A few years ago, just for fun, I listened to every song that topped the primary Billboard singles chart, in chronological order. The chart as we know it today (the Hot 100) launched in August 1958, and I spent more than four hours over the course of a few days immersing myself in the world of Paul Anka, Connie Francis, Bobby Vinton and other crooners of the era. (Elvis was still active, but winding down a bit.) In that reconstructed context, the opening notes of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which hit No. 1 in February 1964, were truly electrifying. For the first time, I understood, on a gut level, just how revelatory The Beatles had been—how different they sounded from everything else on the radio at the time. Beatlemania suddenly made sense.
A similar (but much more time-consuming) experiment would be necessary for someone born after 1985 or so to appreciate why the impending return of Twin Peaks is such a big deal. Back in 1990, television audiences had never seen anything remotely like the show’s bizarre amalgam of detective story and soap opera, which faithfully reflects the whimsically sinister sensibility of co-creator David Lynch. (Veteran TV writer Mark Frost was the other main creative voice.). Set in a fictional Pacific Northwest lumber town, Twin Peaks ostensibly followed the efforts of an eccentric FBI agent, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), to solve the murder of Laura Palmer, a teenage girl with many troubling secrets. But Lynch was less interested in the crime itself than in the opportunity it afforded him to create an eerily off-kilter atmosphere around an eccentric ensemble. The series’ unique tone saw exaggeratedly earnest melodrama—an approach Lynch had previously employed in his masterpiece Blue Velvet, also starring MacLachlan—brush up against unforgettably surreal imagery. A scene in which Cooper waxes rhapsodic about the local coffee and pie might be followed by a cryptic dream sequence featuring a dancing dwarf.
Both a ratings smash and a cultural obsession during its brief first season (only eight episodes, at a time when 22 was the norm), Twin Peaks gradually lost its way over the course of Season 2, after ABC execs demanded that Lynch and Frost reveal the identity of Laura’s killer. Lynch’s direct involvement all but ceased thereafter, and the show drifted into numerous go-nowhere subplots; ABC decided to cancel it, which meant that the final episode—a belated return to form, directed by Lynch—ended on a cliffhanger that would be left hanging for the next 26 years. (Lynch subsequently made a feature film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, but that was a prequel.)
Most of the surviving cast has returned for the new episodes, along with a small army of famous newcomers, but what matters is that Lynch himself has reportedly directed every single one of them. A quarter-century ago, his superimposition of avant-garde cinematic style onto an otherwise conventional serialized narrative transformed the idea of what television could be. Given Twin Peaks’ massive influence—you can see its DNA in everything from The Leftovers to Riverdale—is it even possible for this delayed resuscitation to have a similarly seismic impact? Probably not, but, hey, it’s been over a decade since Lynch’s last movie. He’s had a lot of time to think about it. Strap yourself in.
Twin Peaks Sundays, 9 p.m., Showtime. Premieres May 21.