‘Twin Peaks’ in a time of peak weird­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY HANK STUEVER

Last we saw FBI Agent Dale Cooper, he was in the Great North­ern Ho­tel in the fic­tional town of Twin Peaks, Wash., star­ing into a cracked bath­room mir­ror with a ma­ni­a­cal grin. Star­ing back at him was the face of “Bob,” the crazed, in­ter­di­men­sional killer of 17-year-old Laura Palmer, a home­com­ing queen who had been lead­ing a dou­ble life across the Cana­dian bor­der as a sex worker with a co­caine ad­dic­tion.

It all be­gan when Laura’s body, wrapped with tape in a clear plas­tic tarp, washed up on a peb­bly bank not far from the town’s sawmill and was dis­cov­ered, es­sen­tially, by 34.6 mil­lion view­ers who ea­gerly tuned in for the April 8, 1990, pre­miere of film­maker David Lynch and writer Mark Frost’s outré ABC mys­tery se­ries, “Twin Peaks.” Un­told thou­sands of make-be­lieve homi­cides later, no tele­vi­sion corpse would ever have quite the same in­flu­ence. Laura’s mur­der — and the com­plex, su­per­nat­u­ral who­dunit that fol­lowed — set a tone that view­ers of some of to­day’s finest and most in­trigu­ing shows both cel­e­brate and con­tend with: The owls are not what they seem.

Those darn owls. That cryp­tic phrase, just one of the pop­u­lar puz­zlers that de­fined “Twin Peaks,” was spo­ken by a bald, bow-tied

giant who ap­peared to Cooper (Kyle MacLach­lan) in a dream.

Cooper’s dreams and wak­ing en­coun­ters be­came a per­ma­nent part of TV his­tory: The back­ward-talk­ing dwarf in the burgundy leisure suit; the en­thu­si­as­tic gulps of freshly brewed North­west cof­fee that pre­saged a na­tion’s com­ing love affair with Star­bucks; the Log Lady with her loony but omi­nous fore­casts. By Sea­son 2, view­ers fig­ured out that “Twin Peaks” never in­tended to move fast; net­work ex­ec­u­tives are said to have or­dered Lynch and his crew to solve Laura’s mur­der and get on with a new story line. Rat­ings plum­meted and the show was can­celed. Cooper’s fate was left hang­ing.

The bow-tied giant was right about one thing: Noth­ing is as it seems, and that’s how “Twin Peaks,” like a sub­lim­i­nal Bob, still makes its pres­ence felt in this golden age of tele­vi­sion. It’s there when­ever writ­ers lean on dream se­quences. Or when set de­sign calls for a flick­er­ing flu­o­res­cent bulb. When showrun­ners avoid solv­ing their story’s cen­tral mys­tery and then claim art as an ex­cuse if fans dis­ap­prove. When loyal watch­ers are left typ­ing long on­line mis­sives to one an­other af­ter each episode, des­per­ate to fig­ure out what it all means, or, most lit­er­ally, what the heck just hap­pened.

In a post-“Twin Peaks” land­scape of am­bi­tious TV dra­mas, se­crets have taken the place of dis­cov­ery. Larger Mean­ing over­came plau­si­bil­ity, and the an­swers to ques­tions are no longer as im­por­tant as the ask­ing. De­tec­tive work be­came a branch of phi­los­o­phy and meta­physics. The less you tell, the more ob­sessed a certain kind of viewer will be­come, treat­ing your show the way a dog treats one of those toys that have peanut but­ter hid­den deep in­side. It can be great fun, when it isn’t mad­den­ing.

“Twin Peaks” looms when­ever and wher­ever our best TV shows choose style over sub­stance, fa­vor­ing weird­ness for weird­ness’s sake. Blow­ing view­ers’ minds with an un­ex­pected swerve or hal­lu­ci­na­tory se­quence took prece­dence over telling lin­ear, eas­ily fol­lowed sto­ries. (The purest an­ti­dote to weird shows caught on just as “Twin Peaks” flailed, and it’s still around when you need it: “Law & Or­der.”)

Ask Agents Fox Mul­der and Dana Scully of “The X-Files,” who picked up on the never-solved, gloomy con­spir­acy as­pect of “Twin Peaks” and ran with it for years. Ask the sur­vivors of “Lost’s” Oceanic Air­lines Flight 815, whose fates were toyed with for six sea­sons by cre­ators who prized tan­gent over con­clu­sion and left them in the af­ter­world. Ask the man who called him­self Don Draper. Ask the an­droid hosts of HBO’s “West­world,” who suf­fer exquisitely, ex­is­ten­tially, if not al­ways clearly. These char­ac­ters all, in a way, de­scend from Agent Cooper and the beau­ti­ful mess that was “Twin Peaks.”

