Twin Peaks: Is The Return Ushering In A New Age Of Cinematic Television?

In the very first episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, there comes a single moment that effectively outlines the intentions of the revival while simultaneously functioning as a wake-up call to misty-eyed fans hoping to find some form of answers to the numerous questions that the original show posed. It comes as we witness a young, unknown man escort a girl up to a penthouse he is being paid to guard, where they share a watered-down coffee in silence and passionlessly decide to have sex.

The young man is being paid to guard a large, empty glass box hooked up to various recording equipment and surveillance devices and, while they are focused on one another’s bodies, we notice the box fill up with darkness. It is at this point that a ghostly apparition violently shakes itself into this space and eventually through the glass, ripping the couple to shreds and rupturing the frame, forcing the camera to cut and the violence to come to an abrupt end. It is happening again, people, but not quite like how we remember it.

The Return takes place 25 years later within the world of Twin Peaks, and (predominantly) centres itself around the reappearance of the maleficent forces of the Black Lodge in not only the small town of Twin Peaks itself, but also various other states such as South Dakota, Las Vegas, and New York, suggesting a more widespread and sprawling vision for the show that noticeably distinguishes it from the former series. To attempt to summarise the overall direction and intent of the show any more would, of course, be considered heresy when it comes to attempting to understand or comprehend what the famed auteur is trying to to do here. It would also be unjust and ill-conceived to do so, considering the show still has four hours left of its run and new character arcs and plot tangents are still being introduced with each new episode.

What is of far greater interest and significance is what the very existence of this show and the way in which it was made signifies for the television industry. At a time where a certain hegemonic formula for a successful and binge-worthy television series is being slowly but surely consolidated by powerhouse streaming services/television networks such as Netflix and HBO, Twin Peaks: The Return comes as a breath of fresh air. It is one that, through Lynch’s confident guidance and regulation, works entirely against the conventions of the television and streaming industry in order to pave way for a new kind of viewing experience.

This ‘new’ kind of viewing experience, however, isn’t really new at all, but only feels this way in comparison to this aforementioned formula that can be applied to most current TV shows. This formula can be described as an episode-specific model that promotes continuous and instant gratification catered to a single viewing experience, as opposed to a weekly or even daily relationship with a show that develops over time, and it makes sense in a great many ways. Much like a buffet of gluttonous and delicious comfort food, you are prompted to work your way through one satisfying morsel at a time until you feel full and can come back as soon as your hunger returns.

Twin Peaks: The Return, on the other hand, is like being ushered into a dark room, sat at a table, and having Lynch himself serve you small plates of strange and exotic food every week, before disappearing back into the darkness without a word. Sometimes each portion will not quite come together on your palate, and sometimes you will taste something so exquisite that you can’t bear the thought of waiting for more, but nevertheless – you are always hungry. With this hunger comes anticipation, and with this anticipation comes speculation. You are required to think about what is coming next.

This denied gratification is characterised by a show that revels in its incredibly slow pacing, vanishing characters, red-herring-laden narrative and deliberate attempts at misleading the viewer. Incredibly drawn-out, single take shots of people sweeping in a bar, smoking and staring at each other in silence, and at one point actually watching paint dry (come on!) halt any semblance of momentum. Characters old and new are introduced before disappearing forever, or resurfacing three episodes later, in a small insert or tiny continuation of their story. Narrative is occasionally eschewed altogether in favour of episode-long digressions into multi-sensory surrealistic images and heavy symbolism.

Even the two most popular characters of the original run of the show, Audrey and Cooper, are yet to surface in the ways we may expect, with one being reincarnated into a simple-minded banker and retaining little of his former self and the other having only just appeared, twelve episodes in, introducing herself by declaring that she is ‘tired of waiting’. All of this suggests that Lynch is methodically and deliberately going against everything we as an audience have come to expect from a television show. It also means that many people will be pushing their laptops away or turning their televisions off in frustration after any given amount of time, which is a perfectly justifiable reaction to a show that offers very little in the way of reward or payoff for the viewer. Fans of Lynch himself may even be tested, as, on a surface level at least, there is so little of the spirit of the original Twin Peaks in The Return. Indeed, at this point, it is hard to even note what has actually ‘happened’ in terms of defining, revelatory moments that inform and propel the narrative to any kind of destination.

So how is a show that is so laboriously paced and disdainful of the average viewer going to change television forever? The answer lies in its very existence. The answer lies in the fact that this was the first ever television show to premiere at Cannes, the most prestigious and arguably elitist film festival in the world, to rapturous applause and utterly flabbergasted reviews. The answer lies in the realisation that a major television network completely retracted their claims to cancel the production of this show and gave full control to Lynch when he responded by dropping it altogether, so as not to compromise his artistic vision in any way and provide us with what Mark Frost described as ‘pure heroin David Lynch’. The answer lies in the fact that, despite some of the more testing and seemingly random scenes, Lynch has crafted a television show that fits comfortably on to your screens on a weekly basis while effectively bringing what he believes to be the ‘dead’ arthouse cinematic experience to the television format.

Regardless of whether you yourself consider the arthouse to be dead or dying, as Lynch himself thinks, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he has singlehandedly transferred the cinematic experience to an episodic format with great success. Of course, he is not the first and won’t be the last of the great auteurs to do so; the number is ever-increasing, with Nicolas Winding Refn, Guillermo Del Toro, and many other notable names within the film industry transitioning from the big screen to the smaller screen. He is, however, the most significant. Whether it’s his abhorrence to the binge-and-you’re-done attitude and speedy production of most television serials, or the utter uniqueness and inscrutability of his style, the very notion that this most famed of auteurs can stick true to his ethos as a filmmaker within a constricted and episodic structure proves that this Golden Age of television has the capacity to evolve into a Golden Age of cinematic television.

This brings us back to the glass box in the empty room. The scene is perhaps the most implicative of the show’s overall intentions and can be argued as one of the pivotal moments in coming to understand, or at least feel, David Lynch’s take on the world we live in. What may upon first viewing seem like an isolated sequence adrift in a sea of loosely connected ideas changes upon each retrospective viewing, as the show continues to unfurl such moments of violence, stoicism, and isolation in abundance. Here, we witness two people who barely know each other attempting to flirt, but not really knowing how. Her coming up to the room to watch the glass box is merely an excuse to be forced into an environment with the young man – an excuse in which he gladly accepts. And so they stare at the box in silence. It stares back. As they start to undress and take their eyes off it, it continues to stare. They have forgotten about it.

Such is the reality for a disillusioned, disengaged Netflix-and-chill generation who can only connect to one another vicariously, through a medium or interface of some kind, which in turn renders both the connection and the true intent of the medium as obsolete and false. We are looking at nothing. The glass box is empty – until it isn’t. Twin Peaks: The Return fills the box with darkness and smashes the glass, rupturing the viewing experience and forcing us to watch, no matter how painful it may be. It is a rage-fuelled scream from the darkness to look around us and look at each other before it is too late, and go about changing the way we see the world by forcing us to endure every moment of it.

Words By Jake Shelvey.

Images: Showtime/Hulu.

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