The third season of “Twin Peaks” embraces the cryptic tone and complex themes of the original, while also adjusting to modern audiences.
From the revival of the “Star Wars” universe to the relaunch of “Arrested Development” and Disney’s attempts to refilm what seems like its entire catalogue, the last decade has seen no shortage of television reboots. It’s becoming something of a truism that TV reboots never really capture or add to the energy of their source materials. More often than not, reboots come across as transparent attempts to turn nostalgia into money while expending as little effort as possible. Some of them are still fun to watch, but they are almost never original.
So, having torn through the first two seasons of cult classic “Twin Peaks,” which were released between 1990 and 1991, I was more than a little wary watching the third, which came out more than 25 years later. I struggled to imagine how it could maintain the bizarre, dreamlike atmosphere of the show’s first two seasons, and I worried that slogging through a disappointing third would negatively color my summer-long enterprise. To my surprise, season three was enjoyable and provided a blueprint for how reboots can build on a show instead of just leeching off the original.
The basic premise of “Twin Peaks” is simple — a young woman washes up dead on the shores of Twin Peaks, a small Pacific Northwest town. When the FBI is called to investigate, more and more mysteries emerge. The borders between reality and dream then begin to blur and tensions in the town reach a boiling point. Here, attempts to piece things together rationally are doomed to fail. The show urges us to understand the limits of their knowledge and be willing to act on instinct or spirituality instead of cold rational logic when the occasion calls for it.
At the same time, the show offers a powerful critique of some of the myths we have built around our own country. When the show’s lead character, FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), first enters Twin Peaks, he almost immediately falls in love with the town’s 1950’s style “American Dream” aesthetic — diners filled with cherry pie, white picket fences and good, honest (and almost entirely white) people.
Cracks are visible from the beginning, though. Sleazy businesspeople are executing complex plots to turn the woods surrounding Twin Peaks into a luxury hotel chain. And, in a spectacularly unsubtle metaphor, there is the Black Lodge, a place full of actual demons hiding in the heart of this whitewashed vision of America.
None of “Twin Peaks’” central pillars have been abandoned or diminished in the show’s third season. Instead, each of the show’s standout ideas — the surreal touches, the skepticism of unfettered rationality and the rejection of the “American Dream” — are all dialed up to 11 in order to create a gripping, dense and sometimes confusing 18-episode journey.
During the first two seasons of “Twin Peaks,” directors David Lynch and Mark Frost’s natural inclination towards surrealism was held in check, at least partially, by pressure from ABC for more conventional storytelling. The show therefore leaned heavily on traditional plot devices brought in from soap operas and detective shows. These seasons have no shortage of familiar love triangle and whodunnit storylines. Still, weirdness was always creeping in around the edges, out of sight — Why is there a fish in that coffee pot? Why does Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) start dancing as if she can hear the show’s soundtrack? Why does that one secondary character carry a log with her everywhere she goes? — but it was always framed within a fairly traditional story structure.
The first thing that struck me when I started watching season three was how much weirder it was than the original run. The bizarre dream logic had expanded from the margins and worked its way into the narrative structure of the show. Instead of a straight chronological journey through one small town, “Twin Peaks: The Return” jumps all over America while simultaneously leaving viewers to puzzle together exactly when each event is taking place. At times, dialogue is reduced to almost nothing for long stretches, giving the impression of a silent film where the mood is set by jarring visuals and a strong soundtrack. Several plotlines are completely self-contained, sharing thematic ties with the central narrative but never actually allowing their characters to cross over.
The effect of all this is mixed. At times it feels frustrating that the show seems to have been designed to be unconventional for nothing more than inaccessibility’s sake. But more often than that, it gives the show an irresistible puzzlebox quality, dragging the viewer back for more clues.
While the show’s enigmatic design makes it infuriatingly tempting to solve, “Twin Peaks: The Return” shares earlier seasons’ resistance to the idea that everything can be logically decoded. In the first two seasons, characters determined to know everything are usually portrayed as unlikable and often met terrible ends. In “The Return,” attempts to sort and ‘solve’ the world also tend to end in disaster. The failure of the show’s characters to decipher its mysteries also seems to be a warning to viewers determined to find the correct interpretation of events. Instead of leading to a single answer, Lynch says his goal is to ensure that “if there are 100 people in the audience, you’re going to get 100 different interpretations.”
At least one thing is clear: a feeling of world-weariness and decay seems to have seeped into the town of Twin Peaks over the past 26 years. A town that had previously been able to hide its problems under a veneer of cherry pies and politeness now feels exposed and disenchanted. Instead of a nostalgic glimpse into the town of the show’s first two seasons, the third season shoes us how that town’s obsession with a nonexistent ideal has left it to rot. Instead of the upward mobility the American Dream promised the residents of Twin Peaks, most of the show’s recurring characters now seem trapped. Some are stuck in failing marriages; others are managing failing stores; one is now hosting a bizarre conspiracy podcast which several other characters listen to religiously; and another seems to be dreaming in a comatose state.
“Twin Peaks: the Return” isn’t all doom and gloom — many characters manage to improve their circumstances over the course of the season — but it does manage to darken show’s original themes.
I think the brilliance of “The Return” is that its writers knew they couldn’t just dial back the years and write “Twin Peaks” again. Instead of trying to ignore 25 years of change, Lynch and Frost took advantage of it. The classic status “Twin Peaks” has cultivated was used to ensure enough creative control to take the revival in a (more) surreal direction and to design (more) impossible puzzles for audiences to ponder. At the same time, the widespread disillusionment of post-9/11, post-recession America was harnessed to create a new atmosphere for the show’s namesake town and further develop the show’s critique of American ideology. The result is an engaging piece of television that manages to be original while remaining thematically loyal to its predecessors. Television would be much richer if other reboots followed suit.