The Best Show on TV Is Twin Peaks: The Return

Vulture’s fourth annual TV Awards honor the best in television from the past year in three major categories: Actor, Actress, and Show. The shows that were considered had to be ongoing, which disqualifies limited series and series that ended their runs in the past year. They also must have premiered before June 25, 2017.

Twenty-seven years ago, the meteor of Twin Peaks hit television. It didn’t wipe out all the dinosaurs, but it did make them aware that they were dinosaurs, and that itself was remarkable. Conventionally conceived and executed dramas would continue to be made after David Lynch and Mark Frost unveiled their series about the eccentric denizens of a logging town, but with awareness that there were fewer rules than anyone thought.

Viewers of a certain age, myself included, remember what it was like to be a movie buff back then. If you had an affinity for the unconventional, you resigned yourself to almost never finding it on TV, except for the occasional swaggering outlier like Miami Vice, Moonlighting, Roots, M*A*S*H, All in the Family, The Prisoner, Star Trek, or The Twilight Zone. Art happened in art houses, rarely in multiplexes, and certainly not on the tube. And then, lo and behold, there was Twin Peaks, a postmodern soap opera on a commercial broadcast network that fused satire, farce, ultraviolence, and melodrama; that sashayed through its story like Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) sway-dancing in her sweater, and pleated skirt; and that wrapped the whole thing up in a shroud of mysticism and spirituality that seemed as if it was kidding until you started to suspect that it wasn’t. This was a show with youth appeal, in which attractive teenagers worried about who was dating whom, but it was also a satire on corporate ethics (or their absence), a meditation on the meaning of images and the subjectivity of memory, and a story in which ordinary suburbanites could be possessed by murderous demons and an FBI agent could solve crimes by immersing himself in a red-velvet drape-lined dream world where dwarves danced, giants delivered prophecies, and everybody talked backward.

The magic couldn’t last, of course; it rarely does. Audiences deserted the show when it became clear the writers were putting off solving the central mystery of who murdered Laura Palmer. Lynch, Frost, and their collaborators finally wrapped things up midway through season two, then spun their wheels until the shocking finale, which saw FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) being trapped in the Black Lodge by BOB (the late Frank Silva), a creature who was either a demonic puppet master or an externalized representation of the evil lurking in every human heart (or both, or neither; the show never explained stuff like that). The original Peaks proved unable to sustain that initial burst of freshness — in part, or so the maybe-apocryphal story goes, because Lynch and Frost never expected the series to get renewed and had no idea how to keep it going after its central mystery had been solved.

But the series’ decline and quick death didn’t prevent it from being recognized as an aesthetic milestone, and future producers of offbeat television — including The X-Files’ Chris Carter, The Sopranos’ David Chase, Lost and The Leftovers’ Damon Lindelof, and Hannibal and American Gods showrunner Bryan Fuller — were so gobsmacked by the series that they determined to apply Peaks’ lessons to their own work. The most important takeaway was that adventurous audiences would not just be okay with seeing once-hallowed rules broken, they might actually look forward to seeing more shows give it a shot, because Peaks had given them a taste for fresh, strange, even puzzling entertainment. In terms of its aesthetic, if not always its storytelling, Twin Peaks was consistently one or two steps ahead of its audience. No matter how intimately you thought you’d become attuned to Lynch and Frost’s wavelength, there were still moments where you sat there gaping at the screen thinking, “What the hell did I just see, and what am I supposed to make of it?” And its corollary sentiment: “I had no idea you could do that on television.”

And now, as the giant once foretold: It is happening again. Twin Peaks: The Return — the Showtime reboot of the Lynch series — didn’t just exceed its progenitor’s what-the-fuck quotient right out of the gate; as it meanders through a series of daringly protected, often mysterious scenes, the show seems determined to destroy any preconceptions we had about what another Twin Peaks would look like, or even what post–Twin Peaks television could aspire to be. What Lynch and Frost are doing feels so new to TV that even showrunners whose triumphs are built on Lynchian foundations are in awe of it. At a Split Screens TV Festival event a few weeks ago, four episodes into the run of Twin Peaks: The Return, I asked David Chase if he was watching the new Peaks and whether he thought it was as good as the original. “I think it’s greater,” he said, with the uninflected certainty of a man noting that the sky is blue.

