In the last episode of Twin Peaks, which aired on ABC on June 10, 1991, the ghost of murdered teenager Laura Palmer tells FBI special agent Dale Cooper, “I’ll see you in 25 years,” with the eerie cadence of dialogue spoken backward then played in reverse. (Don’t worry: The moment is too bizarre to count as a spoiler.) Faithful to the rendezvous, Showtime is resurrecting David Lynch and Mark Frost’s rural psychodrama a quarter century later, resolving what could be the longest cliffhanger in the history of television. With Lynch said to direct each episode himself, the show will surely be worth watching, but it’s unlikely to shake up the TV landscape as dramatically as it did the first time around.
During its run, there was no point in making plans on Thursday night. The pilot drew 34 million viewers, a huge number then and an inconceivable one today, when the proliferation of scripted series means even hits like Game of Thrones can barely scrape together 10 million viewers. Still more impressive is that people kept watching the show after they realized how truly weird it was. The story starts off as a standard murder mystery, with irrepressibly plucky agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) driving into Twin Peaks, Washington, to investigate Palmer’s killing. He quickly falls in love with the one-stoplight town, its residents, its Douglas firs, its resort, its diner, and its hot, black coffee—even as he discovers that dark forces pervade its woods. (He gets most of his clues through hallucinations.) As he did in his film Blue Velvet a few years earlier, Lynch explored the sordid underbelly of small-town America, imbuing the most innocuous scenes with a sense of impending doom. This was Norman Rockwell by way of Francis Bacon and Salvador Dalí. Peyton Place on peyote.
The first season was an eight-episode masterpiece that turned soap opera clichés on their head while preserving their dramatic effectiveness. The second season was a different story, as Lynch seemed to check out and writers got tangled in a thicket of inane subplots. Faced with plummeting ratings, ABC canceled the series, forcing Lynch to tie up (some) loose ends in a stand-alone film in 1992 called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which was booed at Cannes and bombed at the box office.
Twin Peaks has since attracted a new generation of fans who discovered the show on DVD and Netflix. By revamping the series, Showtime is surely hoping to ride the ’90s nostalgia wave that has seen Full House get a spin-off and Friends become one of the most popular shows among teenagers.
But nostalgia might not be the right word: Twin Peaks was in some ways so far ahead of its time that TV is only now catching up to it. Lynch and Frost loaded their series with so many esoteric references that it seemed to anticipate the obsessive scrutiny of today’s blogger-exegetes and professional recappers. Its obvious heirs are the supernatural thrillers Lost, American Horror Story, and True Detective. But it also set the stage for any show that proves television can be as powerful and perplexing as movies or novels or dreams. Showtime, premieres May 21.