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Return to Sender: Revisiting ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’
May 30, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments
 

I hit the wall — literally — in episode three. I may yet stick it out for the entire 18, but as of right now, that looks unlikely.

First of all, the praise for the revival of Twin Peaks. David Lynch’s re-imagining of his 1990-‘91 cult classic scored a better-than-average 73 out of 100 on the TV-review aggregate site Metacritic, based on 26 critics’ reviews. “Two hours of uncompromising surrealism and horror,” wrote one effusive critic, noting that, this time around, Lynch’s vision promised to be almost entirely unconstrained by network notes. “Fascinating imagery, disconnected story ideas, and inter-dimensional nightmare antics,” another reviewer wrote. It’s up to viewers to piece the story together, inasmuch as there is a story — any story — or else sit back and let the strange tableau wash over one, like a sea sponge in an incoming tide. “God, what a good show this is,” another wrote. “Who cares who killed who?” Well, perhaps the 17.2 million viewers who tuned in to find out who killed Laura Palmer on Nov. 10, 1991, in the Lynch-directed episode Lonely Souls, but never mind.

“Beautiful and puzzling,” another critic wrote, then added, “funny and exciting” for good measure.

Well, one-out-of-four ain’t bad. If you bat .250 in baseball, that’s a pretty good average for a hitter.

Ed Bark of this parish was somewhat more perspicuous — perhaps because he’s an adult — and used words like “weird,” “rambling” and “numbing nonsense” to describe a show that is, well, weird, rambling and replete with numbing nonsense.

Another doubter admitted, “It’s hard not to feel like I’ve been completely, utterly duped.”

That’s how you feel, I thought to myself, after watching the third episode and before forcing myself to sit through a fourth. How do you think Showtime feels?

Despite all the hype — and, let’s face it, Twin Peaks: The Return was the very definition of hype — the premiere managed just 619,000 viewers on first viewing, though as anyone who knows anything about TV in the modern age also knows, the ratings themselves are bogus. Showtime prefers to measure success in subscriptions, anyway, and the service cites a record number of sign-ups so far, not to mention viewers watching on other platforms (1.7 million and counting).

Yes, yes, you say — these are different times. Only a curmudgeon, or a crank, would point out that the original Twin Peaks’ ratings (34.6 million viewers for the 1990 pilot episode, according to The Hollywood Reporter) crashed to “just” 7.4 million viewers the night it was cancelled.

Times have changed, clearly, when 1.7 million is the new 7.4 million. Call it new math, call it what you will, but these are the times we’re living in.

Ratings have nothing to do with quality, of course, or whether a show is good or outstanding or even worth watching.

I was part of the hype. In a May 8 post for this very site, I wrote an item about what I admired about the original Twin Peaks, and my hopes for the revival, 25 years later.

Now, having watched four of the 18 planned episodes, I can safely say: Ed Bark was kind. Overly kind.

Now I could choose to trot out adjectives like anyone else, but instead I want to explain what it is I loathe — and I don’t use that word lightly — loathe about Twin Peaks: The Return.

First of all, it has next to nothing to do with Twin Peaks, save a handful of grayer-around-the-gills cast members and a slipstream of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em celebrity cameos (Naomi Watts, [right], Robert Forster, Michael Cera and David Duchovny gone full-on as Agent Denise Bryson). In style, tone and even content, Twin Peaks: The Return resembles Eraserhead more than anything in the original Twin Peaks — a pastiche of performance-art pieces featuring a cavalcade of grotesques cavorting around the screen, screaming through sewn-shut mouths with no apparent rhyme or reason or upchucking lunch all over the dashboard in the family sedan.

Of course, Eraserhead was 88 minutes, not 18 hours, and Lynch was 31 when he made it, not 71. An artist is supposed to mature as he or she grows older, not regress, like something out of Benjamin Button.

Then there’s the violence. In the second episode of The Return, Agent Cooper’s evil twin — Lynch prefers the German word doppelgänger, but that’s pretentious; let’s just call it what it is — promises to kill Darya, his underwear-only-clad sometime lover to her face, and then after a couple of moments of pillow-talk confessional, punches her twice in the face — in full close-up, blood and crunching nose-bone cartilage filling the screen — then pushes a pillow over her face, sticks a handgun on the pillow and shoots her in the head. Kiss-kiss, bang-bang. Art! The sound alone is frightening, as it should be: Lynch has credited himself in the end titles as Twin Peaks: The Return’s sound-designer-in-chief.

The original Twin Peaks could be violent, too: In the Lynch-directed Lonely Souls, Leland Palmer slowly and sadistically punches a teenage girl to death, all-the-while grinning manically.

But there’s something especially perverse and disturbing about being forced to watch Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, top and right) — who we remember as the kind face behind the one quintessential decent human being in Twin Peaks — channel his inner Leland Palmer by punching a scantily-clad woman senseless before murdering her.  

Sure, we watch TV for entertainment as well as art, but on some basic level, aren’t you asking yourself: Do I need this?

“Beautiful,” “puzzling,” “funny,” “exciting.” Puzzling, yes. Beautiful. Ugly. Not funny. Anything but. Exciting? No.

