In the lead up to The Return of Twin Peaks, much internet ink was spilt about how the original show transformed television and paved the way for “Prestige TV.” With Twin Peaks: The Return coming, with David Lynch and Mark Frost having written every word, and with Lynch set to direct all 18 hours of the show, the question was raised: could Twin Peaks perform the same trick twice? Would TV once again be revolutionized by what Lynch described as an 18-hour film?
At this point, 8 hours into The Return, the short answer is: it’s too soon to tell.
The Long Answer
While we won’t know exactly how The Return will impact TV for many years, it’s worth examining just how Lynch & Frost transformed the medium in the early 90s, and evaluate just how closely The Return is taking a similar approach this time around.
And while The Return is doing its very best to avoid categorization or expectation, it is clear that Lynch & Frost have created something different from other Prestige TV, even as they emulate many of its tropes for their own purposes. In this regard at least, it’s similar to the way they used the TV of 1990 to build the original Twin Peaks. To put it simply: Twin Peaks has always taken what was popular in the moment, and added a level of capital “A” Art to the process.
Art and Entertainment
While it’s not usually smart, necessary, or constructive to put hard labels like “Art” or “Not Art” on any creative endeavour, it is useful for an exploration of what makes The Return feel so different from other Prestige TV. So I’m going to be putting labels on The Return and other programs, not to make hard cases for either of them, but as a shorthand for what separates the two. Doing so may also help us answer the question whether The Return will change future TV.
So to start answering that question let’s ask two more: what makes a work of film, television, or literature Art in the first place? And what is it if not Art? There are dozens of answers to these questions, and people a lot smarter than me have posited them for decades, but the simplest, most elegant solution I’ve come across is from David Foster Wallace and his novel Infinite Jest.
David Foster Wallace was a pretty smart dude – he’s the one who coined the term “Lynchian” to describe the unique qualities of Lynch’s films – and Infinite Jest is a pretty smart book. It deals with addiction, trauma, family dysfunction, aesthetics, tennis, and a million other things. But it’s also extremely entertaining. In fact, the book itself is a carefully constructed balance between entertainment, and, you guessed it, Art. The Art asked the tough questions about the serious subject matter, while the entertainment allowed you to laugh and marvel at the silly characters, absurd situations, dramatic doublecrosses, and evolving mysteries that moved a fairly conventional plot forwards.
Generally speaking, Art as opposed to Entertainment1 could (for my purposes here at least) be defined by the ability to expose realities of the human condition that are hidden, camouflaged, or often ignored by people, stories, or a culture at large. Entertainment is a bit more self-explanatory, but it’s basically defined by simple pleasures that don’t require the reader or viewer to ask questions, to consider their own role in events or existing societal structures, or to challenge the foundations of the story itself.
In Entertainment focused TV (and books and films), the good guys are clear good guys, you more or less know they’re going to win, and the path of their victory is formulaic. In the end, the bad guys get their justice, and we all learn a little something about the growth it takes to overcome our obstacles. Disney (and subsidiaries) are masters of Entertainment storytelling.
Art, on the other hand, never presumes a social dynamic, and often subverts expectations to reveal challenges that the protagonist may or may not be able to deal with at all. The hope, in Art, is to reveal something new to the viewer or reader, to fundamentally reconsider their understanding of something, and thereby reach a level of catharsis that’s new or unexpected, compared to Entertainment’s relatively familiar experience.
Twin Peaks and Art
In the original series, the base of the show was the prime-time soap opera – with its interweaving storylines and backstabbing, trope characters and plots, and heavy doses of romance and subterfuge – mixed with the police procedural crime drama. These were two of the most common and popular show types on the air in 1990.
The Art aspect took on the form of oddball yet loveable characters, an unending murder mystery, Lynch’s own visual precociousness, and a mixture of supernatural world-building and a not-so veiled commentary on small town America. The original Twin Peaks featured Lynch’s surrealism and willingness to explore the dark parts of American society, wrapped up in Frost’s previous project as lead writer on Hill Street Blues. While it’s a bit simplistic to say that Frost brought the Entertainment while Lynch brought the Art, it’s a fine short hand.
