Last we saw FBI Agent Dale Cooper, he was in the Great Northern Hotel in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, Wash., staring into a cracked bathroom mirror with a maniacal grin. Staring back at him was the face of “Bob,” the crazed, interdimensional killer of 17-year-old Laura Palmer, a homecoming queen who had been leading a double life across the Canadian border as a sex worker with a cocaine addiction.
It all began when Laura’s body, wrapped with tape in a clear plastic tarp, washed up on a pebbly bank not far from the town’s sawmill and was discovered, essentially, by 34.6 million viewers who eagerly tuned in for the April 8, 1990, premiere of filmmaker David Lynch and writer Mark Frost’s outré ABC mystery series, “Twin Peaks.” Untold thousands of make-believe homicides later, no television corpse would ever have quite the same influence. Laura’s murder — and the complex, supernatural whodunit that followed — set a tone that viewers of some of today’s finest and most intriguing shows both celebrate and contend with: The owls are not what they seem.
Those darn owls. That cryptic phrase, just one of the popular puzzlers that defined “Twin Peaks,” was spoken by a bald, bow-tied giant who appeared to Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in a dream.
Cooper’s dreams and waking encounters became a permanent part of TV history: The backward-talking dwarf in the burgundy leisure suit; the enthusiastic gulps of freshly brewed Northwest coffee that presaged a nation’s coming love affair with Starbucks; the Log Lady with her loony but ominous forecasts. By Season 2, viewers figured out that “Twin Peaks” never intended to move fast; network executives are said to have ordered Lynch and his crew to solve Laura’s murder and get on with a new story line. Ratings plummeted and the show was canceled. Cooper’s fate was left hanging.
The bow-tied giant was right about one thing: Nothing is as it seems, and that’s how “Twin Peaks,” like a subliminal Bob, still makes its presence felt in this golden age of television. It’s there whenever writers lean on dream sequences. Or when set design calls for a flickering fluorescent bulb. When showrunners avoid solving their story’s central mystery and then claim art as an excuse if fans disapprove. When loyal watchers are left typing long online missives to one another after each episode, desperate to figure out what it all means, or, most literally, what the heck just happened.
In a post-“Twin Peaks” landscape of ambitious TV dramas, secrets have taken the place of discovery. Larger Meaning overcame plausibility, and the answers to questions are no longer as important as the asking. Detective work became a branch of philosophy and metaphysics. The less you tell, the more obsessed a certain kind of viewer will become, treating your show the way a dog treats one of those toys that have peanut butter hidden deep inside. It can be great fun, when it isn’t maddening.
“Twin Peaks” looms whenever and wherever our best TV shows choose style over substance, favoring weirdness for weirdness’s sake. Blowing viewers’ minds with an unexpected swerve or hallucinatory sequence took precedence over telling linear, easily followed stories. (The purest antidote to weird shows caught on just as “Twin Peaks” flailed, and it’s still around when you need it: “Law & Order.”)
Ask Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully of “The X-Files,” who picked up on the never-solved, gloomy conspiracy aspect of “Twin Peaks” and ran with it for years. Ask the survivors of “Lost’s” Oceanic Airlines Flight 815, whose fates were toyed with for six seasons by creators who prized tangent over conclusion and left them in the afterworld. Ask the man who called himself Don Draper. Ask the android hosts of HBO’s “Westworld,” who suffer exquisitely, existentially, if not always clearly. These characters all, in a way, descend from Agent Cooper and the beautiful mess that was “Twin Peaks.”
It’s the show that made us weird and kept us weird. But is that always a good thing?
“Twin Peaks” returns Sunday for 18 new episodes on Showtime, to a crowded cable and streaming-TV landscape of competitive weirdness. (Cable news now also counts as an unwitting player in chronicling the surreal.) So many shows are still vying to be another kind of “Twin Peaks” that having the real thing around again can feel intrusive and redundant, like most reboots and nostalgic revivals. For those old enough to still remember its flameout, watching “Twin Peaks” again could feel like a chore.
Little is known about what’s in this new season other than that it takes place in the present and features Agent Cooper and a cast of dozens. After Showtime first announced the show’s return in 2014, months passed as Lynch and Frost toiled; the project was reportedly off, then on again. Critics weren’t sent advance episodes to review, and Showtime’s ad campaign is limited to familiar but fleeting glimpses with a few riffs of Angelo Badalamenti’s hauntingly memorable musical score.
Coming off the disorienting fumes of so many strange shows in 2016 (including but not limited to “Westworld” and the uneven second season of USA’s provocative anti-establishment thriller “Mr. Robot,” as well as Netflix’s trippy telepathic mystery “The O.A.”), it took considerable concentration to grapple with the first four episodes of Paolo Sorrentino’s confounding yet gorgeous HBO series “The Young Pope,” which starred Jude Law as a power-mad but divinely gifted pontiff prone to visions and inscrutably metaphorical dreams.
