit of a mean streak (remember that brief moment we catch her laughing about Leland falling onto Laura’s coffin?). She was often a victim of her circumstances but at times rose above them and demonstrated she was stronger than the male screw-ups she’d gotten herself involved with.

There are developments about middle-aged Shelly too, broadly speaking. She and Bobby have a daughter who she cares for and is worried about. She fell out with Bobby, though we don’t know why. She’s dating a drug dealer who she’s giddy over, but all we know about him is he can do a magic trick with a coin. She’s happy for Norma and Ed. I think that about covers it.

Like Fire Walk with Me before it, The Return was a Lynchian mindfuck with some familiar characters sporadically flittering in and out, disconnected from the main plot. (I recognize there are exceptions. We got a lot of new information about Sarah Palmer, for example, though, again, nothing I’d call closure.) In fairness, the show was really Kyle MacLachlan’s. The focus was Cooper. But with Coop/Dougie near-catatonic and Mr. C. a man of few words, the characters we spent the most time with were the ones who rarely spoke and showed little development. Some new characters were developed fairly well. I’m surprised how much I ended up knowing about the Mitchum Brothers by the end. Still, overall, The Return was just so stuffed with things happening that, when I think back on it, I recall imagery, not people.

Lynch has expressed frustration with the film industry in its current state and there’s the thought that he used the new Twin Peaks as a vehicle to pack full of the ideas he’ll never get a chance to put into the cinema. I don’t doubt this is at least partially true. However, it’s too cynical of me to suggest Lynch tricked the world into funding and watching a series of brain farts by slapping Twin Peaks on the cover.

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The auteur has said that he truly loves Twin Peaks and that the longform nature of television is exciting to him because it allows him to explore a world thoroughly. It’s just that his idea of what constitutes the world of Twin Peaks doesn’t match up with anyone else’s. It doesn’t seem to be the characters, who are relegated to the background. It’s not the town itself as most of The Return was spent outside of it. Maybe he just means the surreal stuff? After all, he did expand the Black Lodge lore considerably and, funnily enough, for all my crowing that it’s impossible to understand the rules of the Black Lodge, that ended up being some of the clearest stuff to follow.

It seems Lynch most wanted to use the surreal elements of Twin Peaks to delve into the themes of dark and light, good and evil. But…that’s sort of all Lynch’s film work already. So, again, why was this called Twin Peaks?

A friend of mine who did not enjoy the revival and gave up on it a few episodes in, felt that The Return was riding on a lot of good will from the original series. He, and many fans like him, would not have even bothered if it had just been called “Lynch’s Tales from the Spookyzone.” However, if, indeed, the plan was to trick hapless Peaks fans into watching The Return, the jig was up as soon as it premiered.

To its credit, The Return made no secret about how unwelcoming it was going to be to newbies and old-school fans alike right out of the gate. The first two episodes were slow-moving, barely took place in the titular town, and were aggressively dark, charmless, and molasses-paced. The premiere dared you to continue watching. It was very upfront about itself: if you weren’t on board from the start, you were unlikely to get on board later.

If, early on, The Return pushed away fans looking for more of the classic series, making clear it was a very different show, then one could argue it had no business being called Twin Peaks. But I believe it’s still important it was, in fact, Twin Peaks because, in this way, it added to its function as a subversion. The Return subverted expectations of dramatic television in multiple ways: it eschewed conventional storytelling, incorporated weekly musical guests, and in places turned into straight-up arthouse cinema. Added to all of this, it subverted reboots.

In a sense, this made The Return a true successor to the original Twin Peaks after all. The nineties series used the medium of television for something that had never been seen before and that could never be fully understood. The Return did the exact same thing. If it had come back pushing comfort and familiarity, presenting the town looking the same way, populated with the same characters, having the same affairs, would it have worked? Or would it have felt stale and sad?

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If this sounds like a crock, well, I kind of think it is one (I’m back on my hypocritical bullshit!). After all, though I took all of what The Return was serving up, I still held out hope the whole time that I’d find out what had happened to Audrey and that Coop would get his marbles back. But The Return mostly cured me of these expectations, too.

If you go back through my or any other critic’s episode-by-episode analysis of the show, or listen to one of the many podcasts that ran concurrently with the series, everyone goes through nearly identical stages of grief. First, they find Dougie/Coop a breath of levity in an otherwise somber production. This morphs into a hope and/or assumption that Coop will soon stop being Dougie. This quickly escalates to frustration that the Dougie plot is still going. Finally, there’s acceptance that Dougie is here to stay. By the time Coop actually did turn back into his old self, many fans had resigned themselves to the possibility it would never happen, so it was a pleasant (though short-lived) surprise.