It’s the show that made us weird and kept us weird. But is that al­ways a good thing?

“Twin Peaks” re­turns Sun­day for 18 new episodes on Show­time, to a crowded ca­ble and stream­ing-TV land­scape of com­pet­i­tive weird­ness. (Ca­ble news now also counts as an un­wit­ting player in chron­i­cling the sur­real.) So many shows are still vy­ing to be an­other kind of “Twin Peaks” that hav­ing the real thing around again can feel in­tru­sive and re- dun­dant, like most re­boots and nos­tal­gic re­vivals. For those old enough to still re­mem­ber its flame­out, watch­ing “Twin Peaks” again could feel like a chore.

Lit­tle is known about what’s in this new sea­son other than that it takes place in the present and fea­tures Agent Cooper and a cast of dozens. Af­ter Show­time first an­nounced the show’s re­turn in 2014, months passed as Lynch and Frost toiled; the project was re­port­edly off, then on again. Crit­ics weren’t sent ad­vance episodes to re­view, and Show­time’s ad cam­paign is lim­ited to fa­mil­iar but fleet­ing glimpses with a few riffs of An­gelo Badala­menti’s haunt­ingly mem­o­rable mu­si­cal score.

Com­ing off the dis­ori­ent­ing fumes of so many strange shows in 2016 (in­clud­ing but not lim­ited to “West­world” and the un­even sec­ond sea­son of USA’s provoca­tive anti-es­tab­lish­ment thriller “Mr. Ro­bot,” as well as Net­flix’s trippy tele­pathic mys­tery “The O.A.”), it took con­sid­er­able con­cen­tra­tion to grap­ple with the first four episodes of Paolo Sor­rentino’s con­found­ing yet gor­geous HBO se­ries “The Young Pope,” which starred Jude Law as a power-mad but di­vinely gifted pon­tiff prone to vi­sions and in­scrutably metaphor­i­cal dreams.

No sooner was that fin­ished than view­ers were tempted down the hal­lu­ci­na­tory rab­bit hole of “Le­gion,” Noah Haw­ley’s stylish take on mu­tant su­per­heroes for FX, in which one of the more com­pelling char­ac­ters (played by Aubrey Plaza) ex­ists mainly in the mind of an in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized pro­tag­o­nist.

Lately there are two ca­ble shows that, in­ten­tion­ally or not, be­lie their “Twin Peaks” genes: HBO’s “The Leftovers” and FX’s both of which make strong cases for suc­cess­fully ap­plied, post-Lynchian, com­pli­cated weird­ness.

“The Leftovers,” co-cre­ated by “Lost’s” Da­mon Lin­de­lof and Tom Per­rotta, is in its third and fi­nal sea­son, in which a peri­patetic law-en­force­ment of­fi­cer, Kevin Gar­vey Jr. (Justin Th­er­oux), may be at the cen­ter of a Rap­ture-like event that dis­ap­peared 140 mil­lion peo­ple.

With the show now set sev­eral years af­ter the “sud­den de­par­ture” and seem­ingly on its way to­ward an­other pro­found oc­cur­rence, it feels as if Lin­de­lof and com­pany at last re­al­ized that their show’s desul­tory self-im­por­tance and pas­sive-ag­gres­sive sto­ry­telling tech­niques had tried the pa­tience of all but the most will­ing view­ers. Un­like ABC telling Lynch to hurry up and re­veal Laura Palmer’s killer all those years ago, HBO’s evic­tion no­tice af­ter the first two un­der­whelm­ing sea­sons has light­ened “The Leftovers’s” load.

Let­ting its freak flag fly while re­tain­ing its uni­ver­sal sense of yearn­ing, “The Leftovers” has be­come more watch­able sim­ply by be­com­ing more weird. Shift­ing its story to Aus­tralia, a re­cent episode found Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) in a ware­house oc­cu­pied by two women at a pi­ano, learn­ing to play a 1980s pop hit (“Take on Me” by A-ha). Why? (Why not? No elite show is com­plete now with­out a sense that the cre­ators re­ally want to show off their care­fully cu­rated record col­lec­tions.)

Same goes for last Sun­day’s episode, which took place on a char­tered sex cruise to Mel­bourne and ended with the pos­si­ble death of God. As the show reaches to­ward a promised climax, it would be just like Lin­de­lof and com­pany to drag view­ers Down Un­der and aban­don us in the desert, but some­how my faith has been re­stored enough to keep watch­ing — if only be­cause the skep­tic in me learned ev­ery­thing about let­down and be­ing strung along from the fail­ure of “Twin Peaks.”

