Variety Show




AS FANS DEBATE the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return, it might be worthwhile to put aside questions of meaning in favor of even thornier questions of significance: Did Twin Peaks: The Return matter? The emerging consensus appears to be that it did — that it mattered because it was the strangest or the least compromised or the most cinematic season of American television ever made. But mere extremity isn’t enough to make a show significant. Instead, importance flows from the avenues of artistic and social possibility a show opens. Those avenues are hard enough to assess quickly. But in this case, such judgments are made even more difficult by the distinct differences between the series’s two incarnations — differences not only in tone and content but in the ways that they matter. Nevertheless, we might put it this way: together, the twin Twin Peaks enclose, as if in parentheses, the constellation of forces that would foster and exhaust one particular model of quality television.

The importance of the original series lay in its unique combination of artistic integrity and fan enlistment, each qualified by the other and by the contexts in which they emerged. Its artistic integrity stood out against the background of its network television host and its crucial genres — soap opera and detective story. Complementarily, its fan enlistment was reinforced by the show’s solicitation of extreme emotional displays (soap opera) and its lure of a comprehensive solution (detective story). In “redeeming” soap opera, Lynch got credit for the show’s emotional charge. Whatever might be bad about a run-of-the-mill soap, it was not, Lynch seemed to be saying, that it provided the occasion for the strongest of feelings. And in existentializing the detective’s generic search, Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) got credit for the show’s hermeneutic thrills. Perhaps, his character suggested, the grander mysteries of life might be pursued with the same relish a workaday cop brings to a good piece of pie. Fans pursued the mystery and reveled in the emotion.

What’s more, those fan engagements took shape at the nexus of a new era of mass bookselling — hence the success of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and the other paratexts of the initial season — and the dawn of web fandoms. In crafting intensities that would be heightened by the and-then-and-then-ness of soap opera but were pegged to the series’s promise of closure, Twin Peaks opened itself to both the internal dramas of its own production — Lynch’s dissatisfaction, departure, and triumphant return — and to conventions of satisfaction that the series would undermine. What resulted, in part, was a schism between what MacLachlan and others have called “Lynch fans,” who could continue to admire the auteur’s unwillingness to bend to norms, and “Peaks fans” who could blame Lynch (or, perhaps, ABC) for thwarting their desires. (This split continues with The Return. Even fan reactions cycle and layer like the bracts of a pine cone.)

Those “positions,” were written into the series as conflicts around its internal soap opera (Invitation to Love) or around its detective process (culminating in the superb showdown between Miguel Ferrer’s FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield and Michael Ontkean’s Sheriff Harry S. Truman). But they were also written alongside the series as the supposed tensions between Lynch and his co-producer, co-writer Mark Frost. And that paranarrative would serve as the basis for the show’s uptake by academic criticism, particularly in Martha Nochimson’s The Passion of David Lynch, where she arranges responsibility for nearly every facet of the show’s success or diversion by appealing to one creator or the other.

Yet at the same time — and via those same routes — Twin Peaks would mark out both the limits and the possible transcendences of television as it was then configured. As former-ABC, current-Showtime exec Gary Levine explained to Variety, Peaks was both recognizable and innovative without requiring drastic alterations to “television”:

Decades ago, ABC executives were excited about Lynch and Frost’s pitch in part because it was, in many ways, relatively conventional. It fit easily into a number of existing TV categories: the classic nighttime soap, the murder mystery, the high school drama and the small-town saga […] “There certainly weren’t Standards & Practices issues at the time […] [Lynch’s] imagination took you to new places, not to prurient places. That was a good thing in broadcast TV.”

So it might have seemed at the beginning. But with Lynch’s second-season dissatisfactions and the gradual realization that the whole thing was built on a foundation of lurid drug use and sexual assault the show came apart, unable to maintain the generic or tonal balance the network recognized.

