by Niles Schwartz
That’s how murdered homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) bade farewell to FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), and viewers, from the enigmatic red-curtained zig-zag “waiting room” between the Black and White Lodges in the Twin Peaks series finale, which aired in June 1991. She then signed off with a cursory “Meanwhile,” as if to cover the intervening years, beginning with Cooper’s courage failing and his demonic doppelganger overtaking him in a strobe-lit hell.
25 years haven’t yet passed, but I’m sure you’ve heard the announcement that Showtime will be bringing Twin Peaks back on the Black Lodge’s schedule, with a nine-hour series run in June of 2016. Not a reboot but a return, with creators Mark Frost and David Lynch drafting the scenarios and, most fortunately, Lynch coming out of retirement to direct the entire enterprise, his first foray into narrative filmmaking since 2006’s INLAND EMPIRE (though given that film’s improvised, self-financed, avant-garde, consumer digital design, or Mulholland Dr.‘s curious history as a television pilot refashioned as a bizarro head-trip nonlinear dream excursion, it almost feels like the first “straight” Lynch production since, appropriately, 1999’s The Straight Story.)
Twin Peaks fans were left with the most perditious of cliffhangers, as most of the cast was on the edge of being existentially or emotionally wiped out: show favorites like vixen Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) and lovable saw-mill dolt Pete Martell (Jack Nance) are presumably blown up in a bank explosion; Doc Hayward (Warren Frost) attacks—and possibly kills—repentant millionaire Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) as the paternity of young Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) is in question; the rekindled love of Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and Norma Jennings (Peggy Limpton) is interrupted by Ed’s wife, Nadine (Wendie Robie), coming out of her easy-going high school girl persona and frothing with jealousy; then Leo Johnson (Eric DaRe) is praying his dental work holds out as he’s trapped with a cage of venomous spiders above his head. Cooper has returned from the Lodge, having (hopefully) saved comatose girlfriend Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham), but as he looks in the bathroom mirror and prepares to brush his teeth, we see that he’s now possessed by the demon BOB (Frank Silva), cackling “How’s Annie?” repeatedly, Sherriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) and Doc waiting outside.
The ending to Twin Peaks, directed by Lynch (reportedly on the fly, rewriting much of the given teleplay by other writers) is perhaps one of the most unnerving pieces of television that’s ever aired. It feels bigger than a season ending cliffhanger. Even if we compare it to serialized shows of recent years—Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men etc—or the tight spots of the first Twin Peaks season’s finale, the hopeless devastation is so overwhelming that one could believe that Lynch, knowing the show was doomed, sadistically decided to burn it all. The price of being forced to answer the question of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”, solved in the second season’s first quadrant of episodes, was the paralyzing frustration of not knowing any of these subsequent scattered outcomes. Laura Palmer simply consigned us to “Meanwhile” for 25 years. What little warmth we got was the resolution of dopey Andy (Harry Goaz) and police receptionist Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) to raise a baby together, and the loving snuggles of reforming bad boy Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) and waitress Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick). The last 48 minutes are wrought with overbearing anxiety as Lynch takes his time, displaying resolute patience against network TV running time while stuffing in beloved character cameos (Grace Zabriskie’s Sarah Palmer, Russ Tamblyn’s Dr. Jacoby, Don Davis’ Major Briggs, and of course, Catherine Coulson’s Log Lady) as if to give a modicum of closure, even including the giggling German waitress from the pilot.
The prequel film released the next year, Fire Walk With Me, stoked the frustration. We were still frozen in “Meanwhile,” like Cooper’s image on an FBI surveillance camera as another kidnapped agent (played by David Bowie) walks by. Lynch opens his Twin Peaks film by destroying a television, setting the tone and characters is diametrical opposition to what we found warmly familiar. Instead of the amiable Buddhist Cooper, there’s the condescending prankster Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak); instead the sharp assertiveness of forensics genius Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), there’s confused “toe head” Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland); agreeable Sherriff Truman is replaced by Deer Meadow’s belligerent lawmen, the “damn good coffee” and cherry pie absent in favor of bitter coffee of “the 48 hour blend” and a diner with no specials. MacLachlan’s appearance is more like an extended cameo, as Lynch, sans Frost, focuses on the trauma, death, and Empyrean redemption of Laura. Cooper’s out of time and in the Red Room, still canvasing the Lodge’s mysteries in possibly the “wrong way,” but he stands with Laura as her Angel returns, a Dantean finale completed with Laura’s eyes shining and visage erupting into a smile. It’s a classic Lynchian end-note of sublime bliss, familiar to viewers of Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart. But Cooper’s fate, we note from an earlier scene, remains stuck in “Meanwhile” as a bloody Annie Blackburn comes to Laura in a dream and says, “The good Dale is in the Lodge and he can’t leave. Write it in your diary.” Well shit. Okay then.
