[The following review discusses the first four episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return.]
Sometime in my mid-twenties, I stopped listening to people describe their dreams. Friends and acquaintances still occasionally foist their self-fascinated ramblings on me, moments during which I wait for a chance to change the subject without seeming too rude. Dreams are based on histories — a lifetime of memories and associations that even the closest friend or most attentive partner would find impossible to learn in full. Emotions are based on context — and without that context, they get lost in the translation from being felt to being uttered.
Dreams are David Lynch’s muse: He creates sounds and images that seem to come from another dimension, and his relationship with narrative coherence is estranged at best. His craftsmanship and imaginative leaps are undeniable, but his willingness to sacrifice context for archetype means that his work rarely draws from me the intended emotional reactions. Take the teens on the original Twin Peaks. Donna, James, Bobby, and Audrey so seldom look, talk, or act like teenagers that I’ve always found it difficult to connect to their anguish or stay invested in their hijinks, like Audrey pretending to be a hooker at her dad’s Canadian brothel. And the more improbabilities that creators Lynch and Mark Frost piled onto Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) — homecoming queen, girlfriend of the football team captain, a biker’s secret lover, a disabled child’s tutor, Meals on Wheels volunteer, psychiatric patient, cocaine addict, incest victim, prostitute, underworld demon/messenger — the less I cared about her. She went from an everygirl to the virgin-whore dichotomy. People contain multitudes, but Twin Peaks made Laura Palmer into the kitchen sink. (Not literally; only Josie was transformed into a household object.)
The 1990–91 series, like much of Lynch’s other work, depends on an implied investment in the sanctity of the white suburbs/small town. The convoluted love triangles — nearly as hard to follow as the histories on Game of Thrones — underscored the theme that Twin Peaks, Washington, is a weirder and nastier place than its flanneled sleepiness would seem to suggest. (My city person’s fear of small towns and empty space — and my post-Columbine upbringing, in which the sudden massacres of students prevented me from seeing Laura’s death as an ur-trauma — are also reasons why the original show never sold me on the stakes of its universe.) Lynch told us his dreams, but we can only take them seriously if we agree on the emotional valences of the content of those dreams. Time has made Twin Peaks legendary — but it’s also in large part diminished the impact of its violence.
Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime) jettisons the outdated premise of the white suburbs as a bastion of innocence. In fact, it leaves behind the series’ namesake town for the bulk of the action — and is much more compelling for it. Appearing nearly 26 years after the Season 2 finale, which found FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) stuck in the hellish Black Lodge while his evil doppelgänger was freed to wreak havoc on our world, The Return offers just enough nostalgia to reward loyal fans while mostly following the two Coopers as they skirt the various hellmouths that connect Earth to the otherworldly Red Room. Sunday night’s two-part premiere was gorgeous, intriguing, terrifying, and wry — when it remembered that we’re supposed to be dealing with realistic, or at last identifiable, emotions. The third and fourth installments, now available on Showtime’s streaming site, are even better — but that's said with the same reservations.
Expensive photo shoots with the series’ original cast have breathlessly amped up excitement for The Return. But Agent Cooper — and, later, Lynch’s semi-deaf Gordon Cole and Miguel Ferrer's cantankerous Albert Rosenfield — are the only characters we should be happy to see. The original Twin Peaks is filled with amateurish acting, but at least during that first run, the performers had developed a rapport through practice. Without that lived-in chemistry, the already-stiff actors just stand and shuffle around each other.
Other series have used time jumps to rearrange the chess pieces and illustrate how much can change in, say, three or five or seven years. Either defiantly or lazily, The Return does the opposite by keeping the bulk of the Twin Peakers exactly where they were nearly three decades ago, with little accounting for how the characters might be changed by doing the same thing for the past 20-some years. And so dingbat Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) faints when she sees the sheriff (Robert Forster) use a cell phone. (Forster plays the sheriff brother of Harry Truman; Michael Ontkean, who played Sheriff Harry in the ’90s, declined to join the new production.) All zero of the fans of biker James Hurley (James Marshall) must have cheered when Shelly (Mädchen Amick) spots the graying dope at the Bang Bang Bar and lies, “James is cool. He’s always been cool.” Native American deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) somehow doesn’t roll his eyes when the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) calls him up to prophesize that his “heritage” will help him divine the whereabouts of the missing-for-25-years Agent Cooper. Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer), and Agent Denise Bryson (David Duchovny) also appear in the first four episodes. Slyly, the cast credits aren’t revealed until each hour’s end, so we have no clue going in who will emerge in any given installment.
Duality is Twin Peaks’ one constant. MacLachlan is usually cast as patrician — Charlotte’s first husband Trey on Sex and the City, dentist Orson Hodge on Desperate Housewives, the mayor on Portlandia — because he looks and enunciates the part. But the actor mostly pulls off “Mr. C,” Agent Cooper’s shadow self, who sports a jet-black, combed-back bob, a too-shiny leather jacket, and a snake-print shirt. (Add sunglasses and you wouldn’t be able to tell MacLachlan from Gene Simmons.) The Return inadvertently makes the two women (Naomi Watts and Nicole LaLiberte) who love the Coopers look deeply stupid — oh, and, by the way, there are three versions of the FBI agent now, because David Lynch. Mr. C is revealed as a maybe-kinda accomplice in the Black Dahlia–inspired South Dakota murder mystery established in the pilot, which comes instantly alive through fantastic performances by a humane Jane Adams and a panicked Matthew Lillard. And then the show jumps to another paranormal portal high above New York City. If you want a full accounting of why, you’re watching the wrong show.
I’m not gonna presume to understand what extraterrestrial demons are into these days, but one of the continually flummoxing developments of the original Twin Peaks was Bob’s failure of imagination: He was evil incarnate, but spent all that time victimizing a handful of young women? (The current Congress could teach him a lesson in true depravity.) Mr. C’s motivations seem similarly small potatoes, and so it’s a relief when we’re released from all earthly bounds and begin floating in wondrous purple skies and traversing through outer space with a zombified, amnesiac Agent Cooper. He ends up at that most bewildering and constrictive of places — a casino — and as frustrating as it is to watch the formerly peppy investigator stumble through the most basic human interactions, it’s also heartbreakingly suspenseful to watch this adrift child in a middle-aged man’s body struggle to find home. At last — an emotion we can all connect to, with a specific context we can understand.