Once the vectors that I am calling emotion and mystery were unmoored from their apparent anchors — from Lynch-the-auteur and Cooper-the-sleuth — they revealed not where TV was but where TV would be. First, in this new era of television, self-conscious fan intensities would be central to the medium’s success. They might be free-floating or attached to particulars; monetizable directly or simply hovering over the horizon as an unslakable demand. Producers’ negotiations with those quasi-communal self-representations would set the terms for any estimation of success. Second, there would be, at the very heart of the audience, a vast desire for the weird.

It’s short-circuiting things to say that at the dawn of the post­–Cold War era there was a pan-Western yearning for some of the old magic — for distant, unseen powers to celebrate or oppose in the aftermath of a retrospectively inevitable victory; for something worth losing to in the great struggle for meaning. Twin Peaks was a signal instance of something outside the regularities of the new order. Yes, it was recognizably technocratic. And yes, it offered the continuing opportunity for grand posturings. But it intimated a world where one’s affects had as much play as one’s intellect. It carried with it all the residual, unworked-through cultural baggage of a triumphalist rhetoric unable to confront either the failure of utopia to materialize or, as we see so much more clearly now, American society’s almost immediate willingness to surrender any utopian dreams to the constrained Clintonian rhetoric of means-testing, triangulation, and “deficit reduction.” In taking up the affective burden of Cold War victory on behalf of television, Twin Peaks was all surplus; it was, in today’s terms, so extra.

Twenty-five years later, Peaks-as-TV was almost forgotten in the long march toward Peak TV. Its position in the transition to the new golden age was largely supplanted by Lost, which reconfigured its swirl of auteur/fandom/mystery/paratext/disappointment. In the new millennium, season runs had shortened; series increasingly had firm endpoints; debates about endings became routine. The canniness of a TV show that might intimate horrible things without showing them was no longer necessary: it could all be shown, and said, just about. Television and cinema had, in so many ways, converged.

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In the new Twin Peaks, no one watches TV (or movies). Television no longer exists as something like the context of everything. The TV of the first Twin Peaks — we usually call it TV II, highlighting the proliferation of channels and the possibility of personal video recording — was built on a steady, stadial rhythm: watch once a week; catch up and rewatch on your own. But the TV of the new Twin Peaks is late in the TV III era. An episode still dropped once a week on Showtime, but the service (I get my Showtime through Hulu) lets you catch up and rewatch anytime on their server. That temporal backdrop allowed Lynch to believe that the whole season could be a distended, single movie, and it allowed for viewers to binge. You might still watch Peaks as they did in olden times, but even that was nested in a radically digitized mediascape, where the old rhythms had new significance.

In some ways, the move of Peaks to Showtime was simple. For premium cable, fandom is more easily monetized and monitored: as a flow of new subscriptions. And Showtime has been insistent that The Return drove more people to its free trial and to stay with the channel than any other series. (If they had dropped the whole season at once, the free come-on would not have paid off.) Thus the low ratings for live (or “live+3” [1]) viewing are excusable in this context in part because people catch up. According to Showtime, 200,000 people would watch it live, but 10 times that many would eventually watch each episode.

Still, two million viewers is not an enormous number — it is less than half the audience of, say, Showtime’s Ray Donovan, which no one thinks is medium-defining. Nor is the new Peaks the totem of a generation still in touch with the horrors of high school; it remains, essentially, the property of those who first fell for it. Showtime has no problem with that — 19-year-olds likely make fewer crucial decisions about OTT subscriptions than their parents. Still, this is not the new television of Master of None or Insecure. Unlike the twentysomethings of those series, The Return’s roadhouse millennials gather in booths, social eddies just off the main current of the series; its fish-out-of-water Brit packs a Marvellian deathpunch in a green nitrile glove. (“What are the kids into these days? Superpowers? Sure.”)

Without having to generate or answer to a new audience, The Return was freed to concentrate on the way time had reshaped its original players and its original play. Nearly half of its episodes feature an In Memoriam in the credits. Not more loss than one would expect; not less. But so many of those deaths seem to have come between production and release that every credit became, potentially, a memorial to the impending passing of yet another actor, yet another character. That practical haunting is the ground of The Return’s radical contingency.

