When we talk about “Twin Peaks,” we must talk in hushed voices of awe. The show, whose third season arrives on Sunday, some 26 years after the end of the second season, is considered TV royalty, a longtime throne-sitter in the network castle. It’s one of the series that inevitably make it onto those Best Shows of All Eternity lists, assuming the writer is over 40.
Created by filmmaker David Lynch and TV writer Mark Frost, “Twin Peaks” is not one of the TV gods of the modern era, and it’s not usually mentioned in the same breath as “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad.” Partly, that’s because the show wasn’t hatched in the cable and streaming boom; while it’s returning on Showtime, it originally ran on ABC, with commercials and standards and practices. And partly that’s because it lasted only two seasons, the second of which was uneven, rudderless, and largely unwatched.
But still, “Twin Peaks” was a key turning point in the art of scripted TV, with a giant cult of fans who are still plumbing its meanings. It ushered TV drama — then symbolized by the highly predictable “Murder, She Wrote” and “Matlock,” both Top 20 shows in 1989-90 — onto another level of sophistication.
And yet, and yet.
I have mixed feelings about “Twin Peaks.” Yes, I’m that guy. If you judge the first two seasons of the series in terms of ambition, there’s no question it belongs on the short list of greats. The show burst onto primetime like a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a plastic body bag. It purposefully undid every dull convention of TV storytelling at the time — linear plotting, neat conclusions, flat atmospherics. The action opened with the familiar trope of the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (TV still relies heavily on the dead girl as starting point). But then everything that followed was geared to grind that trope into oblivion, as the saintly image of blue-lipped Laura’s corpse gave way, through Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation, to a much less wholesome back story and a chain of guilt and responsibility that — not terribly unlike Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” — encompassed seemingly everyone. Aiming to redefine TV’s whodunit game, Lynch and Frost kept the tone inconsistent and defiant, veering from murder mystery to soap spoof to supernatural drama and back around again.
And if you judge “Twin Peaks” by its influence, well it’s also near the top of the short list of greats, close by “The Twilight Zone” and “The Sopranos.” It’s hard to think of a series that altered the TV detective drama more profoundly, opening up worlds of possibility that later took shape on too many shows to name here — “The X-Files,” “Desperate Housewives,” “The Killing,” “Fargo,” “Hannibal,” “True Detective,” “Mr. Robot,” and “Top of the Lake” are only a few. The CW series “Riverdale” is based on the Archie comics, but when you watch it, you realize it’s an homage to “Twin Peaks,” with a dead teen on a riverbank and an ordinary American town festering with bleak secrets.
The influence of “Twin Peaks” also stems from its pioneering work as an auteur-driven TV show, even with two imaginations at the helm. The series followed a unique creative vision that recalled Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and was largely uncompromised by network notes and focus groups. The pair explored dream lives, with Freudian and Jungian overtones, and they exposed the dark sexuality and sadism underlying the myth of Americana. They brought with them the auteur’s visual sensibility, one unlike any other on TV, with bold camerawork, rich atmospheric shots, and symbolic color schemes. At times, the show played like a mood poem, particularly with the haunting soundtrack from Angelo Badalamenti. It forged a clear connection between art films and TV. The list of auteurs currently working in TV includes Vince Gilligan, Matthew Weiner, Jane Campion, David Simon, Baz Luhrmann, Louis C.K., Steven Soderbergh, and the Duplass brothers, to name a few.
On Sunday, “Twin Peaks” — a little like the revival of the influential comedy “Arrested Development” — returns to TV in a genre that has been remade in its image.
But here is where my enthusiasm for “Twin Peaks” falters. I love shows with serialized plot lines, a quality that is also quite common these days. “Twin Peaks” was one of the primetime innovators of the long-term arc — along with “The Fugitive” — and it took advantage of the time that TV offers to add countless details and red herrings to that arc. It delivered a giant puzzle to be pieced together. There were clues about who killed Laura, and why, in every corner of the screen and script. Frost and Lynch encouraged active viewing, inspiring fans to work for a resolution rather than sit back and wait for it. They played to the intelligence of viewers and critics long before season one of “True Detective” had us researching “The Yellow King.” They had an Internet sensibility, in a way, setting the stage for today’s rampant online theorizing and PhD-like analysis of shows such as “Game of Thrones.”
But they didn’t reward that active viewing with an ending, or, more accurately, a sense of an ending. I believe there has to be some structure and forethought in long-form storytelling, some order, no matter how slight, to the chaos. There has to be shape, no matter how vague. Yes, “Twin Peaks” solved the Laura Palmer case, with a psycho-supernatural twist, but then the plotting spun out. The show changed from a story into a somewhat static tale of Twin Peaks filled with mumbo-jumbo about doppelgangers and silly time scheme disruptions. It was too slippery to get a handle on.
The devolution of the show undermined my trust in its creators, as they seemed to become cryptic for cryptic’s sake, merely self-referential with no larger intention. I’m all for mythologies, but they need to be wisely constructed and they need to parse out more or less in the end. They can reach upward to the skies, but they need to have at least one foot on common ground. Yup, it’s the “Lost” injury that I’ve been nursing since that mystery show left the air in 2010 with a senseless series finale after five seasons.
Ultimately, it’s a temperament issue. I need to feel that the storyteller is in charge throughout, that everything I’m seeing is there for a reason — as it most certainly was in “Breaking Bad,” for instance, and as it most certainly wasn’t in “The X-Files.” Without that quality, a show — in this case “Twin Peaks” — may be special, and important, but it is broadly flawed. Many other viewers, of course, don’t care. For me, the big point of a narrative needs to be something sharper than, “This resembles the anarchy and inconclusiveness of real life.” Really, if I’m looking solely for a formless reflection of life, I can just turn off the TV or close the book.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.