Hello, I love Twin Peaks. I love it so much I want to marry it. It’s on my list of the 10 best TV shows of 2017, like very high on that list. You also love Twin Peaks, I assume, or at least you’re fascinated by it, otherwise no clue why you clicked on a story with “Twin Peaks” in the headline.
So you already know that calling Twin Peaks “a TV show” is the week’s hottest fightin’ words. It’s a movie, declares the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll! C’est un film, pronounces Cahiers du Cinéma! Both respectable listmaking institutions put the David Lynch-Mark Frost production high on their rundown of the Best Films of 2017. This is a notable cultural event, because when’s the last time the British and the French agreed on anything?
Important to remember, of course, that it’s all subjective: criticism, art, life, reality. Cahiers du Cinéma loves Lynch. They said Mulholland Drive was the best film of the 2000s. They said Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was one of the best films of the ’90s. They said Inland Empire was one of the best films of 2007, and I love Inland Empire, but Inland Empire is a film the way a binder full of burnt pages torn from seven maniacs’ dream diaries is a novel. Sight & Sound‘s list reflects the diffuse taste of 188 critics and curators, some significant proportion of whom forgave Dunkirk (#9 on their list) for that subplot about Humble Georgie’s Head Injury. Maybe some of those curators tried to include Vice Principals season 2, which is only a bit longer than Martin Scorsese’s Silence (#25) and features 100 percent fewer unconvincing Spanish accents.
Is Twin Peaks film or television? Silly to have a definitional debate, maybe. To quote Lynch himself: It’s not a science lab. Then again, Lynch also told my colleague Jeff Jensen that he considered this new Twin Peaks to be “a feature film in 18 parts.” He’s allowed to say this, because he’s David Lynch and you’re not.
But claiming that a TV show isn’t a TV show is a sacred pitch for TV shows. The defining network of the last decade had a bragging assertive motto: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” surely the Billy Crudup Screaming “I Am a Golden God!” of network mission statements. (Not to be confused with “It’s not Sci-Fi, it’s Syfy,” surely the Every Emo Band Swearing They’re Not Emo of network mission statements.) The defining network of this decade isn’t always watched on television, isn’t even really what we used to consider a network. Actually, “Netflix” bears in its name two definitional terms long fallen aside: the “Net,” like what people called the internet when nobody knew what the internet really was, and “Flix,” like the flicks people used to watch when they used to go to theaters.
RELATED: Hear the latest from EW’s Twin Peaks podcast
It was so simple long ago, maybe too simple. You watched a movie in theaters, and you watched television on television. But some considerable amount of listmaking humans grew up after the home video revolution, and an almost-as-considerable amount of actual humans live in circumstances where the best movies can only be seen on small screens. Netflix releases their own movies in theaters as an afterthought or an affectation, proof that they value a big-screen experience they hope their customers don’t value. Nobody watched all 18 hours of Twin Peaks in a theater, but how many humans live close to a theater playing The Florida Project or Personal Shopper? If we’re treating the experience as some kind of definitional factor, Twin Peaks is as much a film as Okja – which played in a few theaters but really only lived on the Netflix homepage – and surely Okja is more of a film than The Dark Tower, which got a wide theatrical release.
Here’s a fun question, though, while we’re talking about basic definitions: What is the title of this 18-part feature film television show? Sight & Sound calls it Twin Peaks: The Return, which is also the four-word phraseology you’ll find on Showtime’s streaming service. But at no point in any onscreen credits does the phrase “The Return” appear. The new Twin Peaks Blu-ray release features an amended subtitle, with a cover proclaiming Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series. “Limited” it surely wasn’t, “event” it unquestionably was, and so this lingo feels like the careful wordplay of a network setting the table for awards season, sensing an open lane on the Miniseries Superhighway.
Showtime pulled this trick before, which is why Laura Linney lost Best Actress in a Comedy for her work on The Big C and then won Best Actress in a Miniseries/Movie for her work on The Big C. (She beat out Elizabeth Moss in Top of the Lake, a seven-hour series which screened theatrically at the Sundance Film Festival.) Showtime is, of course, a TV network, meaning it is best known for distributing bio-digital artmass to the large black screen in your living room, the screen with HDMI inputs leading to the cable box you use for VOD, the video game console you use for Netflix, the Roku you use for being confused about Roku, and the DVD player you keep forgetting can’t play Blu-rays.
When a TV company releases a production weekly in a specific timeslot, one assumes the company refers to that project as a “TV show,” since calling it a “film” would be confusing and calling it a “waffle maker” would be false advertising. But if we’re looking at this definition from the consumer side, “TV shows” aren’t only watched on television. When Showtime debuted Twin Peaks, it let subscribers to the streaming service Showtime Anytime watch a couple episodes early. I’ve rewatched much of the series via Showtime Anytime on my laptop, because sometimes at work I need to watch something that reminds me humanity is worth all the trouble.