The result (for the first 13 episodes at least), was a show that refused to allow the good guys to win, or for the audience to feel comfortable at any stage. The police and FBI barely followed a single procedure, and even the soap opera remained relatively inaccessible to the audience, often because the characters themselves felt like they were driving the drama, not the show’s writers.
This willingness to subvert audience expectations and explore both subject matter and storytelling avenues that were new to TV paved the way for today’s Prestige programming. Everything from The Sopranos through Mad Men to Game of Thrones contains more Art, and less pure Entertainment, on account of the mold-breaking Lynch & Frost performed in the early 90s.
Which means that The Return is now playing on the tropes and expectations of today’s Prestige TV, which is itself more Artistic than what existed back in 1990. I’ll primarily be looking at three aspects of the series to make my point: characters, plotting, and visuals.
Dynamic characters, whose motivations and activities are allowed to gradually reveal themselves over the course of the show, now form the basis of hits like Game of Thrones and Mad Men. Plot lines are now left to dangle for multiple episodes or even seasons – even as fans clamour to see more of them – often returning at convenient times to maximize their impact. In terms of cinematography and directing, shows like True Detective and House of Cards each set the basis of a distinct, HD (and now 4K) ready visual aesthetic that features incredible production quality and sets a mood for the series.
For The Return, Lynch & Frost have taken those elements, dialed them up to eleven, and added their own remarkable sheen of Art cinema to the entire experience.
Pushing the Boundaries
As of Part 8, The Return has featured multiple characters who have appeared only once, or in one episode. Lynch & Frost, in the 1990 pilot, showed an incredible aptitude for revealing almost the totality of characters and their relationships in a single scene. In The Return they have done the same with Richard Horne, Becky and Steven Burnett, Deputy Chad, Wally Brando, and a host of others. That strength has allowed them to let characters stew for lengths that would be unmanageable on other Prestige TV shows.
While the sheer number of characters has driven some viewers to anger (especially when some returning favourites, like Audrey Horne and Big Ed, are yet to be seen), it’s a testament to the expectations we are working with that two scenes and approximately three minutes of screen time with Doris Truman are considered more than enough to create not just a heart-wrenching back story for the character, but establish and then subvert our understandings of her relationship with Frank Truman.
In terms of plot, Lynch & Frost are pushing the slow burn – with the accompanying expectation of a glorious finish – of something like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones to an extreme that is, once again, driving some fans to outrage. Dale Cooper’s meandering path out of the Red Room and into the life of Dougie Jones is taking the idea of a long-awaited dramatic payoff to levels not seen before. As we came to realize it was to be Cooper’s return described in the title of the new series, we assumed it would be quick. Instead, it’s become downright glacial.
At once similar to, and at increasing odds with, Don Draper’s long-foretold plummet out of a Madison Avenue tower, Cooper’s story is less a story of a main character, and more a story around a main character. Cooper/Jones is not ensnared in love triangles or complex sociological constructs2, nor are the physical threats surrounding him intensely present so much as they are shadowy forces off in the distance. His travel back towards Twin Peaks is not Cooper’s story alone, but, if we are to trust Lynch & Frost, all the story lines we see: many of them appearing in only the briefest of snippets in one episode out of ten.
Visually, Lynch has quite simply surpassed anything seen on TV before. This may be easy to state in the aftermath of the visual spectacle that was Part 8, but even without that episode, Lynch established The Return as a Prestige show head and shoulders above the rest.
The skyline shots of New York and Las Vegas – tired tropes from every show set in those locales – were shot with a level of dazzle (I believe that’s the correct technical term) that had fans wondering if those were the real New York and Las Vegas. In terms of hues, Lynch has effectively been filming with vantablack3 wherever possible, forcing viewers to crank up the brightness, close the blinds, and, when nothing clear presents itself, to listen to the sounds.
When he does use colour and light however, it’s in flawlessly composed shots like Ray and Doppel-Cooper exiting prison cells, or Cooper/Dougie experiencing breakfast in a splash of immaculately articulated citrus tones. The finely detailed and immaculately lit outdoor establishing shots from Twin Peaks. The lighting, colour, and set detailing on something as relatively mundane as Dr. Jacoby’s power hour. Gordon Cole whistling between an ear of corn and an atomic blast. Very few shots in The Return are throwaways – something even the most detailed of Prestige shows struggle with at times.
