Less Coffee and Comedy, More Cruelty: Twin Peaks Returns with Problems

The first four episodes of the revived 90s drama are rife with issues of representation, violence toward women, and a distinct lack of what we loved about the original series.

Photos by Suzanne Tenner © 2017 — Showtime

Like many fans of the 90s cult TV show, I had been counting down the days until Twin Peaks: The Return appeared on streaming services. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s original series wasn’t perfect, but its unique blend of mind-bending mystery, surreal soapy drama and dark comedy was spellbinding.

I was confident I would like the new episodes, and indeed there were numerous aspects I found rewarding. Most obviously was the immersive effect of its stream-of-consciousness storytelling. After a while the hallucinatory dreamscapes force you to stop trying to decode the plot and simply let it all wash over you instead. This has carried over from the original series, but felt even more amplified this time.

There was also some enjoyable crossover with one of Lynch’s previous films. Both Naomi Watts’ characters on Mulholland Drive and The Return help an amnesiac who appears out of nowhere with a bag full of cash. And when, in The Return, a man hands over cash with the line, “Tell her she’s got the job,” it recalls the boardroom scene in Mulholland Drive in which Hollywood execs insist “This is the girl” for the job.

But just as there were positive, powerful moments, there were key elements that let it down. Black coffee is one of the enduring hallmarks of the show, but it was inexplicably absent from the new episodes (apart from one scene in episode four). There was a moment early on where Tracey (played by Madeline Zima) brought herself and Sam (Ben Rosenfield) lattes. What is this, Friends?! Where is the no-frills, working-class, black drip coffee that’s sustained so many Twin Peaks residents over the years? I don’t mean to be overzealous, but this felt like a betrayal.

Perhaps all of the black coffee had been used to make Evil Dale’s face that weird shade of ruddy brown. He’d been on the road the past 25 years—on a murderous rampage, inhabited by Bob—that’s tiring work! Sometimes drinking a cup isn’t enough; you need to smush your face into the freshly used coffee grounds to get the caffeine’s full effects.

This not only looked ridiculous, it also brought to mind the show’s glaring lack of diversity. As far as I’m aware, the only recurring characters played by people of color in the original series were Deputy Chief Hawk (Michael Horse), Jocelyn Packard (Joan Chen), FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) and Bob (Frank Silva), and only two of them appear in the revival.

Maybe this was supposed to be reflective of the setting — the Pacific Northwest is notoriously, historically white. Lena Dunham was often criticized for the lack of diversity on Girls, and it’s suggested that this was reflective of her own social circle. This casting seemed to reflect the privilege the characters inhabited. Perhaps, by having a majority white cast on Twin Peaks, Lynch and Frost were hoping to portray the overwhelming whiteness of Washington.

In the new episodes, however, we saw our first ever Twin Peaks character played by an African American woman. Nafessa Williams’ character Jade was confident, strong — and naked! It took 27 years for Twin Peaks to cast a black woman, and she played a sex worker who serviced the demonic doppelgänger of Dale Cooper. It came across as stereotyping.

The show has always had a male gaze, and subjected women to brutal violence at the hands of men. But these new episodes seemed to take it to disturbing new levels. Coop’s evil doppelgänger’s drawn-out physical altercation with Darya (Nicole LaLiberte) on a bed at a motel ended with him placing a pillow over her head and shooting her. But before you could consider covering her head merciful direction, the pillow was lifted to reveal her lifeless, smoking head. I don’t recall the show reaching this level of vulgarity in its earlier seasons.

To counter scenes like this, there were a couple of extended comedic segments, but they were bookended by violent female deaths. Before Ruth’s severed head was revealed in her bed, there was an absurdist comedy routine performed by her neighbor and the attendant policemen. Black humor has always been Lynch’s oeuvre, but it feels like he’s practicing it with increasing violence toward women. This would be more digestible if there were more comedy in the new season, but these scenes are few and far between.

Music has also been sparse in the revival so far. Previously, dark, mysterious synths coursed through the show’s veins like black coffee, adding to its foreboding ambience. But music was almost non-existent in the first four episodes of The Return—until you got to the scenes in the Roadhouse, where the closing credits began to take on a familiar pattern of indie shoegaze bands performing to faceless audiences. It’s an easy way to situate the show in a more modern era, but far less effective than Angelo Badalamenti’s menacing synth soundtracks. The only other impactful music in the new episodes so far has been an industrial noise banger that played while Dale’s doppelgänger drove down a long dirt road late at night.

I’ll keep tuning in as the new episodes arrive over the coming weeks, but so far I’m a little disappointed. Apparently there are 14 more episodes in the pipeline, so there’s plenty of time for improvement. Lynch is always one to shock us with twists and turns, so perhaps the new season is not what it seems. Maybe there’ll be a total turnaround, and the qualities we loved that took a dive will peak again. Like the owls, I’ll be watching.

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