Actually, though, I was fortunate enough to watch the first two parts of the new Twin Peaks on a big screen, at the Ace Hotel Theater in downtown Los Angeles. It was an astounding experience. When the late Catherine E. Coulson appeared on the big screen as the Log Lady – actress and character both afflicted with that goddamn cancer – it felt like ten thousand hearts in the theater beat as one distant thunderclap, like the lightrays projecting Coulson onto a large screen through our retinas into our brains had caused a spiritual-chemical chain reaction, like here she was alive again, actually more alive than anyone has ever actually been. Which is weird, because the Ace Hotel Theater can’t hold anywhere close to ten thousand people. But who can count the faces in the dark?
Were those first two episodes of Twin Peaks a movie? I brought along my fiancée, who had never watched any of the original Twin Peaks. She understood about as much of what we saw as I did; I think she enjoyed the experience more than when I dragged her to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But even bringing up superhero movies can only muddy this whole TV and film debate. They are the Donald Trump Twitter Account of cultural criticism: They dominate the conversation by confusing all the issues. I’ll let Wendy’s explain:
Is Twin Peaks a movie? This is not a new question, maybe cuts to the core of what Twin Peaks is. When Lynch created the show with Mark Frost, he was an acclaimed feature film director at a time when everyone in television wanted to be in movies and everyone in movies wanted to be in rock and roll. Lynch directed the Twin Peaks pilot, which runs sans commercials a little over 90 minutes. That’s about as long as David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (#11 on the Sight & Sound list), but nobody really considers “runtime” as a definitional data point. Maybe we should? The Twin Peaks pilot came out on television the same year that The Godfather Part III came out in theaters. Viewed today, in our post-context platform-agnostic age, it seems clear that one of those is a 90-minute good thing everyone should watch today, and one of those is three hours of disappointing Godfather DLC with a pretty cool opera that’s unfortunately only unlockable if you complete the Sit Through The Vatican Stuff side mission.
The Twin Peaks pilot started a TV show, but – agh! – it was also made to be a movie, sort of. Lynch filmed an “ending,” which was added on for a European release that was for some time available in VHS form. This “ending” isn’t canon, makes less immediate base-logic sense than most things in Twin Peaks. But it marks the introduction of concepts that define everything Twin Peaks became: demonic BOB as a supernatural monstrosity, one-armed MIKE as a spiritual interlocutor, the purgatorial Red Room, a ghostly Laura Palmer whispering something in Dale Cooper’s ear, the frustrating fact that Kyle MacLachlan would have to grow old someday, the phrase “Fire Walk With Me.”
Much of this added material was worked into the version of Twin Peaks that aired as a TV show, with commercials, on ABC. And the tone of this material is the lodestone of the movie that followed, right up to the title. Arriving one year after the TV series ended, Fire Walk With Me is a helpful and unhelpful data point for this argument. Helpful, because it is obviously a movie, was created to be a movie, was released in theaters as a movie. Fire Walk With Me opens with the destruction of a TV set, as if to say: “IT’S NOT TV, DAMMIT!!!!!”
And yet Fire Walk With Me only makes our current situation more confusing. It is so obviously an extension of the TV show. I would say, “You can only understand the movie if you have watched the first two seasons of Twin Peaks,” but “understand” is a strong word. It’s more accurate to say, “You can only understand which parts of the movie are confusing if you have watched the first two seasons of Twin Peaks and are willing to admit you never actually understood what Twin Peaks was.”
I love Fire Walk With Me, and I don’t think anyone should watch it without watching the first two seasons of Twin Peaks. And there is some fading notion of movie-ness that defines a feature film as a singular event, a full experience achievable in one sitting. Is it a weakness if a “movie” requires 22+ hours of pre-viewing? Nobody had to watch two seasons of the Easy Rider TV show to understand Easy Rider. Then again, Easy Rider is worse than the worst episode of Twin Peaks – except for the Jack Nicholson sequence, which extricated from context would make a great episode of a downbeat sitcom about two motorcyclists meeting strange people around America, like imagine The Fugitive with better drugs and worse acting.
Lynch knew that Fire Walk With Me had to be a movie, but he filmed more scenes than could ever possibly fit into an acceptable running time. Maybe he figured he could sell financiers and theaters on a five-hour movie; maybe he went a little mad, like Francis Ford Coppola doing Apocalypse Now or David Milch doing John From Cincinnati or Kanye West doing The Life of Pablo. He filmed a lot. The Fire Walk With Me Criterion Edition includes a collection of deleted scenes beloved by Peaks heads called “The Missing Pieces,” almost 90 minutes of additional material.