The sky is blue. Twin Peaks: The Return is a masterpiece. Books will eventually be devoted to explaining why this is; each will examine the series from a different, specific angle, and come to different conclusions about what it’s showing us and telling us. The series speaks in the language of dreams, and we interpret the sentences and pictograms differently depending on our life experience and worldview.

This is not what typically happens when you’re watching serialized television, where flights of fancy and moments of expressionism or abstraction tend to be carefully partitioned from “reality,” lest anyone get confused, or worse, frustrated. We don’t so much watch Twin Peaks: The Return as give ourselves over to the look and sound of it, as we might give ourselves over to a painting, a sculpture, or a piece of music.

The Case for Twin Peaks: The Return

1. The Opening Credits

The opening credits of Twin Peaks: The Return represents the show’s aesthetic in microcosm. It employs a remixed, reorchestrated version of Angelo Badalamenti’s classic theme and revisits some of the same images familiar from the original Peaks credits, including the forested Washington mountains and waterfalls, while also incorporating elements familiar from the original show that never appeared in the credits, such as the swirling closeup of the zig-zag-patterned floor in the Red Room and tight shots of the famous red drapes. What’s happening here is not merely a revisitation of Peaks imagery, but a reframing of it.

Lynch and Frost’s integration of the old cast with new characters furthers the idea of the old being subsumed into the new: They’re marginalized to some extent, in ways that might irritate viewers who wanted something close to the original series, but not obliterated. The new cast members — including Naomi Watts as Janey-E Jones, Amanda Seyfried as Shelly Johnston’s daughter, Becky, and Michael Cera as Lucy and Andy Brennan’s son, Wally Brando (at once the worst and greatest Brando impersonator of all time) — don’t fit and yet at the same time they do, perfectly. Age and mortality and the passing of generations is part of the fabric of the series, never more touchingly than when we’re watching actors (including Miguel Ferrer as Albert Rosenfield and Catherine Coulson as Margaret the Log Lady*) who died before the new series was finished.

The familiar signposts in the credits, such as the waterfalls and the mountains, are photographed from new angles, often vertigo-inducing ones, and overlaid with Red Room imagery that swirls and shimmies, creating a psychological effect akin to a hypnotist swinging a pocket watch before your eyes. This is the first of many great examples of Twin Peaks: The Return knowing what it is and what it wants to do, and encoding that knowledge within the show itself. Right away, the show tells you that it’s going to show you the familiar things from strange new angles, and not always when you expect, or in the manner that you expect them. As Jeff Wiser pointed out in a Vulture piece that focused on the show’s use of Badalamenti’s score, Twin Peaks: The Return keeps playing with the viewers’ wants, teasing us, frustrating us, then giving us what we wanted, or something unexpected that’s better than what we wanted. What if, he asked, the words The Return ended up referring to “our entire 18-hour odyssey that will culminate, in the third act, with a return to the tone, warmth, and magic of Twin Peaks?”

Also notable is the way the credits signal that the dream world and the “real” world have blurred. On the old Peaks, they were separated by a permeable membrane. When the other world intruded on this one (as when BOB committed acts of violence) the intrusion was, if not totally explained, then at least put inside a particular framework (BOB was often treated as a manifestation of the evil that lurks in the hearts of men). But in this incarnation of Peaks, the purgatorial Red Room and the spaces beyond have an emotional intensity that feels more real, or at least more viscerally powerful, than what happens in the physical world. Meanwhile, the physical world (not just the town of Twin Peaks, but cities and towns in other states) is constantly being disrupted by a Ghostbusters-like wave of extra-dimensional visitors and uncanny events, including homicidal demon-maulings and soul extractions, and visits by the Woodsmen, who look like soot-covered Depression-era hobos.

