Sunday, July 16, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return (Season 3, the first half)

(2017, d. David Lynch)

We're in the "new Golden Age of Television", also known as "Peak TV", due to both the immense amount of programming being released each year across a great number of channels, as well as the unbelievably high quality of a great many of those programs. But "Peak TV" wouldn't feel so peak if we didn't get an 18-hour movie (broken out in 1 hour increments) from David Lynch.  I mean, if that never happened, I'm not sure that we'd actually have missed it, but now that it's happening, I can't see this new "Golden Age" existing without it.

Lynch is a force unto his own, an absolutely unique talent that attracts and repulses in equal measure.  His impulses are to stare into the darkness, to confront the grotesque, yet unlike a schlockmeister he does so not with reverence, but with curiosity.  Repulsed, but nonetheless, fascinated.  "Lynchian" is a term used by cinephiles to describe others movies, usually to represent a film that revels in inexplicable weirdness and absurdity.  This stems from as far back as his art-house debut, Eraserhead, which is in equal measure mesmerising and impenetrable and repulsive.  But to solely tie Lynch to his more outre efforts is to miss the storytelling deftness he is more than capable of, such as with The Elephant Man or The Straight Story.  He may prefer atypical storytelling structures, but he's not abject to telling a straightforward story.

Paired with Mark Frost, Lynch's sizeable fan base today is primarily a result of the 1991 phenomenon Twin Peaks.  "Who Killed Laura Palmer?" was a question people decidedly wanted an answer to, and they embraced the inexplicable weirdness of David Lynch amidst the nighttime soap operatic in order to get it.  By the time the mystery was resolved however, in the middle of the show's second season, Lynch had parted ways with the series, and the show floundered without his creative guidance, promptly being cancelled despite an absolutely arresting cliffhanger ending. The steadfast, unflappable, heroic Dale Cooper was possessed by the menacing dark force, Bob.

The show was given a follow up feature film, the relentlessly dark prequel Fire Walk With Me from Lynch, that shared very little of what fans liked about the show.  A story of youth spun out of control, telling the back story of Laura Palmer, as she became a slave to darker impulses that were both internal and external in nature.  There wasn't room for the whimsy or curious weirdness of the TV show, Fire Walk With Me  had its own purpose and story to tell.  We would never know how Coop would drive Bob free.

25 years later, we have an answer though.  Lynch and Frost back together, and Lynch at the helm for the entirety of the return, to learn that Coop has been trapped in the Black Lodge all this time, while his Bob-infested doppelganger has been spreading his evil across the States unchecked all this time.

The concept of an 18-hour movie is fully at play in the return.  While Lynch/Frost could have just focussed solely on Cooper's attempts to escape the Lodge, to fight his evil twin, to learn the secrets of the strangeness infecting this world, they don't, not in any simplistic straightforward fashion. Full of absurd asides, obfuscated conversations, telling looks with no outright meaning, painstakingly long takes of seemingly meaningless moment, this is at once Twin Peaks as we knew it, and yet nothing like it... simultaneously the most Lynchian of all Lynch productions and yet so often unlike anything he's done before.

It's easy to forget, among all the strangeness of Mulhollad Drive, The Lost Highway and Inland Empire, that Lynch has an immense fascination with television.  Mulholland Drive  started as a pilot for a TV show that was never produced.  Inland Empire is a surreal meditation on television's influence, and the Lynch/Frost duo went on to make the short-lived quasi-variety-show On The Air.  There is a peculiar fascination with the way television and TV storytelling works, in all its formats.  Twin Peaks:The Return is an 18-hour movie in a TV format, embracing aspects of both worlds like few others have (Louie CK's Louie is the closest example I can think of right now).

Within The Return you will find Lynch and Frost playing with everything from murder mystery, to slapstick situation comedy, to soap opera melodrama, to horror, to metaphysical discovery, to spoken word, to experimental art house, to silent film, to satire, to absurdity, to rock concert documentary and on and on.  Lynch is unchained, restricted probably only by budget (of which he's rarely needed a large one).  He weaves between genres and film styles with purpose, eliciting from his vast cast (attempting to rival the sprawling Game of Thrones in sheer volume of characters) some, at times, wonderful performances, and othertimes, most bizarre ones.  Some sequences play out like stilted public theatre, as if intentionally, while others are startlingly affecting, lingering in their power.  There's purpose to it.  Dodging between high quality and low quality acting, from tautly written scenes to meandering ones, disarms the viewer from having any expectations as to what's "normal" for this show.  Wavering quality means that the audience will come to forgive some janky special effects.  Even wild tonal shifts that lead from shocking horror to big laughs and back again mean that unintentional laughs at weird line readings or silly floating head images are just as earned as well-crafted comedy.

