Monday 25 September 2017

Here's why I'm waiting for new Twin Peaks with a mix of curiosity and dread...

A state of mind: Killer Bob and Agent Cooper in the 1990s' TV series Twin Peaks
A state of mind: Killer Bob and Agent Cooper in the 1990s' TV series Twin Peaks

Pat Stacey

The moment early in the first episode of Twin Peaks when a cop started to cry after the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body was a sort of marker. It was a sign that this new series from the minds of David Lynch and Mark Frost was going to be something different.

Cops on television in 1990 just didn’t do that sort of thing. They might get emotional or lose their cool or vow to the victim’s family that they’d get the creep that did this even if it took the rest of their life. What they never, ever did was blub like a baby.

This was a time when American television drama was still largely dominated by the rigidly formulaic and episodic. If a series had a long story arc, it was usually a soap opera. Just quite how different — how wild, wonderful, wacky, brilliant, baffling, bizarre, impenetrable and infuriating — Twin Peaks would eventually become, however, nobody could have imagined. They had an inkling over the next few episodes.

There were lots of things television series in 1990 didn’t have. They didn’t have an oddball FBI agent hero called Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who obsessed over “damn fine coffee” and cherry pie. They didn’t have the same actress playing two different women, one dead and one alive (this would be Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer and her identical cousin Maddy Ferguson).

Searching for answers: Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer
Searching for answers: Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer

They didn’t have characters like the Log Lady, so known because she carried a log with her wherever she went, or a sheriff named after US president Harry S Truman.

They didn’t have surreal dream sequences; occult mysticism; a backwards-talking dwarf in a red suit; one-armed otherworldly beings; demonic entities; giants who turned up offering cryptic clues to the mystery; 25-year time jumps, or gateways in the woods that led to extra-dimensional realms where doppelgangers of both the dead and the living materialised.

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Twin Peaks had all those things and more. Drawn from the same well of weirdness as Lynch’s magnificent 1986 film Blue Velvet, a dark and twisted exploration of the seedy, grotesque underworld lurking behind the white picket fences and perfectly manicured lawns of a Reaganesque suburban paradise, it threw everything Lynch and Frost could think of at the screen.

Twin Peaks was, on the surface, a murder mystery. But it was also horror, fantasy, fever dream, science fiction, black comedy and even soap opera: Peyton Place through a glass darkly.

Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper
Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper

The screen it threw all these at was a beautiful one, too. Twin Peaks was filmed like a movie, by a genuine moviemaker, not a journeyman TV hack. It was the first example of “auteur television”, from the visionary who’d given the world the startlingly surreal and frightening cult classic Eraserhead and, more conventionally, the big studio films The Elephant Man and the extravagant flop Dune. It rewrote the rules of how a weekly television series is supposed to look.

It was a sensation, a phenomenon, one long succession of water cooler moments that birthed discussion across all sections of the media across all parts of the globe. The ratings were a sensation as well . . . in the beginning.

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There had never been anything like this on television before. What makes it all the more remarkable is that this wasn’t happening on some subscription cable channel like HBO, which had only begun to venture into original programming seven years earlier. Twin Peaks went out on the mainstream ABC network, home of Matlock, Who’s the Boss? and MacGyver, and was scheduled directly opposite established favourite Cheers over on NBC.

But the shock of the new didn’t last long. After 14 months, two seasons and 30 episodes, Twin Peaks was over, cancelled as the audience headed south. In truth, it was effectively dead midway through the second season anyway, after the question of who killed Laura Palmer was answered (it was her father Leland, who’d been possessed by demon Killer Bob).

Michael J Anderson as Man From Another Place in new Twin Peaks teaser
Michael J Anderson as Man From Another Place in new Twin Peaks teaser

Once the mystery had been solved, even more viewers switched off, bored and bewildered by the off-the-wall plots and outlandish supernatural elements. Not that the mystery had been the point in the first place. Lynch said he and Frost had never planned to solve it; it was ABC that wanted closure and resolution.