But these elements – character, plot, and visuals – go beyond merely aping Prestige TV. Just like with the original series, Lynch & Frost are going beyond the boundaries of anything we’ve seen on television before. They are, in other words, re-introducing a new level of Art to the whole process.
Art Students All
First, characters. 217 speaking roles over 1,080 minutes means there’s a new speaking role every five minutes. This, on its own, would be impossible to manage in any meaningful way unless some characters are treated less as characters, and more as props, plot devices, and symbols. The challenge is that audiences hate when they’re clearly shown a character that is any of those things.
However, Lynch in particular has extensive history and skill in doing just that. Having shown ominous cowboys in Mulholland Drive, video-taping representations of evil in Lost Highway, and key plot expositors in the form of a homeless woman we see once in Inland Empire, Lynch has developed a special talent for having us continually question which characters are essential to the plot, and which ones exist purely for the feel of a particular scene, setting, or shot.
Will we ever see Sandie, Mandie, and Candie again, or was their presence in Part 6 merely to highlight American ambivalence to workplace and gangster violence? Will the girl from 1956 in Part 8 be Sarah Palmer, Judy, or just a symbol of the entrance of some ethereal evil into the innocence of 1950s America? The truth is we don’t know. And that treatment of characters – capable of existing as pure set dressing one moment, then brutally or gently humanizing them the next – is unsettling to a viewer who expects at least some hint as to who we are supposed to like, sympathize with, and identify as important.
Or even as human. Lynch, from the Eraserhead baby down, has developed a toolbox that blurs the human with the surreal, in order to suspend our disbelief in what human beings should say or do in any given instance. Frost’s role, here, is especially important, as it seems that he tends to humanize, injecting believability into the characters who take up significant screen time but may feel too surreal in Lynch’s own hands4.
Lynch and Frost have made characters we can hate, identify with, and ignore as characters altogether, often all at the same time. Prestige TV, generally, demands that even the most insignificant character may have deep back stories and complex motivations; The Return demands that even the most complex and central of characters may be mere symbols of a larger story.
A Long, Leisurely Walk
The slow pace and wandering focus of various plotlines of The Return is similar to other Prestige TV, but beyond just pushing the limits of that plotting to its extremes, Lynch & Frost have, with Part 8 especially, foregone a traditional narrative entirely.
Fan theories concerning the snippets of plot we’d seen thus far have been commonplace and numerous since May 21, but the general consensus was that things were building towards…something as we passed Part 6 and approached the typically apportioned Act 2. Part 7, for a brief moment, seemed to justify this as Cooper/Dougie snapped back into action against Ike the Spike, DoppelCoop secured his escape from prison, and Diane’s scenes stole the show. Part 8 eviscerated that momentum by dedicating almost two thirds of an hour to a flashback and origin sequence.
That, in itself, wouldn’t be surprising in a Prestige TV series, except the origin story we’re shown has nothing to do with any of the major characters or plot lines we’ve seen thus far. Instead we get a morally-wrought explosion concerning the atomic bomb and its connection to the creation of BOB – who, as Albert Rosenfield once theorized, could be primarily thought of as symbol for the evil that men do.
It would be the equivalent of Game of Thrones dedicating an entire episode to the origins of Daenerys’ dragons, as told through a bard’s song in a small town we heard mention of once in Season 3. It may be an interesting story in its own right, and the dragons are definitely important forces in the overall story, but we as an audience would rebel against such an episode, because we feel like we don’t need to know the dragons’ origin to continue the story that the show is telling us. We don’t need to know about BOB’s origin and The Giant’s potential birthing of Laura to follow Cooper’s return to Twin Peaks, which is, remember, the story we’ve been watching. The implication therefore, is that the story of The Return we’ve seen, talked about, theorized over, and bemoaned the pace of thus far, is not the only story we’re going to see. Whereas as conventional Entertainment, and even Prestige TV has trained us to expect a gradual momentum based on a defined set of plotlines, The Return is expanding its scope into a supernatural element at the exact moment when most shows would be burrowing into the humanity of the characters its created.
In a sense, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Twin Peaks, and Fire Walk With Me in particular, were always flirting with an entire supernatural world of which we had only the smallest glimpses. That The Return explores this supernatural world and its interaction with human achievement and failing was always expected. The Art of it is in the manner that’s being explored – teasing, twisting, and turning the tables on the viewer time and time again, week after week, so that we won’t know what was ultimately important until the work is viewed as a whole.