You could argue that in their special feature-style highlight-reel format, “Missing Pieces” is more recognizable as a “movie” than The Return. There’s no overarching narrative, but who says movies need a story? Lynch’s later work feels cut up on purpose, so maybe “Missing Pieces” is an accidental ideal Lynch product, scenes running renegade from a film that never was.
There is a scene where diner demigoddess Norma (Peggy Lipton) sits alone at a booth in her big empty restaurant, and she starts to cry. It’s probably the best Norma moment in the show, like a whole character arc and state of being reduced to a single moving image that belongs in a museum. It may be the best Peggy Lipton moment ever captured on camera. That moment was never in a movie, never even in a TV show, can only really be seen on home video formats not enough people care about anymore. And so what do you call that? Is there a better word than “life”?
One problem with definitions is how indefinable Lynch’s own career is. He ended the century working on a TV show that never was, Mulholland Drive. When TNT refused to let the series exist, Lynch cooked up a reality-warping final act and called it a movie. A TV pilot becomes an inadvertent movie with a confusing dream-logical ending: That’s exactly how the Twin Peaks International Pilot Movie Thing happened, and here’s where you have to remember that Laura Palmer/Sheryl Lee appears in the Mulholland Drive movie.
The finished (ha!) movie is great, and maybe it’s too easy to get bogged down in extra-filmic information. But some part of Mulholland Drive‘s profound melancholy is how it is a movie that so badly wants to be a TV show, how it sets up a big blazing world with seasons of possibility and then has to extinguish the flame like a projector gone dark. Naomi Watts gets to play the star of her own show, arriving in a new locale full of new situations. There are characters swirling around her, kind and malevolent and tantalizing, and surely she’ll meet them again each and every week, always in more sexy and exciting ways. And then Watts also has to play some notion of that same woman whose show never got picked up, a brilliant-but-canceled human being. You imagine Watts in the final gorgeous exterior-Hollywood drudgery of Mulholland Drive‘s final act, hanging out in some lonely late-night café with Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction and Nikki Fernandez from Lost, pondering unfilmed episodes of Fox Force Five and Exposé, lives that should’ve been lived on television.
Semantics are fun to debate. Saying that the new Twin Peaks is both television and film feels accurate, but also erratic. It’s just as easy to say Twin Peaks is neither television nor film, which isn’t an answer at all – and even the ambiguous endings of Twin Peaks have some final core truth, an emotional conjuration that goes deeper than mere confusion. You feel the need to get creative with your definitions. At one point in this past summer, I was hot on the idea that Lynch and Frost had turned Twin Peaks into their own private variety show, like their very own The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour. There was a weekly musical number. There were wacky Dougie sketches, with important lessons for kids — Don’t Put Your Fork In An Electrical Socket. There were occasional check-ins from Dr. Amp, with an important advertorial message about shoveling yourself out of our modern pile of capitalist s—t. There were occasional check-ins with Nasty Mr. C, who was for Twin Peaks what Uncle Traveling Matt was for Fraggle Rock.
And even saner people than me like to describe episode 8 of the new Twin Peaks as a movie unto itself, complete with a 2001 wormhole sequence and a black-and-white origin-of-evil horror B-movie. People understand figurative language. When you say “That episode of [insert show] was a better movie than anything in theaters,” it’s understood that you’re euphemizing high quality. Is there some old elitism embedded in that statement, the idea that film is somehow better than television, more deserving of a place on a list so important that it’s written in French? There’s a separate strand of elitism, more recent but more potent, that says just the opposite: that television is so self-evidently the more adventurous medium, divorced from the champagne plasticity of big budgets and PG-13 global-economic censorship.
All of these arguments seem academic, too rooted in generalizations. Does Lynch care? He’s on the record as being anti-Watching Movies On Phones. But he’s hardly a luddite. Lynch took to the practice of shooting on digital video early – like Michael Mann, another seventysomething filmmaker with a long side career in TV production. The younger generation of filmmakers seem more precious in their delivery methods. Think of J.J. Abrams and his top-secret plot points, oh ho ho ho ho wait till you see who Rey’s parents are! Or think of Christopher Nolan checking to make sure that every theater is fully equipped to project Matthew McConaughey saying “Murph” 57 times. Like Mann, Lynch imbues his work with meticulous, microscopic detail; he credits himself on the new Twin Peaks as a sound designer, crafting trademark sonic scapes that hover on the auditory horizon, like machine gods whispering confessions to electric earlobes. And yet some wondrous element of much of his work feels deferential to how random the art experience is, an improvised instant becoming totemic, unfinished TV shows that become movies about the end of beginnings.
There’s a scene from Part 15 of the new Twin Peaks when Kyle MacLachlan sits at a dinner table. All the context is confusing; suffice it to say, he’s playing a man who can’t quite remember who he is. He eats some chocolate cake, notices a remote control. He doesn’t quite know what it does, but he taps it: once, twice, thrice, again. It’s a shot that holds for a long time – he’ll tap the remote control and eat some cake, tap and eat again.