I can barely go into specifics about what's happening in this show, but needless to say Lynch seems to be having a blast.  He's throwing everything at the canvas, and nobody's telling him not to.  He doesn't care what sticks, because in his art the stuff that falls to the floor is just as important as what winds up in frame. Every episode, save for the first and eighth, ends with a live band a the Bang Bang Bar playing over the credits (the first has no band at all while the eighth episode has the Nine Inch Nails playing mid-episode) with no actual story purpose, just Lynch uncaged to do what he wishes.  What's most amazing about watching the first 9 episodes, in a concentrated sitting or two, is how carefully calculated the show actually is.  What seems absurd and random in one episode will reveal its meaning later on.  Even then you're never entitrely certain if you're getting the intended meaning or not.  Through his unusual storytelling style -- which will see threads drop for episodes at a time, only to crop up momentarily, then disappear again -- Lynch somehow manages to tell a cohesive, if overly complex tale, though still I'm unsure where it's heading and how all the threads will tie.

As much as The Return could have attempted to replicate past success, it's decidedly forging its own past.  Yet, Lynch and Frost haven't forgotten the past one iota.  Wherever possible they've found room for former cast, sometimes with pivotal roles, sometimes with slight asides.  Key players have yet to pop up, and some who wouldn't return are handled offscreen (Michael Ontkean's Sheriff Harry Truman is battling cancer offscreen, paying respect to the character and the wishes of a retired Ontkean, where Robert Forster as brother Sheriff Frank Truman talks to him on the phone without any cut-to scenes).  Even during filming or shortly thereafter, the show lost some cast, including Log Lady Catherine Coulson, Miguel Ferrer and Warren Frost.  David Bowie intended to return to reprise Agent Jeffries (from Fire Walk With Me) but passed before shooting began... his character is reverentially name checked.  The Return respects its past and reveres its mythology as much as the fans do.  There is indeed a nostalgia trip, not just for the old show its reviving, but for Lynch's relationships with actors.  He's brought in favourites from past works, like Laura Dern (in a key role) Harry Dean Stanton, and Balthazar Getty, while also heeding the call of fans across Hollywood to put them in the show. But more than anything Lynch serves his muse, Kyle MacLachlan, giving him at least four roles to play (so far), in Dale Cooper and his nefarious doppleganger, and the dual personas of Dougie Jones.  Escaping from the Black Lodge into Dougie leaves Cooper almost an invalid, unaware of pretty much anything, a childlike alien learning every aspect of humanity on the go, unaware of all the forces conspiring against him.

Not just reliving the past, it builds upon it to tell a new, unique story that feels both a natural extension and kind of its own thing.  It's not the most accessible show, but then it never was.  Lynch is rarely an accessible director, and yet here he's striving for intriguing amidst all his tone shifts and genre flourishes.  People will know pretty quickly whether they're in or out before the first episode finishes, but for those that are in, there is a plethora of reward... just try to pay attention.

Having caught up to the airing schedule in quick order, I would say that watching like a movie (binge-watching, in other words) is the way to go.  It allows you to pick up on the nuances and connective threads that you might miss over week long spans between episodes, and it balances the long methodical sequences that don't have an obvious point with more revealing moments.  Having reached the mid-way point in two days, I think I'm going to resist picking it up week to week and binge the back nine as another.  If I had to say though, I think episode 8 (which spends the bulk of its runtime in a mesmerizing silent art film exploring the anatomy of an atomic explosion resulting in the manifestation of the dark forces into "our" reality before giving way to  a Fritz Lang-style gothic-inspired silent film, ultimately lurching into a 1950's-era monster/invasion horror) is the natural stopping point, and a high point of the series.  It provides answers I honestly never thought we would get, and yet, doesn't truly explain very much, leaving the audience to interpret the imagery their own way.

The Return is truly unlike anything that's ever been on TV, but it embraces the format while pushing it to its very extreme.