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Before David Duchovny became a TV legend by playing FBI agent Fox Mulder on The X-Files, he made his name as a young actor with a breakout guest stint on Twin Peaks playing a different kind of law enforcement officer. For three episodes in the kooky second season of David Lynch’s very strange soap opera, Duchovny portrayed DEA agent Denise Bryson. And for an unspecified number of installments in Showtime’s forthcoming revival of the cult classic, Duchovny will be playing Denise again. Maybe. It would seem this way, judging from this exclusive first photo of the 18-part production, courtesy of the production’s set photographer. But with this show… well, we’ll explain why we’re hedging in just a second.
First, let’s geek out on Denise. Agent Bryson was skilled and inspired, no-nonsense yet playful, and presented as a skirt-suited lady with long brown hair and long legs, glossy lips and orange-red fingernails, a kind of business suit Julia Roberts; Duchovny makes for a rather pretty woman. She came to Twin Peaks to investigate a bit of nefarious business that had ensnared Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) — the Dudley Doright detective had been framed for cocaine possession.
Cooper had history with Denise — but he knew her as Dennis, so he was shocked to see her walk into the Twin Peaks sheriff’s station rocking a new look. Cooper, lover of the unique and the surprising, took a shine to the change in his old friend’s life, even if it also confused him. Denise’s backstory? Apparently, she first dressed as a woman during a two-week undercover operation in which she and her partner were trying to bust a drug dealer who would “only sell to transvestites.” Dennis decided to be the one who played the part, and epiphanies ensued. “I found that wearing women’s clothes relaxed me,” she told Cooper. And with that, Denise emerged.
Duchovny’s Denise was a brief but enjoyable jolt of provocation and genuine droll spunk at a time when Twin Peaks needed a lot of both. The show, which had just wrapped its “Who killed Laura Palmer?” mystery by order of ABC, was struggling to find bold new ideas. Denise was a winner, and Duchovny was a perfect Lynchian actor: Denise was both a wholly sincere and impishly ironic creation. He played her as confident in her own skin but a touch vulnerable, sweet and sassy. He consistently wrung laughs with his delivery, a lighter, slightly more animated variation on his sleepy deadpan tone. Bidding adieu to a flustered Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), Denise shakes his hand and says, “Pleased to meet you, Sheriff,” making it sound surprisingly flirty. You can’t quite tell if she’s messing with Truman or if she really is coming on to him.
The writing got kicks out of putting Denise in a room with a character, giving said character a long beat to process her, and then – as we begin to wonder if they’re going to say something offensive – often surprising us. The results were amusing (especially her slow dance with Harry Goaz’s Deputy Andy at a wedding reception), although maybe not as progressively enlightened as you want them to be. Still, you never felt Denise wasn’t in total control of an encounter or that she was subverting or degrading herself.
In one scene, Cooper-smitten Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) watches her crush greet Denise with a warm hug. She’s clearly jealous. But when she comes to understand that Denise is a law enforcement officer, the budding detective turns admiring. “They have women agents?” asks Audrey. Denise quips: “More or less.” Later, as Denise razzes Cooper for associating with a teenage girl, they have an ambiguous interaction that seems to be trying to establish something about Denise’s physiology and sexuality. It ends like this: “Coop, I may be wearing a dress, but I still put my panties on one leg at a time. If you know what I mean.”
Replies Cooper: “Not really.”
What he said. Still, Twin Peaks gave Denise an arc that’s all about affirming her identity as a woman and the people of Twin Peaks joining that affirmation and empowering it. Her story culminates with a sly sequence in which Denise puts on “Dennis” as a disguise for a sting operation. When it goes wrong, she puts back on her true self, Denise, at Sheriff Truman’s suggestion, as part of a ruse to save Cooper’s life, which she executes with kick-ass panache.
So, is Duchovny playing Denise in the revival or what? We can’t tell you officially because Showtime and Lynch won’t officially confirm who anyone in the revival is playing. They won’t even say if the original cast will be playing their original characters. Perhaps the new Twin Peaks will be joining TV’s hot trend of “what’s real?” crypto-dramas. Or perhaps Lynch just wants you entering the story with no assumptions or speculations. Let’s hope that Agent Denise Bryson is, as she’s always been, a genuine character.
Twin Peaks premieres on Showtime on May 21.