Episode three opened with an incoherent set piece — a distraught woman with her mouth stitched closed mumbling words in subtitles (“Mother is coming! You must go!”), somebody banging on the walls and Agent Cooper, again with the dazed and confused look, and billowing red curtains — that went on an on for, what, five minutes? Ten?

Then there was the scene, moments later, where Deputy Hawk, aka Tommy Hill (Michael Horse, right), Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) and Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson, right) are gathered over a table of clues, saying things like, “Something is missing,” “If it’s not there, does that mean it’s missing?” “If it’s missing, does that mean it’s not there?” “If it’s there, but we can’t see it, does that mean it’s missing?” with each line seemingly separated by five, 10, 20 seconds of pregnant pause.

One of the wonderful things — just one of many wonderful things — about the original Twin Peaks was the way it created a strong sense of place, a rain-soaked small town in the Pacific Northwest, and never strayed from that town’s roots.

Among the many, many miscalculations in The Return, is the way the story, such as it is, hopscotches all over the country, from New York to Las Vegas to what looks like New Mexico, with nothing linking it together but Lynch’s fevered imagination.

Twin Peaks: The Return is obtuse, undisciplined and annoyingly insensitive, with no sense of guile or self-awareness — let alone a basic grasp of storytelling — and self-indulgent to a fault.

I watched the Twin Peaks revival more-or-less back-to-back with new episodes of Better Call Saul, The Americans, and Fargo. Bad mistake, that. The storytelling in all three — just pick one episode, at random, of any of them — is as sharp as a finely cut diamond. There have been scenes in Fargo and Better Call Saul this season that are as fine as anything I have ever seen on the small screen.

A colleague who disagrees with my take on Twin Peaks: The Return admits to being mesmerized by the signature flourishes, those small touches like the lime-pink lettering in the titles and the “spooksome” bass-synth, while admitting that, in parts, it’s “narcoleptically” slow.

The original was a homespun whodunnit, “with gothic twists and damned fine cherry pie,” and this is most certainly not that.

What it is, though, is a mess, a study in incoherence for the sake of being incoherent, dolled up in fancy dress and pretending to be important.

“It’s hard not to feel like I’ve been completely, utterly duped,” that one critic wrote, one of the few not to be taken in by Lynch’s stylistic excesses.

The late, great Pauline Kael had a better word: “Hornswoggled.”

Never mind duped. I’ve been hornswoggled.

 
 
 
 
 
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3 Comments
 
 
robert creth
Nihilism is the "Old Black" and I don't have time to spend wallowing in this world view. I gave it about 45 minutes and realized that I just didn't care. Sophomoric is the word I would use to describe it.
Jun 1, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
Dennis Robles
I guess you never heard of surrealism/ abstract symbolism/ unconventional filmmaking like Fellini, Jodorowsky, Cronenberg, Noe, etc. Lynch brings a breath of fresh air in that department. I too enjoyed the old series, but I find the current series entertaining and mesmerizing. Is the violence harsh and grotesque, yes? But we are in an era of television where TV violence has manifested at the same level of intensity as in films, and perhaps even more. I do find it the episodes I have seen, quite compelling, and the slow parts, a relief, to catch my breath for the next.

I think one can nick pick scenes to death and miss the forest from the tree. I can understand how one can get sucked into a series and feel ripped off, but then there's "Lost."
May 31, 2017   |  Reply
 
Alex S.
Sorry to disappoint, Dennis, but I'm familiar with all the filmmakers you mentioned. I've even seen the documentary 'Jodorowsky's Dune,' which is especially instructive because Lynch took his own whack at Dune, as you know. Not everyone liked Lynch's version, but I did. Greatly. I've now seen 6 episodes in all of the new Twin Peaks and, if anything, my position has hardened. It is, to my eyes, utterly devoid of heart, compassion and soul. It's cynical, lazy, nasty, ugly to look at and self-indulgent to a fault — but, hey, I've had my say already. I'm not perfect, in any event: I admire Terrence Malick's films greatly, on a deep personal level, whereas not many cineastes do. So I'm not unfamiliar with how passionate film fans can agree to disagree. Each to his own, and her own. In the meantime, might I suggest you have a look at Jodorowsky's El Topo, on an endless tape loop, say? I suspect you'll find it more engaging than anything in Twin Peaks: The Return.
Jun 9, 2017
 
 
 
wilberfan
A big fan of the original series, I only lasted an hour into the first episode of Return. The Emperor, indeed, has no clothes.
May 31, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
 
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Good news, TVWW readers: David’s new book from Doubleday, The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific is available on Amazon for $20. (Paperback will be available September 5th, here.)

Doubleday says: “Darwin had his theory of evolution, and David Bianculli has his. Bianculli's theory has to do with the concept of quality television: what it is and, crucially, how it got that way."

"The Platinum Age of Television is an effusive guidebook that plots the path from the 1950s’ Golden Age to today’s era of quality TV. For instance, animation evolved from Rocky and His Friends to South Park; variety shows moved from The Ed Sullivan Show to Saturday Night Live; and family sitcoms grew from I Love Lucy to Modern Family. A high point is the author’s interviews with Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Matt Groening, Larry David, Amy Schumer and many others...Bianculli has written a highly readable history." —The Washington Post

 

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