"Twin Peaks": Can a classic succeed at being happening again?

David Lynch and Mark Frost's noir drama changed TV. Now it must change to meet TV where it is today

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 20, 2017 4:30PM (EDT)

Mädchen Amick and Peggy Lipton in "Twin Peaks"   (Showtime/Suzanne Tenner)
Mädchen Amick and Peggy Lipton in "Twin Peaks" (Showtime/Suzanne Tenner)

The problem with anything dubbed revolutionary is that afterwards, the qualities that made it bold and iconoclastic are soon adopted and widely replicated until they become a matter of course. Ordinary.

This is the puzzle that faces Showtime and David Lynch as new episodes of “Twin Peaks” finally premiere on Sunday at 9 p.m., almost five years after the auteur creator and his writing partner Mark Frost began talking about revisiting the series. Showtime first announced its intent to resurrect the surreal drama in October 2014, and the mania has been building ever since — fed, in part, by the maddening secrecy surrounding the production. Nobody knows what plot will drive these new episodes. Critics weren’t even sent review copies; the choice for reviewers was to fly to Los Angeles for the premiere or watch it this weekend with everyone else.

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That’s a superb way to build buzz and not at all effective in terms of allaying any concerns. For these new episodes arrive 26 years after the original ABC series left the air, a veritable lifetime after the fact. And though this is a revival that viewers appear to be excited about, other recent attempts scorched many feelings. Yes, Chris Carter, I’m talking about “The X-Files.”

Resuscitating  a series comes with tests beyond getting the original players to return, perhaps the topmost being that in most cases, a series evokes a point in time, captures a feeling. Conjuring the right atmosphere and sentiment again becomes tougher as more time passes. For all the hype surrounding "Fuller House," the final product felt curiously flat. "Gilmore Girls" received a warmer reception, if one can overlook the creators' stubborn insistence in maintaining Stars Hollow's ethnic homogeneity.

And depending on who you are, the assurances given in NBC's trailer for the reboot of "Will & Grace" that nothing has changed might just send shivers down your spine. Much has changed in the 11 years since its series finale aired, starting with the ways that LGBT characters are portrayed on television.

"Twin Peaks," meanwhile, has always been an extension of Lynch's imagination and obsession with absurdist quirk and retro form. And its specificity to its creator cuts its tether to any specific and familiar modern era, lashing the plot to mood instead.

Rarely if ever is Lynch persuaded by outside forces to create anything that doesn't move him, or else he would have made more than nine feature films.

What films those are! Starting in 1977 with “Eraserhead,” Lynch is the man who directed “Blue Velvet,” “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive.” The studio system challenged him to create a blockbuster and he replied with the sprawling, enigmatic “Dune,” starring his favorite leading man Kyle MacLachlan.

“Twin Peaks” is Lynch’s most significant contribution to television, although he also helmed a 1993 miniseries titled “Hotel Room,” and an oddball, blink-and-you-missed-it stab at comedy called “On the Air,” created while the second season of “Twin Peaks” was tanking in the ratings.

In the way of much of Lynch’s work, the world of "Twin Peaks"exists in an area of the country that, in the early '90s, was still relatively unknown to most American viewers.

This gave Lynch and Frost ample space to embroider a blanket of Pacific Northwest noir that feels specific to its location and is believably of the post-Reagan era. Twin Peaks is a town that reflects the previous decade’s nostalgia for the dream of the 1950s, when America was allegedly more innocent and pure. Its Double R diner moved MacLachlan’s FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper to wax rhapsodic about damn fine coffee and pie.

But Lynch and Frost depict that fantasy as illusory and bedraggled, opining instead that the Norman Rockwell vision of small-town America hides a corrupt heart.

The creators hinted at this guiding intent the moment petulant rich girl Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) gets to school and trades in her saddle shoes for vixenish red pumps before sauntering off to first period, bouncing slightly as Angelo Badalamenti’s narcotic score undulates beneath the action.

Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick), the cute waitress at the diner, goes home to a controlling, abusive husband and is enjoying an affair with the local football star Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook). The football star also deals coke and provides bumps to his sweetheart, the homecoming queen.

And that homecoming queen — yikes. Angel-faced Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee, returning for the Showtime revival), is well-liked by everyone. Meals on Wheels volunteer, loyal friend and disloyal girlfriend who is secretly sleeping with James Hurley (James Marshall), the sensitive guy who rides a motorcycle. Laura Palmer is violently murdered in the 1992 theatrical prequel that followed the series, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me”; before that she was a young woman who secretly prostituted herself and partied with rough strangers in out-of-the-way places. She hid the secret that she had been regularly assaulted by a demon named BOB that, in the series’ grimmest revelation, possesses the body of her father Leland (Ray Wise).

Laura Palmer, the kind of girl Alfred Hitchcock would have salivated to see pecked apart by a murder of crows.

