In its new season, Twin Peaks is making prestige television look like shiny distractions for dumb children.
There’s no toe hold for people accustomed to the comfort of television in the Twin Peaks revival. The show is beautiful and off-putting and I can’t imagine very many people will like it.
I got out of the habit of watching TV when my daughter was born. With an infant in my life, I had to choose between TV and sleep. Sleep won. But when the opportunity to watch TV returned, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the patience for the slow unfolding of serial narrative plots. I started to question the worth of prestige TV overall. To borrow a phrase from Matt Christman, I wondered if television had gotten more respectable without getting better.
The problem I kept encountering is that TV always remains TV. It’s always weighed down by some kind of legacy mediocrity. Some familiar serialized storytelling format always intrudes, whether it’s a riff on a Dick Van Dyke Show subplot or an editing technique from Bonanza. Otherwise, the dictates of serialized storytelling, or an actor’s contract, forces the show to stretch out a story begging for resolution.
In TV’s peak achievements, there’s some TV language busting up its prose. Even Breaking Bad had a shoplifting sister-in-law and a mineral collection. The Wire served generous helpings of go-nowhere side-plots. Game of Thrones spends so much time table setting and running out the clock you could probably skip about every third episode without feeling too lost.
The ‘90s Twin Peaks presaged modern prestige TV. When it first aired, it was weird but familiar. As first conceived Twin Peaks was a mix of quirky police procedural and overbaked soap opera—melodramatic and slow, like a Spanish-language Telenovela. When the show focused on its teen characters, sentimental strings and drippy piano music would swell during tearful embraces. It was thoughtful, though. You could see the artistic vision behind it. The camera would linger for long, uncomfortable shots and the acting was stilted enough to be Brechtian. Nonetheless, it was close enough to contemporary primetime soap opera shows like Dallas or Beverly Hills 90210 (which, like Twin Peaks, debuted in 1990), to feel enough like TV for people to be able to accept it.
All of that TV DNA is gone in Twin Peaks’ rebirth. Twin Peaks has dispensed with all the baggage of TV. In doing so, they’ve fulfilled the thus far empty promise of prestige television.
Prestige TV has long promised to offer long-form stories with depth and complexity rivaling novels. But it’s always been constrained. Lynch and Frost are using the length and possibility of an 18-hour miniseries to create something new, startling and beautiful. Every minute of the show serves a purpose but it’s not a purpose television viewers are familiar with.
Lynch and Frost have defied expectations at every opportunity. They’ve introduced characters and plot points and casually laid them aside. They’ve drawn out simple plot points—like simply opening an apartment door—to excruciating lengths. Dale Cooper, the show’s ostensible hero, returns but shattered and fractured beyond all recognition.
In the eighth episode, they’ve made it clear they’re uninterested in the boiler room drudgery of television plotting. They set nothing in motion. Instead, they dive into a mushroom cloud and spend long uncomfortable minutes meditating on the elemental origins of evil as violins scream in soul-piercing agony.
It’s a feast of horrific imagery and it’s the closest television has ever come to true art. I don’t expect many people will like it but I’m sure Frost and Lynch don’t care. It’s an 18-hour experimental film that makes Game of Thrones seem like The O.C.
I may never be able to watch another TV show again. And I’m OK with that.