Twin Peaks: a TV revival like no other

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Twin Peaks returns to television today.

For fans left hanging for decades by the cliffhanger ending of the original series, this is still hard to process. The immense secrecy around the project makes it even harder to imagine what’s coming. The elusive Twin Peaks narrative has spread into the real world surrounding it.

Long-time fans are naturally eager, but media coverage reveals pronounced interest where you might expect to find cynicism. Franchise resurrection – and criticism of it – is now de rigueur and has spread from film to TV, including The X-Files, Gilmore Girls, Prison Break, and many more. Twin Peaks might understandably be treated as yet another dubious instance.

But quite the contrary: has any TV revival after a long absence felt like such a worthy creative venture and been treated as such? Or at least a risk worth taking? Healthy skepticism is out there, but the prevailing mood is acceptance and curiosity rather than dismay at the reanimation of a long-dead property. Top publications are venerating the show with few caveats. Even Sight and Sound put the show on its cover. Why?

Firstly, Twin Peaks was cut short just as it discovered a new reason for being, setting up a paradigm-shifting new story with a cruel cliffhanger. While the conventional wisdom is that season two declined drastically in quality, it was not simply due to creative bankruptcy. ABC forced Lynch and Frost to resolve the Laura Palmer story, and the punishing network television schedule demanded they conjure a worthy replacement while still scrambling to crank out new episodes. Season two was also a network-standard but still-whopping 22 episodes, turning an artisanal, hand-crafted series into a factory production line. It couldn’t meet the quota without compromising quality in any circumstance, let alone with the key narrative engine ripped out. Despite being an influential classic, Twin Peaks never fully achieved its potential.

The revival of The X-Files, for example,  is a different story. It enjoyed nine seasons and two theatrical features, so its own dearth of compelling ideas near the end was more natural and reasonable. While a third film was floated to resolve the mythology story and might have been a reasonable capstone, what was worth resolving after the multiple endings within the show was unclear. The mini-series we got instead therefore felt like something that lived a good, long life had been exhumed. What creative demand was there for a weekly series returning the main characters to the status quo of two decades ago?

In contrast, a return to Twin Peaks by its creators holds the promise of bringing their original vision to fruition in more hospitable circumstances. The original series oscillated between the established network drama style of the era and the evolution of the form it was helping to spur. Where the Lynch-directed episodes feel outside of time despite the hairstyles and other trappings, many others, particularly in season two, are more relics of the era. The performances tend to be prosaic, the cinematography static, the electricity diminished. Lynch is pushing television forward but his collaborators can’t always keep up, delivering half-hearted drama and far-too-goofy humour, throwing off the delicate balance Lynch established between earnestness and the absurd.

This is the second and most vital reason for the new incarnation’s positive reception: its time may have finally come. Elements of the original series are still more ambitious, ambiguous, and disturbing than anything on TV since. A TV landscape that finally accommodates such avant-garde visions – including in Hannibal and Legion – may give Peaks a chance to finally embody its true self, especially now Lynch is directing every episode.

Plus, it stands a greater a chance of being recognised for its intrinsic nature, not superficially as a medley of charming and oddball tropes. Twin Peaks was an abstract, surrealist interpretation of trauma and abuse; an experiment that turned audience emotion and empathy into a Möbius strip; a mystery whose answers are not tangible but intuitive and primal; and somehow, alongside all these severe elements, a sweet small-town comedy.

This is what we hope for, but it’s folly to ignore that Twin Peaks was produced 25 years ago. As we watch the older actors and revisit decades-old features like the Red Room, we will be constantly confronted by its status as something brought back to life rather than newly born. Given Twin Peaks at its best had a timeless quality, is the passage of time its Achilles heel? Try as Lynch and Frost might, have they found a valid contemporary reason for its return? Is our own belief that you can go home again to Twin Peaks futile and naive?

We’ll start to find out in a couple of hours. Given it’s been in development for five years, we can least expect a meticulous and thoughtful revival rather than an old show with a new lick of paint and updated cultural references. Even it it’s not what we expect or it has significant flaws, we’re still about to see something special.

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