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Film and TV Critics Debate ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’: How David Lynch Has Forged New Territory With a Groundbreaking Achievement

Is "Twin Peaks" an 18-hour film or a season of TV? Does the distinction even matter? IndieWire's critics talk through Lynch's magnum opus.

Twin Peaks Season 3 Laura Dern Part 16 Episode 16

Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

Whether discussing the original series, the prequel movie it inspired, or the Showtime-produced third season (which comes to a close on Sunday night), one of the supreme joys of “Twin Peaks” has always been its willfully unclassifiable nature. As soon as you think it’s one thing, it becomes something else. Individual scenes contort from one mode to another with unnatural flexibility, while the episodes that contain them seem to slide across the full spectrum of human emotion; Part 15 of “The Return” began by settling the show’s most torturously unrequited love story, curdled into a nightmare, and then resolved itself into a bittersweet contemplation of life after death. Visual storytelling is seldom this slippery, but David Lynch thrives in the ambiguous spaces that most filmmakers prefer to smooth over, and “Twin Peaks” has swelled into the most haunting of his Blue Rose cases because of all the opportunities it’s given him to flesh out those gaps. The longer it goes, the harder it gets to define.

No wonder “The Return” has been such a beguiling experience. The original show made waves by cannonballing into a safe and sterile network culture, but this new season has arrived at a time when the culture itself is caught between worlds. Back in the early ’90s, people weren’t sure what kind of TV show “Twin Peaks” was supposed to be — these days, people aren’t even sure what kind of thing “Twin Peaks” is supposed to be. Is it a movie or is it television? Should we wait for it to pile up on the DVR and then watch it all at once, or is it best enjoyed in small weekly doses? 16 hours in, we’re still not sure.

For his part, Lynch insists it’s a film that’s “broken into parts,” but listening to that guy discuss his own work in the abstract is unhelpful at best, and amusingly futile the rest of the time. As for the rest of us, we’re all like that woman with teeth instead of eyes, blindly feeling our way through the strangest and most strikingly idiosyncratic thing that has ever aired on Showtime, and we’re all interacting with it in different ways. To that point, we thought it would be fun — and potentially revealing — to have IndieWire’s film and television critics get together and compare notes. Are we having remotely similar experiences? We all seem to be at least somewhat smitten with Lynch’s magnum  opus (our TV team’s episode reviews have been overwhelmingly positive), but does how we watch “Twin Peaks” fundamentally change what we see in it?

With the end in sight, IndieWire’s biggest “Twin Peaks” fans traded some thoughts about those potent questions, and many others, below. —David Ehrlich

Ben Travers (TV Critic): “Twin Peaks” is the living rebuttal to an ongoing, largely silent feud between TV critics and creators. For too many years, those of us on the analytical side have heard screenwriters, directors, and actors describe their prestige TV project as one long film. If I had a dollar for every time someone said, “Really, it’s just a 10-hour movie,” I’d have enough to fund an actual 10-hour movie — and you’d all hate it.

Why? For one, I’m not David Lynch, but also because a 10-hour movie would be exhausting, bloated, and structurally unsound. The frustration in the comparison stems from creators ignoring the value, intricacies, and demands of crafting individual narratives within a larger season or series arc. “The Leftovers,” TV’s most rewardingly bonkers drama prior to “The Return,” was the embodiment of television at its best. Each episode left a mark on its own while still contributing to the ongoing narrative, making every week an enticing adventure with regular rewards. And never once did I hear Damon Lindelof claim he was making one long movie.

But you know what? David Lynch can say it. He’s the only creator who should be able to make this claim without a bevy of TV critics tossing eggs his way. He’s earned it by blending the values of both: “Twin Peaks” is an enlightening experience every week. You never know what’s coming, be it a black-and-white flashback to the birth of evil or Mr. Jackpots becoming Mr. Jackpots. And yet the ongoing experience and artistic ambition speak to film’s most alluring, mind-bending qualities. Non-narrative surrealism is a genre rarely explored to this extent on a platform designed for, if not mass appeal, than mass consumption.

Together, these elements make the series unique to itself, not beholden to a medium. But if forced to choose one or the other, it’s better for being unveiled, in parts, like a TV series. It’s not that I’m entirely convinced “Twin Peaks” is more of a TV show than a film, but it’s indisputably redefined the way television can be consumed.

Showtime

Funnily enough, it’s done so while facing the same criticism posed in the aforementioned battle. Those who aren’t enthralled by Lynch’s “Return” say it’s exhausting, bloated, and structurally unsound. Those lengthy scenes of characters sweeping the floor or staring into an empty cube? They’re just there to fill the time and get each episode to at least 50 minutes. All of the ongoing stories that begin, fade away, and then randomly come back up much, much later (like the mysterious missing Billy)? That’s evidence Lynch has bitten off more than he can chew, crafting a sprawling puzzle to spread out for anyone to solve.

Is it an 18-hour film cracking within the TV mold? Should it have popped up on Netflix all at once, for a movie-like all-in-one binge? Is “Twin Peaks” better if you don’t treat it like a TV show?

Absolutely not.

If anything, television is enhancing the “Twin Peaks” experience. Appreciating Lynch’s use of negative space was only possible because there’s a week-long reflection period after the premiere. Similarly, the confounding mysteries built into brief moments over many hours only work when viewers have time to think them through, and specificity is the antithesis of a continuous binge. Time is essential to contemplating “Twin Peaks,” and Lynch is taking full advantage of it.

Read More: David Lynch’s Glass Box Murders in ‘Twin Peaks’ Are a Key to Understanding the Revival Series

That viewers aren’t used to being challenged by this medium compared to, say, a trip to the art house theater, isn’t a valid reason to dismiss the product or its distribution. It’s an invitation to alter your perspective about the most intimate storytelling machine in your life. I, for one, have appreciated that invitation. So to answer the insinuated question above, yes: “Twin Peaks” is better for being on TV and better when watched weekly. As a TV show, it’s unlike any other before it — including the original seasons.

IndieWire’s film critics weigh in as the conversation continues on the next page.

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