“Twin Peaks” invented prestige TV, and now “Twin Peaks: The Return” has come to kill it

Not your typical special effects.
Not your typical special effects.
Image: Showtime
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

That night in 1990 is now apocryphal: Sawmill worker Pete Martell, played by Jack Nance, picked up the phone and called the Twin Peaks Police Department. Between shallow breaths, he spit it out fearfully, vowels protracted: “She’s dead…wrapped in plastic.”

When ABC aired the pilot episode of Twin Peaks in the spring of 1990, it changed TV forever. When Showtime brought Twin Peaks back in 2017, it may well have done the same thing.

Being different from the other TV shows on the networks wouldn’t have been enough to blow open what had been a staid institution. But David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks wasn’t just different—it was paradigm-changing.

The characters and tropes on Twin Peaks were familiar: the high school beauty queen in trouble, the sheriff of few words, the untrustworthy capitalist, the rough biker with a heart of gold. It was America, as TV had represented it for decades. Of course there was rot underneath the veneer of all that small town proprietary—but isn’t there always?

What makes you stop everything and stare at Twin Peaks is the uncanniness of the show. The pacing is just so slightly off. When people talk to each other, they seem to speak to a spot just to the left and above of each other’s left ear. No one could ever eat that many donuts.

Why does everything feel so familiar, and yet so unnervingly different? It’s in the title: Twin Peaks is a show about doubles and doubling, about dual natures and dual motives. The owls are not what they seem. Neither, perhaps, are you.

This is what made Twin Peaks the phenomenon it was. People couldn’t not linger by the coffee machine and ask their co-workers, what exactly happened last night? The audience didn’t stay; the show was simply too weird. But the show’s  influence on TV storytelling is still felt today: Twin Peaks laid the rails for what has become known as “prestige” television.

It took a while for the creative progeny of Twin Peaks to mature, but when they did, TV became kaleidoscopic. The hallucinations and dream sequences of Tony Soprano and Don Draper couldn’t have existed without FBI agent Dale Cooper’s. The galactic spirituality that infuses Lost and The Leftovers first worked its way through Twin Peaks, Washington. Vince Gilligan wouldn’t have had the creative control he had over Breaking Bad, and auteurs such as Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese would never have their hand at serial television if ABC had never convinced Lynch, fresh from the critical success of Blue Velvet and in the midst of making Wild at Heart, to take a break from the big screen and come to TV.

In 27 years, the media landscape has changed dramatically. Every channel, streaming service, and tech platform wants original programming, and everyone is throwing money at creators in the hopes of landing the sort of prestige show that will do, for example, what Mad Men did for AMC. In 2015, John Landgraf, the chief executive of FX, coined the phrase “peak TV” to describe what he saw coming down the pike: a deluge of content that would bury viewers, so that they would not be able to pick out the good from the bland.

And he was right: In the Peak TV era, prestige TV has become predictable. As Eric Thurm argued convincingly for Esquire earlier this year, many of the shows held up as major artistic and narrative accomplishments are actually “serving you a Big Mac and convincing you it’s a steak.” In other words, they have all the signifiers of quality but none of the substance. Here are the expectations: it should be shot cinematically, star a big name or two, have a certain level of seriousness and darkness, are be “gritty” in an “it’s a real, fully-realized world” way, and generally take the form of a procedural, where answers are sought and found (or maybe sometimes not found, but then that’s just the twist). If a show has all that, who cares if it’s actually any good?

This is why 2017 was the perfect time for David Lynch to come back. Twin Peaks: The Return, a limited series that is a sequel of sorts to the 1990-1991 original (as well as 1992’s Fire Walk With Me) just wrapped up last night, and it was nothing like anything on today’s TV.

It’s convenient to throw The Return in with all the other prestige TV plays that other channels have made in recent years. It certainly seems to check all the boxes. But unlike most of the other prestige shows, The Return seems to care little for how it is perceived or received. It uses special effects that would surely elicit eye rolls for their lack of realism, in an age when other tentpole shows spend millions on verisimilitude. Lynch and Frost are giving us steak, not Big Macs, but they aren’t too bothered about how it’s served.

Like the original, the rebooted Twin Peaks never gives viewers stable ground. It shifts in tone and style, careering from soap to horror to the hour-long avant-garde experimental film that was episode 8. It is a procedural in only the most basic way; as with many of Lynch’s films (and he does call The Return a film, not a TV show), the plotting is not recursive, folding in on itself to create meaning. It offers none of the satisfying progression and resolution of, say, The Killing or The Night Of.

It’d also be convenient to lump Twin Peaks: The Return in with all the other fan-servicing, IP-mining TV series and movies that either reboot old stories or create extended universes in which new stories are told. But though the third season of Twin Peaks  does revive many of the tropes and characters of the first two seasons, it seems to do so as a project in anti-nostalgia, not audience-pleasing. As Allison Herman wrote today for The Ringer:

Lynch and Frost seemed to confront the audience far more directly with the implications of uncomplicated nostalgia—of wanting to see Twin Peaks served back, untouched or reduced to the handful of touchstones that have come to symbolize it in popular culture…. But instead of being comforting, an unchanged Twin Peaks turned out to be deeply sad.

It all adds up to a series that was wholly alien to today’s TV-watching experience. The Return was so disturbing, and difficult, that it really cannot be binge-watched. The plotting is so disorienting (Lynch has referred in interviews to the Mobius strip as a metaphor) that it defies spoiler-laden water-cooler conversation. The visual style of The Return is so sui generis that it simply looks like nothing else on TV.

In other words, Twin Peaks may have broken the formula of Peak TV. A quarter century from now, it’ll be interesting to see what sorts of spaces were opened up by The Return.