Many times in the new Peaks, Lynch and Frost overlay images from the dream world and the real world so that it’s impossible to describe how the two relate to each other. The relative size of objects do not track. The perspectives are wrong. Nothing makes sense, at least according to our established way of making sense of things. That all of these notions are hinted at, or you might say predicted, in the new credits, shows how much thought has been put into a series that many were too quick to describe as chaotic and random.

2. Cooper in the Black Lodge (Episode Two, “Part Two”)

The new Peaks has been described as experimental, and it does have a strong experimental cinema flavor. But it’s also an ongoing story that has an internal logic and a sense of forward motion, just as every other, more conventional series does, even though we might not immediately grasp why the tale is being told in this way.

What’s happening in this sequence? We don’t know, and yet we sort of do, like dogs that know what their master is saying even though they don’t speak human. The marvelous thing about the new Peaks is that it presents each new event as inexplicable and random, just a sound-and-light show with no purpose other than to dazzle or confuse, but when you go back and watch the same moments again, armed with new viewing experiences from subsequent episodes, you start to learn, or least intuit, the rules in Lynch and Frost’s real world slash dream world. This Black Lodge scene from episode two is just one example of Twin Peaks: The Return teaching you how to watch it.

Cooper makes his first attempt to leave the Black Lodge here, at the urging of the Evolution of the Arm (a spindly, leafless tree with a faceless skull-head on top, a Salvador Dali–redolent image evolved from Michael J. Anderson’s Man From Another Place in the original show). It whisper-screams, “BOB! Go now!” Cooper’s progress through the labyrinth of drapes gives way to an extraordinary low-tech moment of movie magic, straight out of a Maya Deren or Kenneth Anger experimental short, in which good Cooper parts the curtains in the “wall” of a curtained hallway and sees a stretch of Nevada highway down below, where Evil Cooper is barreling along in his muscle car. It’s like a moment in a dream where you’re walking through a location you know, only to discover a previously unnoticed door that serves as a portal to another place.

The remainder of the sequence finds Cooper attempting to reenter the physical world through the “black box” located in some sort of research facility in New York City, then being pulled back into the dimension where he’s been imprisoned for 25 years. The images of Cooper’s doll-like body falling down, or up, through starry black space return us to Lynch’s debut feature, Eraserhead. Everything about it is Lynch-Frost at their peak, but the Lynch feeling dominates. (This cable version of Twin Peaks is unmediated, sink-a-tap-into-the-brain-and-catch-the-images-in-a-coffee-cup Lynch, owing more to his post-Peaks work including Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire than to films like Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, and Wild at Heart, which were tethered, however provisionally, to reality.)

The sound design, also by Lynch, is not telling us what is happening, but making us feel it. It’s more abstract and uncanny than anything heard on television since, well, the last Twin Peaks. The Lynchian air-whooshes that fill the silences, the backward dialogue, the exaggerated footfalls, and electrical crackles are variations of things he’s done before, but the timing of the edits and the duration and volume of the more alarming noises (such as the thunderclaps, earthquake rumbles, and industrial thrums) are more extreme than anything in the old Peaks. Every image occurring in or around the Black Lodge is held a bit longer or shorter than anyone might expect, even if we have the original Lodge scenes in our heads. This reshaping of the familiar into the alien induces a sense that the normal rules of physics that govern human movement through time and space aren’t the only things that have been suspended; our ability to acquire and process information is different as well. A good portion of the new Peaks seems to have been made by an alien who studied narrative cinema before making its own attempt at a David Lynch movie. The old TV stomping grounds have become terra incognita. Like Dale Cooper after his re-emergence, when he’s poured into the empty vessel that was once a man named Dougie Jones, we have to learn everything all over again.