Had Fire Walk With Me been a success, maybe a second film would have followed with Truman, mystic Major Briggs (Don Davis), and company investigating such a diary passage and saving Coop—though the clause “he can’t leave,” especially in Lynch’s universe, sounds like a pretty insurmountable barrier. Other barriers were Fire Walk With Me’s reviews and weak box office, as Twin Peaks—and David Lynch himself—was dismissed as a fad, featured in a short Entertainment Weekly column of embarrassing ‘90s trends alongside Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. It would have to be 25 years, just as Laura told us.
And so, meanwhile…
Lynch’s reputation slowly rehabilitated, starting with Images, a beautiful 1994 coffee table book of his art. There was 1997’s Lost Highway (though probably more helpful was the brilliant David Foster Wallace piece in Premiere Magazine, centering on that film’s making), the critically adored G-rated Midwestern odyssey The Straight Story, and finally the rejected TV pilot Mulholland Dr., remolded with French money into the most critically heralded film of the 21st century. Mark Frost turned from TV production to novels, churning out a couple terrific 19th century supernatural page turners (The List of 7, The 6 Messiahs, the former once to be directed as a film by Guillermo Del Toro), some gentler sports books (The Greatest Game Ever Played, The Match), and the Fantastic Four screenplays. Kyle MacLachlan, resistant to playing more Cooper after Twin Peaks’ cancellation for fear of becoming inextricably bound to his character like Peter Falk and Columbo, made some interesting choices with roles in Showgirls, The Flintstones, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, and The Good Wife. But who am I to judge? (To be fair, MacLachlan’s roles in The Trigger Effect, Hamlet, One Night Stand, and as Cary Grant’s spirit in Touch of Pink kind of speak well for him).
TV also changed in this “Meanwhile.” The serialized soap opera complexity of the VCR-strewn Twin Peaks era (when the show was interrupted by changing time slots and the Gulf War) couldn’t find traction from episode to episode, a problem Michael Mann’s “30 hour movie” Crime Story had a couple years earlier. But the eccentricities Frost and Lynch percolated on network TV inspired other oddball outliers like Chris Carter’s The X-Files, and pay cable perfected season-long story arcs with Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire etc. There were new methods of home recording, DVD, and finally streaming. The influence of Twin Peaks is abundant in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, The Killing, and even more so in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake and Cary Fukunaga and Nik Pizzolatto’s True Detective. Twin Peaks has long been available for binge viewing on Netflix, and this year, the copyrights finally in order, Lynch and Frost released an ultimate blu ray set of the full show, prequel film, and 90 minutes of deleted Fire Walk With Me scenes, many of which featured beloved characters excised entirely from the film’s final cut. Fans of the show extend far beyond ‘90s counterculture kids and longtime Lynch fans, and include teenagers and 20-somethings. On movie screens, whether it’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ Badalamenti-esque score in David Fincher’s portrait of small-town menace, Gone Girl, or a close-up of a ceiling fan intercut with domestic abuse in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Twin Peaks is in the air. “That gum you like is coming back in style,” as the Little Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) says.
Of course, I’m ecstatic. I remember a time when I was the only Twin Peaks fan I knew. I managed to make my big sister watch it, after which she–a fanatical Trekkie–admitted that it was far superior to Star Trek (anyone close to a Trekkie understands that this is actually quite a big deal). Talk of returning to the series has brewed for the last couple of years, and knowing that Lynch was a believer in synchronicity, I’d considered it a possibility that the “25 Years Later” thing might find a way of working itself out.
But as old cast members hint that they’re already gearing up to return–MacLachlan, Ontkean, Beymer, Ray Wise–and speculation runs wildly out of control, skepticism is warranted. A recent New Yorker piece points out how a Peaks reunion could be harmful for the show’s legacy; maybe the horror of Coop in that bathroom with his toothpaste is the perfect encapsulation of life’s rabbit hole mysteries and lack of resolution. Long-in-waiting sequels never quite pan out: The Hobbit, Star Wars, The Blues Brothers, The Godfather; classic names are soured by the same nostalgia that roused interest in continuing them (I say this as a lifelong Godfather III defender). Outliers are Ingmar Bergman’s Sarabande (his continuation of Scenes From a Marriage) and maybe, to a much lesser extent, The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese and Richard Price’s sequel to The Hustler. We can already well imagine the opening hour of the new Twin Peaks, with smug coffee and pie jokes to nudge our ribs. There are the cast members who’ve sadly passed away, like Jack Nance and Don Davis. Then there’s the not-so-subtle sexism in Twin Peaks coverage, sneering at how some of the younger female actors have aged in the last two decades (no one has pointed out how Lynch, quite fascinated with faded beauty–“Broken beauty,” as actress Wendy Robie, who plays one-eyed Nadine Hurley, called it in a 1990 interview–would find this aspect of passing time appealing). And masterful as Twin Peaks is, its execution as a long-running serial is pretty rough when compared to the whip-smart writing and smoothness of its descendents (that said, by season three of Breaking Bad, I grew so tired of the repetitive fights between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman that I began to view their spats as the James Hurley/Donna Hayward segments of the show. That’s not a good thing. Thankfully, Aaron Paul’s Pinkman became tolerable about halfway into season four). Twin Peaks was so ahead of its time, that it trips and falls more often than its peers.
