"Is it future or is it past?" Al Strobel’s one-armed Philip Gerard asked Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper during a particularly head-scratching segment of Sunday night’s breathlessly anticipated "Twin Peaks" revival. This was probably neither the first nor the most pertinent of questions to cross most viewers’ minds during this ungainly and extraordinary television event, but a valid inquiry nonetheless. The two-hour season premiere somehow managed to feel both old and new, familiar and strange — putting friendly faces in frightening new contexts, at once sweetly nostalgic and starkly sinister. It’s a hell of a thing.
It’s also 100 percent unfiltered David Lynch. He and co-creator Mark Frost cut a take-it-or-leave-it deal with Showtime, allowing them to just go off and make what they wanted without any meddling notes from network executives. Lynch only directed a handful of the original ABC episodes but was behind the camera for all 18 hours of this new season. He’s also become a much weirder filmmaker over the past 25 years, so whereas old “Peaks” felt like a nighttime soap opera version of his “Blue Velvet,” the new season appears to be much more in the fragmented, experimental vein of "Mulholland Drive" or "Inland Empire." For better or worse, this is a seriously singular vision.
You may remember that we last saw Agent Cooper trapped in The Black Lodge, that extra-dimensional red-curtained dungeon of despair with the zig-zag floors that stretch out for eternities. A malevolent doppelgänger had returned to Twin Peaks in his place, possessed by the demon BOB (acronym for Beware of Bob) who had killed Laura Palmer, Maddy Ferguson, Teresa Banks and so many others. As far as TV series finales go it was pretty much the meanest, most awful one imaginable, cruelly snuffing out all the goodness and light in which these characters so earnestly believed.
But as it turns out, that wasn’t the end after all! And now here’s Sheryl Lee playing Laura Palmer again, visiting old Coop in The Black Lodge and recreating portions of that iconic dream he had way back in an early episode that changed TV history. She promised that she’d see him again in 25 years, and Laura’s in the middle of telling Agent Cooper he’s finally free to go when she’s whisked away by an unseen force that gives the actress another chance to bust out her inimitable, ear-shattering scream. (Lee’s still got some of the best lungs in the business.) Our hero actually isn’t supposed to leave until his dark double returns, and that dude sure isn’t in any hurry to get back to this nightmare.
Played by MacLachlan with great relish and an even greater samurai ponytail, the evil Cooper is a long-haired, leather-jacketed, slow-talking sadist working some sketchy angles in Buckhorn, South Dakota. He’s got something to do with a local school principal (Matthew Lillard) who’s just been arrested for murdering the town librarian in creatively grisly fashion, leaving fingerprints all over her apartment. But the accused swears he’s only been there in a dream, and what’s up with that floating, ghostly figure chilling out in the cell next to his?
I could keep listing crazy plot points all day but that sort of seems beside the point. "Twin Peaks" has never been a show for people who want answers or explanations. With Lynch you’ve just gotta sit back and let the images and sounds wash over you, savoring the visual metaphors that make perfect emotional sense but sound pretty silly if you try to spell them out literally. Marinate in the artfully skewed soundscapes, all those ominous room tones and jarring background noises, with residents of The Black Lodge again speaking their lines phonetically backward and then the footage run in reverse for that extra-disturbing slurred effect. The new season relies a lot less on Angelo Badalamenti’s score, sticking mainly to sinister hums and hisses.
The premiere builds to a climax that’s gloriously nutzoid even by "Twin Peaks" standards, hurling Cooper through time and inter-dimensional space as he attempts to escape from The Black Lodge. In what’s got to be the greatest re-casting in the history of the performing arts, Michael J. Anderson’s dancing dwarf has been replaced by "the evolution of the arm" — an electrified tree with a rotten-fruit-looking head that barks orders through a puckered anus mouth. I want one for my living room.
And yet when this dark phantasmagoria subsides we’re suddenly back with old friends at the Road House, where the town of Twin Peaks still gathers to drink beer and listen to blonde chanteuses sing ethereal synth pop. There’s Mädchen Amick and James Marshall making goo-goo eyes at each other across the bar as the music soars and you’d swear it was 1990 all over again. Future or past? Either way it’s going to be quite a summer.