Lynch as a director has always played with time, reality, and narrative focus, especially in his California trilogy. The plot of The Return is relatively easy to understand in comparison to something like Inland Empire, but its narrative tools are similar. Lynch & Frost are disorienting us through typically postmodern deconstruction: time and events may be linear, but they’re not being shown to us in that order.
Breaking the story up in this way keeps us from jumping to conclusions5, and forces us to be pulled in different directions, meaning that we arrive at the key events of The Return without context or explanation. Sometimes we may not even know they’re key events at all until after we reconsider them. It’s Art cinema at its most confounding and unpopular: adrift from our usual tools to understand a story, we’re being asked to live within each moment on its own, revelling in the despair of a young boy run over by a speeding truck, the joy of a dose of cocaine6 in a convertible on a sunny day, or the anxiety of an awkward workplace and a mentally incapacitated coworker. We quite literally don’t know where or when we are at any point in time, and as much as Prestige TV has progressed over the years, it hasn’t often dipped its toe into sacrificing a traditional plot entirely.
A Pretty, Pretty Picture
Part 8 is also an obvious and excellent place to show just how far outside the scope of other Prestige TV Lynch has taken the visual component of film.
The slow zoom into the Trinity nuclear blast, followed by the colour and effects smorgasbord are probably most easily compared to Kubrick’s journey into the Monolith in 2001. That alone would put it far past any other TV show I’ve personally watched. Except Lynch isn’t just using this as a one-time visual spectacle. Lynch seems to be building a visual language for the interaction between the multiple worlds of The Return. Cooper’s fall into “non-exist-ence” was similarly stylized to some shots “within” the explosion. The time-skipping of Naido’s appearance in the Purple World in Part 3 is mirrored by the Woodsmen pouring out of the Convenience Store in Part 8, perhaps indicating a recent rupture between worlds (the atomic bomb in Part 8 and Cooper himself in Part 3 perhaps). Even the use of the phrase most associated with being between worlds, “Fire Walk With Me” in the Season 2 finale in the Red Room was accompanied by a cut to an explosion and roaring fire, a visual which was also repeated “inside” the explosion.
Lynch seems to be using Art cinema techniques7 to engage the viewers’ visual cortices, while leaving the ones used to understanding story-telling, dormant. It takes a concerted effort during and after to tie the pieces together, in a way that may be alienating a lot of viewers.
Perhaps most worthy of discussion when it comes to the visual lens of The Return though, has been Lynch’s use of CGI. Like many others, I was worried that the digital era of film may have left Lynch a little behind the times, and the first few uses of CGI seemed to confirm that fear. The Red Room, Evolution of the Arm, and the first clear CGI shot of Sam and Tracy’s New York building, felt like perhaps the transition to modern graphics had left Lynch without a clear sense of how he wanted to use CGI: as either a cost-saving or immersive experience.
But Part 8 puts those fears to rest: the Trinity explosion is a pure CGI shot8 that is finely detailed, realistic, and immensely captivating. Similarly the “fricket” (my own portmanteau for the frog-cricket-like insect of Part 8) crawling around the New Mexican desert is on par with the most realistic CGI being used today.
The use of “bad” CGI is probably therefore intentional. Lynch often uses stilted dialogue and campiness to act as a kind of dramatic chiaroscuro, with the “good” acting and dialogue made all the more illuminous next to the shadow of the “bad”9. Similarly with the CGI, the “bad” may merely be to draw us slightly out of our comfort zone before hitting us with the thick wicket of something haunting, distinctive, and accessible.
Then There Were The Sounds
One last way in which Lynch, in particular, is levitating past other Prestige TV is his use of audio.
Again, before the series aired, there was much talk of the close working relationship between Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, who had also agreed to come back for The Return. Yet 8 hours in, there have been only a few snippets of old songs from previous seasons, and, in Part 8, one incredible new song from Badalamenti that evoked the end theme from Fire Walk With Me and the more haunting pieces of Mulholland Drive.
