Writing about the return of Twin Peaks is certainly no mean feat for even the most seasoned critic. The return of one of television’s most staggering artistic achievements has been an event unlike anything else going on in the medium. David Lynch’s series is held in such high standing that even the Cannes Film Festival, who pride themselves on their stalwart dedication to cinema, let the show have its premiere there, giving it the welcome most film-makers would kill for. Cahiers du Cinéma, one of the great bibles of French film criticism, has dedicated its latest issue to the show. There’s an incredible thrill to be had in being able to say “Hey, there’s a new episode of Twin Peaks on this week”, and to engage in the incredible cultural discourse it has borne. Yet I can’t get over one particular aspect of that all, which centres on a peculiar insistence the show isn’t really television, but film. It’s true that Lynch himself has noted how he views the 18-part series as an extended piece of cinema, and creator intent counts for something, but there’s something galling about seeing one of 2017’s great cultural achievements screen weekly in a historically maligned medium, proving its artistic worth yet again, and having critics insist it’s actually a movie.
It’s easy to understate the stratospheric influence the original two seasons of Twin Peaks had on the following 25 years of television, both in terms of how it was made and how it was watched. As noted by James Parker in The Atlantic, “You didn’t tune in to this show the same way that you tuned in to L.A. Law or Murder, She Wrote. You tuned in psychedelically… ready to be transported. You were in, or you were out: a binary decision… remarkably, this has since become the norm.” Transcending the inherently episodic structure of television is par for the course in the age of Netflix domination. Indeed, their entire creative model seems built around the “binge watch” model, and even traditional networks are following in their path. Recently, the Sky Atlantic series Riviera, starring Julia Stiles, released its entire first season onto the Sky+ service (their version of streaming and TV recording) as well as screening it weekly. Twin Peaks put its first four episodes out at once for UK viewers via this method, but that didn’t detract from its standing as a TV show.
Structurally, Twin Peaks may not be typical for the genre, although what is considered typical has shifted dramatically since its first season, but it borrows as much from TV as it does from film. It wields its episodic structure masterfully to explore various conventions of the medium as well as an array of genres: Where episode 8 took the show into its most experimental vein, the following episode brought it back to a more conventional mystery, albeit one filtered through the distinctly Lynchian gaze. Half the time, the show has more in common with daytime soap operas than anything else on its network, Showtime. Instead of feeling disconnected from one another, the TV format allows for each episode to flow into its own cohesive narrative. A film could certainly do this, as Lynch has done for several decades, but as a piece of television, Twin Peaks works because it forces the audience to engage with it as television, breathing between episodes and viewing them simultaneously as their own stories and part of a wider arc. There’s a reason almost every episode ends with a guest band playing off proceedings.
It’s a show that has always evoked or alluded to the conventions of film, but equally, it is a TV show about other TV shows. Co-creator Mark Frost called it “a cultural compost heap… There are symbols and characters and expressions from all the shows we saw growing up that echo and ping down the hallways of Twin Peaks.” A full decade before “Who killed Laura Palmer” plagued the minds of millions of viewers, everyone was asking “Who killed J.R.?”.
The critical desire to categorise Twin Peaks as cinema is nothing new. There seems to be a habit of decreeing things we like as somehow transcending their genre or medium if we think they’re “too good” for something usually viewed as second tier. This show is so good it can’t be mere television, is the argument. There’s the recent “post-horror” argument as put forward in the Guardian to describe recent films A Ghost Story and It Comes at Night, which peculiarly defined the term as “replacing jump-scares with existential dread”, something the horror genre has been doing since its inception. There’s also the consistent bias against romance novels and love stories that prize optimism and happy endings over more supposedly stylistically worthy traits like overwhelming misery. Every Valentine’s Day, there’s a new article listing romances to read for people who don’t like romance novels, and nine times out of ten the included books are complete downers. The message is that happiness is intellectually less stimulating and therefore less critically valuable than mental agony.
Preceding Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s last film was 2006’s Inland Empire. Lynch has been open about discussing his troubles with getting a new film funded in the current industry. The mid-budget film is a dying art in the overwhelming field of 9-budget blockbusters, as noted by directors like James Gray, so indie favourites are turning to TV to fulfil their creative urges- Jane Campion (who, like Lynch, had her latest series premiere at Cannes), the Coen Brothers, Barry Jenkins, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Danny Boyle to name a few. This obviously forces us to re-evaluate the medium, which remains hesitant to artistic proclamations even though it’s in its prime. Sometimes, the networks even invite it: It’s not TV, it’s HBO, anyone?
Trying to turn TV into cinema can hinder the storytelling. It’s a problem Netflix have often faced, as they treat entire first seasons like extended pilots, an accusation levelled at Gypsy, the critically maligned Naomi Watts starring drama that fizzled on arrival. To its credit, Twin Peaks certainly moves at its own pace, but the luxury it has as a third season of a show means it is able to stretch the television conventions further than ever before. Yet it does not shun those expectations, at least not entirely. Television that comments on and subverts the most commonly used tools of the medium is still television, and it’s all the richer for that.
We are now halfway through this wonderful season of television, which has set a new benchmark for the art form in an age where splashy, big-budget dramas with major stars are a dime a dozen. Every creator who spent the previous two decades eagerly trying to replicate the initial success of Twin Peaks will now scramble to do it all over again, although living up to the master will prove a lofty task. David Lynch expects more from his audience, and we in turn expect more from our TV since our viewing choices are so numerous. Perhaps by the end of this dizzying season, we may allow ourselves to truly value the format and just let TV be TV.