Metaphorically speaking, that’s exactly what happens. “Twin Peaks” lasted on ABC for only 30 episodes from 1990 to 1991, and really only made sense while Lynch and Frost were able to sustain the mystery of who killed Laura. At ABC’s urging, they revealed Laura’s killer in the seventh episode of the second season, and the show’s ratings never recovered. For that matter, the plot lost the beat. ABC shuffled it off to Saturday nights, where it died another 15 episodes later.

(Coincidentally, the fall when the show's second season aired marked the beginning of another influential, longer lasting series that changed the TV business, but for its efficient emphasis on open-and-shut cases over characters, recounted in one-and-done episodes. That would be “Law & Order.”)

Short though its life was, “Twin Peaks” fundamentally altered television as we know it, ushering in the span of next-level dramas now known as the second Golden Age of Television. Scan your TV schedule and you’ll see glimmers of Lynch and Frost’s DNA everywhere.

“Twin Peaks” proved that cinematic technique could infuse small-screen stories with artistic depth; Lynch’s visual technique obviously permeates the series, but film aficionados can see winks to Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause.” The homage to James Dean is deeply meta; Laura’s clandestine lover James looks like the '50s icon, is named after him and played by an actor named James. Laura, meanwhile, personifies the fantasy of the postwar blonde — Kim Novak by day, Marilyn Monroe when the sun goes down. “Night time is my time,” Laura tells her friend Donna, played by Moira Kelly in "Fire Walk With Me."

When Lynch indulged his auteur sensibilities on television, it was a leap to the next level. Today viewers expect it. ABC’s “Lost” celebrated its cinematic scope, and its co-creator Damon Lindelof employs it even now in “The Leftovers.” Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy drew inspiration from the practice of sprinkling clues, that is, “Easter eggs,” throughout “Lost” in creating “Westworld.”

All those series spawned a vast community of like-minded theorists, gathering online to analyze the meanings of music snippets and brief glimpses of symbols and odd, seemingly throwaway lines of dialogue. An entire generation of detail- and mystery-obsessed viewers owe their dedicated sleuthing and perspicacity to “Twin Peaks,” even if they’ve never seen the original.

Every surreal dream sequence and disparate detail -- like, say, the opera house in “Battlestar Galactica” or the inexplicable appearance of UFOs in “Fargo,” traces back to the red-curtained Black Lodge where Agent Cooper waits, even now.

Series creators and networks also took note of the lesson Lynch and ABC learned the hard way and became unafraid of sustaining mysteries not just over entire seasons, but sometimes for whole series. In some cases the “Easter egg” becomes the mystery: With “Breaking Bad,” Vince Gilligan made the quest to figure out what happened to a lethal ricin cigarette last all the way to the waning moments of the series finale.

More typical is the drawing out of crime solving: Who steals Veronica’s virginity of “Veronica Mars” and who killed her friend Lily Kane? Who murders Rosie Larsen on “The Killing”? What’s the truth behind the disappearance of Alison DiLaurentis on “Pretty Little Liars”?

Noticing a pattern here? Television has a lasting love affair with dead girls who have secret histories, and that kicked off in earnest with “Twin Peaks.”

Plenty of articles cover the ways that “Twin Peaks” altered television drama, and whys and hows have been exhaustively chronicled by writers better versed in Lynchian history and artistic aesthetic than I am. (“Infinite Jest” author David Foster Wallace even took a crack at "Lost Highway." Who am I to compete with that piece of business?)

What’s left is the question of "what now?" Twenty-seven years after a series has broken ground, how can new storylines match the quality of all the shows it spawned? The era it essentially birthed has grown up and gone platinum.

The inheritors of “Twin Peaks” have paved the path it forged into an interstate highway that winds through Albuquerque, traverses islands that don’t exist on maps, tears through fantasy parks and holes in time that lead to the “upside down,” heading straight on through and past “Riverdale.” There is no going back to the beginning, even though Lynch revealed that the events shown in “Fire Walk with Me” are of import to these new episodes. There is only meeting television where it is or, one hopes, topping what’s come before.

Yet in a revealing story about the new series, Variety’s Maureen Ryan teased important new details out of Lynch and Showtime CEO David Nevins, including the plan to expand the world beyond the confines of that small town in Washington state. It needs to; the cast list for these new episodes is extensive enough to balloon the population count beyond the total painted on that iconic sign, including more than 200 actors. This is in addition to the original cast members who are returning for these new episodes, although among those unable to return are Piper Laurie, Lara Flynn Boyle, Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean and Heather Graham.

This promise of expansion hints at Lynch’s return to a classic theme of his: the “neighborhood story,” an American legend of streets filled with friendly folks who wouldn’t hesitate to lend a cup of sugar. The residents of Twin Peaks may have envisioned that was the world they were living in, though the reality that mesmerized viewers in 1990 sharply defied that ideal.

Viewing "Twin Peaks" in the context of modern-day America, however, is an enticing notion. For as dreary and fogged in as the pine forests surrounding Lynch's Northwest town could be, today's United States feels colder and brims with anxiety. A little throwback to strange, dreamy sojourns into beguiling spaces might be precisely the damn fine distraction we need.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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