Instead of the music complementing the video, we have instead focused on the sounds. Clicking sounds, crunching sounds, shuffling sounds, backwards sounds, the list goes on. Lynch is acting not just as director for each episode, but sound director as well. And as much detail has gone into his visual filming, it feels like the audio has been even more carefully constructed.
That construction has even been noticed by the story itself, like the hum both we and the characters hear in The Great Northern in Part 7. Even the music, when it is present, seems to have a very real power over characters. Bobby’s tears over the picture of Laura aren’t just about the sight of her, but seemingly about the sound of her theme playing in the sheriff’s station.
Likewise Lynch’s use of popular songs has been to create dynamism out of plot immobility, especially with “Take Five” and Dougie, and “Green Onions” and the infamous floor-sweeping scene from Part 7. When there’s nothing to see here, Lynch is saying, listen to the sounds. They’ll entertain you enough.
From the very first scene we have been listening to the sounds, and even though they don’t tell us a complete story yet, we are connecting sounds across scenes, drawing conclusions and parallels where they may or may not exist. Forget Prestige TV, even films dripping with Art don’t usually have that much nuance, dedication, or attention to their sound.
An Impact Deep and Wide
So let’s take it for granted that The Return is treading an updated version of the same path as the original Twin Peaks: a heavy injection of Art into a medium that has developed its own tendencies and audience expectations. The question then becomes: to what extent is the viewing public ready to engage with the harder, deeper, and more ambiguous questions raised by Lynch & Frost?
Here again, the temptation is to draw parallels to the original series, and its ability to shift audience expectations. An episode like “Lonely Souls” prepared audiences to watch Prestige TV, and understand that characters will sit in a lonely corner and cry for deeply felt, but not explicitly stated reasons, as Bobby Briggs and Donna Hayward did after Maddy’s murder. It is why we follow antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White as they search valiantly for a sense of good in an evil world they are largely responsible for. Because we are primed to ask questions about good and evil, its duality and presence in our lives and communities. Art, and storytelling Art in particular, is often an exercise in empathy, and Twin Peaks created a path by which TV could teach us empathy for the good, the bad, and the struggle between the two, in an entire town.
However, the original series of Twin Peaks was able to do this groundbreaking, and have it take root in a deeper firmament of the social psyche, because of one very important reason: it was incredibly, incredibly popular. Twin Peaks didn’t just influence future directors and writers, but the public at large. Even those who didn’t fall in love with its quirkiness or distinct visuals knew of it and interacted with it at a cultural level. And that cultural impact was felt in its ratings.
The Rating Game
Much is now made of the original series’ pilot, and the nearly 35 million Americans it pulled in. While the ratings did decline – especially after “Lonely Souls” – there was definitely something about Twin Peaks that the American public, in particular, was ready to fall in love with.
Without going into a full-on sociological analysis, it’s easy to say that Lynch and Frost discovered the audience for today’s Prestige TV, fifteen years before it really started to form around HBO programming. There were those who dropped off after the dream sequence in Episode 2 (a high Art moment), and there were also those who came back after Episode 17 (a low moment for both Entertainment and Art, frankly). But even at its lowest point (and arguably its least Artistic), over 7 million Americans were tuning in to watch Twin Peaks. In a population that’s grown by over 30% in that time, that low point would be an absolute high water mark for today’s Prestige TV.
In fact, the two high water marks for today’s Prestige TV in terms of ratings – Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead – have never even approached the 20 million viewers that Season 1 of Twin Peaks managed to corral. If ratings were the only yardstick of cultural impact, it would seem that even the most popular TV of the day can’t connect with as wide an audience as Twin Peaks did. Thankfully, that’s not entirely the case, and any comparison of the possibility of The Return’s impact will need to include an evaluation of the way people are interacting with TV today.
Niftiness does not necessarily equate to a lasting legacy.
Obviously, even with population growth, the market for TV has at once expanded and contracted to such a degree that it’s difficult to compare numbers at all. Cable cord-cutters and those without any TV at all (but with a tablet, laptop, and desktop all in reach) have shrunken the market for Nielsen rating boxes to capture the pulse of the American public. At the same time, new TV marketplaces like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu have provided more competition to not just broadcast networks and standard cable stations, but pay-cable networks like HBO and Showtime. Add in the cheap, reliably popular appeal of reality TV, and it’s actually quite amazing that The Walking Dead’s pulls in 11 million viewers per week.
