Some thoughts on our current televisual paradise before the long-awaited return of a dear friend

Miranda Davis, Columbia University

In a list of things that I’m excited about in the near future, the Twin Peaks revival on Showtime (May 21st!!!) is very close to the top. Twin Peaks is truly everything and the fact that David Lynch has agreed to come back to this is proof that the world isn’t a wholly cruel place.

 

Even though Twin Peaks only ran for two seasons in 1990-91, its influence and importance in the history of television are enormous. It’s a strange show, funny and creepy and surreal, and its legacy can be spotted everywhere from The Sopranos to American Horror Story, and in every dream sequence and small-town mystery since. Broad strokes-wise, what makes Twin Peaks so bonkers and such a watershed is that it is so deeply and completely Lynchian. It’s the first example of auteurist television, and the first show to bring an indie-cinema aesthetic to the small screen. There’s no David Chase or Vince Gilligan, and certainly no Fincher or Scorcese attaching their names to prestige dramas, without Twin Peaks and David Lynch. Thank the lord some strange temporary insanity convinced the ABC executives to air its two seasons in all of their trippy glory, because it showed everyone that TV could, like film, be artistic and experimental and driven by a single creative vision.

Okay. Detour. Since roughly the introduction of the talkie in 1927, people have been writing whiny think pieces about the death of cinema. This isn’t that type of thing. I actually saw a fair number of good films this year. [I ride or die Manchester by the Sea, but I’d also like to posit Elle, American Honey, The Lobster, Neither Heaven Nor Earth, and Sing Street as proof that people are still making really good movies on a consistent basis.] [To answer your questions, no, I haven’t seen Moonlight, and no, I was not charmed by La La Land]. Here’s the thing though, and I promise we’ll get back to Twin Peaks soon: cinema might not be dead, but it’s not super alive either. It’s currently being completely and totally overshadowed by its younger, more dynamic cousin. (You guessed it! TV!!) (No, I know, I’m super predictable.) I’m in Paris for the semester, and everyone I talk to is absolutely shocked that I haven’t gone to the movies yet. The French don’t believe me because they live in some bizarre alternate universe where Desperate Housewives and Columbo are the most important series of all time (not even kidding), but TV is just ten times more exciting and more artistically thrilling than film at this moment.

 

If you’re a person with eyes, you might have noticed this yourself, but TV has just been overflowing with creativity and innovation recently. I mean the first five minutes of The Young Pope involved the pope climbing out from under a pile of aborted fetuses, only to wake up into another fever dream. The show meanders in and out of reality, in and out of the main narrative, and in and out of what we expect TV to look and behave like. Comedies like Lady Dynamite, You’re the Worst, and Fleabag all dealt with and portrayed mental health issues better than most dramas in recent history, High Maintenance had an entire episode from the perspective of a dog, and This is Us and The Good Place did more with mystery boxes than any network show since Lost. These shows are taking visual, narrative, and conceptual risks that you just won’t find in even the best movies of this year.

 

Unlike Twin Peaks in 1990, these shows aren’t special or remarkable because they’re cinematic. These are all shows that play with seriality and episodic narrative and spectatorial expectations in ways that are completely specific to television. We’ve finally made it past the place where TV shows were praised simply for being filmic, and managed to reach that sweet spot where shows are asked and even expected to innovate and experiment within the structure and conventions of the medium. When The Young Pope doesn’t play by any rules we’re familiar with, it’s not because it’s rejecting TV in favor of filmic conventions, but rather, because it’s pushing the boundaries of TV itself – cinema has nothing to do with it.

 

Which is why this is such an interesting moment for Twin Peaks to come back. On the one hand, it makes sense to revive the show right now, because it is just this kind of weird niche show that thrives in the current Peak TV landscape. But on the other hand, Twin Peaks has always been understood as a revolutionary transplant of cinematic values onto a TV series, and is now coming back at a time when auteurist television is a thing unto itself. Have no doubt, Twin Peaks will hold its own: the original series, with its use of soap opera tropes and complex narrative structure was doing some heavy-duty televisual lifting. What’s remarkable about this revival and the second chance that we’re giving to a show that was so completely ahead of its time is that we finally have the language to talk about it. Film is no longer synonymous with auteurism and experiment and artistry. TV has reclaimed them as their own, moving and changing and innovating while cinema stays relatively stagnant. So now that we’re no longer asked to understand Twin Peaks in filmic terms, we’ll hopefully have a better chance of understanding what it actually is, rather than what it reminds us of.