Again, I’m not going to pretend that what little we got of Audrey and Coop Classic was not still disappointing. However, I can’t deny that The Return’s approach to only alighting upon, but never indulging in, nostalgia is what became its main draw. The fact that all we knew was that we had no idea what was coming is what made the series boundlessly intriguing, leaving us in breathless anticipation of the next episode. Technically, Lynch could have pulled this off without calling it Twin Peaks, but to witness him both expand and deconstruct what Twin Peaks was, to watch as he changed what we thought we knew and what we expected to feel from something called Twin Peaks, made this already subversive media even more subversive.

Also, it’s not as though the show totally avoided being Twin Peaks either. It did interface with its past, but in a way that felt melancholy toward, rather than celebratory of, nostalgia. The Double R was having its soul sucked out by franchising. Audrey’s dance was performed in her mind and interrupted by an act of violence. Unavoidably, all the returning characters were markedly older. Catherine Coulson, who played the Log Lady, was dying of cancer and the show did not shy away from this reality. She filmed her scene in which she announced she was dying and then died four days later. Another reboot that did something similar to great effect is T2: Trainspotting. Both that film and The Return acknowledge their pasts, but with a sad longing, recognizing it can never be recaptured.

It is perfectly within your rights to assert that how this reboot was approached resulted in a failure and nothing more; that this was not Twin Peaks; that it was just a weird Lynch thing. If that’s your assessment, I honestly can’t dismiss it as invalid. Maybe it mostly was just a weird Lynch thing (apparently Lynch had final cut on everything and wrote additional material without Frost that he simply approved, without edits).

However, I can’t deny that, even though disappointment was absolutely one of the feelings I was left with at the end, I also came away (perhaps foolishly) open to more Twin Peaks in the future. This isn’t like Arrested Development, which tried to catch the same brand of lightning in a bottle a second time and instead fell flat on its face. It’s not Fuller House, which shamelessly trots out the same trite pablum it peddled decades ago, promising nothing but the predictability it wonders aloud about in its horrible theme song. Twin Peaks: The Return was a subversion and that’s what kept it exciting and fresh.

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The thing is, I’m not sure how deliberate all this subversion was. Sure, Lynch can get pretty meta. After all, he went so far as to put a clip in The Return from Sunset Boulevard, the film that he yoinked Gordon Cole’s character name from. However, there’s always an odd genuineness to the man. It’s become commonplace to suggest Lynch is screwing with fans (I’ve suggested it myself), but I don’t know how deeply he thinks about his work outside of the work itself. I’m not sure he pays much mind to how the show interacts with the fans and vice versa, or how it fits (or doesn’t fit) into the television landscape.

Then again, Dougie and the many red herrings that made us think Coop was going to wake up or otherwise be rescued (the coffee spit-take, the visit to the doctor, the cops fingerprinting him) do seem like a long con. I imagine we’ll never know how much of this stuff was simply how Lynch and Frost thought the storyline should progress and how much was deliberately done to mess with fans’ expectations. We also don’t know how exactly Frost’s influence figures in (though The Final Dossier does shed some light on this). I understand he was the main proponent of the soap within a soap, “Invitation to Love,” from the original series. Maybe he’s the secret meta mastermind behind everything, toying with fans’ hopes and dreams.

The simpler explanation may be that there’s no point, in Lynch’s mind, to retreading old ground. Lynch is a true artist and an artist must always challenge himself to create something new. The moment an artist is fully comfortable, simply popping out more of the same because it’s easy and familiar, they’ve lost a vital aspect of their identity. They’re less of an artist and more of an assembly line.

Lynch recently said he wouldn’t rule out another season and that makes perfect sense for him. We can trust he’s not saying it out of a cynical cash grab motivation or out of a sad, fumbling attempt to continue reliving the Twin Peaks glory days. I’m sure that for him, Twin Peaks is just one type of canvas with a particular set of brushes that allow him to express and explore new ideas. Why would he rule out another season if he’s free to create anything within it?

I’m for it, but I have to keep telling myself (and telling myself and telling myself) to stop expecting closure. If I get any, it’ll be by happenstance. Unlike season five of Arrested Development, which I dread because I expect more depressing attempts to recapture the joy of its classic seasons, I’m all in for more Twin Peaks because I have absolutely no clue what I’ll get. I just know I’ll get something unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, because Lynch is an artist and an artist creates.

I still want to know what’s going on with Audrey, though.