To that end though, there is a simple answer to the initial question: will The Return have the same impact as Twin Peaks did? In terms of that broader cultural impact the answer is: it’s doubtful. Even combined the ratings of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones will never come close to cracking the percentage of American viewers that Twin Peaks’ pilot did in 1990. While the Nielsen numbers don’t capture all the ways viewers may watch a show (a fact complicated by the opacity of viewership data on the part of most streaming services, and the reality that most Prestige TV is easily pirated), it’s impossible to see a way that The Return could reach the critical mass of viewers needed to impact the American culture at large the way Twin Peaks once did10.
The question though wasn’t whether The Return would impact American culture as a whole. The question was whether it will impact the future of television. That answer, as I said at the beginning, is hard to get right now.
There’s no doubt that cultural critics have taken notice of The Return and its Artistic sensibilities in their corners of the internet. Also, it’s hard to believe that current showrunners, directors, executive producers and network/development leads in other production houses aren’t taking notice of Lynch’s elevation of certain aspects of TV production. There are bound to be directors who want to take up Lynch’s challenge purely for creative reasons, and there are writers who will see potential in the multifaceted characters and non-linear stories of The Return. But the future of TV will ultimately be determined by money, specifically whether Showtime returns a profit on their investment.
As it stands, Showtime releases far more information about The Return than is possible to get about Netflix, HBO, and Amazon’s most beloved shows. Yet their early indications of approximately 3 million viewers across all platforms each week for each new part of The Return are fairly solid numbers in a complicated environment. Assuming international releases also bring in a fair amount of money, the prospect could be good for more ambitious projects inspired by The Return to be greenlit.
Other forces will come into the mix too. The CEO of Netflix recently stated that he wants to cancel more shows, if only because that would mean they’ve taken more programming risks. If Netflix were to pluck a film director known for his or her distinctive balance between Art and Entertainment to direct their first 18-hour film, it would be a fairly clear indication that The Return has successfully nudged the direction of television once again.
It truly will be a long game though. The first shows that were inspired more by Twin Peaks’ creative liberties than by its quirkiness, took many years to appear. The Sopranos, whose creator David Chase has explicitly mentioned was inspired in part by Twin Peaks, didn’t appear until 1999. While TV development likely moves faster these days, owing to the increased competition, there’s still likely to be a lag before shows inspired by The Return make their mark felt.
For those of us who are enjoying The Return, the wait may well be worth it.
1 Obviously right off the bat it should be clear that’s a false dichotomy. Good Art can easily be Entertaining, and just because something follows the expectations of Entertainment doesn’t mean it can’t display artistic principles or do something new and exciting. Again, this is just a short hand for the argument I’m laying out.
2 Although there is plenty of sociological analysis one can perform about Dougie and his relationships with the characters around him.
3 A point my wife made, and which she informed me came from this Tumblr post: http://mindblownie.tumblr.com/post/162274007594/nothing-says-monday-morning-like-having-your
4 Janey-E comes to mind here, as her initial presentation as another shrew-ish housewife in the early Dougie story, was turned on its head by her rant about the 99% and the very simple realities of her everyday life.
5 Or at least having our conclusions dashed when our favourite theories are proven wrong
6 Or “Sparkle”
7 I won’t even go into the German Expressionism present in The Giant/??????? sequence, a feel that’s so antiquated hardly any other director would ever be able to pull it off or have it approved by a studio. There have been other abrupt switches in feel, including between Naido/American Girl in Part 3, the sudden switch to gonzo-like journalism in Part 7, and the amateurishly maudlin response of bystanders to the little boy’s death in Part 6; but needless to say, Lynch is calling upon and channeling all his favourite schools of film into the Prestige TV lens, to varying effect.
8 Or at least looks like. I’m not an expert.
9 The two contrasting audition scenes in Mulholland Drive are probably the best examples.
10 Which is not to say that a show like Game of Thrones, in particular, has not had a widespread impact on American culture. Especially given the way discussion of cultural products has moved online, it’s hard to think of a more thoroughly meme-d and parodied program. But the balkanization of TV viewing (and the nature of the internet) has made it possible for people to avoid knowledge of the show in a way that Twin Peaks and its associated supporting media coverage made more difficult.