3. “Take Five” (Episode Four, “Part Four”)

Although my favorite part of this sequence is the end in the kitchen, with Cooper-as-Dougie, Janey-E, and their son, Sonny Jim (Pierce Gagnon), I’ve included the lead-up because it gives you a sense of how wide the show’s aesthetic bandwidth is. Cooper-as-Dougie sits in his bedroom in a typically childlike, dumbfounded state of just Being There, then glimpses Mike in the Red Room warning him, “You’ve been tricked! Now one of you must die!” We don’t know exactly what that means yet, but Cooper-Dougie seems to register that it’s somehow important. Then there’s a moment between Dougie and his son that reminds us of how sweet and silly Lynch can be when he isn’t filling us with existential dread: The boy gives him the thumbs-up, and he returns the gesture (which was once a Cooper signature) and then spins around, making the child laugh.

What follows is one of the most charming moments in Lynch’s filmography: a slow scene of Dougie entering the kitchen in his green jacket, tasting pancakes and then coffee (which he spits out, though its familiar taste causes him to grin and exclaim, “Hi!” to Janey-E). The entire scene is scored to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” which plays out for several minutes rather than being truncated in the interest of pacing.

The first time I saw this scene, I went out and had pancakes for the first time in a long while. It’s the kind of scene that makes you think about the simplest, deepest significance of ordinary routines or actions that you’d otherwise take for granted. But it is simultaneously a callback to the original series, which presented Cooper with the possibility of an ordinary married life with a house and kids (via Annie, played by Heather Graham, a 1950s-wholesome blond bombshell sweetheart who could be Naomi Watts’s sister) only to cruelly snatch that possibility away.

Though nobody but Lynch and Frost could confirm this — and I doubt they would because it’s not their style, and you probably wouldn’t want them to, anyway — the Brubeck song as soundtrack for pancakes and coffee seems like yet another instance of an individual storytelling choice standing in for the show’s aesthetic as a whole. It has been said that improvisation is composition sped up, while composition is improvisation slowed down. Jazz like Brubeck’s encapsulates both principles, allowing for momentary, delightful flourishes within a rigid structure that always moves forward at the same measured pace. And, like Twin Peaks: The Return as a whole, great jazz reminds us that much of the greatest art is hard to pigeonhole as either purposeful or random. At a certain point, the viewer or listener has to stop trying to fit the work into a particular, predetermined category and simply respond to the thing as it is, on the screen or on vinyl or on the page or the canvas, completing the artist’s vision by thinking about it and feeling it.

Why We Picked It

There was never any question that Twin Peaks: The Return would win Best Show in this year’s Vulture TV Awards. The matter was decided after only four episodes had aired, notwithstanding the fact that last year’s awards stipulated that a program could not be considered for Best Show unless it had completed its current season’s run by a particular date in June. Adhering to tradition struck us as folly in the face of artists whose importance is rooted in their disregard for how things have always been done, so we fudged that rule. As well we should have.

In comparison, even recent shows that aspired to Lynchian levels of invention — such as The Leftovers, American Gods, Legion, The Get Down, Sense8, Samurai Jack, Paolo Sorrentino’s HBO series The Young Pope, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, which he described as “Twin Peaks with rappers” — seem tame compared to whatever The Return is up to. In mastery of most of the fundamentals — characterization, performance, atmosphere, direction, editing music, wardrobe, and so on — the new Peaks matches any other series on the air. The colors and textures and inventive editing of the other series cited here are impressive, until you watch Lynch and Frost cut loose in the Black Lodge, or track a cockroach-frog from its birthplace at an atomic test site to its final resting place inside a sleeping girl’s mouth, or follow the childlike Dougie through a casino as he hits jackpot after jackpot, crying “Hellooooooo!” and then following a soul-flame as it dances above a row of slot machines. The series has that Lynchian knack for showing us the face of pure evil — often represented by toxic men who seem to enjoy life only when they’re breaking and dominating women and other men — and then turning around and giving us moments of sublime silliness, such as Wally Brando’s monologue, in which he gives his parents permission to turn his childhood bedroom into a study, then regales them with his adventures crisscrossing a nation while thinking about “Lewis and his friend Clark, the first caw-caysians to see this part of the world.”

