One of the first images in the new series of “Twin Peaks” is of a big empty glass box. A young man on a sofa is watching it. Something is meant to appear inside, but no one wants to tell him what. He watches for days, and the moment he loses interest a horror beyond imagination jumps out of the box and eats him. This is more or less exactly how it feels to watch the first few episodes in the sequel to TV’s most famous metaphysical soap opera, which first aired in 1990. Passages of deliberately testing banality are punctuated by moments of mindwarping terror. Whatever else it may become during its 18 episodes, “Twin Peaks” 2017 is already WTF television of the highest order.
It was always hard to know what to expect from this revival. After all, the central mystery of “Twin Peaks” – namely who killed Laura Palmer, the teenager whose murder reveals the dark secrets of a small logging town – was wrapped up halfway through the show’s second season in 1991. Its creator, David Lynch, is often credited with paving the way for later television hits – the series-spanning mysteries of “Lost” and “The X-Files”; the casts of eccentrics and skewed murder plotlines in “True Detective”, “Veronica Mars” and “Riverdale” – but the original “Twin Peaks” was very much a team effort, with Lynch directing just a handful of episodes and leaving the rest to his co-writer Mark Frost, among others. It’s possible that its distinctive tone, an overcharged blend of the camp and the sinister, was the result of Lynch’s uncompromising vision being tempered.
Although Frost is still on co-writing duties, Lynch has directed all 18 episodes of this revival, which he thinks of as “an 18-hour film”. His control is fearsomely evident from the start: weird as the old “Twin Peaks” could get, this is weirder, bleaker and more unrelenting in its assault. Anyone who tunes in expecting the show they half-remember from the Nineties – the waving pines, the perky exchanges about pie and coffee, the “Happy Days” stylings papering over a background of murder, incest, corruption and intrigue – is likely to be knocked flat by the gaping sense of nightmare and the merciless dismantling of narrative.
Even a serious refresher course is unlikely to help. I made sure to reacquaint myself with the final episode from 1991, in which Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), the FBI agent assigned to investigate the murder, entered a red-curtained extra-dimensional torture palace known as the Black Lodge to rescue his girlfriend. But even that last instalment – in which Lynch returned to direct one of the darkest hours of television ever broadcast – won’t get the viewer far in 2017. While this new series contains several characters from the original – including Deputy Tommy “Hawk” Hill (Michael Horse) and the murdering Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) – it has been stripped down to its most bare and forbidding elements: characters mimic, double and swap roles, time loops, the atmosphere buzzes with extraterrestrial sonics, and a half-glimpsed story seems to question the idea that we might want a story at all. If this is a sequel, its line of descent runs straight through “Fire Walk With Me”, Lynch’s divisive prequel from 1992, which presented a “Twin Peaks” plotline shorn of its kookiness and reduced to confusing horror.
Here we are confronted with hermetic mystery: Cooper beamed about in space and time as his demonic doppelganger goes on a murder spree; Cooper extruded like liquorice through a plug socket; Cooper marooned on a drifting block in space; Cooper trapped beside an endless purple ocean next to a woman with no eyes. A man’s head vanishes in a curl of black smoke, replaced by a floating golden ball. People swap lines like “I don’t NEED anything. I WANT.” Even the funny bits are scarcely funny. A scene between two returning characters, the deputy sheriff Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) and his ditzy partner Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson), plays out as though the characters are on heavy medication or acting underwater.
Lynch fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and if the alternative were another dutiful Nineties revival full of diners and big hair, I don’t think I would either. But this is powerfully alien stuff, straight from the dark heart of Lynch’s consciousness. And there are 14 more hours of it to go. Strap in tight; we may not see its like again.