In 1990-1991, David Lynch and Mark Frost changed the landscape for scripted television forever with their drama, Twin Peaks. Even at its weakest, the show raised the bar far beyond its peers by introducing narrative, sound, and visual elements which have since been recycled to the point of being the norm for modern television.
Today, because of Twin Peaks and the many other shows it inspired (most importantly, The Sopranos), we are living through what some dub as a Golden Age of Television, where the small screen truly competes and at times surpasses the big screen in artistic and technical quality. The looming question surrounding the return of Twin Peaks for a third season on Showtime this year was whether Lynch and Frost would be able to bring anything new to the table.
After eight episodes of season three of Twin Peaks, it is safe to say that David Lynch and Mark Frost haven’t simply brought us back down memory lane, but they have challenged the current standards for quality television and raised the bar once more, leaving even the best shows of the last decade in their dust cloud. Twin Peaks is heady, humorous, surreal, and obtuse while still maintaining a narrative flow and hitting all the right dramatic buttons. It is a series which demands that we pay attention in a way very few others have the stylistic capacity to do.
The new season started out with a four-episode introduction which essentially drew a line in the sand. The Soap Opera and small-town elements of the original series were gone to be replaced with a broader storyline which opens in New York City. This new set up for the show is full of digital-age angst, darker (even self-referential) cynicism, and a good dose of “Lynchian” surrealist horror and humour.
If we had only been offered these four hours of Twin Peaks and nothing more, what was presented would already have made for a monumental achievement on the small screen. In these four episodes, Lynch and Frost managed to set up the main story with little dialogue, relying more on visuals and sound to create mood and pacing. They were also able to present a sense of direction to the plot without needing to work within the hour-long television model; they instead allowed for each episode to bleed into the next. This style makes it so that we may not necessarily know where the story is going while still having an overwhelming sensation that it is going somewhere. These first four hours masterfully point us in a direction without spoon feeding us plot points.
Once the four-hour bonanza of light, music, and sound was over we entered the main narrative. The original Agent Cooper has escaped the lodge but is still not fully woken in the real world. The evil Dale doppelganger is roaming around possibly wanting to assure himself a permanent stay in our world as opposed to being sent back to the lodge. All the while, there is a body with a missing head which may link back to Major Garland Briggs and in the town of Twin Peaks, some new mysteries abound, as well as new clues regarding the life and past whereabouts of Agent Dale Cooper and Laura Palmer.
This stretch of episodes leading up to episode eight, which we will go into in just a bit, is the “Frost-Lynch-mix” at its best. While the show gives us little bits of other storylines, the main focus is on a “not-all-there” Agent Dale Cooper who is occupying the life of a doppelganger named Dougie Jones. There is a comedic and dream-like quality to this thread which anchors the odd escapades of Dougie/Dale trying to adjust to life. Meanwhile, the other plot lines that are introduced offer just enough mystery, pseudo-answers to past questions, and quirkiness to remind us of the original series and keep us guessing to their relation (if any) to the Dale Cooper conundrum. The balance struck between straight narrative and surrealist horror and humour make the David Lynch and Mark Frost partnership something worth cherishing and what truly drives the heart of this new season.
It is at some point during this seven-episode run that we, as viewers, should all come to a realization: we are not simply watching neat little chapters of a long story which have their beginning and conclusion at the end of each hour-long installment, instead, we are watching what will essentially be an 18 hour movie. Each hour of Twin Peaks does not concern itself with resolving a plot point that will move the story forward, instead it adds more elements to a story which is organically moving forward at its own pace.
To understand the importance of this for television we must consider what the success of a show like LOST (a direct child of Twin Peaks) proved for many television executives. LOST took the the bits of Twin Peaks and even the mythology arch of The X Files, which forced viewers to tune in every week or get lost in the plot, and ran with it by making a show that was exclusively built on episodes that built upon what came the week before to make sense. LOST was essentially a binge-watchable show before Netflix and the internet actually made that a thing.
Yet, while LOST proved that it was artistically and financially viable for television to invest in shows that demanded religious weekly viewing, none of the shows that have come after have been able to truly push beyond the boundaries of the one hour “chapter” installment. From Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones, things do play out like one long movie or book, but with distinct episodes which present a problem which is solved or given a cliffhanger ending. David Lynch and Mark Frost have turned this notion on its head. They offer us episodes which, like scenes and acts in a movie, add moods and tensions, and don’t reveal the direction of the plot but only that it is indeed in motion.
What Twin Peaks did for television in 1990-1991, the new season of Twin Peaks may do for the medium moving forward. Lynch and Frost have just challenged anyone creating for television to surpass them and think outside the “installment” box. They are essentially saying that the small screen can be just as reliant on visual, sound, and mood and non-linear aspects to tell its story as the big screen – and that it can be done at a very high artistic and entertainment level.
The eighth, and final part, of this run of episodes (there is a two-week break before we enter the second half of the season), was essentially a chance for David Lynch and Mark Frost to push the envelope even further. Once we, the audience, became comfortable with what Twin Peaks had become, they gave us an hour long visual spectacle to dazzle and confound.
There are many theories as to the meaning of the episode, but I do believe we were given a visual and musical representation of the birth of many of the more esoteric elements of Twin Peaks. When compared to other hit shows like Stranger Things, American Gods and even the legendary X Files, that explain their own mythology through dialogue, Lynch and Frost succeeded in once more exploring the limits of the television medium, all the while telling all the television-shows-children that were birthed from the inspiration from the original run of Twin Peaks to catch up to daddy.
There is still a lot more to go in season three of Twin Peaks. One can only hope that the level of quality will be sustained and that there will be reasonable resolutions to main threads while leaving enough dangling questions to keep us guessing for a long while. If the show does implode on itself, and all we are left is with is the magnificence of these first eight episodes, it is still enough make every young writer and director who is thinking of working in television to up their game.
One can’t even begin to imagine what the inspiration from this season of Twin Peaks plus another individual’s genius touch can ultimately create – one need only see the long list of classic shows like The X Files, The Sopranos, LOST among as slew of others as evidence that Twin Peaks is a powerful muse for creative minds drawn to the small screen. For now, let’s marvel at what David Lynch and Mark Frost have offered us: television like we have never experienced before.
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