The only area in which the new Peaks might have been deemed lacking — during the first couple of episodes of its run, not now — is writing, but only if you judged the show by conventional measurements of Quality TV: clearly delineated setups and payoffs that don’t last a second longer than they have to; snappy dialogue, and lots of it; big moments where the character deals directly with whatever he or she is feeling. Like the old Peaks, this one comes at things sideways or from an extreme low or high angle, rarely head on. Some of the show’s most startling, powerful set pieces — such as that young boy’s bloody death in a car wreck, followed by his soul’s ascension into heaven, Harry Dean Stanton’s ancient face bearing witness — feel like stand-alone short films. They might connect with the main plot later on, or they might still feel like thematically related one-offs. This is the case in all of David Lynch’s work, and we accept it, because it’s one of the characteristics that makes Lynch Lynch.

No, this is truly a series without genre, unless Twin Peaks-like” can be considered a genre — and if it can, it still wins.

In my first piece about the new Peaks, I likened the super-slow-jam rhythm to a painter unveiling an mosaic painting of 18 panels, one panel at a time; I now realize that the show is that, but it is also not that, and several other things besides that. The new Peaks exists, like other Lynch films, somewhere between narrative storytelling and pure abstraction, between classical and jazz, between the real world and the dream world.

But here, too, we see an example of a professional viewer trying to pigeonhole art that refuses to be classified in a measurable, meticulous way. Lynch is a narrative filmmaker and an experimental filmmaker, extremely conventional in some ways and (after all these decades) shockingly fresh in others. There’s no sliding scale that entirely captures what he’s about. There’s no metaphor that accurately represents the experience of watching the series.

The nature of mainstream criticism — and social-media drive-by tweets and “takes” by people who aren’t part of the media-entertainment complex but are obsessed by it — is to ask what predetermined slot a work fits into, then declare it a good example of that sort of work, or a bad example, or a problematic one, and if so, in what way, and to what degree. (Should the work be boycotted, merely condemned, ignored? If you like it anyway, are you a bad person?) Once certain boxes have been checked, we can move along and figure out what work to target next. All entertainment, all art, becomes an experiential blur, like landscapes in a country we did not truly visit, but merely rode through on a bullet train while staring at our phones.

At a time when people are not interested in reading, watching, or absorbing anything, but would prefer to skip ahead to the part where they give their opinions — thus the proliferation of “think pieces” condemning films based on their trailers or picking them apart as if they were complete works, and comments by people angrily deconstructing the headline of a piece they haven’t read — Lynch and Frost are forcing everybody to take a slow train without Wi-Fi. By presenting the story in such a gradual way, week by week, without advance screeners for anyone, including critics, they are leaving us no choice but to experience the ride as a journey. They are forcing us to read a book or look out the window for hours or talk to our neighbors, instead of anxiously scrolling through our phones like a chicken scratching for feed pellets. They are leaving us no choice but to watch, and I mean really watch, the thing they’ve made, and have fully thought-out opinions on it, not glib “takes.”

That’s audacious, and desperately needed.

No other series takes as many chances as Twin Peaks: The Return, in story, image, sound, and presentation. No other series feels as strange, new, and confounding. Certainly none are capable of indulging in a nearly hour-long sound-and-light show that expands its own mythology and advances its main plot while also offering a surreal alternative history of World War II and the consequences of playing God with the atom bomb, as Twin Peaks: The Return did in its eighth episode. That hour alone makes the rest of narrative television seem imaginatively impoverished. It is so completely unlike anything ever conceived by anyone working in television at any point in its 70-year history as a commercial medium that even if the ten remaining episodes of this show consisted of a black screen with a timecode at the bottom, it still would have won this award.

Twin Peaks: The Return feels like another moment of reckoning for the medium — another meteor. Where do we go from here?

*An earlier version of this piece mistakenly included Harry Dean Stanton in a list of deceased actors.

The Best Show on TV Is Twin Peaks: The Return