Lynch and Frost seemed to lose interest long before the audience did, spending their time on new projects and leaving Twin Peaks in the hands of others, which undoubtedly impacted on the quality and consistency of the second season. Kyle MacLachlan, who has always been Lynch’s favoured leading man, said he felt abandoned.

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Twin Peaks finished as strikingly as it began. The final scene remains as powerfully unsettling now as when it was first shown. Cooper is in the bathroom, about to brush his teeth. His eyes turn black. He smashes his forehead into the mirror, which cracks into a spider web, and looks at his reflection.

Instead of himself looking back, he sees Killer Bob, who has presumably possessed him, and begins cackling maniacally.

Rather than the end of something, it looked like the beginning of something. It’s a cliffhanger that’s been hanging from the cliff for a quarter of a century. Lynch revisited Twin Peaks in 1992 with the film Fire Walk with Me, which was a prequel about the last days of Laura Palmer. Nobody wanted it and nobody liked it.

Twin Peaks returns next week with the first of 18 new episodes on Sky Atlantic, all of them directed by Lynch. This time, he and Frost say, questions will be answered. This is a continuation of the story, set in the present day. Most of the original’s vast cast are coming back, again headed by MacLachlan. A few of them have died in the interim, while Michael Ontkean, who played Sheriff Truman, is permanently retired, so his part has been recast.

Beyond that, nobody knows anything. You’ll learn nothing from the 23-second trailer, which features Lynch — or rather Lynch as his Twin Peaks character — munching on a doughnut while Angelo Badalamenti’s beautiful and hypnotic theme, one of most recognisable pieces of music ever, plays in the background.

Believe it or not, it’s playing right now as I’m writing this sentence, in a Louis Theroux documentary that’s on television in the adjoining room. How Twin Peaks is that? Maybe it’s a good omen.

I hope so, because it’s hard to know what to feel about the return of Twin Peaks after all this time. Like many others, I suspect, I’m anticipating it with a mixture of curiosity and dread. It’s coming back to a much-changed television landscape, but also one that it virtually sculpted singlehandedly. Effectively, it will be competing with the very thing it created. Competing with itself. How will it hold up?

No series since Twin Peaks has melded genres so adventurously, so recklessly and with so little regard for viewers’ expectations. And yet, its influence and its imprint is visible everywhere you look.

Twin Peaks didn’t invent multiple plotlines or the long story arc; we owe those to Hill Street Blues, a series Mark Frost worked on. But no series before it had employed them in such a daring way.

Most American dramas of the last few years share DNA with Twin Peaks. The lesson that you don’t have to tell a story in a linear fashion, that you can have diversions, distractions, departures, time jumps and supernatural elements, was absorbed by Lost.

It’s been absorbed all over again, with even more intensity, in Mr Robot and the comic book adaptation Legend.

Its darkness, occult references and flat-out weirdness are present, to one degree or another, in The X-Files (whose star, David Duchovny, is one of the original Twin Peaks cast returning), both seasons of True Detective, Bates Motel, Hannibal, American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful and even the slew of Scandi noir thrillers that dominated European television for several years.

American Gods is the latest series steeped in it. It may be pure Neil Gaiman, but it’s full of nightmarishly Lynchian imagery, too.

How will Twin Peaks fit in among all these? Is bringing it back the wise thing to do, or would Lynch and Frost have been better just leaving it hanging in television time and space?

The recent record of resuscitating old series is not good. I’m no expert on Arrested Development, but the reaction of fans to the Netflix revival, which has just been commissioned for another season, is that it’s a faded, soulless facsimile.

The X-Files miniseries was, one half-decent episode excepted, woeful. We didn’t really need to find out what happened to Mulder and Scully after the series ended. Maybe we don’t need to find out what happened next after Cooper smashed his head into that bathroom mirror.

We’re getting Twin Peaks anyway, though, and we’ll watch it anyway. Because it’s Twin Peaks. And because it’s David Lynch.

Twin Peaks starts on Sky Atlantic on Monday, May 22 at 2am, the same time as its American premiere

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