The Twin Peaks pilot on its own could be one of the 1990s’ great American films. But for all the praise heaped on the first season, the opening episode, directed by longtime Lynch editor Duwayne Dunham, really is awful, almost immediately making the show a pastiche of itself. Coop talks about food and trees, people are snarfing down donuts, the coffee’s great, and Angelo Badalamenti’s magnificent music cues seem canned already. This was thankfully remedied by a Lynch-directed hour that got the show back on course, but after watching every episode several times in my youth, I now believe that the truly wondrous Peaks moments are almost solely contained in Lynch’s hands (most concentrated in the opening of the second season): e.g. the Red Room; Coop and Truman fumbling with hospital chairs; the locked camera angle on Bobby Briggs as he frantically turns his car around and speeds away from Leo’s house, a mesmerizing play of foreground and background; Coop smiling broadly as Albert decries small town living; the Horne brothers rhapsodically inhaling baguettes while reminiscing; or the way Lynch boldly stretches out the Season Two opening with Coop bleeding on the ground from a gunshot wound, the fumbling elderly room service aka “Senor Droolcup” (John Ford-company stock player Hank Worden) coming in and going out, then coming in again with his befuddling “thumbs up” and reminding us that the “warm milk will get cool on you…pretty soon.” Then Lynch’s countless impeccable insert shots (a telephone receiver in extreme close-up; the ceiling fan; the lonely traffic light). The show’s most aggravating ingredient, the tormented love of Donna and James (James Marshall), is even given a solitary high note by Lynch, as he shuts down plotty expositional dialogue and has the two of them, with Laura’s seductively invasive cousin Maddy Ferguson (also played by Sheryl Lee), croon a dreamy ’50s love song. What Lynch does is dreamy, but his “surrealism” is so psychologically acute, so on-the-mark in perceiving the real quirks of human behavior, that the show’s other directors often seem to derail things through shabby Lynch imitation. The theme of Blue Velvet is true and utterly realistic: it is a strange world.
Another thing that’s changing in television is the role of the director. Campion’s Top of the Lake, Fukunaga’s True Detective and, most especially, Steven Soderbergh’s incredible work on The Knick point to how this so-called “Golden TV Era” can be a director’s medium as much as a writer’s. Fan of this show that I am, I admittedly would be much less enthusiastic of a Twin Peaks return had Lynch’s hands-on authorial presence been absent. And though I imagine he, with Frost’s straight-man assistance, won’t alienate his audience, Lynch has changed in the intervening years, becoming more deliberate and experimental. INLAND EMPIRE‘s leap from film to digital–disconcerting digital–felt like a director’s swan song, celebrating the medium while stepping away in a dance with its myriad expressive rhapsodies. The widely despised Fire Walk With Me frustrates Peaks fans because of how it freely steps away from the grounded reality of the show’s narrative and tone. Its inconsistency is its character. Though what Lynch was doing, and has continued to do, isn’t that different from what Cervantes was doing with his Quixote, understanding that the text has a life of its own that the authors–and audience–have no right to contain (this is a sentiment that doesn’t get a lot of truck in the continuity-obsessed alternative-reality Marvel Era).
As far as soiling a legacy, remember that the show’s second season already kind of did that as soon as Laura’s murder was solved and Coop got kicked out of the FBI and was handed a plaid shirt. Fire Walk With Me didn’t help (though critical reevaluation, in light of the direction Lynch was going with Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE, has mightily redeemed it; read this To Be (Cont’d) piece by Joel Bocko and Tony Dayoub). The specters of Lynch’s later films–Lost Highway‘s Mystery Man, Mulholland Dr.‘s Cowboy and Man Behind Winky’s, INLAND EMPIRE‘s nefarious forces–seem to share the same otherworldly dream space as the Red Room’s inhabitants, so it’s almost like Twin Peaks didn’t end anyway. I hope Lynch, taking his own TM artistic advice, swims after the Big Fish and challenges us, rather than rubbing our tummies. We have almost two years to wait, and I already feel like I’m wasting time with my anticipation; for all I know I could be dead or lose my sight by June 2016 (I’m a glass-half-full type of person, as you can tell), and there are so many more films to see, books to read, and places to visit. All this and the stress of knowing I’ll have to procure–or find somebody with access to–the Showtime network.
E’en so, I admit to being troubled with how Lynch and Frost will solve one of Twin Peaks‘ most maddening questions. How will they manage to make Donna (to be played by either Lara Flynn Boyle or, from the film, Moira Kelly?) and James even slightly interesting? During this Meanwhile Hell, maybe they’ve become married administrative assistants at a data entry firm. Strangely enough, this would make them more fun to watch.