And that is where its importance lies: every dimension of the new series is independently manipulable. In the first series, genre still provided a relatively stable baseline against which to measure the weird and the authored. In The Return, though, there no longer seems to be any such ground, any protocol of allusive distance. The genre space of the revival is much broader — soap, whodunit, teen angst, Coen Brothers revenge, one-last-score, workplace comedy, et cetera, et cetera. Second, the temporality of the new series is unbound to stadial satisfactions. Over the first half dozen episodes, the series seemed — to many — achingly slow. But then we would have sudden bursts of exposition, as if to say, “You know, we can explain things in a minute. We can just tell you.” Those sudden, lurching, Lynchian moments might be just right or slightly off or way out, but in their manipulation they are reminders that in The Return, time, space, and tone are in constant flux.

Not that you would know that by listening to Lynch. Here he is in high-auteur mode, rhapsodizing about getting out of the way of his conscious mind and letting things fall where they should: “It comes in a burst … [a]n idea comes in, and if you stop and think about it, it has sound, it has image, it has a mood, and it even has an indication of wardrobe, and knowing a character, or the way they speak, the words they say. A whole bunch of things can come in an instant.”

The implication is that the aspects of this total idea cohere, and further that that coherence is properly Lynchian. But that is a rather old-fashioned vision of directorial practice, and it doesn’t quite capture what goes on in The Return. Instead, what is most striking is the relative independence of each of those aspects. The idea may come “in a burst,” but its components are like individual faders, each pushed or pulled, cranked up or moderated on its own, each unlocked from the others. That relative independence is absolutely necessary to the creation of interpretable gaps that fan-theorizing can rush to fill.

Writing for The New Yorker, Richard Brody finds the limits of Lynch’s art in the “intermittent but inescapable separation of style from substance, the creation of scenes that exist solely for symbol, declaration, information, effect.” This is a characteristic lament against certain allusive modes of postmodernism, and Brody aligns it with “that fateful realm of detail-fitting and of interpretive madness” that is the hallmark of Twin Peaks fandom. And while he is right to sense that the show encourages this sort of “detail-fitting,” he has no place for fans and their “theories” except as dilutions of authorial control.

I don’t think that’s how the series works. Take, for example, the graphics we see on monitors and phones. For weeks, they seemed to be amateurish, unrealistic punctuations that suggested (uncharitably) that the old man didn’t know what a phone looked like or that the budget had been spent on pricey trips to Vegas rather than design. But in “Part 8” — the one you’ve heard about with the nuclear test — the visual effects are spectacularly good. The consequence is that the previous amateurishness is now thrown into relief and takes on the appearance of a choice. It comes as a revelation that the quality of the plastic image itself is up for grabs, a dimension of manipulation like all the others.

That was a significant shift, but everywhere there are traces of Lynch’s insistence on the independence of each and every aspect of the project. In the penultimate episode, Lynch’s FBI director Gordon Cole says to his colleagues, “Listen to me.” We get a reaction shot (they are listening) and then go back to Cole. But then we get another reaction shot and then back to Cole again before he starts to unfold the tale of Judy. Why? We can be sure it isn’t a mistake. Lynch’s longtime editor and veteran TV movie director Duwayne Dunham can cut a scene for maximum efficiency (and does later). Playing with our impatience is almost funny — if there were a third pair of shots, it would be clear that it’s supposed to be funny. It might seem slow, or slightly off, and the meaning of such moments is what fans pore over. But tiny moments like this are the elemental assertions of Lynch’s control. And against that background of control, the wildly careening tonal, temporal, and spatial shifts of the series accrete meaning.

