TV

Showtime Unites The “Twin Peaks” Venn Diagrams

It’s Good Coop/Bad Coop in the first four episodes

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Yes, there are spoilers below for this unspoilable show.

“Don’t let yourself be hurt this time,” sings Julee Cruise on “Falling,” the plushly minimalist 1989 synth ballad that, a year later, stripped of its vocal and lyrics, would become the opening theme for Twin Peaks. David Lynch himself wrote that lyric, to music by his collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti. Those words remain sound advice for fans of Peaks’ three incarnations, which fit together something like three rings of a Venn diagram.

On one side lies the dreamy-parodic surrealist-mystery soap opera of the network TV series, its bonhomie edged with grief and horror; far on the other is the Sweet Valley High–meets-Repulsion exploitation hellscape of the prequel film, all gashed mouths and soiling seediness. And now, at last, Showtime’s eighteen-hour prestige-cable revival is the circle that unites those two, joining in its first episodes the woozy terrors of Fire Walk With Me with the local-color meta-comedy of the two original seasons that aired on ABC a quarter-century back. If you’ve ever wanted to cut from troubling scenes of existential nightmare to a comedy sketch in which we meet the child of those sheriff’s office cutie pies Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) and Andy (Harry Goaz) all grown up and played, for some reason, by a celebrity doing a duff Brando impression — well, here’s your show.

Such moments demand we keep Cruise’s warning in mind. Every iteration of Peaks disappoints in some ways, often intentionally. Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost bookended the second season with comicly extended scenes of old men doddering about, confused and hard of hearing, while Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper was in dire need of rescuing. Then, most of the opening-night crowd at the Kansas mall where I saw Fire Walk With Me in ’92 stormed out during the time-halting subtitled teen-prostitution sequence. The Showtime series, so far, takes those endurance-test scenes as a starting point.

The first kind, the funny geezers routine, is probably natural, since much of the original cast is back, aged 25 years. (Twin Peaks found old people creepy-funny; now they’re the leads.) In the initial installment, not long after the stinking-rich Horne brothers (Richard Beymer and David Patrick Kelly) turn up to jaw at each other about nothing, Lynch and Frost show us a young man, in a secret Manhattan laboratory, staring at a glass box — quite literally waiting for something to happen.

The director has warned us about our expectations before with his Peaks redos: Recall the ax smashing the television in Fire Walk With Me’s first shot. The promise there — or threat — was that Lynch and Peaks now were free from the standards and limitations of broadcast TV. Now, back on small screens that aren’t as small as they used to be, Peaks again comments on its medium. Within the first half hour, that young man (Ben Rosenfield) gets seduced by a young woman (Madeline Zima) who dutifully strips down to her thong for the camera — this is Showtime, after all. As they go at it, of course, the young man at last sees something manifest itself inside that glass box, and to clear his head for a moment and even try to make sense of it all he has to shove the nude flesh aside. Is there a better metaphor for the experience of watching cable dramas? At ABC, Lynch and Frost had to work around commercials and censors; now, it’s mandated tits and the occasional car-company logo.

The something that happens in that box is bloody terrible in all the ways the creators intend. We get some slow, addlebrained comedy routines in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s office, but much of the first three episodes lean toward horror. The story picks up where the series ended back in 1991, with MacLachlan’s zen federal agent trapped in the zigzag-tiled gallery space–cum-afterlife that the show called “the Black Lodge.” Meanwhile, his doppelgänger had been loosed on the world, a wicked Special Agent Cooper inhabited by the spirit of Bob (the late Frank Silva, seen in old Peaks footage). That’s the state of things still, at the new season’s start. The evil Cooper has, we learn, been missing all that time, with neither the feds nor the Twin Peaks police aware that he’s gone bad — or even that he’s out there. But out there he is, crime-spreeing away.

Scrape off the mysticism, and we have an evil-twin plot, a noir (and Lynch) standby, a case of Good Coop/Bad Coop. Sporting long hockey hair and dampening down his David Byrne geniality, MacLachlan is effective as Bad Coop, though his scenes often have the glum feel of also-ran Nineties indie flicks — the ones where a Bad Dude and Hot Young Woman hit the road and blow up a gas station. A lengthy motel confrontation between Bad Coop and a half-undressed Nicole LaLiberte stirs suspense, thanks to his menace and her steely quavers, but it’s also something Twin Peaks never was before: familiar. Guess what? Lynch gives us ample time to regard the beauty with the blood on her face.

It’s Good Coop who gets the good stuff — the new stuff. Even that, though, follows some rote and even hokey scenes. The second episode spends much time in that red-curtained parlor where speech runs backward and nothing seems quite as freaky as it did in ’91. MacLachlan strides back and forth through it often enough that we get the layout down, and his encounters with most of the usual residents (plus a talking tree) lack the old portentousness. The scenes play out like they might have on a Myst-inspired Twin Peaks CD-ROM game. (There’s also too little of Badalamenti’s music, which softened the strain of the strangeness.)

Soon, though, Good Coop gets flushed out and then lost in time and space. The mode for much of the third installment is cosmic horror, with MacLachlan wandering new environments, the creep-outs aided by Lynch’s own unsettling ambient sound design but lessened somewhat by underwhelming visual effects. The visions here don’t suggest clues to gather or puzzles to solve, a fan tendency Lynch lampooned in Fire Walk With Me’s scene of the FBI bureau chief (Lynch) trotting out a woman to communicate, via her clothes and a sour-faced shuffle, to his field agents what they should expect on a case. Instead, Good Coop faces a series of odd trials before at last emerging back in our world — but not in his mind.

Or any mind, really. The new Twin Peaks takes the ol’ amnesia plot to its extreme. Cooper wanders a casino unsure not just of who he is or where he’s been but of the underlying concepts of our existence: money, directions, how to pee. MacLachlan is hilarious and upsetting in these lengthy, supremely Lynchian scenes. What’s most alien here isn’t the doings in the woods or riddles dispensed by giants. It’s normal life.

What’s going on in the woods is strange, too, of course. Lynch again excels at flash-lit forest photography, at headlights pressing through blackness. And, again, we have police business. Intercut with Cooper’s travails is an investigation into some contemporary murders in which a high school principal played by Matthew Lillard is the prime suspect. Lynch and Lillard make the man-accused plot compelling enough that I made the mistake of hoping the series would cut back to it in the third or fourth episode. (Don’t let yourself be hurt this time.) Another disappointment: The first woman of color with a speaking part has no eyes; the second plays a topless prostitute.

Between all that and some distracting cameos, we get occasional disconnected glimpses of people we knew back in the original series: The most piercing is Grace Zabriskie, as Sarah Palmer, mother of the doomed Laura Palmer and wife of the murderer, sitting on a couch and watching a gruesome nature film on the big-screen TV that now dominates her home. Meanwhile, Lynch is back as the hard-of-hearing FBI bureau chief, on the trail of his longtime missing agent with the astringent forensics expert Albert (Miguel Ferrer).

Ferrer, as you may have heard, died in January of this year; also appearing posthumously is Catherine E. Coulson, who played the Log Lady. That’s life disappointing us rather than the series, but as the return of Twin Peaks surges on after a promising but troubled start, I have to credit it with this: It’s the rare screen entertainment that allows us to contemplate faces that have aged in real time.