Slapstick Superwestern

In Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch’s bone-dry humour rises to the surface, and his lush visuals float free above narrative strictures

Actor Robin Wright recently joked that Donald Trump had stolen all the plot lines of the latest season of House of Cards, the dark political series in which she plays the First Lady alongside Kevin Spacey’s enthralling and despicable President Underwood. In the age of President Trump, reality has unquestionably overtaken fiction. The most unhinged conspiracy theorist might have difficulty imagining that the staunchly anti-Soviet Republican party would make common cause with Vladimir Putin’s Russia while Democrats forge political alliances with the NSA, the CIA, and the deep state.

In these topsy-turvy times, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: the Return doesn’t seem entirely out of place. On the contrary, the 71-year-old auteur’s signature blend of film noir, 70s horror, Saturday Night Live camp, and more than a dash of Doctor Who feels uniquely true to our times.

Nicole LaLiberte and Kyle MacLachlan in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

Nicole LaLiberte and Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, film still. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner; Courtesy: SHOWTIME

Nicole LaLiberte and Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, film still. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner; Courtesy: SHOWTIME

The new series begins with story elements and actors from the 1990 original. Kyle McLachlan is still Agent Dale Cooper stuck in the otherworldly Black Lodge, with its 1960s Las Vegas red-velvet curtain walls. Unbound from the strictures of network television, Lynch quickly transmutes its characters and material into something much stranger and darker. The first two episodes follow Cooper and his mysterious bad-guy double, Mr. C – played by a weathered, long-haired McLachlan – across multiple dimensions and locations, including New York City and Buckhorn, South Dakota, where a local librarian has been murdered and decapitated. Her head is found set atop the headless body of an unidentified heavy-set man. Just as the discovery of Laura Palmer’s murder sets into motion the original series, this murder results in the FBI being called in: this time a team led by Deputy Director Gordon Cole, played by Lynch himself.

Although I can’t promise to fully understand – or explain – the storyline that unfolds, the monstrous image of a mismatched head and body might well be emblematic of Lynch’s radically anti-montage style of filmmaking. His visuals are lush, seductive, and have a measure of autonomy from the story that is unique in both film and TV. They have separated, so to speak, from their narrative body.

Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee, Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, film still. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner; Courtesy: SHOWTIME

Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee, Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, film still. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner; Courtesy: SHOWTIME

But the show still has its own beautifully demented and surreal narrative logic. The first seven episodes (what I’ve been able to watch to date) turn primarily around the trials and tribulations of Agent Cooper and Mr. C. After escaping the Black Lodge, where he is initially trapped, Cooper finds himself in a large metal room floating in space with a woman who eventually ‘falls off’, like an astronaut cut loose; shortly afterward, he is transported into the body of Dougie Jones, an insurance agent partying with a call girl somewhere in Las Vegas. Dougie’s story parallels the FBI’s investigation into the librarian’s murder, which in turn dovetails into the fate of Cooper’s evil twin, Mr. C, who murders a beautiful young protégé in a motel for mysterious reasons before finding himself in a South Dakota prison for flipping his car over on the highway.

One obvious difference between the original show and its 2017 redux is that Lynch ratchets up the violence substantially, most likely to satisfy audience expectations in the era of Game of Thrones and Sony Playstations. Yet one can argue that it’s the times that have finally caught up with Lynch, not the other way around. Twin Peaks was first and always a Western – or, as André Bazin put it, a self-reflexive superwestern – about the ways in which America’s founding violence is repressed and desublimated, how it always returns to indiscriminately destroy the innocent and the guilty, the old and the young.

Amy Shiels in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

Amy Shiels, Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, film still. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner; Courtesy: SHOWTIME

Amy Shiels, Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, film still. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner; Courtesy: SHOWTIME

All this, however, is at best a rudimentary sketch of the motley tableau of Americana that Lynch strings together into some of the most mesmerizing, bizarre, and funny television I can remember. There are moments of pure slapstick. Dougie Jones, for example, is a shell of a human being who must be helped with mundane life tasks. At one point, an assistant has to remind him to step out of the elevator; at another, a beautiful colleague in his office finds him in the hallway doubled over like a five-year-old holding it in. She leads him to the ladies’ room, but strangely turned on, tries to elicit a kiss from him before letting him relieve himself.

Lynch’s bone-dry sense of humour always ran deep below the surface. Here it emerges in vignettes that process the world as it is in 2017. In one scene, David Duchovny plays Denise Bryson, the transgender Director of the FBI, who is reminded by Deputy Director Cole, played by Lynch himself, that he supported her desire for a sex change when she was still Dennis. In another, Wally, the son of the Twin Peaks police station’s secretary, Lucy Hogan, and Deputy Brennan, has returned home from a cross-country motorcycle trip to inform his parents that he will allow them to convert his childhood bedroom into a study.

Miguel Ferrer and David Lynch, Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, film still. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner; Courtesy: SHOWTIME

Miguel Ferrer and David Lynch, Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, film still. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner; Courtesy: SHOWTIME

Miguel Ferrer and David Lynch, Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, film still. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner; Courtesy: SHOWTIME

There are elements here of Pulp Fiction – long, digressive dialogues bracketed by fast, intense violence. But whereas Quentin Tarantino always binds these into classical narrative forms, however re-organized and played with, Lynch skews closer to the non-linear modes of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films or a film by Ulrike Ottinger, where captivating visuals float free and clear of narrative stricture to create baroque curlicues of meaning and image that don’t necessarily feed back into the story’s main throughline. This isn’t a show that can be easily binge-watched. Like a syrupy bourbon, it needs to be savoured in small doses, sipped rather than pounded. There’s no question, however, that it satisfies our need nowadays for a good stiff drink.

Main Image: Kyle MacLachlan in a still from Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner; Courtesy: SHOWTIME

Saul Anton writes about contemporary art and culture for many publications. He is former senior editor at BOMB Magazine and the author of Warhol’s Dream (2007) and Lee Friedlander: The Little Screens (2015). He teaches at the Pratt Institute, New York.

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