No sooner was that finished than viewers were tempted down the hallucinatory rabbit hole of “Legion,” Noah Hawley’s stylish take on mutant superheroes for FX, in which one of the more compelling characters (played by Aubrey Plaza) exists mainly in the mind of an institutionalized protagonist.
Lately there are two cable shows that, intentionally or not, belie their “Twin Peaks” genes: HBO’s “The Leftovers” and FX’s “Fargo,” both of which make strong cases for successfully applied, post-Lynchian, complicated weirdness.
“The Leftovers,” co-created by “Lost’s” Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, is in its third and final season, in which a peripatetic law-enforcement officer, Kevin Garvey Jr. (Justin Theroux), may be at the center of a Rapture-like event that disappeared 140 million people.
With the show now set several years after the “sudden departure” and seemingly on its way toward another profound occurrence, it feels as if Lindelof and company at last realized that their show’s desultory self-importance and passive-aggressive storytelling techniques had tried the patience of all but the most willing viewers. Unlike ABC telling Lynch to hurry up and reveal Laura Palmer’s killer all those years ago, HBO’s eviction notice after the first two underwhelming seasons has lightened “The Leftovers’s” load.
Letting its freak flag fly while retaining its universal sense of yearning, “The Leftovers” has become more watchable simply by becoming more weird. Shifting its story to Australia, a recent episode found Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) in a warehouse occupied by two women at a piano, learning to play a 1980s pop hit (“Take on Me” by A-ha). Why? (Why not? No elite show is complete now without a sense that the creators really want to show off their carefully curated record collections.)
Same goes for last Sunday’s episode, which took place on a chartered sex cruise to Melbourne and ended with the possible death of God. As the show reaches toward a promised climax, it would be just like Lindelof and company to drag viewers Down Under and abandon us in the desert, but somehow my faith has been restored enough to keep watching — if only because the skeptic in me learned everything about letdown and being strung along from the failure of “Twin Peaks.”
Meanwhile, Hawley’s “Fargo” spent its first season capably honoring the original 1996 Joel and Ethan Coen film, exploring the inherent evil in human nature, especially the kind masked by “Minnesota-nice” manners — the same aw-shucks, top layer of wholesome American values that serve as Lynch’s gateway to the bizarre (see Agent Cooper’s brash cheer in “Twin Peaks”). “Fargo,” too, is about a world where pleasantries precede darkness.
In the second season, which was set in 1979, Hawley took things in a far more unexpected direction, weaving UFO sightings and Ronald Reagan campaign stops into the increasingly epic saga of Midwestern crime syndicates. What’s impressive about the show is its disciplined balance between its playfully outlandish moments and its narrative clarity. “Fargo” works because, unlike so many of today’s shows, its weirdness almost always serves a purpose.
Even as Season 3 struggles to match its predecessors, the story continues apace, with Coon (yes, from “The Leftovers”) playing the typically stouthearted “Fargo”-esque law officer Gloria Burgle, the recently demoted chief of the small Eden Valley, Minn., police department. A recent episode followed Gloria on a trip to the seediest parts of Hollywood as she went in search of details about a murder victim who had a surprising former life. On the way, she met a man played by Ray Wise, who originally played Laura Palmer’s father in “Twin Peaks.” She sees him again at a bar. Is this part of the larger plot or just a sly instance of game recognition between “Fargo” and “Twin Peaks?”
The episode also had simpler and satisfyingly strange moment that could very well serve as a cautionary memo to Lynch: In her motel room, Gloria discovers a mysterious wooden box in her closet, with a simple on-off switch on the top. When she flips the switch, a plastic hand comes out of the box, flips the switch off and retreats back inside the box.
I cannot think of a more intuitive response to the news that viewers are being tempted once more by those lovely Douglas firs, slices of cherry pie, strong cups of coffee and whatever twisted presence lurks in the Black Lodge.
In this bountiful era of great TV, one could be forgiven for greeting “Twin Peaks” with a wary, experienced eye. Viewers have learned to tell the difference between the good kind of weird and the self-indulgent kind of weird; it was a hard-fought battle with a lot of horrible TV shows left rotting on the field. A series that turns too quickly into a shaggy-dog excuse to ponder the meaning of all existence usually gets handed back, often with the withering criticism that it is trying too hard to be like “Twin Peaks.” We can and should take a collective pride in how much more discerning we’ve become as viewers.
Bob may be lurking in the woods, but someone ought to warn him that he’s returning to a world he made.
Twin Peaks (two hours) premieres Sunday, May 21 at 9 p.m. on Showtime with episodes 1 and 2. Episodes 3 and 4 will be available to subscribers (streaming and on demand) immediately following the premiere. Those episodes will air May 28, with weekly episodes following each Sunday through Sept. 3.