So much of the new Twin Peaks was like this: patient if you loved it, boring if you didn’t. We’re used to watching content that is heavily edited, cut to every chase. The length of this scene feels like the old strategies of the Lumiere Brothers chrono-exported forward a century-plus, set the camera down and watch the people move. And it feels like a wry joke about TV itself: Who among us can’t relate to Dougie, tapping away on every confusing button of one of our three TV remotes, a piece of technology built to confuse.
He hits the right button. The TV turns on. It’s Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Onscreen, legendary director Cecil B. DeMille is playing himself, promising his onetime collaborator Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) that they will work together again. It’s an empty promise – he has no intention of making the movie – but in a metafictional way that you could also describe as simply “real,” it is a promise fulfilled. DeMille worked with Swanson in the Silent Era, so this onscreen reunion is a collaboration – and this conversation in Sunset Boulevard is more famous now than any of their earlier work.
We’re watching through Dougie’s eyes, and through Dougie’s eyes we see DeMille say: “Get me Gordon Cole.”
Gordon Cole is a character in Sunset Boulevard. That name provided inspiration for Lynch and Frost. In Twin Peaks, “Gordon Cole” is a character played by David Lynch himself. So somehow the Twin Peaks screen seems to stretch outwards in five dimensions here, and all at once Cecil B. DeMille and Billy Wilder and David Lynch are all there together, on the screen we see and the screen in our mind. The camera cuts back to MacLachlan; for reasons plotty and cosmic, his mind is blown.
It is a sequence in love with the laziest charms of television: Here’s a spiritual awakening earned by channel-surfing from the dinner table! And it is a sequence in love with the least precious possibilities of film, suggesting that the greatest cinematic epiphanies will occur even if you start a movie midway through. This new Twin Peaks is a 16-hour-plus hunk of filmed surreal drama, and surely it’s a hilarious stretch to call that a movie if we use the old definitions. There’s an element of snobbery: This TV thing is good enough to qualify as a movie, whereas let’s say GLOW (which actually does feel a bit like a five-hour-plus gang-of-misfits sports movie) is merely a TV show. We should push back against the instinct that says “This is so good it’s almost a movie!” We should get better and weirder about transmedia definitional qualities. (Like we should praise Thor: Ragnarok as an exceptionally expensive episode of Gotham with better jokes, or mutter that War for the Planet of the Apes is like two episodes of The Walking Dead with a hairier Rick and a more pretentious Negan, or declare proudly that The Florida Project is the graffiti version of Disney Afternoon cartoons.)
But to angrily respond “No, it’s television!” feels like an act of mutual assured destruction, fighting fire with fire. Do we need to hang a chain around Twin Peaks‘ neck? Surely some defining crux of Twin Peaks is how it is both, and neither. It was a TV pilot that was also a movie, and the movie no one in America saw influenced the TV show Twin Peaks became. Then the TV show that was canceled, and there was a movie that tried to fix the TV show by exploding it. Beyond the movie was a shadow movie, 90 minutes of extra scenes orphaned on the cutting room, the greatest DVD extra of all time, unfortunately released on Blu-ray years after most people stopped caring about DVD extras. And there is this new 18-part series. I prefer to classify the new Twin Peaks as “a summertime.”
“A feature film in 18 parts,” Lynch said. What madness! Would anyone sit in a movie theater for that long? I assume some hip movie theater will air a full Twin Peaks marathon sometime in the next year. I’m too old for movie marathons, and yet, and yet, and yet, I find the idea so wonderful, like something Borges or Black Mirror would describe, a way of consuming culture that seems a mere five steps from possible. I can think of only three comparable culture experiences to watching all 18 parts of Twin Peaks in a movie theater, and none of them quite compare: the proper TV binge, usually conducted in the comfort of one’s own pajamas; a film festival, which of course features many films and bathroom breaks; and the deepest, darkest phase of addiction to an open-world video game, when you call in sick to work on Friday and when you finally go to sleep on Sunday morning your dreams have Heads-Up-Displays.
What I loved about the new Twin Peaks was how it recoded any simple definitions, re-exploding what a TV show and a movie and a work of art could be. “Is it future,” someone asks in Part 2, “Or is it past?” Can’t it be both? Watch Twin Peaks on television, say it’s better than any movie in theaters, click back to your favorite parts on your iPad’s Showtime Anytime app, be that cool film teacher who spends a whole class period just showing off episode 8, be that super cool film teacher who declares that the new Twin Peaks was a brand-building advertisement for David Lynch’s coffee. With Twin Peaks, David Lynch and Mark Frost and their seemingly thousand collaborators didn’t follow any easy definitions of entertainment. They showed us a new kind of dream.