This makes episode recapping harder. (Not pointless. Sarah Nicole Prickett has been doing superb work at Artforum.) It also makes it hard for critics to strike the proper balance between mystery and emotion in their own work. In the necessary haste to get a summary judgment up, many commentators have misheard Cooper’s last line. They have him saying, “What year is it?” when he actually says, “What year is this?” The difference might seem slight. But in context, the questions mean very different things. “What year is it?” assumes there is a right, or real, answer, and that whatever that answer is might explain what timeline one was in. It is a mystery with a solution. “This,” though, gives the question a proximity and a contingency: this year, the one we happen to be in. MacLachlan’s Cooper has taken a couple halting steps back toward the Palmer house, his right hand outstretched as though he were tentatively replaying the utterly unsatisfying Q-and-A he has just had. Those moves — and the train of thought they inspire — give rise to the possibility that the year might not be the one he thinks (2017?), and that the time pocket he and Sheryl Lee’s Laura/Carrie Page now find themselves in might explain why he cannot lead her home. “What year is this?” is about feeling out of place in a place one can’t not be, not about a search for information.

The assertion of radically incommensurate timelines would be comforting in a more straightforward time-loop narrative. (Hence “What year is it?” would let Cooper off the hook.) But here time is spatialized in ways that make Cooper and Laura susceptible to transdimensional threats. An acousmatic, echoing “Lauraaaaa” sets Laura to vibrating until she reaches what Michel Chion calls “the screaming point” — a transcendent moment that marks a crucial place in the narrative, “a precise moment, at the crossroads of converging plot lines […] calculated to give this point a maximum impact” — that causes a power surge in the Palmer house so intense that its porch bulb pops. One can go to great, even compelling lengths to explain why that point is a “solution” to the problems of the series, as David Auerbach has, but it certainly felt horrible at the time.

That flickering, popping bulb presents itself at the beginning of every episode, in the Rancho Rosa Partnership leader (the production company’s animated logo). It’s a leader that changed every week, now black and white with bright red A’s, now reversed, now out of focus, now in old-school Twin Peaks battle array with blue-and-white clouds, a green bulb, and a pinebark or even sepia RR. The colors seemed, after a while, to generally sync with the episode’s tone (although that would veer), sometimes even to sync with the costume and makeup choices made for Laura Dern’s Diane. But their importance is less the way they settle into and confirm the meaning of a given installment than the way they announce the manipulability of the entire enterprise. Rancho Rosa is the housing development in Las Vegas where an echolalic Dougie Jones will house Agent Cooper’s goodness; the Double R is the legendary Twin Peaks diner where Norma will be sitting in a booth, totting up her accounts, fretting over her franchised future (RR2Go!), waiting for an Agent Cooper who never arrives. Rancho Rosa is where place is corporatized and corporealized.

The flipside of that logo comes in the end credits — all those credits, all that textual memorialization: “Starring Kyle MacLachlan,” they always begin. Then an almost useless alphabetized list of players. The lineups for the week’s band (a reminder that as The Return hoovers up one genre after another, it was happy to incorporate the variety show, as well). The logos of the tax credit authorities that have underwritten this sprawling beast. The naming of the dead. And then, at last, the zotty-electric, black-and-silver Frost/Lynch production banner, with its dangling metal seed and its radiant animation. It was the logo you knew from the original, a reassuringly disturbing, uncanny emblem of a corporatized noworld.

It would take The Return 18 episodes to demonstrate that however large the combinatorics of the Rancho Rosa opening might be, even the very world of Twin Peaks was simply a manipulable dimension like all the rest. And just as the original marked TV’s transition to the post­–Cold War era, so the end of this new season points to an era where the weird need no longer be something new to want, but something proximate, a fund of world-remaking from which to draw.

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J. D. Connor is an associate professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. His book on neoclassical Hollywood, The Studios After the Studios, was published in 2015 by Stanford.

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[1] Live+3 is a standard Nielsen metric. If you DVR a show and play it back later, that playback is timestamped and the information can be collected by the programmer. Live+3 includes recorded viewings from the first three days after the initial broadcast; Live+7 includes the whole first week.


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