Mean­while, Haw­ley’s “Fargo” spent its first sea­son ca­pa­bly hon­or­ing the orig­i­nal 1996 Joel and Ethan Coen film, ex­plor­ing the in­her­ent evil in hu­man na­ture, es­pe­cially the kind masked by “Min­nesota-nice” man­ners — the same aw-shucks, top layer of whole­some Amer­i­can val­ues that serve as Lynch’s gate­way to the bizarre (see Agent Cooper’s brash cheer in “Twin Peaks”). “Fargo,” too, is about a world where pleas­antries pre­cede dark­ness.

In the sec­ond sea­son, which was set in 1979, Haw­ley took things in a far more un­ex­pected di­rec­tion, weav­ing UFO sight“Fargo,” ings and Ron­ald Rea­gan cam­paign stops into the in­creas­ingly epic saga of Mid­west­ern crime syn­di­cates. What’s im­pres­sive about the show is its dis­ci­plined bal­ance be­tween its play­fully out­landish mo­ments and its nar­ra­tive clar­ity. “Fargo” works be­cause, un­like so many of to­day’s shows, its weird­ness al­most al­ways serves a purpose.

Even as Sea­son 3 strug­gles to match its pre­de­ces­sors, the story con­tin­ues apace, with Coon (yes, from “The Leftovers”) play­ing the typ­i­cally stout­hearted “Fargo”-es­que law of­fi­cer Glo­ria Bur­gle, the re­cently de­moted chief of the small Eden Val­ley, Minn., po­lice de­part­ment. A re­cent episode fol­lowed Glo­ria on a trip to the seed­i­est parts of Hol­ly­wood as she went in search of de­tails about a mur­der vic­tim who had a sur­pris­ing former life. On the way, she met a man played by Ray Wise, who orig­i­nally played Laura Palmer’s fa­ther in “Twin Peaks.” She sees him again at a bar. Is this part of the larger plot or just a sly in­stance of game recog­ni­tion be­tween “Fargo” and “Twin Peaks?”

The episode also had sim­pler and sat­is­fy­ingly strange mo­ment that could very well serve as a cau­tion­ary memo to Lynch: In her mo­tel room, Glo­ria dis­cov­ers a mys­te­ri­ous wooden box in her closet, with a sim­ple on-off switch on the top. When she flips the switch, a plas­tic hand comes out of the box, flips the switch off and re­treats back in­side the box.

I can­not think of a more in­tu­itive re­sponse to the news that view­ers are be­ing tempted once more by those lovely Douglas firs, slices of cherry pie, strong cups of cof­fee and what­ever twisted pres­ence lurks in the Black Lodge.

In this boun­ti­ful era of great TV, one could be for­given for greeting “Twin Peaks” with a wary, ex­pe­ri­enced eye. View­ers have learned to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween the good kind of weird and the self-in­dul­gent kind of weird; it was a hard­fought bat­tle with a lot of hor­ri­ble TV shows left rot­ting on the field. A se­ries that turns too quickly into a shaggy-dog ex­cuse to pon­der the mean­ing of all ex­is­tence usu­ally gets handed back, of­ten with the with­er­ing crit­i­cism that it is try­ing too hard to be like “Twin Peaks.” We can and should take a col­lec­tive pride in how much more dis­cern­ing we’ve be­come as view­ers.

Bob may be lurk­ing in the woods, but some­one ought to warn him that he’s re­turn­ing to a world he made. Twin Peaks (two hours) pre­mieres Sun­day at 9 p.m. on Show­time with episodes 1 and 2. Episodes 3 and 4 will be avail­able to sub­scribers (stream­ing and on de­mand) im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the pre­miere. Those episodes will air May 28, with weekly episodes fol­low­ing each Sun­day through Sept. 3.

FRANCESCO BONGIORNI FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

SUZANNE TENNER/SHOW­TIME

TOP: Russ Tam­blyn stars in “Twin Peaks,” which has been res­ur­rected by Show­time af­ter a two-sea­son run on ABC in 1990 and 1991.

BEN KING/HBO

CEN­TER: In HBO’s “The Leftovers,” Justin Th­er­oux plays a man who may be at the cen­ter of a Rap­ture-like event in which 140 mil­lion peo­ple dis­ap­peared.

CHRIS LARGE/FX

ABOVE: Carrie Coon and Ray Wise in FX’s “Fargo,” based on the movie by Joel and Ethan Coen. Both “The Leftovers” and “Fargo,” with their com­pli­cated weird­ness, are de­scended from the orig­i­nal “Twin Peaks.” Coon also is in “The Leftovers,” and Wise starred in the 1990s ver­sion of “Twin Peaks.”

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